Saturday, January 06, 2018

Armistead and I: Tales of Two Cities


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On New Year’s Day 2018, KPBS, the local San Diego outlet for public broadcasting, showed a couple of programs from 9 p.m. to midnight. One — the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s concert, featuring the music of the Strauss family and other light fare —was the sort of thing you expect to see around the New Year’s holiday. The other wasn’t: it was a film by Jennifer Kroot (she’s credited on only as director but the actual credits list her as writer as well) called The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, a documentary about the life of the San Francisco-based Gay writer who created the long-running serial Tales of the City, first published in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper and then in a book, which begat another book, which ultimately became six books in all ending in 1989, plus a couple of follow-ups Maupin wrote years later.
I don’t know why I wanted to watch this. I’d never been a fan of Armistead Maupin. I’d never even read him, though I’d seen the 1993 mini-series of Tales of the City on PBS — parts of it, anyway. Indeed, my husband Charles told me several times in the early minutes of The Untold Tales that if I wanted to watch something else, he wouldn’t mind me either switching the channel or putting on a movie on DVD. “This is an important slice of Gay culture and history,” I told him, and the show stayed on and we watched it until the end. It was a weird experience, mainly because it flashed me back to my own adolescence and early adulthood in San Francisco and my coming to grips with my own sexuality, including the time I was attending San Francisco State University and simultaneously dating two of my fellow students — a woman and a man — and ultimately living with the woman for nearly five years before I finally decided it was time to come out as Gay.
What I didn’t realize about Armistead Maupin was that not only was he a Southern boy. He was born in Washington, D.C. but raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. His family was Southern in their orientation and even had a genuine Confederate war hero in their lineage: Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, a Confederate general killed in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. (This was an especially noteworthy battle because it was the North’s first major victory, and it gave President Lincoln the political and military credibility he felt he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.) What’s more, Maupin got his first job in media at a TV station in Raleigh managed by none other than future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a deeply and viciously homo-hating man who once told Maupin that a homosexual was “the worst thing you could possibly be.”
Maupin grew up a hardline Right-winger and so intensely committed to the U.S. military that he volunteered for the Navy, served three tours (one of them in combat in Viet Nam) and only reluctantly left. In Kroot’s documentary, he ruefully admits that all the cute guys he could ogle there were one of the reasons he wanted to serve, though in the pre-“don’t ask, don’t tell” era when Queers were automatically banned from the U.S. military and there were periodic witch hunts to ferret them out, discharge them and give them “bad paper” that would make it virtually impossible for them to get civilian jobs later, he knew the rule was “look but don’t touch.”
He didn’t find his way out of either his political or his sexual closet until 1971, when he got a job with the Associated Press in their bureau in San Francisco. Though Kroot didn’t tell when or how Maupin came to grips with being Gay, his Wikipedia page says he knew he was Gay from childhood but didn’t have sex with a man until age 26 and didn’t definitively come out until age 30. In 1974 he began writing a serial about urban live in San Francisco for a weekly newspaper called the Pacific Sun, based in Marin County, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. The Pacific Sun hired Maupin when they were attempting to expand into San Francisco itself, and when that folded he managed to place the serial with the biggest and most prestigious newspaper in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle.
Tales of the City — a title invented by his editor at the Chronicle since the Pacific Sun owned its previous name, The Serial — raised eyebrows at the Chronicle because newspapers generally didn’t publish fiction. They had once, and in Untold Tales Maupin at least twice compares himself to Charles Dickens because Dickens’ books, too, were first published chapter by chapter in newspapers as serials. The installments created a sensation, mainly because they dealt frankly with the fact that there were a lot of Queer people in San Francisco, and the Chronicle’s Gay and Lesbian readers embraced the series because it gave them a chance to read about people like themselves. The stories’ central character is Mary Ann Singleton, a naïve young woman who moves from Cleveland to San Francisco, takes an apartment in a building run by an eccentric landlady named Anna Madrigal, and falls in decidedly unrequited love with a young Gay man named Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.
The stories got attention from Chronicle readers, who fought what would now be called “flame wars” in the paper’s letters-to-the-editor column. Some denounced Maupin’s story as utterly unsuited for a family newspapers, while others defended the series. In 1978 a New York publisher sounded Maupin out about publishing the serial episodes as a novel, and Maupin agreed. Tales of the City became a best-seller and Maupin wrote five more books in the cycle. It ended in 1989 with Sure of You, a decision Maupin says in the film he reached because he had made Michael Tolliver HIV positive and he didn’t want the cycle to end with a morbid death scene like virtually all previous fiction about Queer people. As people with HIV diagnoses began living longer and AIDS receded from being an automatic death sentence to what the medical business calls “a chronic, manageable disease,” Maupin resumed writing about Michael Tolliver in 2007 with a book called Michael Tolliver Lives, with him narrating the story this time instead of it being told in third-person.
One of the things that kept Maupin’s series popular and relevant was his inclusion of real-life characters, events and issues facing the Queer community. Oddly, Jennifer Kroot includes a segment in her film about the effect of AIDS on Queers in general and the San Francisco community in particular before her depiction of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” anti-Queer campaign in 1977 — four years before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) first identified AIDS as a diagnosable medical condition. Maupin was one of the first fiction writers to address AIDS — in the fourth installment in the Tales cycle, Babycakes, published in 1983, at a time when a lot of people in the Queer community were hoping the epidemic would burn itself out and go away.
He was also one of the first to depict a Transgender character. He had had it in mind that Anna Madrigal, the landlady and on-site manager of the building where most of the characters live, would be a Transwoman and be revealed as such at the end of the first Tales of the City book. Realizing that he knew very little about actual Trans people, he sought out a Transwoman and interviewed her. When he asked her why she had gone through gender reassignment, he was stunned by her answer: “Because I wanted to be able to talk to women.” At a time when there was a good deal of anti-Trans prejudice in the Queer community — much of it from self-proclaimed feminists who thought Transwomen were embracing the attributes of “femininity” many Lesbians were consciously rejecting in the 1970’s — Maupin was once again a trailblazer in depicting a Trans character realistically and sympathetically.
Maupin mostly used the real names of actual people he incorporated into his story, but made an exception for a major movie star he called “_____ _____,” but who was obviously Rock Hudson — whom Maupin had tricked with a few times in the 1970’s, including one three-way with Hudson’s partner. When Hudson fell seriously ill in 1985 and his publicists put out various cover stories to try to keep people from figuring out he had AIDS, Maupin publicly stated that he knew Hudson and had personal knowledge that he was Gay, thereby “outing” him after decades of rumors and getting dumped on by a lot of Queer people who thought no one should ever be brought out of the closet against their will.
One of the most heartbreaking stories about the impact of AIDS in Kroot’s film comes from Maupin’s long-time friend, Chinese-American author Amy Tan. She first met Maupin when he came to do a book signing at a bookstore Tan’s family owned. It had a lot of Queer employees, attracted Queer customers and stocked books about Queers and their lives. As the AIDS epidemic progressed, Tan recalled, her employees started dying. Her customers started dying, too, and eventually so many of her “regulars” passed away that the bookstore lost business and was forced to close.
Kroot pretty much races through Maupin’s post-Tales of the City years. She does discuss two long-term relationships he was in, including one with a man named Terry from whom he had what Maupin calls a “cocktail divorce.” After the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver — held during a long period when it was impossible to hold the conference in the U.S. because Maupin’s former mentor, Jesse Helms, had pushed a bill through Congress banning entry visas for people who tested HIV positive — new therapies involving multiple drugs were introduced and people with AIDS or HIV diagnoses started living longer. This had the odd result that people like Maupin in so-called “sero-discordant” relationships — he’s remained negative but he says in the film that all his serious partners have been positive — found their partners wanted to leave now that they no longer felt they needed someone to support them through an imminent decline and death.
Maupin’s current partner — his husband, actually, though Kroot doesn’t mention that they are legally married — is Christopher Turner, a much younger former model and photographer who created the Web site for younger Gay men interested in meeting and dating older ones. Maupin remembered looking at the site but not dating anyone from it; later he met Turner on the street and told him, “Didn’t I see you on” Turner then acknowledged that he’d created because he’d wanted to meet older men. The two began dating and married in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on February 18, 2007.
One good thing about Kroot’s film is that, though she made it with the intent of getting it on PBS, it doesn’t shy away from the sad history of Maupin’s work on the network. Tales of the City was made into a miniseries on PBS in 1993, with the young, then little-known Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal — both of them are interviewed extensively in Untold Tales — and it was sensationally successful. It brought many PBS stations the best prime-time ratings they’d ever had, and in San Francisco Tales pulled in more viewers than the commercial networks.
Then disaster struck: the Republican Party gained control of both houses of the U.S. Congress and Maupin’s mentor turned nemesis, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, made Tales Exhibit A in his case for why the government should cancel all funding for PBS. The network caved and backed out of their deal to make another miniseries out of the second book in the cycle — and Linney, in Kroot’s films, vividly recalls her disappointment that she would not get to play the character again.

