Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Scalise Shooting and Washington’s Other Follies


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

“‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.”
— Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858

On June 14, 2017 a 66-year-old man named James Hodgkinson crashed a group of Republican Congressmembers and aides practicing for the next day’s annual Congressional baseball game, one of the few things Republicans and Democrats still do together in our highly polarized capital. He brought a gun with him and, when he was told the people practicing at the field in Alexandria, Virginia, were Republicans, he started shooting them. One of the people he shot was Representative Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), who as House majority whip was the third highest-ranking official in the House leadership.
It was because of Scalise’s importance to the House of Representatives’ leadership that the two real heroes of the event, Capitol Police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner, were present at all. As a member of the House’s upper echelons, Scalise rates 24/7 protection from the Capitol Police, whereas rank-and-file Congressmembers are pretty much on their own. Once they realized what was going on, Bailey and Griner engaged the shooter in a gun battle, and while both were wounded — Bailey seriously, Groner critically — they were able to direct the shooter’s fire away from his intended targets until D.C.’s own city police came on the scene, joined the battle and ultimately killed Hodgkinson.
The Alexandria shooting, which left four injured and Scalise in critical condition facing multiple surgeries to get his body working again, wasn’t the only mass shooting in the U.S. that day. At the other end of the country, in San Francisco, a disgruntled ex-employee of United Parcel Service (UPS) showed up at his former workplace with a UPS uniform and a gun. He fatally shot three drivers and then turned his gun on himself.
And that wasn’t the only suspicious incident that took the lives of innocent people in a major urban area on June 14. A giant apartment building in London called the Grenfell Tower went up in flames, killing at least 30 people. No one yet knows whether the fire was accidental or deliberate, but given what’s been happening in Britain lately — at least three recent major terrorist attacks, two in London and one at Ariana Grande’s tour concert in Manchester — it’s understandable that a lot of people in the U.K. are wondering whether this was yet another attack.
Though embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May (who just lost a major election and is holding on to power by the skin of her teeth) has promised an aggressive government response, protesters have taken to the streets demanding justice for the Grenfell victims as well as more money to help the survivors. The British government has arrested a 43-year-old man named Omega Mwaikambo, not for any involvement with the fire but for posting video of a man leaping out of the building onto his Facebook page. More recent reports on Grenfell (see https://www.vox.com/world/2017/6/20/15829416/london-fire-grenfell-tower-explained-political-crisis) have said the fire was an accident but have blamed the building management, the British government and others for allowing the building to become more vulnerable to catastrophic fire.
The Alexandria shooting was inevitably compared to an incident that had taken place 6 ½ years earlier in Casas Adobes, Arizona, a suburb of Tucson. On January 8, 2011 U.S. Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) was hosting a public appearance at a Safeway parking lot which she called “Congress on Your Corner.” A 22-year-old man named Jared Lee Loughner approached her with a gun and shot her in the head. She survived, but suffered so much brain damage she eventually retired from Congress. Five people died in the attack, including federal judge John Roll, Giffords’ staff member Gabe Zimmerman, and nine-year-old girl Christina-Taylor Green.


When I first heard of the Alexandria shooting, my first reaction was relief that no one, other than the alleged shooter himself, had died from it. My second reaction was hope that Congressmember Scalise will not only survive his injuries, but will do so in good enough shape that he — unlike Gabrielle Giffords — will be able to continue in Congress. My third reaction was a brief glimpse of hope that now that it’s happened to a Republican Congressmember as well as a Democratic one, maybe, just maybe, this will break the logjam through which Congress has been unable to pass any sensible gun legislation that just might keep deadly weapons out of the hands of crazy people.
No such luck. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of Alexandria is that no one is talking about any sort of rational gun legislation emerging from the horror. We’ve seen mass shooting after mass shooting in this country — Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, the list goes on and on and on — and nothing has broken the stranglehold the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other pro-gun nitwits have on our politics. Indeed, the Alexandria shooting happened just four days before NBC-TV was scheduled to air an interview between Megyn Kelly and Alex Jones, far-Right radio commentator and owner of the InfoWars Web site, who has become notorious for saying the December 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was a hoax cooked up by the Obama administration and the alleged victims were really “child actors.”
America is in love with guns. Our national mythology centers around the successful conquest of the American West because we had guns and the Native people we took the country away from didn’t. Every mass entertainment medium in the U.S. — movies, TV, books, records, theme parks — promotes armed conflict and violence as the way to solve all problems. Four U.S. Presidents have been assassinated, and scores of others, from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, have been the victims of unsuccessful attempts.
And America’s love of guns has only grown and deepened in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment — “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” — as if it has nothing to do with militias and everything to do with allowing Americans to own just about any sort of firearm they want. The NRA used to support some restrictions on private ownership of guns — notably background checks to keep them out of the hands of the mentally ill — but as their political power has grown, so has the hardness of their line, to the point where they oppose reasonable gun restrictions they once supported.
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Chinese revolutionary and Communist premier Mao Zedong once famously said. In the U.S. not just political power but personal validation seems to grow out of the barrel of a gun. The NRA has definitively won the battle over whether there will be any meaningful limits on Americans’ access to firearms. After the June 3 terror attack on London, in which the perpetrators mowed down some of their victims with motor vehicles and stabbed others to death, President Trump snottily tweeted, “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!” Brits responded that the attacks would have been even more horrific, and the death toll far higher, if it were as easy for private citizens to get guns in their country as it is in ours.
It says volumes about how deep America’s love affair with guns runs that Mexican drug cartels send their people across the border to the U.S. to buy guns because Mexico has effective anti-gun laws and we don’t. One of the big reasons George W. Bush became President after the 2000 election and Al Gore didn’t was the NRA mounted anti-Gore campaigns in Tennessee and West Virginia, successfully carrying those states for Bush. In what was otherwise a razor-thin election, Gore therefore became the first major-party Presidential nominee since George McGovern in 1972 to lose his home state. Had he carried Tennessee, he would have been President and Florida wouldn’t have mattered.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency to Donald Trump in large measure due to gun-rights supporters who repeated over and over again that if elected, “Hillary is going to take your guns away.” It got so bad that she attempted to neutralize the attacks by having herself photographed with a hunting rifle. Just as the rise of the radical religious Right has made it impossible for anyone to be elected to high public office in the U.S. without believing not only in God, but in an interventionist God who takes a direct role in human affairs and can be appealed to through prayer (which would disqualify most of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, who were Deists), the rise to power of the NRA and its supporters has made it impossible for anyone to be elected in the U.S. without acknowledging the power, legitimacy and rightness of the gun lobby.


