Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Trump’s Gleichschaltung Kills People, Destroys Justice and Democracy


Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Throughout Donald Trump’s Presidency, he has demanded one thing and one thing only from his appointees, from the most prestigious Cabinet positions to the lowliest drones on the White House staff. He calls it “loyalty,” and by that he means not loyalty to the United States Constitution, the principle of representative democracy, the pursuit of justice or even the most basic competence in their jobs. He means “loyalty” to the person of Donald Trump. Appointees in Trump’s administration are expected to serve Trump, not the country. As long as they do what Trump wants and make him look good, he loves them. Once they step off the reservation, he not only fires them but publicly insults them and does whatever he can to destroy their chances at a subsequent career.
Adolf Hitler had a name for this: Gleichschaltung. Like Trump, Hitler was determined to rid his government of its infrastructure of nonpartisan civil servants and replace them with fanatical, dedicated Nazis who would be loyal, not to the German Constitution or the German people as a whole, but personally to him.
Gleichschaltung is one of those indigestible compound words the Germans like to pull together from bits and pieces of their language. It doesn’t have an easy English translation — though I’ve seen it rendered as “coordination” or “rectification” — but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary ( gives the following definition:

[T]he act, process, or policy of achieving rigid and total coordination and uniformity (as in politics, culture, communication) by forcibly repressing or eliminating independence and freedom of thought, action, or expression: forced reduction to a common level: forced standardization or assimilation.

Trump’s latest act of Gleichschaltung occurred on Saturday, June 20, when at the request of Attorney General William Barr he fired the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman. Berman had first learned the administration wanted him out the day before, when Barr’s office had issued a press release stating that Berman would be resigning and Jay Clayton, Trump’s appointee to head the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), would be taking his place as U.S. Attorney. According to one report, the initial motivation was simply that Clayton —a long-time friend of Trump who had supported him in the 2016 campaign — was tired of living and working in Washington, D.C. and wanted a job that would return him to New York.
If Trump and Barr thought Berman would meekly accept his dismissal and go gently into that good night filled with appointees Trump has got rid of for specious reasons and in devious ways, they had another think coming. “I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,” Berman said in a statement. “I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption. I cherish every day that I work with the men and women of this Office to pursue justice without fear or favor — and intend to ensure that this Office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”
Ironically, when Berman was first appointed in early 2018, there were concerns raised that he was too close to Trump. He had worked on Trump’s transition team and had personally been interviewed by Trump for the job — a breach of the usual protocol that the Attorney General interviews U.S. Attorney candidates and the President merely says yea or nay on their appointments. He had also been a law partner of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani (a former Mayor of New York who had, ironically, once himself been the U.S Attorney for the Southern District of New York) at the firm of Greenberg, Traurig, LLP, though they had never actually tried a case together.
But if Trump thought he would be getting a complaisant U.S. Attorney who would treat him and his friends with kid gloves, he was sorely disappointed. Under Berman, the Southern District — which, because its jurisdiction includes Manhattan, has authority over virtually all of Trump’s business dealings — investigated and won a guilty plea from Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen. Though Berman didn’t participate in that case, his office not only got Cohen to plead guilty to eight felonies, his plea stated that he committed at least two of the crimes because his then-boss, Donald Trump, ordered him to.
Berman’s office also investigated whether Donald Trump’s main business, the Trump Organization, violated campaign finance laws. And he launched an investigation of his former law partner, Rudolph Giuliani, on charges that he and two associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had broken U.S. laws by attempting to get the government of Ukraine to dig up damaging information on Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden. He also investigated the U.S. operations of Halkbank, a Turkish bank with ties to Turkey’s authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a favorite of Trump’s.
In March 2020 Berman said publicly, “The Southern District of New York has a long history of integrity and pursuing cases, and declining to pursue cases, based only on the facts and the law and the equities, without regard to partisan political concerns.” That, one might think, is what a U.S. attorney is supposed to do. But it’s not what Trump thinks a U.S. attorney is supposed to do. In a remarkable interview with Right-wing talk radio host Larry O’Connor on WMAL-FM November 2, 2017 Trump said:

[T]he saddest thing is, because I’m the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated by it. … [A]s a President, you are not supposed to be involved in that process. But hopefully they are doing something, and at some point maybe we’re going to all have it out.