Maupin’s San Francisco — and Mine

I was born in San Francisco in 1953, making me nine years younger than Armistead Maupin. (By ironic coincidence, my husband Charles is nine years younger than I.) In 1960 my mother and stepfather (my dad and my mom had broken up when I was 1 ½ and I have no living memories of them as a couple) moved to Marin County and bought a home. I grew up in Marin County and suffered through some of my mother’s social experiments — including moving us to the so-called “gilded ghetto” of Marin City, where most of the county’s African-Americans lived — after she and my stepfather broke up in 1965.
Then in 1974 I moved to the East Bay to attend UC Berkeley, where I dropped out after two quarters. I stayed there until 1978, when I moved into a dorm at San Francisco State (where I’d started attending in 1977 less out of any burning career goal and more just to check “college graduation” off my list of life tasks) and then found a small studio apartment on Larkin Street, where my girlfriend and I lived until we moved to San Diego in January 1980.
There were a number of reasons we did that. She was from Southern California and felt more comfortable there than in San Francisco. I was already noticing my “roving eye” roving towards the men in our neighborhood, and I naïvely believed it would be easier for me to resist temptation and keep my straight relationship going if I got away from the large, politically influential and socially inescapable Queer community in San Francisco. Also the November 1978 murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had to some extent soured me on the city of my birth. The fact that I had commonalities with both Milk and his killer, Supervisor Dan White — I’m Irish-American like White and Queer like Milk — made the post-assassination political state of San Francisco even weirder and less welcoming to me.
Needless to say, the hope that I could keep my straight relationship together in San Diego and not be tempted to stray back to my Gay side didn’t work — though I didn’t finally come out to my girlfriend until December 1982. (We remain close friends to this day.) I was certainly a late bloomer sexually — I didn’t have my first sexual experience with a woman until early 1973 (she was on the rebound from her breakup with a mutual friend who also turned out to be Gay; today we’re back in touch and are friends on Facebook) and didn’t have my first with a man until late 1977.
I was coming out of the student bookstore at San Francisco State when I was approached by a man who sidled up to me and said, in a voice I’m sure he thought was sexy, “I’d like to blow you away.” Never having consciously thought of myself as Gay — though I can look back at my life and realize there were certain boys in my life on whom I clearly had what I can now recognize were crushes — I was freaked out by this, though I let him give me his phone number. That night, I tossed and turned virtually all night, worried about the whole thing, until I finally told myself, “You’re going to call that guy and you’re going to make a date with him.” The next morning I did, leaving him a message which he returned at an almost cosmically right moment — I was in my room listening to an LP of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1938 recordings of the Act I Prelude and Act III Good Friday Spell from Parsifal, and he called right in the pause between the Prelude and the Good Friday Spell.
I had my first Gay experience in the back of his car, on a weekend morning in the San Francisco State parking lot. We dated for a while until I met my girlfriend, also at school, and that, I thought, was the end of that. But as a Bay Area resident in the late 1970’s, when Tales of the City appeared as a miniseries on PBS, I recognized many of the settings — and many of the kinds of people depicted, too. In fact, I found much of the series hard to watch because, as I explained to my then-roommate, “I didn’t like these people that much in real life — why would I want to watch a movie about them?” I wonder what I’d think about Tales of the City if I revisited it now as an historical document.
I know that the books about life as a Gay man I did read in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, like John Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw and Larry Kramer’s Faggots, probably kept me in the closet longer than I otherwise might have lasted because they made life as a Gay man seem like a relentless hunt for sex on the most superficial level. I’ve written before apropos of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus books that if its author, John Gray, wanted to test his theory that men and women approach sex differently, with women demanding that it have a romantic and emotional context and men more interested in the sheer physical sensation, he should have done what scientists call “isolate the variable” and looked at how people behave sexually when they don’t have to worry about the needs, desires and feelings of the other gender: totally Gay men and totally Lesbian women.
Certainly my own experiences as a Gay man — including being “out” for the past 35 years and having been through both “open” and “closed” relationships — lend credence to the idea that men can readily detach the physical pleasure of sex from any emotional or relational context. It also helps, of course, that Gay men can’t either get pregnant themselves or make their partners pregnant. When I was with my girlfriend I would frequently lose my hard-on during the laborious process of her putting in her diaphragm, which she had to use because she was allergic to pills and scared of IUD’s. When I came out I joked to her that I was finally practicing a form of birth control that was guaranteed 100 percent effective.
I can’t read a book or watch a movie about San Francisco in the late 1970’s without having twinges of nostalgia. I remember an establishing shot in Peter Berlin’s remarkable 1970’s Gay porn film That Boy that took us past the Wherehouse Records outlet in San Francisco, where I could remember buying the boxed set of Bruno Walter’s recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies as well as quite a few avant-garde jazz items by people like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.
When I watched — or tried to watch — the PBS miniseries adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in 1993 I had a lot of those nostalgic twinges and said a sad requiem for the city I had once lived in, and the sort of community it had started groping towards before the Moscone/Milk murders, the rise of AIDS, and later the takeover of San Francisco by the dot-commers (briefly alluded to in Untold Tales when Maupin tells Kroot that he still loves San Francisco and refuses to protest things like the “Google bus” that spirits tech employees from their homes in San Francisco to their jobs in Silicon Valley) ended that set of possibilities.
San Diego is my home now and probably will be until the day I die — unless the relentless gentrifiers price me out of it and force Charles and I to relocate to a more isolated, more conservative but cheaper area for our final years. It’s not a place that exalts me the way the Bay Area used to, but it doesn’t disappoint me the way the Bay Area did either. But as the song says, I did leave my heart in San Francisco — or at least a piece of it — and cultural artifacts like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City bring it back to me in weird and not altogether pleasant ways.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Donald Trump’s Great Year


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

I have a lot of respect for MS-NBC news host and former Congressional aide Lawrence O’Donnell, but he was dead wrong on December 29 when he hosted his show — a year-in-review episode detailing all the mistakes President Donald Trump had allegedly made throughout 2017 — and read his list, liberally illustrated with clips from previous episodes, under a title reading, “Donald Trump’s Bad Year.”
The title couldn’t have been more wrong. Donald Trump had a great year in 2017. He’s been ridiculed for having said early on in his Presidency that he was doing more in his first year than anyone since Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, but he’s come damned close.
Trump has also been made fun of because it wasn’t until the end of the year that the Republican-dominated Congress passed, and he signed into law, a truly major piece of legislation. But that has hardly ever mattered less. Taking a page from the book of his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump governed from his first days largely by “executive orders,” simple this-is-the-way-it’s-going-to-be proclamations that he issued in huge leather-bound folders and signed with a huge Sharpie pen — as if, I joked at the time, any lesser writing implement wouldn’t be big enough for his … hands.
Between his steady flood of executive orders, issued with all the pomp and flourish of a Third World military officer having staged a coup d’état and ruling by decree, his wholesale deletions of government regulations, his judicial appointments and the revolutionary reshaping of American fiscal policy, Trump has achieved his goal of a “transformational” Presidency, one which will fundamentally change every American’s relations between him/herself and the U.S. government and ultimately achieve the Republican Party’s long-term goal of ending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and every other program that taxes the rich to help the not-so-rich.
Even more than George W. Bush, who once complained that his critics have “misunderestimated” him, Donald Trump has been a far more brilliant and savvy manipulator of people and events than he usually gets credit for being. The alleged “chaos” of his administration reflects deliberate policy on his part: a long-time management strategy, which he used as a businessman well before he entered (or even thought of entering) politics, of deliberately setting his employees against each other and promoting the ones who win while firing the ones who lose. (It’s essentially the self-image he projected on his TV show The Apprentice.)
Jonah Goldberg, a Right-wing opinion columnist who was one of the last from his side of the political fence to acknowledge and at least grudgingly support Trump, published a column in the December 26 Los Angeles Times ( detailing the achievements of President Trump’s first year in office: “A record number of judicial appointments, including a Supreme Court justice, the defeat of Islamic State, repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate, tax reform and major rollbacks of various regulations, from arctic drilling to Net Neutrality.”
One of the reasons Trump has been so “misunderestimated” has been his low standing in public opinion polls. Generally his “approval” rating in such polls has hovered between 32 and 38 percent, lowest for any American President in the history of scientific polling. But that doesn’t matter as much as a lot of people think it does. One reason, I suspect, is that Trump has a sort of reverse version of the “Bradley effect” going for him. The “Bradley effect” was the alleged unwillingness of Americans to tell survey researchers they weren’t going to vote for an African-American candidate because they had racist prejudices but didn’t want to admit those to people polling them.
It was named after Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who in 1982 ran for Governor of California against Republican George Deukmejian. He was ahead a few points in the last pre-election polls but lost the election by a few points, and the 5- to 10-point difference between those last-minute polls and the actual results became known as the “Bradley effect.” President Obama’s election in November 2008 was largely thought to have ended the “Bradley effect,” but in fact his support dropped off from the last polls to the actual result just as the “Bradley effect” predicted: he was ahead 10 percentage points in the last polls and he won by five. So Obama was harmed by the “Bradley effect” just as previous African-American candidates had been; he was just so far ahead he won anyway.
I think Donald Trump has a reverse “Bradley effect” going for him: a 5- to 10-percent margin among Americans who support Trump precisely because he is so openly racist, sexist and generally bigoted, but are too ashamed to admit that to pollsters. This was one of the main reasons he won the election; not realizing that Trump would always score 5 to 10 points higher than his poll numbers would indicate, Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff and her supporters generally couldn’t imagine they could possibly lose Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania … until they did. So those who are hoping Trump’s Presidency would implode because of his low approval ratings in polls need to look up and face the facts. Trump actually had a 36 percent approval rating on November 7, 2016 — and he won the election with 46 percent of the vote. So it’s reasonable to estimate the hard-core Trump “base” as about 40 percent of the electorate, 10 percent more than his lowest poll ratings.