The combination of an armed citizenry and a highly polarized political environment has a lot of potential outcomes, all of them bad. In the U.S. in the 1850’s it at least took the form of an organized conflict between the federal government and 11 secessionist states, which ended in the pro forma abolition of slavery in the U.S. — though the North eventually pissed away the victory it had so dearly won on the battlefields of the Civil War, and within 20 years or so African-Americans were once again a second-class population, bereft of political rights and reduced to an economic status as close to slavery as Southern state governments, landowners and businesses could get away with.
In Germany in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s it took the form of pitched battles between Right- and Left-wing militias in the streets of the major cities, which the Right ultimately won. They ended up ruled by a dictator, Adolf Hitler, who promised to unify the country, end the partisan divide and make Germany great again. The result, of course, was World War II and the Holocaust.
More recently we’ve seen the price of the deadly combination of political polarization and an armed citizenry in Rwanda, Congo, Serbia, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria and everywhere else in the world where those two conditions coexist. If we haven’t seen violence and all-out civil war in 21st century America yet, it’s only because so far only a few crazies are doing the actual shooting. The rest of us are arguing about it over social media and grabbing one incident or another to propagandize for our own causes and attack our political adversaries.
When Gabrielle Giffords was shot a lot of American progressives immediately blamed it on the hatred and venom regularly spewed forth by Right-wing talk radio and Web sites like the one sponsored by former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, which showed a graphic of certain Democratic Congressmembers with cross-hairs over their faces as if someone with a telescopic rifle was aiming at them. The Right, in turn, said the shooter had been a lone nut and they shouldn’t be blamed because he’d gone crazy, shot up a public meeting, killed a federal judge and wounded a Congressmember.
The Alexandria shooting puts the shoe on the other foot. Unlike Jared Lee Loughner, James Hodgkinson left a trail a mile long on social media depicting his hatred of the rich and the Republican Party for enabling them. One of the photos of him that’s circulated since the attack shows him with a sign calling for a return to the ultra-high income tax rates (up to 90 percent) in place during Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidency. He was apparently involved in one of the Occupy camp-outs and volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign — though Sanders, after the attack, made a statement that was both heartfelt and obligatory: “Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society.”
At least some people on the Right have been consistent. In a commentary published in the Los Angeles Times June 16, National Review contributor Dan McLaughlin wrote, “The blame for violent acts lies with the people who committed them, and with those who explicitly and seriously call for violence. People who just use overheated political rhetoric, or who happen to share the gunman’s opinions, should be nowhere on the list.”
Others haven’t felt the same way. In a tweet, pro-Trump talk radio host Bill Mitchell said, “The Left in this country is ushering in a new #CultureofViolence where violent hate is the new normal.” Mitchell added that these Leftists were “DomesticTerrorists.”
Another Right-winger, Harlan Hill, linked the Alexandria shooting to the New York Public Theatre’s current production of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, in which the actor in the title role is costumed to look like Trump. “Events like these show EXACTLY why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of our President,” wrote Hill, whose message was retweeted by Donald Trump, Jr. The younger Trump had already led a successful campaign to get major corporations like Delta Air Lines and the Bank of America to pull their funding from the New York Public Theatre in protest against the production.
Not that blaming political violence on real or perceived political adversaries is anything new in America. When Abraham Lincoln was murdered and his vice-president, Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson, took over, Johnson’s opponents said that “the Rebellion has been vaulted into the President’s chair.” America’s third Presidential assassination, the killing of William McKinley in 1901, was widely blamed on publisher William Randolph Hearst because when the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was arrested, he had clippings of Hearst’s anti-McKinley editorials in his pockets.
It’s become a cliché to say that growing numbers of Americans in 2017 have taken traditional political disagreements to new levels, not just arguing with people whose politics differ from theirs but actively hating them. The U.S. used to have stable party alignments that lasted for decades: the Republicans won all but four of the 14 Presidential elections between 1860 and 1928, and the Democrats won all but two of the seven between 1932 and 1964. Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment, formally limiting the President to two terms, no major party has won more than three Presidential elections in a row — and only once had a party had a streak even that long (the Republicans, with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988).
The rapid-fire alternations not only in control of the White House (the Democrats from 1992 to 2000, the Republicans from 2000 to 2008, the Democrats from 2008 to 2016 and the Republicans from 2016) but Congress as well (the Republicans from 1994 to 2006, the Democrats from 2006 to 2010, the Republicans from 2010 in the House and 2014 in the Senate) have led to a situation in which each party attempts to mobilize its base and push through as much of its program as it can before the pendulum swings back and puts the other major party in charge. As American politics have evolved in the modern era, the battle lines have become harder and the demand for all-out victory ever greater, to the point where Republicans and Democrats deny the legitimacy of any process that leaves the other party in charge.
Absent an immediate short-term crisis that directly threatens the entire country — like the 9/11 terror attacks at the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency and the economic collapse at its end — the parties these days show virtually no interest in compromise. And this is a good deal more true of the Republicans than the Democrats. Republicans so totally opposed Bill Clinton as President that they looked for something — anything — on which to impeach him and remove him from office, and they found it in his ham-handed attempt to lie his way out of a sex scandal. Democrats, probably because of the dubious way in which George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, claimed with virtually no evidence that his 2004 re-election was equally rigged.
When Barack Obama took office as president in 2009, he actually made overtures to the Republicans, hoping he could ease the partisan divide in D.C. and get some things done that would have broad-based support. The Republicans were permitted to offer 170 amendments to the Affordable Care Act — though ultimately not one Republican voted for the final bill. Instead Obama was greeted with a scorched-earth opposition that seemed to take its cue from the song Groucho Marx sings in the movie Horse Feathers: “We don’t care what he has to say/It makes no difference anyway/Whatever it is, we’re against it.”
It got even worse when the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Formerly noncontroversial measures to keep the government open turned into bitter pitched battles and periodic government shutdowns. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings on Obama’s last U.S. Supreme Court nominee — and, with far less publicity, on 100-plus nominations Obama had made to lower Federal court judgeships. His hope, eventually fulfilled, was that he could keep those judicial vacancies open until a Republican would be elected President and could use them to pack the courts.
Now Donald Trump is President and he has solid Republican majorities in both houses of Congress — and they’re using this power to eliminate, root and branch, everything Obama tried to accomplish. Obama was for the Paris agreement on climate change? Trump pulled us out of it. Obama wanted the financial industry regulated so the masters of Wall Street would have a legal obligation to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own; virtually the first thing Trump did in office was to put an end to that. Obama wanted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to safeguard Internet neutrality so the giant corporations that control Americans’ access to the Internet couldn’t use it to promote their own businesses and politics at the expense of everyone else’s; Trump put an end to that and picked FCC commissioners whose policies will turn the Internet into as much an exclusively Right-wing preserve as talk radio.
As Ronald Brownstein pointed out in a June 15 column on the Atlantic Web site (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/gop-trump-congress/530340/), the Republicans who control the House and Senate “have advanced deeply conservative policy proposals — with House Republicans voting to repeal the major financial regulations approved under former President Barack Obama, and Senate Republicans working in private toward a plan to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act. … In both chambers, GOP leaders have rejected even pro forma negotiations with Democrats to order to advance a legislative program centered on repealing a wide array of Obama-era actions. Trump’s executive orders have likewise centered on undoing his predecessor’s regulations program, particularly those limiting the carbon emissions linked to global climate change.”
In his article, “This Is Not Populism,” from the June 2017 Monthly Review — which argues that Trump’s politics and policies actually represent a new form of fascism — John Bellamy Foster goes even farther in describing Trump’s and his administration’s ideological commitments. “In addition to the well-known ‘Muslim ban’ and the proposed wall across the U.S.-Mexico border,” Bellamy Foster writes, “the Trump administration has pressed for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’ … the gutting of environmental protections and scientific agencies; the elimination of most federal regulations on business; a trillion-dollar increase in infrastructure spending; a huge rise in military spending; the effective elimination of Obamacare; the end of Net neutrality; and steep cuts to taxes on corporations and the rich. Trump has filled his Cabinet and advisory positions with a ghoulish ensemble of billionaires, Wall Street insiders, hard-line generals, alt-Right ideologues, and climate-change deniers.”