Trump made clear to O’Connor just what he would “love” to be able to order the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate, including the funding of Christopher Steele’s dossier on the connections between Trump and Russia (which he falsely claimed was the origin of Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation of Russian influence on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 Presidential campaign); Hillary Clinton’s e-mails; and the leaks from his own administration. It’s clear that Trump believes the Justice Department should be his personal instrument of vengeance against his perceived political enemies —including Barack Obama and Joe Biden, whom he’s recently accused of “crimes” without giving any specifics about what crimes he’s accusing them of.
And in Bill Barr, he now has an attorney general who for the most part will go along, investigate whomever Trump wants investigated and clear whomever Trump wants cleared — including Trump’s first national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, whom Barr recently dismissed Mueller’s case against even though Flynn had twice pleased guilty to lying to the FBI. On June 20, Barr quickly quashed Geoffrey Berman’s brief rebellion, announcing that he had asked Trump to fire Berman and Trump had done so. Berman agreed to leave the office once Barr assured him that instead of Jay Clayton, his interim replacement would be his deputy, Audrey Strauss, whom Berman apparently trusted to maintain the integrity of his investigations against Trump’s associates.
A June 20 report in the New York Times (, which was so extensive no fewer than seven people were on the byline — Alan Feuer, Katie Benner, Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman, William K. Rashbaum, Nicole Hong and Benjamin Weiser — noted that, “Throughout the day on Saturday, many current and former employees of the Southern District marveled at just how sour relations with their colleagues in Washington had gotten. Some worried openly that the move threatened the independence of federal prosecutors.”
The Times team quoted David Massey, who’s now a defense attorney but served as a prosecutor with the Southern District of New York for over a decade, as saying, “While there have always been turf battles between the Southern District and the Justice Department in Washington, and occasionally sharp elbows, to take someone out suddenly while they’re investigating the president’s lawyer, it is just unprecedented in modern times.”

Voice of America or Voice of Trump?

Three days before Geoffrey Berman left his job as U.S. Attorney for the Southern Disrict of New York, an aggressive appointee of President Trump carried out a Trump Gleichschaltung at the Voice of America (VOA) and its parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The appointee was Michael Pack, Right-wing filmmaker and protégé of former Trump campaign manager and strategic adviser Steve Bannon.
Pack took office June 4 after a contentious confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate and a party-line 53-38 vote to approve him, and he immediately fired Ray Fang, head of Radio Free Asia, and Alberto Fernandez, head of the Middle East Information Network. He also fired the agency’s entire board of directors and announced he would appoint a new board. Voice of America director Amanda Bennett and her deputy, Sandy Sugawara, both resigned in protest.
The Voice of America was founded in 1942 as part of the U.S. war effort. Its initial mission was to counteract Nazi propaganda being broadcast to neutral countries. After World War II ended and the Cold War began, its mission evolved to counter propaganda from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, and to promote representative democracy and free-market capitalism as superior alternatives to Communism. But VOA has long been caught up in an ongoing battle over how best to promote the United States: should it broadcast programming reflecting the views of the United States government and whoever is currently running it; or should it promote the idea of a free press by serving as an example of one, beholden only to accuracy, fairness, independence and other journalistic standards?
The current law, as summarized on the Voice of America Web site, “prohibits interference by any U.S. government official in the objective, independent reporting of news, thereby safeguarding the ability of our journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference,”
Right-wingers in the U.S. government have been dumping on the Voice of America at least since 1953, when the notorious Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) sent two of his staff members to Europe to investigate it. One of the investigators was Roy Cohn, who later became a New York attorney and fixer until he was disbarred for ethics violations in 1986 and died of complications from AIDS a year later. One of Roy Cohn’s principal clients was Donald Trump; Cohn masterminded Trump’s rise from small-time real-estate developer in New York’s outer boroughs to major player in Manhattan, and he made such an impression on Trump that quite often, faced with legal troubles, he will yell at his current attorneys and say, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
The Voice of America again attracted scrutiny from Right-wing Congressmembers in 2014. That year, according to a New Republic report quoted in a recent post on (, “In 2014, Rep. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would turn the agency into an explicit instrument of American ‘public diplomacy,’ with a mandate to promote U.S. foreign policy.”
According to reporter Alex Ward, Right-wing attacks on Voice of America ramped up once Trump declared his candidacy for President. A group called “BBG Watch” (“BBG” stood for “Broadcasting Board of Governors,” then the name of the board running the U.S. Agency for Global Media) “highlighted news reports in which the agency compared Trump to Lenin and Mao, criticized his immigration policies, and poked fun at his speeches,” the New Republic reported in 2017.
Once Trump won the election, Ward explained, “Republicans in Congress changed the governance structure of VOA, replacing the bipartisan executive board with a CEO appointed by the president. And two young members of the administration in January 2017 were sent over to the news organization to monitor its operations. ‘The priority is to make coverage fall in line with the president’s world view,’ said Brett Bruen, the director for global engagement on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, who had these U.S.-funded media outlets in his portfolio.”
According to Ward, the main complaint Trump, Congressional Republicans and Right-wing media activists have against VOA is it’s been too soft on China. (This is also the stated reason Trump gave for pulling U.S. support from the World Health Organization —first “temporarily,” then permanently — in the middle of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.) “Journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda,” read an April 2020 White House article titled “Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda.”
“This week, VOA called China’s Wuhan lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world — and then tweeted out video of the Communist government’s celebratory light show marking the quarantine’s alleged end,” the article continued. Iromically, VOA did not create that news story — the Associated Press did — but Trump nonetheless cited it in defense of Pack’s purge: “What things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”
Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said, “As feared, Michael Pack has confirmed he is on a political mission to destroy the [agency’s] independence and undermine its historic role. The wholesale firing of the Agency’s network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump’s political allies is an egregious breach of this organization’s history and mission from which it may never recover.”
“[Pack] has taken a rocket-propelled grenade and started shooting it off at various parts of the organizational chart,” said Bruen, and he’s turning into “something much more similar to the North Korean Ministry of Information.” Any perceived campaign to disseminate Trump’s world view “will stink up the place,” he continued, “and that stench is going to spread to anything that carries the label of a U.S. international media agency.”
Though acknowledging that VOA and its sister networks need improvement — especially since countries like Russia and China are making their international media outreach agencies more efficient — Bruen added that VOA and the other U.S. Agencyfor Global Media Networks have for almost 80 years been able “to develop an audience and credible independent voice so people would listen to the information that the U.S. wanted to share.”
But it’s clear that Trump, Bannon and Pack don’t think an independent news source with the U.S. government imprimatur is a good thing. Prominent Trump critic Walter Shaub, who was pushed out of his former position as director of government ethics in yet another example of Trump’s Gleichschaltung, called Pack’s purge “the Breitbartization of U.S. government media” — a reference to Breitbart News, the far-Right Web site Bannon used to run before he joined Trump’s campaign and returned to when Trump fired him in August 2017 — only to be fired at the behest of Breitbart’s financial sponsors in January 2018.
And it’s ironic, to say the least, that the issue on which Trump and his cronies have savaged the Voice of America is its alleged “softness” on China, when former National Security Advisor John Bolton revealed in his book The Room Where It Happened that Trump sucked up to Chinese President Xi Jinping at an international meeting in Osaka, Japan in summer 2019 to get him to buy more soybeans from American farmers to help Trump’s re-election chances in the farm states.
Though Bolton was prevented by White House censors from putting Trump’s exact words in the book on the ground that they were “classified,” Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair got a look at an unredacted copy of the manuscript ( He reported that Trump told Xi, “Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.”