A Decades-Long Campaign

In his article, Jonah Goldberg attributes Trump’s successes to the way he’s let the established institutions of the Republican Party largely take over the government, despite his protestations that they are part of the mysterious, shadowy “Establishment” aimed at sabotaging him. “Trump’s success (such as it is) is less attributable to sudden mastery of the issues than staying out of the way of rank-and-file Republican policymakers, activists and bureaucrats,” Goldberg said.
The truth is actually broader than that. Ever since the late 1930’s, there has been a Right-wing movement within the Republican Party that coalesced in the first place around opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s and the Democrats’ “New Deal” — and, later, their foreign policy. For a quarter-century this tendency battled with the more moderate, centrist “business Republicanism” of the party’s East Coast-based establishment.
Business Republicans wanted to put brakes on the New Deal and the Democrats’ penchant for using the power of the U.S. to determine events throughout the world, but they basically accepted those doctrines. They were willing to sustain at least some investment in social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare because for people who grew up in the 1930’s the alternative seemed to be economic chaos. They were also willing to tolerate organized labor and to reach out to communities of color, especially since the Democrats, with their base in the “Solid South,” had historically been the party of slavery, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan and organized racism in general.
Business Republicans continued to dominate the party until the mid-1960’s, when a series of events put the hard Right in control first of the Republican Party and, eventually, the entire country. First, a coalition of liberal Northern Democrats and business Republicans passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thereby flipping the two parties’ historic positions on civil rights for people of color. The Democrats established themselves as the party opposed to racism, while the Republicans moved to capture disillusioned Southern Democrats and working-class Northerners put off by the Democrats’ increasing identification with the African-American cause and also by the counter-cultural movements among young people in the 1960’s.
The Republicans first sought to take advantage of this so-called “white backlash” when they nominated their first hard-Right Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, in 1964. Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act and thereby gave himself and the Republican Party “cred” among racist and culturally conservative voters disgusted by the Democrats’ alignment with young people and people of color. Though Goldwater lost, he carried five Southern states, spelling the end of the “solid South” for the Democrats and permanently changing the balance of power in American politics from the Democrats to the Republicans.
The next step forward for the hard-Right in the Republican Party was Richard Nixon’s open embrace of Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) in his 1968 Presidential campaign. Anxious to blunt the threat that racist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s independent Presidential campaign would split the Right-wing vote and allow Democrat Hubert Humphrey to win, Nixon and Thurmond concocted the “Southern strategy” by which the Republicans would take over from the Democrats as the party of cultural conservatism and racism. Between them, Nixon and Wallace won 57 percent of the Presidential vote in 1968 to Humphrey’s 43 percent, indicating that the days of the “New Deal coalition” was over and there was now a permanent Right-wing majority in Presidential politics that would last until the 1990’s.
Nixon won in 1968 and scored a landslide re-election victory with 61 percent of the vote in 1972, and though he ultimately fell from grace after the various stratagems and “dirty tricks” he had pulled to win that sweeping victory, collectively known as “Watergate,” were revealed, the Right-wing majority in American Presidential politics survived him. Democrat Jimmy Carter won in 1976, partly a reaction to Watergate and the disgrace it had heaped on the Republicans, and partly due to his status as the first major-party Presidential candidate who was also an evangelical Christian. Evangelicals who had previously stayed away from politics joined in the Carter campaign and believed he would govern according to their culturally conservative values.
He did not, and the reaction of the evangelical community to what they considered Carter’s “betrayal” helped shape the next step forward for the radical Right in their ultimate takeover of American politics: the successful campaign of Ronald Reagan, the first hard-Right nominee for President actually to win, in 1980. Unlike Carter, whose administration’s pro-choice position on abortion and tentative overtures to Queers (including issuing an executive order banning discrimination against Queers in non-military federal employment that remains in effect) had alienated his fellow evangelicals, Reagan delivered for the so-called “Christian Right” up to a point. In particular, he imposed the infamous “gag rule” barring U.S.-funded non-governmental organizations working abroad from even mentioning abortion as an alternative for pregnant women.
Reagan was more concerned with delivering on the economic agenda of the hard Right than the evangelical social agenda. He put through two huge tax cuts in his first two years in office that, contrary to the optimistic predictions of so-called “supply-side economists” that they would actually increase government revenue by stimulating economic activity, in fact tanked the economy and led to a recession in 1982. He also followed a policy Adolf Hitler called Gleischhaltung — one of those indigestible compound words Germans love to create that doesn’t have a good English equivalent, though I’ve seen it rendered as “rectification” — which means blunting the effect of government agencies charged to do something you don’t like by appointing people to run those agencies who fundamentally disbelieve in their missions.
Reagan’s most flagrant and notorious example of Gleischhaltung was appointing a woman named Anne M. Gorsuch to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) despite — or, rather, because of — her opposition to governmental attempts to protect the environment. The way the American radical Right is tight-knit not only ideologically but personally through generations is illustrated by the fact that one of Donald Trump’s most spectacular first-year triumphs was to get Gorsuch’s son Neil onto the U.S. Supreme Court for life.
Trump, of course, has used Gleischhaltung even more systematically than Reagan. As his EPA head he appointed Scott Pruitt, who in his previous life as attorney general of Oklahoma repeatedly sued to have the EPA declared unconstitutional and whose attitude towards the environment makes Anne Gorsuch look like a charter member of the Sierra Club by comparison. To run the Interior Department he picked Ryan Zinke, who’s apparently never looked at a wilderness area he hasn’t wanted to see drilled or mined. To run the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) Trump chose Mick Mulvaney, a former Republican Congressmember on record as saying the CFPB should be abolished.
With appointments like that, Trump doesn’t need to get the Republican Congress to pass legislation. All he has to do is put hard-Right people in charge of various agencies and tell them to dismantle as many regulations as possible so he and other 0.01-percenters can have a free hand to manipulate government in order to make themselves even richer. He also has had an advantage in that in 1994 the Republican Party finally broke the 42-year Democratic monopoly on control of the House of Representatives, and the House has been Republican for all but four years ever since.