Of course, people on both the American Right and Left have been saying those sorts of things about each other for decades. In the 1930’s, the Right charged that President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was destroying individual liberty and freedom and bringing America under Communism by stealth. In the 1960’s Southern Democrats opposed to racial equality and the civil rights movement said that Northern Democrats and their Republican allies were trampling on the sacred ground of “states’ rights” (also the justification Democrats in the 1860’s had used to proclaim their “right” to leave the Union so they could still own Black people as slaves). In the 1980’s American liberals and progressives saw Ronald Reagan as the destruction of everything they held dear — the person who would destroy what welfare state existed in the U.S., would wipe out the power of organized labor, and would so extensively arm the world that there would be a World War III.
More recently, the Right saw Bill Clinton — actually an accommodationist, centrist President who moved the Democratic Party closer to the “Washington consensus” of corporate capitalism über alles and some crumbs thrown here and there to the working classes — as the devil incarnate. Billionaire financier and Right-wing activist Richard Mellon Scaife funded something called the “Arkansas Project,” which involved sending minions armed with cash to Clinton’s home state to find people who would be willing to share derogatory information about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Most of the people they offered money to didn’t have any derogatory information about Bill and Hillary Clinton, but that wasn’t a problem: they just made some up and happily got their hands on some of Scaife’s money in return. The lies spread about the Clintons by the “Arkansas Project” have proven remarkably durable; they got quoted over and over and over again by Right-wing media during the 2016 campaign and were a major factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
When George W. Bush became President by fiat of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, it was the Left’s turn to demonize the current President. He was ridiculed as a know-nothing idiot, a puppet with either Dick Cheney or Karl Rove pulling his strings. He was denounced as a war-monger and as an incompetent weakling who couldn’t even manage the government response to Hurricane Katrina, much less keep the entire economy from collapsing at the end of his term. Had it not been for the 9/11 attacks and the “he’s the only President we’ve got” unifying effect from them, which for several years made criticizing Bush seemed downright un-American and pro-terrorist, the vituperation against Bush would have been even worse than it was.
Then the U.S. replaced Bush with Barack Obama, a (half-)Black short-term Senator with an exotic name, and the Right-wing propaganda machine really went into full swing. A bizarre movement, led by the man who would become Obama’s successor, claimed that Obama wasn’t even U.S.-born — an obvious metaphor for the visible way in which Obama was different from the 42 men who had served as President before him. Obama was denounced as a puppet of 1960’s white radicals or Muslim imams or goodness knows who else — like most conspiracy theories, the anti-Obama jeremiads were longer on imagination than coherence — and while the Right was denouncing him, the Left was treating him the way they had Clinton, as a sell-out whose obeisance to Wall Street and the globalist “trade” agenda were greasing the skids for total corporate control of the U.S. and the world.
Vigorous political debate is one thing. Demonizing your opponents and treating them as the scum of the earth is quite another. The Rube Goldberg political system the framers of the U.S. Constitution put together was designed deliberately to put as many roadblocks as possible in the way of sweeping change from either Left or Right. It also contained many undemocratic features, because the framers didn’t like the idea of democracy and wanted to make sure the U.S. remained a representative republic, governed not directly by the people but by carefully selected officials whose superior education and understanding would enable them to give the country not so much what the people wanted as what they needed.
One reason the Republican Party has been so much more successful than the Democratic Party in recent years is that the Republicans have shrewdly exploited all the undemocratic features of the U.S. Constitution — the Electoral College, the apportionment of two U.S. Senators to each state regardless of its population, and the sweeping powers the Constitution gives state legislatures to draw Congressional districts and to determine just who is, and who isn’t, eligible to vote. The Republicans have responded to the demographic challenge against them — the way sectors of the population (young people, poor people, people of color) likely to vote Democratic are growing faster than those likely to vote Republican — not by changing their message to broaden their appeal, but by passing laws against so-called “voter fraud” that are designed to keep people who won’t vote Republican from being able to vote at all.
The Republican Party is also the beneficiary of a decades-long ideological project that has made it a remarkably coherent and consistent party, libertarian in its economic philosophy (opposed to government regulation of business, environmental and labor protections, and committed to the destruction of the big social insurance programs one by one — first the Affordable Care Act, then Medicaid, then Medicare and finally Social Security) and at the same time highly authoritarian in its social attitudes, particularly in its belief that government ought to determine who should be able to have sex with whom and how they’ll be allowed to deal with the consequences of that. It’s taken over a century — the process started when Theodore Roosevelt was denied the Republican nomination in 1912 and ended up running for President under a new party that was in many respects more progressive than either the Republicans or Democrats — but today the Republican Party is a consistently Right-wing party with no room for progressives, liberals or even moderates.
As we saw from the way the so-called “moderate” House Republicans caved on the vote on the American Health Care Act — passing the final bill even though, in an effort to appease their Right-wing base, instead of answering the “moderates’” criticisms of the original bill they actually made it worse, and the “moderates” voted for it anyway — to be a Republican in the U.S. in 2017 means to endorse a pro-corporate, anti-worker, anti-environment, anti-science, anti-people of color, anti-women, anti-Queer agenda. That’s why I’ve said in previous endorsement editorials in Zenger’s Newsmagazine and on this site that any Democrat is better than any Republican, and why I’ve called to an end to useless, counterproductive, destructive attempts by progressives and Leftists to form or maintain alternative parties. Like it or not, the Democrats are the only game in town for Americans at all to the Left of the Republican mainstream.
And the Democrats certainly have their problems. Ever since the Reagan years, the Democratic party has been fundamentally divided between a pro-corporate “centrist” wing and an anti-corporate progressive wing. Indeed, the division goes back even farther than that historically — at least to the 1920’s, another period of Right-wing ascendancy in American politics which the Democrats responded to by splitting into pro-business “moderates” and pro-labor, pro-social welfare progressives.
The modern-day corporate Democrats emerged as part of the effort to keep the party’s Congressional majorities — and the huge campaign donations and lobbyists’ favors they brought in — following the realigning Presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, in which Right-wing candidates Richard Nixon and George Wallace smashed the New Deal coalition and revealed that vast swaths of the American working class that had traditionally voted Democratic had been brought to the Right by the Republicans’ shrewd exploitation of their racism and cultural conservatism.
There have been three major battles between the corporate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party in the last two years: the fight for the 2016 Presidential nomination between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the fight for the national party chair between Tom Perez and Keith Ellison early this year; and, more recently, the fight for the California state party chair between Eric Bauman and Kimberly Ellis. In all three cases, the progressive — Sanders, Ellison, Ellis — came heartbreakingly close to winning, but lost.
In another sort of political system, one more open and democratic — like Germany’s, which allocates its national legislature proportionately so you can vote for an alternative party and have a shot at real power instead of just throwing your vote away — that would be the signal for the progressives to bolt the Democratic Party and start a new one of their own. But in the U.S., where both laws and traditions constrain electoral politics into two and only two significant parties, that would be a sure route to political suicide and oblivion.
So we have an ideologically consistent Republican Party and an ideologically inconsistent Democratic Party, riven by contradictions to a point where many voters say they vote Republican simply because they know what the Republicans stand for, whether or not they agree with it, while they don’t know what the Democrats stand for. And we have a political environment in which the Right and the Left — large segments of them, anyway — have explicitly endorsed political violence as a way to achieve their ends.
Leftists at UC Berkeley, with the tacit support of the city’s elected government and its police force, successfully suppressed the free-speech rights of Right-wing journalists Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Instead of taking them on in open debate, so-called “Black Bloc” activists kept them from speaking altogether — and city officials and police cooperated in this suppression by telling Coulter and Yiannopoulos they could not guarantee their safety, thereby giving the “Black Bloc” mobs veto power over who can and cannot speak within Berkeley’s city limits. That was not only offensive and wrong morally, it was dumb politically. It played right into the hands of the Right, whose master political narrative is that it is they who are the oppressed minority being hounded into silence by sinister, evil progressives.
And yet the Right has done this, too. It was apparent when Donald Trump, as a Presidential candidate, not only encouraged his supporters to use violence against people who heckled at his rallies but promised to pay for their legal defense if they were arrested for doing so. It was seen on the eve of the Montana special election for Congress, in which the Republican candidate head-butted a journalist who tried to ask him how he stood on the American Health Care Act. Not only did the Republican win the election anyway, but on the night he declared victory he gave a pro forma apology to the journalist he’d assaulted — and his supporters booed him because they thought an attack on a representative of the “liberal media” was something he should be proud of, not something for which he should feel he had to apologize.
One other factor is increasing both the propensity and the seriousness of political violence in the U.S.: the Internet. Thanks to the power of social media, conspiracy theories on both extremes that used to lurk in the shadows now flourish in the light of day. What’s more, news coverage on the Internet generally is extraordinarily self-selecting; the major access sites all base their results on “algorithms” that basically assume that once you have read something, you will want more of the same. If you log on to Fox News, the search engines will direct you to Breitbart, InfoWars and other Right-wing sites, many of them dealing in conspiracy theories. If you visit The Nation, the engines are likely to send you to The American Prospect, Daily Kos, Tom’s Dispatch and other Left-wing sites.
The result of Internet news coverage has been to negate the old saying that “you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own set of facts.” What people who get most of their information from Fox and other sites to the Right think is “really” going on in the world is going to be profoundly different from what people who get most of their information from The Nation and other progressive sites. The Left and the Right online increasingly peddle two wildly different and incompatible sets of “facts,” and what’s more they represent that they are telling the “truth” and the other side is lying.
Meanwhile, the influence of the mainstream corporate media — newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, and networks like NBC, CBS and ABC — is dwindling. They used to be regarded as impartial purveyors of objective truth; now, as they recede in importance and influence and more ideological news sources grow in importance, the mainstream media are routinely criticized by both sides — by the Right as part of a “liberal media” conspiracy to deceive the American people, and by the Left as witting or unwitting dupes of their corporate paymasters.
So we have an increasingly polarized country in which citizens are becoming more extreme in their views — and more emotional about their politics. People who used to say they “disagreed” with people on the other side of the political fence now say they “hate” them. They’re also becoming more self-segregating: more and more accounts are circulating of people who make friends only with people who agree with them politically, and this only got worse after the 2016 election when a lot of liberals and progressives started saying it literally made them sick to be around people who had voted for Trump.