The Hard-Right’s Master Plan

The American hard-Right has spent the last several decades pursuing a meticulous and carefully strategized master plan that has relied on the huge financial resources of a handful of mega-rich donors and the construction of an alternative set of media that keep voters in line by pumping out hard-Right propaganda masquerading as “objective” news. President Reagan took the first step in creating the American hard-Right’s media arm when in 1987 he and his Gleischhaltung appointees at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which had required broadcasters to represent multiple political points of view in their programming.
Without the Fairness Doctrine in the way, owners of radio stations were able to program hard-Right propaganda from talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Levin and Roger Hedgecock 24/7. Within a few years virtually the entire AM radio band was dominated by hard-Right talk-show hosts, spewing out a daily propaganda line meticulously set out for them by weekly meetings organized by hard-Right activist Grover Norquist. In 1996, nine years after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, multinational media owner Rupert Murdoch and long-time Republican campaign operative Roger Ailes brought the talk-radio sensibility to cable TV by launching Fox News. With their constant demonzation of the “liberal media,” talk radio and Fox News prepped their audiences to believe anything they heard from them and discount any news or information from sources that weren’t part of the hard-Right network.
The first step in the hard Right’s takeover of the U.S. media was Reagan’s abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The second step was the establishment of Fox News in 1996. The third and fourth steps are taking place right now. Earlier this year, Ajit Pai, Trump’s appointee to head the FCC, pushed through a rule change to abolish so-called “Net Neutrality,” the legal obligation of Internet service providers (ISP’s) to treat all data equally and not arbitrarily censor some Web sites or slow them down to discourage people from using them.
Most of the coverage of the end of “Net Neutrality” has been centered around the ability it will give major ISP’s like AT&T, Comcast and Spectrum to make money by pushing consumers to content Web sites they own or control, by making sure those sites get transmitted rapidly and without glitches while sites they don’t own are slower and glitchy. But there’s a more insidious danger to the end of “Net Neutrality”: the degree to which it allows ISP’s the ability to censor the Internet by barring their customers from accessing Web sites whose political content they don’t agree with.
Already AT&T has been caught restricting its users’ access to Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice sites, and the CEO of Comcast once called his users’ Internet connections “my pipes” and said he didn’t see why he should have to allow political content he disagree with to be transmitted over “my pipes.” Without Net Neutrality, ISP’s have essentially attained the legal status of “publishers” under the First Amendment, with the full legal right to decide what political points of view their customers can access and which they can’t. And since virtually all ISP’s are owned and run by people with hard-Right politics, it doesn’t take two guesses to figure out how they intend to use that power.
Hard-Right multibillionaires are also increasing their investments in so-called “legacy media.” A group bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, multibillionaire brothers whose family made their money in fossil fuels and who have used a good chunk of their fortune to advance the political fortunes of the hard Right, has just concluded a deal to buy Time magazine from the Time Warner conglomerate. Another group of hard-Rightists associated with the management of the hard-Right Libertarian Orange County Register recently bought the alternative newspaper L.A. Weekly and promptly fired the entire editorial staff, obviously intending to replace the progressives who used to work there with people who can be trusted to toe the hard-Right media line.
The hard Right’s long-term plan is to make sure they monopolize the U.S. media so no political or social points of view opposed to or critical of theirs get expressed in mainstream communications channels. The hope is that Americans will automatically adopt hard-Right politics since their media will no longer allow them to be aware that other points of view exist. The hard Right can leave the First Amendment guarantee of “freedom of the press” technically in place because they will have achieved censorship, not by government action, but by private economic power. As the late A. J. Liebling said, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one” — and the hard Right is using its money and its clout to make sure no other Americans get to own one.
The hard Right’s master plan extended to far more than using the media to win total support of a hard core of about 40 percent of the population (which they have achieved). Their multibillionaire backers also funded a wide array of think tanks like the Hoover Foundation, the American Heritage Institute and Americans for Prosperity to determine just what policies government should enact to fulfill their goal of making the rich richer, making everyone else poorer and abolishing all programs aimed at taxing the rich to help the not-so-rich. One of the key organizations in this network is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in which hard-Right organizers and corporate funders sit together and actually write the laws which will fulfill their policy goals, then hand them over to sympathetic legislators at both the federal and state level to get passed into law.
Another key organization is the Federalist Society, which identifies up-and-coming hard-Right law students and gives them a leg up in their careers. The ultimate goal of the Federalist Society is to get their protégés appointed to be judges in both federal and state courts, so that any attempts to stop hard-Right legislation or policies in the courts will fail because the judges will be committed members of the hard Right and will rule on these cases on ideological grounds. Jonah Goldberg noted that Trump had essentially “outsourced” his judicial appointments to the Federalist Society — as did the last previous Republican President, George W. Bush — and the importance of the Federalist Society’s success at “working the ref” and making sure supposedly “objective” judges are actually hard-Right activists who rule ideologically cannot be overestimated.
That’s one reason why Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) made it one of his major priorities, once the Republicans regained control of the U.S. Senate in 2014, to hold up not only President Obama’s last attempt at a U.S. Supreme Court appointment but virtually all his appointments of federal judges. McConnell deliberately set out to make sure that if a Republican replaced Obama he would have at least 100 vacancies on the federal courts to fill with lifetime appointments — and Trump has followed suit. While Trump has been notoriously slow in appointing officials to the rest of government, he’s speeded through the judicial process, getting 90 new judges on the bench in his first year — three times as many as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama got through in their first years. The goal is that even if the Republicans lose control of the executive and legislative branches, they’ll have “packed” the judiciary so well that anything the Democrats try to do in the political branches will be thrown out as unconstitutional.

Taxation as Class War

The most recent success of the hard-Right’s long-term ideological project to achieve permanent control of American politics and skew public policy in their direction is, of course, the tax bill recently passed by the U.S. Congress on strict party-line votes and signed into law by President Trump. The tax law increases the U.S. budget deficit by up to $1.5 trillion in order to give huge tax cuts to corporations and wealthy individuals and their families. It sabotages the Affordable Care Act (ACA), so-called “Obamacare,” by repealing the “individual mandate” that everyone in the U.S. had to have health insurance or pay a penalty tax, which will likely mean a drastic increase in the cost of health insurance for every American who has it, whether they got it from their employers, through an ACA “exchange” or some other way.
The tax bill also encourages state and local government to slash their social budgets. By drastically scaling back the ability of middle-class people to reduce their federal tax liabilities by deducting the taxes they pay to state and local governments, the bill will make it politically tougher for even the most liberal “blue” states like California, New York and Massachusetts to maintain their states’ current levels of social services. They’ll be able to do that only by raising their own taxes to economically and politically unsustainable levels. The goal — and some Republican Congressmembers were quite honest about this — is to end the so-called “subsidy” of more generous states by less generous ones and to force down the level of social insurance in places like California to the level of places like Mississippi.
The tight discipline and unity with which the Republicans in both houses pushed through the tax bill shows just how wrong the pundits who keep talking about a “civil war in the Republican Party” are. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who had received nationwide plaudits from progressives, liberals and moderates for their votes against the bill to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act, voted for the tax bill. (Murkowski’s vote was essentially “purchased” by slipping in a provision allowing oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge — thereby putting another piece of bad public policy in the bill.)
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), who’d been hailed by the liberal punditocracy for some vague remarks about how President Trump had not yet shown the maturity and judgment to be an effective leader, voted against the tax bill on its first go-round in the Senate — he said he didn’t want to be a party to any increases in the budget deficit. But he voted for it on final passage after language was inserted directly benefiting major investors in real estate like Senator Corker and President Trump. Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), who’d been praised for writing a book called Conscience of a Conservative that attacked Trump, voted for the bill. So did his Arizona colleague, John McCain, who missed the final vote because his terminal brain cancer had flared up, but voted for it on the first go-round despite the fact that the process used to put together the bill made a mockery of McCain’s call for the Senate to resume “regular order.”
The tax bill passed with a vote of 51 to 48 in the U.S. Senate. All the votes for it were from Republicans; all those against it were from Democrats. My friends in the “alt-Left,” the increasingly out-of-touch moralists or just plain crazies who still insist there is “no difference” between the two major parties, please take note. As I pointed out in my last commentary, the tax bill is a Right-wing revolutionary act whose intent is not merely to give huge tax breaks to the rich at the expense of everybody else and the country’s long-term economic health — though it is certainly that. It’s also a weapon in the current Republican Party’s drive to impose a hard-Right Libertarian ideology on the U.S. and wipe out all government programs that help people who aren’t part of the 1 percent.
As House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) — a thoroughgoing Libertarian who reportedly gives copies of Ayn Rand’s Libertarian manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, to his new staff hires to tell them what he wants from them — said almost as soon as the tax bill was passed, the next step was going to be “entitlement reform.” That’s Republican-speak for deep cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Republicans in Congress intend to pay for the $1.5 trillion their tax cut for the rich will cost by gutting these vital social insurance programs, in line with their Libertarian ideology that says the government has no business ensuring that people will have a retirement income or access to health care.
It’s true that President Trump promised during his campaign that he wouldn’t cut Social Security and Medicare, but this is Donald Trump we’re talking about, a man who regards words as weapons to achieve what he wants and simply doesn’t care about whether what comes out of his mouth is true or not, as long as it advances his agenda. If you believed Trump would protect Social Security and Medicare against the people in his party who want to destroy them, you probably also believed you could become a multimillionare real-estate tycoon just by attending Trump University.
One MS-NBC promo spot features one of their anchors asking just what the Republican Party’s plan for America is. It’s to return the U.S. to what it was in the 1880’s — the decade Ayn Rand named as the one in which she thought America was truly “great” — in which corporations and their owners openly bought political influence (and in some cases, most notoriously California Senator Leland Stanford, the Donald Trump of the 19th century, directly bought political office) and used it to make their already huge fortunes even bigger.
In the 1880’s labor unions were illegal, white Americans reneged on the promise of racial equality that had been made during Reconstruction and imposed segregation on African-Americans, women were essentially the property of their families until they got married and their husbands afterwards, cities actually pointed with pride as to how polluted their air was, and the distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. became more unequal than ever before or since in our history … until now. That is the decade when Trump and the Republicans believe America was “great,” and to which they want to return to “make America great again.”

Only One Way to Stop It: Vote for Democrats!

And as I’ve pointed out in these pages before, there’s only one way to stop the Republican agenda of economic Libertarianism and social conservatism — the party’s peculiar but nonetheless enduring consensus that the true role of government isn’t protecting people against corporate greed or ensuring that people have a right to survive, but micromanaging their sex lives — and that is to vote for every Democrat on every ballot in every election in 2018, 2020 and in between. Despite its many failings and shortcomings, the fact is the Democratic Party is the only force in the U.S. standing in the way of the complete conquest of the American political and economic system by the Republicans in their Right-wing revolution.
Goodness knows, the Democratic Party has its flaws. While the Republican Party has become an ideologically consistent machine, the Democrats are still trying to be a “broad-tent” party encompassing everyone from conservative Senators like Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) to progressive Senators like Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). At least since the 1896 Presidential campaign, when William Jennings Bryan successfully challenged incumbent President Grover Cleveland for the nomination on a platform combining economic progressivism and social conservatism — a combination virtually unimaginable today — the Democratic Party has historically been split between moderates who want to suck up to Wall Street and the financial interests, and progressives who want to run the economy in the interests of the 99 percent.
The split within the Democratic Party seems to recur every time the party is out of power — between Cleveland and Bryan in 1896, between William Gibbs McAdoo and Al Smith in 1924 (that was the year the Democratic convention deadlocked after 103 ballots and ended up nominating John W. Davis, a Wall Street lawyer whose last public act was arguing for racial segregation at the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education), between Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in 1968, between Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson in 1984, between John Kerry and Howard Dean in 2004, and between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016. I harp on this because a lot of commentators seized on the Clinton-Sanders race as if the conflicts between the two — and the corrupt role of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in rigging the race for the nomination for Clinton and against Sanders — were something new. They weren’t.
I don’t go as far as Los Angeles Times op-ed contributor Conor Friedensdorf, who on December 27 published a column ( saying that in 2018 progressives should stop mounting street protests and demonstration against the Trump/GOP agenda and concentrate on electing Democrats in 2018. It seems to be a peculiar delusion of the American Left these days that the choice between electoral activism and direct action in the streets is either-or. In fact, it’s impossible to achieve social change just through elections and it’s impossible to achieve it just through street protests. It takes both, and I want to see people continue to demonstrate against Trump and the Republicans, not only because it builds public awareness of the depths of depravity to which the Republicans have sunk but because once we do elect Democrats, we will have to continue to demonstrate to keep them honest and make sure they serve the people instead of Wall Street and the corporate “interests.”
But Friedensdorf is right when he says, “Beyond the greater oversight and accountability that divided government brings, a decisive defeat of the GOP is the only tool voters have to repudiate Trump, in particular his tendency to stoke animus against minority groups to gain power.” As long as Trump or another Republican is President, and the Republicans control both houses of Congress, they will continue to be able to eviscerate all economic, social and regulatory protections against unsafe workplaces, financial scams, environmental destruction and racial and gender discrimination. They will continue on their current course of jamming through major legislation without any public hearings or input from the people who have to live with its consequences.
It would be nice if the U.S. had a parliamentary system with proportional representation, like Germany’s, where it made sense to organize the Green Party because once it got more than 5 percent of the national vote, it got a share of seats in the national legislature and a shot at real power and influence. But we don’t. We have an electoral system based on single-member legislative districts and winner-take-all elections, and that makes organizing alternative parties futile, counterproductive and a waste of time, energy and money. While the battle for social and economic justice in the U.S. will require both electoral activism within the system and street protests and demonstrations outside it, to the extent that the struggle has an electoral component it will have to be waged within the Democratic Party.
Electing Democrats won’t be a panacea. Anyone who’s lived through the successive disappointments of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama knows that well. But the Republican Party has become so ideologically consistent and so implacably dedicated to a far-Right Libertarian vision of America’s future, that it has to be stopped — and the only force within the political system that can stop it, like it or not, is the Democratic Party. People who dismiss the Democrats as the “lesser of two evils” need to see that sometimes the greater evil is so evil that you have to do anything within your power to stop it. That was the case in Germany in 1932 — when the pointless conflicts between the Social Democrats and the Communists split the Left and helped the greater evil, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, take power — and it’s also the case in the United States in 2018.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Trump’s Tax Bill: A Right-Wing Revolutionary Act


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

Within days — maybe the very day after I’m writing this, November 30, 2017 — the Republican-controlled United States Senate is going to strike yet another powerful blow on behalf of the Right-wing counterrevolution in the U.S. today. They’re going to pass a highly reactionary, regressive tax bill that will hugely benefit corporations and super-rich people — not only presently existing super-rich people but their descendants — and hurt almost every American who isn’t part of the 0.01 percent.
And they’re going to do it at the end of a mockery of traditional legislative process — what Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) called “regular order.” They’re going to pass a bill that makes sweeping changes in virtually every aspect of how Americans relate to their government with only one committee hearing and at most 20 hours of floor debate. They’re also going to pass it with zero support from the Democratic Party. Historically attempts to rewrite the U.S. tax code have been bipartisan, but not this one: it is a weapon of mass destruction in an ideological war being waged by a party that has rejected any notion that equality and fairness are virtues.
The heart of the Republican tax bill is a reduction of the nominal tax rate on corporations from 35 to 20 percent. I wrote “nominal” above because there are so many deductions and loopholes in the current tax law that virtually no corporation actually pays 35 percent of its earnings in taxes. Many, in fact, pay little or nothing. In addition, by eliminating the standard allowance — the part of your tax return where you write in the number one for yourself and add one for each of your “dependents” — and making other adjustments to skew the tax codes in favor of the rich, the bill is going to raise taxes for more than 80 million Americans.
What’s more, by eliminating the estate tax, it will bring the U.S. closer to the sort of hereditary aristocracy our founders feared creating, in which money will continue to concentrate, generation after generation, in the families that have it now. At the same time the bill directly attacks college students and others pursuing the traditional paths of upward mobility in this country.
It’s also an assault on the very notion that government should ever tax the rich to benefit the not-so-rich. The Senate version of the bill totally eliminates the ability of taxpayers who itemize deductions to take their state and local taxes off their federal tax burden. The point of this is to penalize states like California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts which have chosen to tax their better-off residents to benefit their not-so-better-off ones.
Once such taxpayers can’t take off state and local taxes from their federal returns, it will become politically impossible for any state to sustain expensive social programs with their own revenues because even their most generous-minded residents won’t be able to stand the tax burden. The idea — and it’s quite explicitly stated by the people pushing this bill — is to drive every state down to the level of places like Mississippi, where taxes are low and state government does little or nothing to help its poorer citizens.
With each new incarnation of the tax bill, it looks even worse. The Senate slipped into its version of the bill the elimination of the “individual mandate,” the provision of the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”) that requires every American either to carry health insurance or to pay a penalty to the government.
Nonpartisan analysts, including the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), have estimated that up to 13 million Americans could lose access to health coverage if this passes, either because it will cause chaos in the private insurance market or it will force insurance companies to raise premiums so high insurance will be unaffordable. The CBO also estimates that people who would still have insurance would face an average 10 percent increase in their premiums. This is essentially a “stealth” provision to accomplish what the Republicans tried and failed to do with their bills to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.
Various drafts of the tax bill — there are many, and according to the Politico Web site (, the contents of the bill are still in flux — include provisions that single out such typical Republican targets as graduate students and the tech industry (which in at least one version didn’t get the generous tax credits for repatriating profits stored in foreign countries other big corporations got).
And as Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, came to New York at the end of November to tell Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert, the current Senate bill imposes a punitive 20 percent excise tax on goods made in Puerto Rico and brought onto the U.S. mainland. That’s proof, in case we still needed any, that the Republican Party does not think of Puerto Rico as part of the United States (which it is) but as an alien territory from which we need to be “protected.”
The Republican tax bill is a perfect expression of the Libertarian ideology that dominates the Republican Party and to which virtually all GOP officeholders adhere. I’ve written about Libertarianism a lot in these pages before, but just to recap: Libertarians believe it is none of the government’s damned business to tax the most fortunate to help the less fortunate. They fundamentally reject Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, as well as all other social-welfare programs, because they regard them as “enslaving” the rich to help the not-so-rich.
Libertarians also believe in economic inequality. While other people — including some who call themselves “conservatives” — lament the increasing economic inequality in the U.S., Libertarians love inequality because they regard the rich as the “makers” who create economic value and everyone else as the “takers” who demand wealth and income they do not deserve. Indeed, Libertarians believe that in a true “free market” economy, wealth is an indicator of personal capability and social worth: if you’re rich, that proves that you are better than the common run of humanity and therefore you deserve more.
Also, Libertarians are completely opposed to civil rights laws — they believe that people ought to have the right to discriminate as a part of “economic freedom” — and they hate environmental protection. Libertarians believe that the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism is so strong it can literally set aside the laws of physics (the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, which is to Libertarianism what Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto and Capital are to socialism, invents a motor that runs on air and then organizes the disappearance of all the entrepreneurial capitalists in the world to prove that it can’t run without them), and therefore laws to protect the environment are just one more encumbrance those pesky “takers” in government and among the masses try to impose on the superior capitalist “makers.”
President Trump didn’t campaign as a Libertarian — he basically posed as a European-style Right-wing nationalist conservative who promised to spare Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for “real Americans” (i.e., U.S.-born white men) by blocking immigration and thereby protecting the jobs of “real Americans.” But, as I’ve argued in these pages before, he’s certainly governed as a Libertarian. He’s savaged the environment (when he lists his accomplishments, among the items he always cites are pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and authorizing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines), blocked pro-consumer regulations, fought civil-rights protections and been open about his racism.
The Republican tax bill now before Congress, which Trump probably had little hand in writing but which he certainly supports wholeheartedly, is a perfect expression of Libertarian economic and social priorities. It will slash taxes on the rich while raising them for virtually everybody else. It will be paid for with gaping cuts of over $1 trillion in funding for Medicaid — the government health program (Medi-Cal in California) that pays for about one-fourth of all health care in the U.S., including one-half of all births — and nearly $500 billion in Medicare.
It will essentially repudiate the entire history of the United States since the 1880’s, when corporations and super-rich individuals not only openly bribed politicians to make laws that would make themselves richer and everyone else poorer, but sometimes (as with railroad magnate and U.S. Senator from California Leland Stanford, essentially the Donald Trump of the 19th century) bought political office for themselves. It’s especially ironic that there are still political commentators who call Trump a “populist” when his policy proposals, and especially this tax bill, are exactly the kind of soak-the-poor, coddle-the-rich policies the original American Populists of the 1890’s were rebelling against.