The combination of factors — a more polarized citizenry, less willing to agree with each other even on the very existence of objective facts; a less rational and more emotional level of political discourse; a Republican ruling elite crafting major bills in secret because, as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told the Los Angeles Times, “We have zero cooperation from the Democrats, so getting it [out] in public gives them a chance to get up and scream”; and also a country that is increasingly awash in guns — makes for a very explosive and dangerous political environment in which innocent people may literally find themselves being killed in the crossfire of partisan battles. To paraphrase Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ famous line for Bette Davis in the film All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy century.”

Thursday, May 25, 2017

PBS’s “Frontline” on the Bundys and Steve Bannon: The Alt-Right In and Out of Power

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Recently the long-running PBS Frontline program — actually produced for the national network by station WGBH in Boston — has run a couple of episodes that perhaps unwittingly formed odd bookends, one showing the extreme “alt-Right” in revolutionary mode, mounting — and so far getting away with — armed insurrections against the U.S. government, while the other shows the “alt-Right” actually winning admission to the halls of official government power with which to promote its white-separatist, nationalist “America First” agenda. The first program, aired May 16, was called American Patriot — an oddly singular title for a show with plural protagonists — and dealt with the antics of the Bundy family of Nevada. Their first 15 minutes of nationwide fame came in 2014, when paterfamilias Cliven Bundy, a cattle rancher in the middle of a 20-year battle with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over when and where his cattle could graze and how much he’d have to pay the government for what was essentially rent for the public lands on which his cattle fed, decided to make his stand in the appropriately named town of Bunkerville, Nevada. Cliven Bundy was at the receiving end of federal policies aimed not only at getting more money from the cattle ranchers in the area but reducing the total amount of area available for grazing so more of the land could be allowed to return to its natural state — and his case became a cause célèbre for the radical-Right militia movement in general and groups with names like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters in particular.

Bundy had declared he wasn’t going to pay his grazing fees, and the BLM responded by mounting an operation to seize his cattle and essentially hold them as collateral for the fees he owned. Suddenly the BLM agents were faced with an armed resistance by militia groups demanding that the federal government not only give Cliven Bundy back his cattle but get out of the business of land management altogether and give control of the West’s lands either to the private sector or to state or local governments which would be easier for the ranchers to influence. It wasn’t a new demand: a similar movement had started up in the central West in the late 1970’s that called itself the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” and when Ronald Reagan campaigned for President in those states in 1980 he proudly announced, “I am a Sagebrush Rebel.” It was one of the first signals Reagan sent that as President he was going to abandon the tradition of Republican environmentalism that had begun with Theodore Roosevelt and continued through the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (Nixon had signed into law the big environmental protection bills of 1969-1970 and appointed dedicated environmentalists like William Ruckelshaus and Russell Train to run the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency). In 2014 the Bundys were seen by the Right in general — both the nascent alt-Right and the quasi-“respectable” Right of media outlets like Fox News — as heroes courageously standing up to government overreach. As Oregon militia leader Brandon Rappola told Frontline, he was moved to come to Bunkerville to defend the Bundys when he saw a video on YouTube of the male Bundys getting tased by BLM agents and their elderly aunt knocked to the ground. “To come in as a militarized force against your citizen like this, that’s when we the people, we say no, this is not what the Constitution stands for. And we have to remind our federal government that we are the power.” Eventually the BLM agents realized they were outnumbered and outgunned, and they retreated; the Bundys got all their cattle back and they weren’t arrested.

Cliven Bundy instantly became a huge hero to the American Right as a man who had courageously stood up to government oppression — he appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and Hannity basically stared at him with gooping admiration — until his public credibility nosedived when he made a widely quoted comment that African-Americans had been better off under slavery than they’ve been since. “I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” Cliven Bundy said publicly, and in 2014, with an African-American (albeit not one who was descended from American slaves) in the White House, most of the “respectable” Right still considered such expressions of open racism as beyond the pale. The Bundys emerged again in 2016, when Cliven’s son Ammon — who compares to his dad much the way recently defeated French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen compares to hers (Le Pen père was openly anti-Semitic; Le Pen fille realized that in order to be a serious player in French politics she needed to downplay her party’s traditional anti-Jewish prejudices and recast the racist message in nationalist terms, much as Donald Trump did in his successful campaign for President of the U.S.) — led a seemingly bizarre occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge had originally been established in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt was President (remember the Republican environmentalist tradition that T.R. established?) and Ammon Bundy and his brother David were coming to the defense of Dwight Hammond, another rebel rancher who had been accused and convicted of arson by the federal government. The government accused Hammond and his family of deliberately setting fires on federal land that endangered human life; the Hammonds claimed they had merely set the fires so the land would grow back as pasture. They were given a light sentence and were actually released when the government won an appeal and a judge ordered them back to prison on the ground that the sentence didn’t meet federal mandatory minimums — and, as Ammon Bundy told Frontline, “This urge just filled my whole body. I felt a divine drive, an urge that said you have to get involved.” The Bundys staged an occupation of Malheur under the organizational name “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” and, as at the Nevada confrontation, attracted plenty of militia activists and other people who not only had guns but had had military or paramilitary training and therefore knew how to use them.

Not all the militia members went along with the Malheur occupation — they saw themselves as self-defense units and this looked too much like taking the offensive — but among the people who did come was a rancher from Arizona named LeRoy Finicum, who directly confronted law enforcement officials and challenged them to shoot him. They did. Eventually the Malheur occupation ended and the government arrested Aaron and David Bundy and charged them with conspiracy — but an Oregon jury acquitted them on all counts. What was most striking about the Bundy stories was that the government used the same scorched-earth tactics against them they had previously deployed against Left-wing activists from the 1960’s and 1970’s until more recent cases, including the Occupy movement (which some of the Malheur occupiers actually compared themselves to publicly even though the Left-wing Occupiers targeted urban areas and had a very different set of demands and issue positions). They infiltrated agents, including one who posed as a filmmaker interviewing the Bundys for a documentary but who was really an FBI agents assigned to get the Bundys to make incriminating statements on camera. What’s more, some of the infiltrators deliberately acted as agents provocateurs, encouraging the militias to do something violent that the government could then use either to indict them or just go out and shoot them. And the government used the conspiracy statutes against the Bundys because one of the marvelous things about conspiracy law, if you’re a government prosecutor trying to suppress a popular political movement of either the Left or the Right, is that in order to prove there was a conspiracy and your defendants were part of it, you do not have to prove that they actually did anything illegal. All you have to establish is they came together for an illegal purpose and they did one or more “overt acts” in furtherance of that purpose — and the “overt acts” do not necessarily have to be illegal in and of themselves. As the legendary Clarence Darrow explained conspiracy law, “If one boy steals candy, that’s a misdemeanor. If two boys talk about stealing candy but don’t do it, that’s a felony.” I left the Frontline “American Patriot” documentary with oddly mixed feelings, hating the Bundys and loathing their cause but also oddly glad that the government’s underhanded tactics against them ultimately failed.

If the “American Patriot” documentary showcased the alt-Right in the years when it was out of power, the May 23, 2017 Frontline episode, “Bannon’s War,” showed what it looks like when it has a President in office who, if not a committed alt-Rightist (Donald Trump doesn’t appear genuinely committed to much of anything beyond what will make Donald Trump richer and more popular), was certainly comfortable with their philosophy. Like so many of the members of the American ruling class these days, Steve Bannon served his apprenticeship at Goldman Sachs, which is so powerful in its own right on Wall Street and so influential in Washington, D.C. (Trump is the fourth President in a row who has appointed a Secretary of the Treasury who used to work there) it sometimes seems as if the federal government has simply outsourced its entire economic policy to Goldman Sachs. But instead of going from Goldman either into government service or the hedge-fund business, Bannon took his career on a different track, heading for Hollywood with the intent of mobilizing conservatives both in finance and in the entertainment industry to make movies that would reflect the Right-wing world view and counter what Bannon and his fellow Right-wing ideologues saw as the propaganda being put out by “liberal Hollywood.” Bannon didn’t get his name on any major dramatic feature films — he claimed to have helped develop the show Seinfeld and to have had a profit participation in it, but other people involved with Seinfeld have disputed that — so he started producing documentaries admittedly influenced, at least stylistically, by Leni Riefenstahl’s famous 1934 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. His first production was called In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, and it was originally intended as a celebration of the 40th President’s single-handedly winning the Cold War — but the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 led Bannon to add a coda to the Reagan film before he released it in 2004, saying that the Evil Empire still lived, only now the world-threatening enemy was not Communism but Islam. Bannon hooked up with David Bossie, whose group Citizens United produced documentaries trashing Democratic Presidential candidates John Kerry and Hillary Clinton (the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporations and rich individuals to buy U.S. elections was centered around a small corporate contribution to Bossie’s film attacking Clinton just before the 2008 election) and also discovered a book called The Fourth Turning by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe. 

The central argument was that U.S. political and social history moves in “saecula,” periods of about 70 to 80 years, and that the American Revolution, the Civil War and the combination of the Great Depression and World War Two were turning points in the succession of “saecula.” Nation author Micah L. Sifry, in a February 8, 2017 article on Bannon (https://www.thenation.com/article/steve-bannon-wants-to-start-world-war-iii/), summed up the theory as follows: “According to Strauss and Howe, roughly every 80 years—a saeculum, or the average life-span of a person—America goes through a cataclysmic crisis. Marked by savagery and genocide, and lasting a decade or more, this crisis ends with a reset of the social order and its survivors all vowing never to let such a catastrophe happen again. Each of these crises, Strauss and Howe posit, have been formative moments in our nation’s history. The Revolution of 1776–83, followed roughly 80 years later by the Civil War, followed 80 years after that by the Great Depression and World War II.” In 2009 Bannon released a film called Generation Zero that was basically a depiction of the U.S. economic crisis of 2008 in terms of the saeculum theory, though he took it considerably farther than Strauss and Howe had: in a profile of Bannon published in the February 2, 2017 Time (http://time.com/4657665/steve-bannon-donald-trump/), and also in the Frontline program, historian David Kaiser recalled that he had been asked for an interview for Generation Zero, and when it was filmed Bannon wanted a very specific comment out of him. “He wanted to get me to say on camera that I thought it (the so-called “Fourth Turning,” the fourth saeculum in American history) would occur,” Kaiser recalled. “He wasn’t impolite about it, but the thing I remember him saying, ‘Well, look, you know, we have the American revolution. Then we have the Civil War. That’s bigger. Then we have the Second World War, That’s even bigger. So what’s the next one going to be like?’” As part of his belief that the fourth turning was about to happen in the U.S. — and his determination to use his influence as a filmmaker and activist to bring it about — Bannon looked for a politician who could stage a Presidential campaign on his mix of far-Right nationalism, veiled racism and anti-Islam “clash of civilizations” rhetoric. At first he thought he’d found his ideal candidate in Sarah Palin — he even made a film about her, The Undefeated, that was an attempt to launch her candidacy and propel her to the White House — but Palin quickly lost credibility with the Republican Right after she abruptly resigned as governor of Alaska to become a commentator on Fox News, and instead of “undefeated” the general consensus of the Republican Party about Palin became “quitter.” 

However, when Donald Trump made his ferocious entry into Presidential politics in June 2015 by denouncing virtually all Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals,” which soared him to the top of the Republican field overnight and ultimately propelled him to the White House, Bannon — as the proprietor of Breitbart News, a far-Right news Web site Bannon took over from its founder, the late Andrew Breitbart, and turned into so aggressively pro-Trump a propaganda site quite a few contributors left in protest (quite a few of Frontline’s sources about Bannon were people who worked for him at Breitbart and quit in disgust over his making it a site to promote all things Trump at the expense of other Right-wing leaders and causes) — went along for the ride and got appointed chief White House strategist when Trump won. Bannon and Stephen Miller, whom he’d met when Miller was an aide to Jeff Sessions, then U.S. Senator and now Attorney General, and recruited to the Trump campaign, drafted the controversial first version of the immigration/refugee/travel ban against individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries and deliberately made sure that no one outside Trump’s inner circle got a look at it before Trump issued it. Indeed, it was largely Bannon’s idea to have Trump start his presidency with a flurry of executive orders to make it clear, as Bannon put it, that there was a “new sheriff in town” (a phrase quite a lot of Trump advisers have been using to defend his policies and establish him as a transformational leader who seeks a profound and lasting change in American politics and how American individuals relate to their government), which made the Trump administration in its early days look less like a newly elected government of a democratic republic and more like a cabal of generals in a Third World country who had just grabbed power in a coup d’état and whose leader was ruling by decree. Bannon also not only anticipated but actually welcomed the protests that followed the anti-Muslim ban, figuring that most of America would be repelled by them (as they were by similar street actions in the late 1960’s, paving the way for the election of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as “law and order” Presidents) and thus anti-Trump protests — the bigger, more unruly and more violent, the better — would only bolster the administration and make Trump and his policies more popular. 

It hasn’t quite worked out that way — Trump’s approval rating in opinion polls has hovered between 38 and 42 percent, showing he’s kept the loyalty of most of the 46 percent of the people who voted for him but he hasn’t really expanded his base — but so far the Democrats have proven unable to mount an electoral resistance to him: Trump got all his Cabinet appointees through the U.S. Senate despite a razor-thin Republican majority, he got his American Health Care Act through the House of Representatives and so far the Republicans are 2-for-2 in the special House elections in Kansas and Montana despite much-ballyhooed Democratic challenges — and as the Frontline documentary points out, reports of Bannon’s demise as a Trump adviser have been greatly exaggerated. It’s true that Bannon took such an outsized role in the early days of the Trump presidency he ran the risk of getting himself fired by challenging Trump’s notorious ego — Trump has made it clear over and over again that there’s no room for anyone in his administration (or his business empire before that) with an independent power base: there’s room for only one prima donna in the Trump world, and that’s Trump — and it’s also true that Trump’s other key adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has made at least some attempts to move the Trump administration closer to mainstream hard-Right Republicanism and away from Bannon’s messianic vision — but Trump took Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus on his trip to Saudi Arabia, though he sent them home before the White House entourage reached their next stop, Israel. (Stephen Colbert showed a photo of Bannon with some of the Saudi royal family’s entourage and bitterly joked on his late-night talk show, “These aren’t the people in white robes Bannon usually hangs out with.”) 