A Done Deal

Don’t hold out hope that somehow there will be enough divisions within the Republican Senate caucus to sink this monster of a tax ripoff. On November 28, when the U.S. Senate passed its last procedural hurdle before the final vote on this tax bill — the motion to proceed (i.e., allow it to be voted on), the vote was on strict party lines, with all 52 Senate Republicans voting yes and all 48 Senate Democrats voting no. (So much for the idiotic idea promoted by alt-Leftists in pathetic, impotent “alternative parties” like the U.S. Green Party and Peace and Freedom that there is “no difference” between the Republicans and the Democrats.)
Senators Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), who’d both previously told reporters they had vague “reservations” about the tax bill, voted for the motion to proceed. So did all three Republican Senators whose “no” votes sank the last attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act: Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John McCain (R-Arizona) — and McCain and Murkowski have both publicly pledged to vote for the final bill as well. Ignore everything you’ve read or heard from the pundit class about “civil war in the Republican Party.” On this — and in general on their commitment to wipe out all progressive programs from the 1890’s to today — the Republicans in both houses of Congress move in lock-step with an absolute, unshakable loyalty to the Libertarian ideology.
The Republican tax bill is a done deal. Let me repeat that: the Republican tax bill is a done deal. There will be no dramatic last-minute Senate votes by so-called “mavericks” to sink this. This tax bill is too pure an expression of Republican ideology for the party to allow any waverers to sink it. It is also too important a priority to the mega-donors the GOP relies on to finance its campaigns — the Mercers, the Kochs, the DeVoses, the Adelsons, the Popes and others — for the Republicans to allow it not to pass.
Republican Congressmembers have been surprisingly honest about that. A number of them have given on-the-record interviews — and others have leaked it off the record — that the big donors to the Republican Party have made it clear that if they do not get this huge tax cut for themselves and their companies (and their heirs), GOP Congressional candidates needn’t bother asking them for money in 2018. As Betsy DeVos, sister of Blackwater founder and missionary Erik Prince and Trump’s Secretary of Education, bluntly — and publicly — said, she and the GOP’s other “big donors” demand “a return on their investment” in the Republican Party — and this tax bill is that “return.”
That’s why the Senate Republicans are pushing through a bill that, according to polls, is opposed by about half the country — the percentages have ranged from 49 to 52 percent opposed, 25 to 28 percent in favor, 20 to 25 percent undecided, but all the polls agree that by nearly 2 to 1 Americans who have come to an opinion about this bill are against it. That’s also why the attempts of people with disabilities to stage the kinds of direct action they did so powerfully to block the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — including sit-ins in Congressional offices and a stark, dramatic disruption of the Senate Finance Committee hearing at whch the bill was reported to the floor — haven’t had the same effect this time.
Once the tax bill passes and President Trump signs it into law, not only will he finally have a legislative accomplishment to show for his first year in office — something his critics have been ragging on him about — it will be a doozy. It will be the most important victory for the radical Right, the oddball coalition of economic Libertarians and social conservatives who don’t trust the government to regulate the economy but want it to micromanage people’s sex lives, since Trump’s election on November 8, 2016. It will be a huge step forward in the Republicans’ determination to wipe out every vestige of the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society.
It is a clear answer to the oft-asked question from the 2016 campaign, “When does Donald Trump think America was ‘great,’ and to which he thinks we need to return to ‘make America great again’?” The answer is the 1880’s, when it was totally legal for wealthy individuals and corporations to bribe politicians and openly buy elective office, either for themselves or their loyal servants in the political class. It was a time when labor unions were illegal and segregation and discrimination against people of color was legal. It was a time when cities took civic pride in how black their air was with coal-fueled industrial production and environmental protection wasn’t even a concept in politics.
The Republican tax bill is a concerted attempt by the Republican Party, its politicians and its campaign funders to return America to a state without Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, a minimum wage or any other encumbrances on the absolute power of wealthy individuals and corporations. It is virtually certain to pass; and, once passed, it is likely to be successful. It will be a game-changer in future political organizing on both sides of America’s ideological divide, with the Right ascendant and the Left essentially restricted to damage control. Just 3 ½ weeks after voters in Virginia, New Jersey and other U.S. states that were having elections in November 2017 decisively and overwhelmingly rejected the Republican Party and its policies, this tax bill will enshrine them into law and fundamentally remake America in the swaggering, bullying wealth-über-alles spirit of Donald Trump and his fellow 0.01-percenters.
I must say that I made a rare mistake after November 7, 2016: I let myself get optimistic about the political future of this country. I started a commentary on the Democrats’ election victories that was supposed to be a vision of hope as well as a warning that, now that they had won races across the country essentially by promising not to be Donald Trump, they needed to be serious about governing and in particular about delivering on their promise of a society that works for all people. But events move so fast in Trump’s America — they “swirl,” as one literary critic wrote about Shakespeare’s plays in general and Macbeth in particular — that election already seems like ancient history, like a mere blip in the Right’s road to absolute triumph.