In some ways Bannon seems at times to be a reincarnation of one of the least acknowledged but most important people in Trump’s history, the New York super-attorney Roy Cohn, who began his career as chief of staff for the notorious Red-baiting U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and later masterminded Trump’s rise from small-time real-estate developer in the outer boroughs of New York to major player in the sacred precincts of Manhattan. Just as the cadences of McCarthy’s rhetoric live on in Trump (as well as in Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Roger Hedgecock and the other superstars of the Right-wing media), so does Cohn’s take-no-prisoners style and view of the world in apocalyptic terms lives on in Bannon. The Frontline documentary on Bannon ends with Washington Post political editor Robert Costa summing up, “Bannon sees an amazing and probably last in his lifetime opportunity to really have his worldview come to the fore in American politics. He wants to see this out as much as he can, to see what can actually be accomplished with a populist president.” While Donald Trump is in no way, shape or form a “populist” — he’s actually the sort of 1880’s politician the original Populists of the 1890’s were railing against, the super-rich man who bought his way into political office and blatantly and unashamedly used it to make himself and his rich friends even richer, and though he threw out a lot of populist-sounding rhetoric out during the campaign that was as meaningless as the lies he told people to get them to buy his condos, spend money at his casinos or attend Trump University: as President, Trump has governed as an extreme Right-wing Libertarian whose budget and health care proposals show a determination to end the whole concept of a government safety net and tell individuals that when it comes to retirement or health care, they’re on their own — Costa is right that Bannon has an apocalyptic world view and that his promise to make Trump a transformative President feeds Trump’s insatiable ego and his view of himself as a super-person who alone can fix America’s problems.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Comey’s Firing: Trump Is Above the Law


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

My husband Charles and I learned that President (or should I say “Führer”?) Donald Trump had summarily and unilaterally fired FBI director James Comey on May 9 when we were out together in Balboa Park at one of the museums during his last day in town before he left on a five-day vacation. I was in a room with a straight couple watching a video about the architect Irving Gill when one of them looked at their smartphone and said to the other, “Did you know Trump just fired Comey?”
I hadn’t, but I wasn’t surprised. I’ve watched Donald Trump during the nearly two years from the time he suddenly emerged as the front-runner for the Republican Presidential nomination in June 2015 with his scurrilous attack on Mexican-American immigrants as criminals and rapists until now, the fourth month of his Presidency. I’d heard of him even before that, of course, and though I’ve never watched an episode of his “reality” TV show The Apprentice I’d certainly seen enough of the promos of him with his orange hair and bad spray-on tan chewing out some hapless contestant and exulting in the words, “You’re — FIRED!
It had certainly occurred to me that Trump seems to run his administration the way he ran The Apprentice, humiliating his staff for the sheer sadistic joy of doing so. When the Los Angeles Times in two separate articles last week called Trump “cruel” for supporting the Republican health-care bill, which will throw millions of Americans out of access to the health-care system, the writers probably didn’t realize that Trump seems to regard being called “cruel” as a compliment.
He so exults in his own brutality and contempt for the norms not only of political but of human behavior that he fired Comey in a particularly mean-spirited and psychologically devastating way. When the news broke Comey was addressing a group of FBI agents and staff in Los Angeles and someone noticed that a TV set in the back of the room, tuned to a news channel, was announcing that Trump had just fired him. At first Comey thought it was a practical joke someone in his audience was playing on him. Comey didn’t even get the dignity of Trump summoning him back to Washington and firing him to his face the way the contestants on The Apprentice did.
What’s more, the explanation Trump originally gave for firing Comey — that he had received memos from attorney general Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, criticizing Comey for having broken FBI protocol by announcing details regarding his agency’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails during the 2016 campaign — was so preposterous it couldn’t help but remind me of the famous line in the 1942 film Casablanca in which corrupt local police chief Renault (Claude Rains), ordered by his Nazi bosses to find a pretext to close down Rick’s Café Américain immediately, announces he is “shocked — shocked! — to find that gambling is going on here,” just before someone hands him his winnings from the gaming tables.
Indeed, that night Charles and I ended up watching our DVD of Casablanca and not only marveling at how beautifully this 75-year-old movie holds up, but how it suddenly seems more politically relevant than it has at any time since it was new and the outcome of World War II was hardly a done deal. (At one point in the film Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, is asked who he thinks will win the war, and he answers, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”) In the 3 ½ months of Donald Trump’s Presidency, it has become clear which side he is on in the great battle between liberty and tyranny.
The battle was summed up, ironically, by the U.S.’s first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, when in Alton, Illinois on October 15, 1858 he said the battle between slavery and freedom was part of “the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.’”

The Divine Right of Trump

It’s been clear from day one of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign that he stands, not for the common right of humanity, but for the divine right of kings. It was evident in his speech at the Republican convention that nominated him, when he described the problems facing America and said “I alone can fix” them. It was clear when he gave unprecedented powers and responsibilities within his administration to his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as if he were grooming them to be his successors the way one of the many dictators he admires, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, succeeded his grandfather and father.
Indeed, one of the clearest signals of the deep-seated contempt with which Trump holds democracy and his desire to be not America’s President but its dictator is his much-vaunted admiration for other dictators. The admiring words he’s spoken about authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (who not only has ordered the murder of alleged drug dealers without trial but claims to have killed people himself) and that “smart cookie” Kim Jong Un of North Korea (whom Trump praised for having risen to the top of his country from opposition within his family, without mentioning that the way Kim has dealt with opposition within his family is to have his relatives murdered), compared with the cold shoulders democratic leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (whom Trump is so disinterested in he can’t even bother to remember his name) have got from Führer Trump, indicate where his true values lie.
If there were any lingering doubts that Trump couldn’t care less about the constitutional limitations on the President’s power — after he called judges who ruled against him “so-called judges” and denounced the independent media as “enemies of the American people” — his summary firing of FBI director Comey just as Comey’s investigation of Russia’s influence in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was getting closer to Trump’s associates and possibly to Trump himself removed it. Donald Trump has absolutely no interest in being a powerful but constitutionally constrained President of the United States. What he wants is to be a plebiscitary dictator, formally elected (by an undemocratic process, a leftover of the early struggles between free and slave states that had to be compromised to have a Constitution at all) but able to govern however he pleases without opposition from Congress, the courts, the media or the American people.
Not long after his election but well before he took office, Trump told an audience in Louisiana that “I don’t need your votes anymore. Maybe in four years I will.” It’s an attitude he’s shown time and time again, most recently not only in firing Comey but at the same time announcing that he’s ordering an investigation into so-called “voter fraud” that’s really aimed at shrinking the size of the electorate and preventing people unlikely to vote for Trump, or Republicans in general (poor people, young people, people of color), from being able to vote at all. Indeed, the flurry of executive orders Trump publicly and boldly signed in his first days in the White House made him look — deliberately, I suggest — less like an elected U.S. President and more like a general in a banana republic who had taken over the government in a coup d’état and was ruling by decree.
Comey’s firing was first justified with the preposterous excuse that Trump was shocked — shocked! — to find that the FBI director had abused his power in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server in 2016. Of course, Trump had praised Comey in October 2016 when he threw the campaign into turmoil by announcing 11 days before the election that after having decided Clinton’s handling of her e-mails as Secretary of State was “reckless” but not prosecutable, he was reopening the case based on a new cache of e-mails that had turned up on the computer of scapegrace New York Congressmember Anthony Weiner.
Indeed, just a little over a week before he was fired Comey had offered his own preposterous explanation for why he announced his late-in-the-campaign bombshell, saying that when he discovered the existence of Clinton e-mails on Weiner’s computer (which, it turned out nine days later, contained nothing that added to the information already available to the FBI four months earlier), “I stared at ‘speak’ and ‘conceal.’ ‘Speak’ would be really bad. There’s an election in eleven days. Lordy, that would be really bad. Concealing, in my view, would be catastrophic. Not just to the FBI. but well beyond. And, honestly, as between really bad and catastrophic, I said to my team, ‘We’ve got to walk into the world of really bad. I’ve got to tell Congress we are restarting this.’”
The real reason Comey had not only reopened the Clinton investigation 11 days before the election but had announced it through an open letter to the Congressional committees that supervise the FBI was pretty obvious. Like quite a lot of Americans, Comey believed that Clinton would defeat Trump in the election — and he knew that if Clinton won but Republicans kept control of Congress, he’d never hear the end of it and he’d be investigated to kingdom come. When the election turned out the other way, Comey probably heaved a sigh of relief and believed Trump’s assurance that he could stay on as FBI director for the remaining seven years of his term.
No such luck, at least according to the latest explanations from Trump as to why he fired Comey. “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” Trump told NBC News reporter Lester Holt in an interview scheduled to air May 11. “He’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI had been in turmoil.” Apparently there’s room for only one showboat[er] or grandstander in the Trump administration, and that’s Donald Trump. While insisting that Comey’s firing was not an attempt to derail the FBI’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Trump thanked Comey in the letter firing him for having assured him three times that Trump himself was not a target of an FBI investigation. (Later NBC News interviewed a former FBI official who said Comey would never have told Trump he was not under investigation, whether or not that was true.)
“I know that I’m not under investigation,” Trump told Holt. “Me, personally. I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.” That in itself should be a warning to everybody in the federal government, and especially everyone on the White House staff or in the Cabinet departments, of what Trump’s attitude towards them is. He doesn’t care about you. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. He will break promises right and left to get rid of people he thinks have become burdensome or simply are of no use to him any longer.
And he’ll do that not only about people but issues as well. One reason Trump got the Republican nomination is that he promised during the primary campaign that he would not cut Social Security or Medicare — no doubt reassuring a lot of the senior citizens in the Republican base that he’d be a better choice than the other Republicans who said they would cut those programs. He also promised that he’d “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”) with “something fantastic” that would offer more people access to health care and lower health insurance premiums and deductibles. Then he endorsed and helped push through Congress a bill that does the exact opposite.
Trump also appointed long-time Social Security and Medicare opponent Tom Price as his Health and Human Services Secretary and has offered a budget that cuts $800 billion from Medicare and Medicaid (America’s health-care program for the poor, which the Affordable Care act expanded). As the Social Security Works organization put it, “Donald Trump is attacking low- and middle-income families, children, seniors and people with disabilities in order to hand a $6 trillion tax break to his wealthy friends ― the largest tax break in U.S. history.”

Trump Isn’t Like Nixon: He’s Worse

A number of commentators have compared President Trump to Richard Nixon and analogized his firing of Comey to Nixon’s decision to sack special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox on October 20, 1973. Nixon’s action became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” because his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, resigned rather than fire Cox. So did Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, who before he became deputy attorney general had been the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and who — unlike Trump’s pick for EPA head, Scott Pruitt, had run the agency with a genuine concern for environmental protection. It was left to the third in command, Robert Bork — later an unsuccessful nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan and author of the anti-choice, anti-Queer book Slouching Toward Gomorrah — to fire Cox.
There are striking similarities not only between the “Saturday Night Massacre” and the Comey firing but between Nixon and Trump as people and Presidents. Both grew up with immense status anxieties; Nixon was the son of a failed gas-station owner and Trump, though he grew up with money, came from a family considered in the second tier of New York’s 1 percent because its business was strictly in the outer boroughs and they hadn’t yet cracked the sacred precincts of Manhattan. (Trump himself did that, largely through the aid of super-attorney Roy Cohn — who had in the early 1950’s been chief of staff for Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, which I suspect is why a lot of McCarthy’s hectoring, bullying, snide rhetorical style has re-emerged in Trump.)
Trump grew a modest family fortune into billions, though he had losses as well as gains, but he never lost his bitterness against the New York Establishment or his feeling that they never regarded him as their equal. Like Nixon, he divides the world with an almost Manichean rigor into friends and enemies; and, again like Nixon, he’s quick to banish from his inner circle anyone who displeases him and thereby moves themselves from his friends’ list to his enemies’ list. Like Nixon, Trump hates the mainstream media and is convinced they’re on a personal vendetta against him. And both of them are also similar in their anxieties about their elections; though at least Nixon, unlike Trump, got more votes in 1968 than any of his opponents, he won with just 43 percent of the vote against two opponents — one of whom, George Wallace, split the Right-wing racist vote with Nixon and almost allowed moderate Democrat Hubert Humphrey to steal the election from him.
Throughout his first term Nixon privately seethed at the narrowness of his election victory and determined to do something to establish the legitimacy he felt he would have had with a bigger win. His first effort was to stump the country in 1970 in hopes of winning a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. When that failed — Republicans actually lost Senate seats in that election — Nixon determined to make sure he would not only be re-elected in 1972, he would win with such a huge majority his legitimacy could no longer be questioned. Some of the things he did to achieve that were actually good — including traveling to China and establishing diplomatic relations at long last between the U.S. and the People’s Republic, arranging a détente with Russia and reaching a settlement of the Viet Nam war two weeks before the election.
But there were other, more sinister things Nixon did to rig the 1972 election. With at least his tacit approval, if not his direct knowledge, Nixon’s staff created an elaborate plan to manipulate the U.S. electoral system, including systematically spying on the Democratic Party and sending out fake news to sabotage the campaigns of any Democrats who might have had a chance to beat him. Nixon’s dirty tricks ended up pretty much the way he wanted them to — thanks in part to his staff’s manipulations, the Democrats nominated their weakest potential candidate, South Dakota Senator George McGovern — except that one small part of their giant scheme unraveled. On June 17, 1972 five of Nixon’s minions were arrested for burglary at the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Hotel. They were there to plant a bug on the Democrats’ phones — actually to fix a bug they’d put there in a previous burglary — and Nixon’s campaign launched a cover-up which, it turned out later, the President had personally directed from the Oval Office at the White House.
But Trump has major advantages over Nixon in terms of the likelihood that he will survive the Comey scandal. First, decades of political scandal since Watergate — from Ronald Reagan’s national security staff arranging the Iran-contra arms deal to Bill Clinton’s Whitewater land deal and extra-relational sexual activities — have eroded the public’s overall confidence in democratic institutions. They’re more likely to believe that politicians lie than they were in 1973 — and less likely to care about it.
Trump’s most important advantage, however, is that his party, the Republicans, control both houses of Congress. The two Presidents who were actually impeached by the House of Representatives and put on trial in the U.S. Senate — the only process in the Constitution by which a President can be formally removed from office before his term is up — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both were Democrats facing Republican Congresses. Nixon, who resigned before he could be impeached, was a Republican facing a Democratic Congress. Trump not only has a Republican Congress but one whose members are so far showing no cracks in the solid wall of blind support of him. Even Republican Senators like John McCain who’ve expressed doubt as to whether Trump should have fired Comey have said it was his prerogative to do so, and to a person the Republicans in Congress have gone along with the White House line that there is no reason to appoint a special prosecutor or an independent commission to investigate the allegations that Russia influenced the 2016 U.S. election on Trump’s behalf and Trump’s people worked with them.
What’s more, there is no one in Trump’s Cabinet or his government willing to stand up with him. In his Presidency, as in his businesses, Trump has surrounded himself with yes-men and flatterers. The voices of courage and integrity in the Republican Congress and Nixon’s own government — Richardson, Ruckelshaus, Senators Lowell Weicker and Barry Goldwater (a principled conservative back when that wasn’t an oxymoron), Congressmembers Robert Michel and Tom Railsback — who demanded Nixon be called to account for his offenses against the Constitution don’t exist in the Republican Party today. (Railsback, one of the leading Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee to vote for Nixon’s impeachment, also carried the bill through which the federal government finally apologized and offered compensation to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II — a racially motivated decision Trump has praised and cited as a precedent for his anti-Muslim immigration order.)
Indeed, at least partly because he had to work with a Congress of the other party, Nixon’s record is considerably more progressive than any Republican President since. He was the first President of either major party to offer a plan for a guaranteed annual income for Americans. He was, as Lawrence O’Donnell recently pointed out on MS-NBC, the most recent Republican President to put forth a plan for universal health care. (The first Republican President to do that was Theodore Roosevelt, but he only did it after the Republicans denied him renomination in 1912 and he ran to regain the White House under the banner of the Progressive Party, which became known to history as the “Bull Moose” party from the nickname Roosevelt got tagged with at the party’s convention.)
Also, Nixon not only signed into law the great pieces of environmental legislation that emerged from the first Earth Day in 1970 — the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and several others — he took them seriously. He appointed committed Republican environmentalists like Ruckelshaus and Russell Train to enforce them. When, on December 31, 1970, Nixon signed a bill to limit pollution from cars, he said, “I think 1971 will be known as the year of action, and as we look at action, I would suggest that this bill is an indication of what action can be. Because if this bill is completely enforced, within four years it will mean that the emissions from automobiles which pollute the environment will be reduced by 90 percent.”
The tradition of Republican environmentalism begun by Theodore Roosevelt and continued by Nixon and his successor, Gerald Ford, ended abruptly when Ronald Reagan embraced the anti-environmentalist demands of the Southwestern “Sagebrush Rebels” in 1980 and appointed avowed environmental-regulation opponent Anne M. Gorsuch (mother of Trump’s Supreme Court appointee Neil Gorsuch) to run the EPA. The Republicans’ active campaign against the environment has continued through today, when Trump arrogantly insists that human-caused climate change is a Chinese hoax and willy-nilly throws open U.S. public land to fossil-fuel mining and drilling.