Here’s What I Wrote on November 8, 2017

I began writing this article on November 8, 2017, the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s surprise election as President of the United States. Ironically enough, the anniversary was greeted by the first good political news the Democratic Party has had in nearly a decade. Until November 7, 2017 the 2010’s had been one unrelieved disaster for the Democrats — and for the progressive coalition a lot of former Presdent Barack Obama’s supporters believed his 2008 election would usher in — after another. The Democrats lost the House of Representatives in 2010 — and, arguably more important, they got killed in elections for governors and state legislatures that year, so Republicans could and did stack electoral districts against them in the once-a-decade process of redistricting.
Obama squeaked to re-election in 2012 but the Democrats suffered further losses in elections for state houses and Congress. Indeed, so good were the Republicans at gerrymandering following the 2010 census and their virtual sweep of state governments that even though more Americans voted for Democrats than Republicans to serve in the House of Representatives, the GOP kept their House majority anyway. In 2014 the Republicans regained control of the U.S. Senate, and in 2016 the Democrats got slaughtered nationwide. The Republicans not only with the Presidency, they held onto the Senate (despite math that favored the Democrats) and they got the largest House majority they’d had since 1928, just before the Great Depression that spawned the New Deal Coalition and 36 years of Democratic dominance from 1932 to 1968.
The results of the off-off-year elections on November 7 were a different story. Democrat Ralph Northam not only won the governorship of Virginia against Ed Gillespie — who’d begun his campaign as a moderate Republican but by the end of it was fully embracing the Trump agenda, bashing immigrants, “sanctuary cities” (of which there are none in Virginia) and protesting football players, and embracing gun rights and Confederate war memorials — he did so by nine percentage points, four points better than the final pre-election polls had indicated. What’s more, he took his entire ticket into office with him, including Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor candidate who is the first African-American elected to statewide office in Virginia since governor L. Douglas Wilder in 1989 — and came within one vote of a majority in the House of Delegates, the lower chamber of Virginia’s legislature.
Democrats also got good news in New Jersey, where Phil Murphy was elected governor over Republican Kim Guadagno, who’d served as lieutenant governor to the spectacularly unpopular Chris Christie. Murphy won by a 13-point margin. Voters in Maine, which Trump carried in 2016 and whose governor, Paul LePage, said last summer he deliberately plants false “news” stories about himself and the country would be better off without newspapers, passed an initiative to expand Medicaid health-care coverage by nearly 20 points — though LePage is doing his level best to block it ( and the Trump administration, in its ongoing jihad against the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”), has monkey-wrenched any state seeking the federal waivers needed to expand Medicaid.
Democrats also picked up three state legislative seats in Georgia. They won mayoral races in Charlotte and Fayetteville, North Carolina. They defeated the incumbent mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city. Democrats held on to the mayoralty of St. Petersburg, Florida. In Washington state, the Democrats won a special election to secure a majority in the upper house of the stage legislature and elected open Lesbian Jenny Durkan Mayor of Seattle, the city’s first female mayor since the 1920’s. St. Paul, Minnesota elected its first Black mayor, Melvin Carter.
Progressive lawyer Larry Krasner won his bid to be district attorney of Philadelphia in a race of which the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “[T]he 56-year-old was assailed from the start of his campaign by critics as unsuitable for the job — as an attorney best known for taking on civil rights cases and suing the Philadelphia Police Department. It was for some of the same reasons that he drew support from activists demanding criminal justice reform from an office they deemed unfair[.]” Mayors in New York City and Boston were overwhelmingly re-elected (though the Boston mayor, a Democrat with a past as a labor leader, defeated an even more progressive Black candidate). About the only good news for Republicans were a few victories in special Congressional elections, notably Provo, Utah Mayor Jack Curtis, who was elected to replace the retiring Congressmember Jason Chaffetz.
Perhaps the best news for America’s Queer community was the victory of open Transgender activist and journalist Danica Roem for District 13 of the Virginia House of Delegates. In a case of karmic justice if there ever was one, she unseated two-decade incumbent Bob Marshall, who had proudly boasted of being “homophobe-in-chief” in Virginia and had pushed through the state’s controversial bill to ban Trans people from using the restroom corresponding to their gender identity. Not that Roem made that her signature issue: her campaign signs said, “Fix Route 28 Now!” — referring to a terribly congested roadway a lot of people in her district depend on to get to and from work. In her victory speech, Roem cited her victory not only as a defense of equal rights for Trans people but a defense of journalists against the ceaseless attacks by President Trump and his supporters on the media as “fake news.”
And Roem wasn’t the only openly Trans person to win a U.S. election on November 7. African-American Andrea Jenkins won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. Tyler Titus was elected to the school board in Erie, Pennsylvania. And Lisa Middleton became the first Trans person elected to a non-judicial office in California when she won a seat on the Palm Springs City Council — which after this year’s election will consist exclusively of “out” Queer people.

And Here’s What Things Look Like Now

As I noted before that historical digression, events move so fast in Trump’s America the above seems like not only old news, but ancient history. Since then we’ve had not only the zip-through of the Republicans’ horrible tax bill, which as of this writing stands on the verge of near-certain passage in the U.S. Senate (and, likely, quick enactment into law because instead of following the usual practice of appointing a “conference committee” of both House and Senate members to resolve difference in the bills, I suspect House Speaker Paul Ryan will simply bring the Senate version to a vote in the House and get it to Trump’s desk that much sooner), but the rising scandal over sexual harassment in workplaces in general and politics, entertainment and the media in particular.
Contrary to popular belief, the sexual harassment scandals that have quickly brought down such formerly powerful and prominent people as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Al Franken and John Conyers is a net benefit for the Republicans, not the Democrats, in today’s twisted partisan landscape. The reason is that people who are considered likely to vote Democratic care about it far more than people who are likely to vote Republican. In fact, I would argue that the sexual harassment scandals are as great an existential threat to the Democratic Party as failure to pass the current tax bill would be to the Republicans.
That’s because the Democratic Party long ago lost the votes of white men. The last Democratic Presidential candidate to win a majority of white male voters was Lyndon Johnson … in 1964. Democrats win elections these days only when they can mobilize enough women and people of color to vote for them to neutralize their disadvantage among white men. Barack Obama won the Presidency in 2008 and 2012 because as a person of color himself, he was uniquely able to mobilize voters of color, especially African-Americans, to vote for him in record numbers.
Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because as a white woman she didn’t have the appeal to voters of color Obama did, and she didn’t get a comparable boost among female voters because, unlike people of color, women aren’t an economically and socially oppressed minority group with a class interest in common. Donald Trump not only mobilized white male voters to turn out for him in much greater numbers than they had for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, he won a majority of white women as well.
Women range all over the political map in terms of socioeconomic status, education levels, religious commitment and belief (since the radical religious Right emerged as a political force in the 1980 election one of the key predictors of whether people vote Republican or Democratic has been how often they go to church), and views even on such so-called “women’s issues” as reproductive choice and equal pay for jobs of comparable worth.
Though the so-called “gender gap” isn’t as broadly decisive in elections as many Democrats believe (or want to believe), it nonetheless does exist. Women are on the whole more likely to vote for Democrats than for Republicans, and out of all demographic groups of women the one that most overwhelmingly prefers the Democratic to the Republican party is college-educated women in white-collar professional jobs. These are exactly the sorts of women most vulnerable to the kinds of sexual harassment and exploitation that have been reported from Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose et al.
Because the Republican voter base is overwhelmingly male, Republicans running for office can afford to make light of sexual harassment, or even commit it themselves. Clarence Thomas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump (the sequence is purely chronological) all won high office after being credibly accused of harassing and even assaulting women. Indeed, Trump was seen and heard on nationwide TV in the infamous Access Hollywood tape not only making highly sexualized, demeaning remarks about women but saying that because he was a “star,” he could get away with groping them.
And from the latest polls in the special election to fill Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat December 12, it looks like Roy Moore is about to join that list. What Moore has been accused of by multiple women is disgusting, and some of it is illegal (or would have been if it had been reported within the statute of limitations), but President Trump and the Alabama Republican Party have come down hard on Moore’s behalf and said point-blank that all Democrats are so terrible that no matter what Moore may or may not have done, he needs to be elected to keep the Alabama Senate seat in Republican hands and make sure the GOP’s already narrow 52-48 Senate majority doesn’t become even more precarious.
In order to preserve their share of the women’s vote and their branding as the “party of women,” Democrats have to move hard against any of their officials who are accused of sexual misconduct. That’s why San Diego Democrats came down so hard on newly elected Mayor Bob Filner in 2013. Filner was a local progressive icon whose voting record on women’s issues was everything the National Organization for Women (NOW), National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and other major national feminist organizations could have wanted. He was also a bizarre sexual harasser who remarked to the veteran professional women on his staff that he’d like them to come to work without wearing panties, and made so many other demeaning comments about them that liberal Democratic activists came together in June 2013 to force him out of office.
The troika who went after Filner — former City Councilmember Donna Frye, public interest attorney Cory Briggs and Marco Gonzalez, lawyer and brother of Lorena Gonzalez (then head of San Diego’s labor movement and now a state assemblymember) — couldn’t have cared less that Filner had been the first Democrat elected as Mayor of San Diego in 20 years. They also couldn’t have cared less that in all likelihood, if he were forced out as Mayor, a Republican would succeed him — which indeed happened. Their public statements were that his treatment of women was so intolerable he needed to go, Realpolitik considerations be damned. Their real interest was in protecting the Democratic “brand” against an elected official whose private behavior towards women threatened to brand the entire Democratic Party as hypocrites, paying lip service to women’s rights in public while treating them like shit in private.
All those wonderful Democratic electoral victories I wrote so joyously about on November 8 came about because their campaigns were especially successful at mobilizing women to vote. Indeed, many of the grass-roots candidates who took on established Republican politicians and beat them were women. But women will only turn out en masse for Democrats when they feel the Democrats are on their side, not only politically but personally.
Hillary Clinton didn’t make that case in 2016, partly because of her personal baggage on the issue. When Bill Clinton was impeached and nearly removed from office in 1999, the social consensus was that Hillary, the cheated-on spouse, was a victim, and a lot of people who opposed the impeachment did so because they felt that if Hillary were willing to forgive him, they should be too. A decade and a half later, the spouses of sexually abusive men are judged considerably more harshly, routinely referred to as “enablers” and almost equally at fault when their men misbehave. That’s why New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand, who sits in Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat and represents the same constituency she did, recently said that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the sexual scandals instead of fighting and eventually winning acquittal in the Senate.
As Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote in the November 27, 2017 New Yorker (, “When Hillary [Clinton] ran for President in 2016, she may not have gauged how profoundly Bill Clinton’s record with women would hurt her. Just a month before the election, after the Access Hollywood” video emerged, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, he brought [Juanita] Broaddrick and [Paula] Jones to a Presidential debate.” (Paula Jones was the woman whose sexual harassment suit against Clinton had led to special counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of him, the exposure of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and his impeachment. Juanita Broaddrick had gone even farther and accused Clinton of outright rape.)
“Clinton dismissed this as a stunt, meant to throw her off her game,” Davidson Sorkin wrote. “But the key audience for it was purple-state women, particularly middle-aged or older working-class women, who might identify with Broaddrick, or be receptive, based on their own experience, to the contention that, as Trump put it, Hillary was Bill’s ‘enabler.’ (Polls after the election showed that Clinton performed less well with those voters than her campaign had hoped.) For others, Clinton’s decision to make her husband an active part of her campaign—and the potential First Spouse—constrained it.” And no doubt Hillary’s tight connection with another wife of a sexually errant Democratic officeholder — close political advisor Huma Abedin, then-wife of disgraced (and now imprisoned) former New York Congressmember Anthony Weiner — didn’t help her either.
So in order to protect their political “brand” and attract the overwhelming turnouts among women (especially white women) they need to overcome the Republicans’ advantage among men (especially white men), Democras have to cut loose immediately any Democratic officeholder credibly accused of sexual misconducts. Republicans, with a voting base containing a far larger percentage of men, don’t have to be nearly as harsh. Also, despite Republicans’ claim to be the party of “family values,” Republicans have proven themselves less likely than Democrats to base their votes on a candidate’s personal conduct.
Republicans keep their eyes on the ideological prize, voting not on who the candidate is but what he (or she) says s/he will do. Candidate Donald Trump promised Right-wing (anti-choice, anti-Queer, pro-business) judicial appointments, expanding fossil-fuel production over environmentalist objections, repealing the Affordable Care Act and building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border. He’s delivered on the first two, and he can legitimately claim that the others are being blocked by obstructionists in the Congressional establishments of both major parties.
Those Democrats and Leftists who think the Trump Presidency is doomed because his public approval ratings in polls have hovered between 30 and 38 percent need to be reminded that on the day before he won the election, his approval rating was at 36 percent. He got 46 percent of the vote, clearly because that additional 10 percent may not have “approved” of him as a person, but they decided he would be better on the issues they cared about than the hated Hillary, a figure so demonized by the American Right that subscription solicitations for the American Spectator magazine contained a cartoon literally depicting her as a witch.
Likewise, Roy Moore is going to win the Alabama Senate race, partly because a lot of voters will believe him when he says the attacks against him were made up by “Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders and Socialists” (as a Gay Socialist I feel inordinately proud to be so high up on Roy Moore’s enemies list!; partly because a lot of Alabamans, particularly from evangelical religious backgrounds, don’t think what Moore is accused of is so bad (for a fascinating commentary on why, see Kathryn Brighthill’s fascinating commentary in the November 12 Los Angeles Times:; but mostly because Alabama Republicans (and Republicans in general) don’t care how good (or bad) a man he is as long as he can be counted on to vote the way they want him to.
The extent to which the sexual harassment scandals pose an existential threat to the Democratic Party (and not to the Republicans) was brought home this week. On Monday, November 27, Nancy Pelosi, former House Speaker and current leader of the Democrats in the House, gave an interview on the NBC-TV show Meet the Press in which she called John Conyers an “icon” and said she would insist on due process in the House ethics investigation of his conduct with women on his staff before taking a position on whether he should remain in office.
That was the “wrong” answer politically, and it met with almost immediate big-time blowback from Republicans and Democrats alike. It sent a signal to women voters that neither Republicans nor Democrats can be counted on to protect you: both parties will circle the wagons to protect their own who are accused of sexual harassment, while blasting away at people from the other big party facing similar charges.
Three days later, Pelosi got the message and, as CNN reported (, called on Conyers to resign and said on November 30 what she should have said November 27: ““It’s very sad and the brave women who came forward are owed justice. I will pray for Congressman Conyers and his family, and wish them well. However Congressman Conyers should resign. … No matter how great a legacy, there’s no license to harass or discriminate. In fact it makes it even more disappointing.”
In short, precisely because they are so dependent on mobilizing and motivating women voters to overcome their major disadvantage among men, Democrats have to have a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual harassers in their ranks. Republicans don’t. That’s why John Conyers and Minnesota Senator Al Franken will be forced out of office in disgrace, as Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Bob Filner were, while Donald Trump and Roy Moore will serve in office and be treated with full honors and deference by their Republican colleagues.