Why Trump Will Survive

As entertaining as it is to see Donald Trump once again stewing in the juices of his own making, there seems little doubt that Trump will survive the scandal surrounding the Comey firing. Trump, after all, has made a career out of surviving scandals and failures that would have ended the careers of less resourceful and unscrupulous men. And that’s true of his years as a businessperson as well as his meteoric two years in electoral politics. In the early 1990’s Trump was so far in debt on his Atlantic City casino projects his bankers were ready to pull the plug and foreclose on him — but he persuaded them that the casinos would be worth more with the Trump name on them than they would be without it. This not only bailed him out of that potential failure, it made him even richer when he realized he could make tons of money just licensing his name to big projects and raking in royalties without the bothersome necessity of actually building or running anything.
As a politician, he began his Presidential campaign with a slashing, openly racist attack on immigrants from Mexico — and he shot to the top of the polls for the Republican nomination, a place he never relinquished. He publicly insulted Viet Nam war hero and former Republican nominee John McCain — and his poll numbers shot up. He responded to a debate question from Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly asking him to defend his slurs against women by making a slur against her as a woman — and his poll numbers shot up again, more so among Republican women than Republican men. He made a pretty broadly fascistic appeal at the Republican convention, presenting himself (as Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin had) as the personification of his country’s destiny and the one man who could fix its problems, and he acted like an insane boor during his debates with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — and he pulled off one of the most stunning upset victories in the history of electoral politics anywhere.
And Trump’s winning ways have continued during his Presidency even as his White House staff seems to be one of the most chaotic and disordered in history. He got the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines built despite the opposition of environmentalists, Native Americans and the previous President, Barack Obama. He got Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court and thus preserved the Court’s Right-wing majority. Trump and the Republican House of Representatives passed a sweeping health-care bill despite near-universal opposition not only from Democrats but from just about every professional association and business group involved with health care — and he did it three weeks after the bill was declared dead. He hasn’t been able to stop the investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia, but he has basically been able to ignore them or declare them irrelevant and press on with his agenda.
Trump is also lucky in his opponents. When he took the Presidency, the Democratic Party was at its lowest ebb since before the Great Depression of 1929-1933. Republicans control both houses of 33 state legislatures (just one short of the number needed to call a new constitutional convention and get rid of all this nonsense about civil rights, equal protection and due process), and in 25 states they control both the legislature and the governor’s office. (Democrats have united control in only six states, and only one — California — is large.) Republicans have elected 1,000 more state legislators than they had when Obama became President in 2009, and among the things they’ve used this control to do is pass laws making it harder for people — especially young people, poor people, people of color and others less likely to vote for Republicans — to be able to vote at all.
Whatever Trump does in office to subvert the Constitution and the rule of law, he isn’t likely to be impeached because his party controls Congress and the Republican majorities in both houses won’t let it happen. He’s unlikely to lose control of Congress in the 2018 elections; Republican legislatures have done such a great job gerrymandering House districts that their majority is virtually eternal, and in the Senate the math is against the Democrats — of the 33 U.S. Senate seats up in 2018, 25 are currently held by Democrats, and 10 of those Senate Democrats will be seeking re-election in states Trump won.
The biggest hope for controlling Trump lies in direct action rather than electoral politics. Democrats and progressive independents have begun copying the strategies Tea Party Republicans used so effectively against them in 2010 and thereafter to win the GOP control of Congress and all those state governments in the first place. They’ve been confronting Republican Congressmembers at town-hall meetings (when the Republican Congressmembers bother to hold them at all) and mounting massive demonstrations to preserve all the progressive gains Trump and the Republicans are committed to demolishing: women’s rights, workers’ rights, environmental protection.
But the anti-Trump resistance is up against some formidable roadblocks. First, Trump’s base remains solidly committed to him; polls show that 98 percent of people who voted for Trump have no regrets about that choice and would vote for him again. Second, under the U.S. political system, how many votes each side has matters less than how those votes are distributed. The Electoral College and the apportionment of two U.S. Senators to each state, regardless of its population, ensures that small, racially homogeneous states have far more clout in U.S. politics than large, diverse states like New York and California.
It also doesn’t help that Right-wing movements are invariably better funded than Left-wing ones — which shouldn’t be any surprise: if you’re a super-rich beneficiary of capitalism you’re far more likely to give money to the side that pledges to lower your taxes and cut back or eliminate regulations. Nor does it help that, while the modern-day American Right understands that you can’t win social change just by electoral politics or just by direct action — it takes both — the modern-day American Left has forgotten that.
The electoral-politics and direct-action wings of the U.S. Right work together effectively and coordinate with each other. The electoral-politics and direct-action wings of the U.S. Left have an unhealthy contempt for each other; the electoral Leftists are constantly grousing that the direct-action Leftists are jeopardizing their “access” to elected officials and Democratic Party bureaucrats, while the direct-action Leftists denounce the electoral Leftists as “sellouts” and either reject electoral politics altogether or pursue the totally useless and counterproductive will-o’-the-wisp of alternative political parties, which in the U.S. winner-take-all election system is equivalent to not voting at all.
So Donald Trump really doesn’t have much to worry about. The Republicans in Congress aren’t going to take him on because that would jeopardize their ability to pass their grand agenda — wiping out what’s left of the American social-welfare state, rewriting the tax laws so what government there still is will be financed exclusively by middle- and working-class people, plundering the environment for short-term capitalist gain and shoving people of color back to the back of the bus, women back to the kitchen and Queers back to the closet. The Democrats in Congress are too few, too disorganized and too gutless to pose much of a threat at all, and Trump will easily win re-election in 2020 because the Republican sweeps of 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 ended the political careers of virtually all the young Democratic politicians who could have built up enough of a national reputation to take Trump on successfully.
The courts may constrain Trump for a while, but with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell having blocked former President Obama from appointing federal judges, Trump has over 100 federal court vacancies to fill — and he will fill them with appointees from the hard-Right Federalist Society who on the big issues can be counted on to reach, independently, the conclusions and rulings Trump wants them to. People in the streets can embarrass Trump (who’ll continue to make sly digs about how they’re being paid to oppose him), but they alone can’t bring down his government.
No, it’s most likely Trump will be able to slough off this latest scandal and survive the way he’s survived innumerable previous obstacles and reversals both as a businessman and as a politician. And the degree to which Donald Trump is likely to be the most “transformative” politician in American history — much the way Julius Caesar and his nephew Augustus transformed the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire — is illustrated by the bizarre dinner he had with James Comey just before he fired him. As reported by the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/11/us/politics/trump-comey-firing.html?_r=0), Trump asked Comey point-blank if Comey would show him “loyalty.” Comey, according to his associates who were the Times’ sources, said he would give the President “honest loyalty” but could not promise him to be “reliable” in the political sense.
In World War II, a U.S. servicemember took an oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. A German servicemember took a personal oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler as the Führer and the personification of the German state. Trump was essentially following the Führerprinzip in demanding of James Comey what amounted to a personal oath of loyalty to Donald Trump. Comey responded that he would show “honest loyalty” to the United States Constitution and the republican form of government it is supposed to guarantee us. In the struggle Abraham Lincoln described between “the common right of humanity and … the divine right of kings,” James Comey in that moment stood up for the common right of humanity and Donald Trump for the divine right of kings. And that — not the Hillary Clinton e-mail case and not even transitory fears Trump might have had that an independent FBI director might uncover embarrassing information about Trump’s ties to Russia — was the real reason Trump decided Comey had to go.