Electing Democrats the Only Way to Stop Trump

The Democratic Party is certainly not perfect. I think Senator Bernie Sanders got it right when he said in his campaign that the Republican Party was “controlled” by Wall Street and the Democrats were “influenced” by it. The war between conservative Democrats who think the way to push their party forward is to move to the “center” and accept a good part of the agenda of the business community in return for their campaign donations, and progressives who want to challenge Wall Street (as Sanders did) instead of sucking up to it (as Hillary Clinton) did has been going on at least since 1896, when William Jennings Bryan successfully challenged incumbent President Grover Cleveland for the nomination, won but then lost the election to Republican William McKinley.
One can certainly assemble a long laundry list of all the faults of the Democrats, all their failures — either due to incompetence or to “centrist” willfulness — to push forward a progressive agenda. Nonetheless, as the events of the Trump administration are proving, when it comes to a rational choice between America’s two big political parties, the Democrats are far, far preferable to the Republicans. They may not be as aggressive in protecting workers, consumers or the environment as we would want them to be, but at least they aren’t actively opposed to them the way the Republicans are.
As I said at the beginning of this article, the starkness of the party-line vote with which the motion to proceed on the Republican tax bill passed the Senate — all 52 Republicans voted for it, all 48 Democrats voted against — itself proves that, contrary to the idiotic mewlings of several generations of “alt-Leftists,” there are profound differences between the two major parties on the issues progressives and Leftists care about. And what’s more, thanks to the structure of American politics — particularly that we elect our legislatures in single-member districts on a winner-take-all basis — for progressives and Leftists the Democratic Party is the only electoral game in town.
It wasn’t always thus. In the 1890’s and even up to the 1930’s, there was a sufficient base of progressives and even radicals in the Republican party that Leftists could play the two big parties off against each other to see who could give us the better deal. The reformation of the Republican Party as a consistently ideological far-Right party began in 1912 — when former President Theodore Roosevelt sought to win back the Presidency against his more conservative successor, William Howard Taft, was unable to wrest the GOP nomination away from Taft (largely due to internal process-rigging much like what Bernie Sanders endured from the Democratic National Committee in 2016) and formed his own party — and it was basically completed with the nomination and election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Therefore, once again, when it comes to participation in electoral politics, for American progressives and Leftists the Democratic Party is the only game in town. Noam Chomsky realized this when, much to the disappointment of many of his anarchist admirers, he endorsed Democrat John Kerry over Republican George W. Bush in 2004 and gave, as his reason, that it was essential for the short-term interest of the American Left that “the reality-based wing of the ruling class be in power.” That’s even more of a consideration given that Trump has reached heights of irrationality Bush could only have dreamed of — especially his schoolboy taunts against North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which threaten to start a nuclear war, and his outright demonization not just of “radical Islam” but Islam itself as our enemy in the “war on terror.”
The continuation of the Trump administration and the Republican regime in Congress must end for America to have a future that doesn’t look like The Hunger Games. And under the rules of American politics, the only way to get rid of Trump and the Republicans is to elect Democrats. Electing Democrats is a necessary but not sufficient condition to achieve the social change we desire. It will also be necessary to continue street actions to demand that the Democrats keep their promises to the progressive and Left communities that help elect them, and to organize contests within the Democratic Party (as Bernie Sanders and others from his movement have already done) to target pro-corporate Democrats for primary challenges and replace them with progressive Democrats.
As I’ve written in these pages before, in past periods of progressive ferment in American history — the 1890’s, the 1930’s, the 1960’s — the American Left understood that you cannot achieve social change just through electoral politics, and you cannot achieve it just through direct action. It takes both. Our only road out of the political, economic, environmental and moral sinkhole the United States of America is becoming under Trump and the Republican Congress is to stay committed both to electing Democrats and using direct action to pressure them to fulfill the progressive agenda.
The Right-wing “Tea Party” of the early 2010’s successfully pursued this dual strategy on the other side, using both direct action and primary challenges to drive the Republican Party farther Right while remaining in the GOP instead of pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of an alternative party. We on the Left need to do the same if we want America — the America we grew up in and believed could be made even better, the America that protects and takes care of all its citizens instead of pitting them against each other in dog-eat-dog competition — to survive Donald Trump and the Republican ideological onslaught of which he is the leader and the public face.