Trump’s War on Inspectors General

President Trump began his jihad against the federal government’s inspectors general on April 3, when he fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general ( Inspectors general (that’s the correct plural, by the way) are supposed to be independent of the agencies to which they’re assigned. Their purpose is to keep an eye on federal agencies and report wrongdoing by the executive branch to Congress. One of the ways they do that is by receiving complaints from agency whistleblowers, deciding whether the whistleblowers’ allegations are serious and credible, and if they are, transmitting them to Congress.
Atkinson did just that in September 2019, passing along a report by a whistleblower who alleged he’d heard of a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky in which Trump told Zelensky, “I would like you to do me a favor, though,” before Trump would release military aid money Congress had approved for Ukraine’s self-defense against Russian aggression.
It was actually two favors: Trump wanted Ukraine’s justice department to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden, Trump’s likely re-election opponent in November, and his son Hunter over Hunter’s service on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. He also wanted Ukraine to turn over Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server — even though the allegation that Ukraine had the server at all was a bit of Right-wing conspiracy-mongering.
Since the whistleblower’s complaint and Atkinson’s forwarding it to Congress led to Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate — both times on virtually party-line votes — Trump evidently wanted payback against Atkinson even though Trump himself had appointed him in November 2017. Trump fired Atkinson on a Friday night and said, “As is the case with regard to other positions where I, as president, have the power of appointment, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general. That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.” Later he said Atkinson “took a fake report and gave it to Congress.”
Since then Trump has fired at least three other inspectors general ( On April 10 he removed acting Defense Department inspector general Glenn Fine from his job, which among other things would have given him authority to oversee the spending of the $10 trillion Congress had just approved in emergency relief funding in response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Trump actually demoted Fine rather than firing him, but within a month Fine chose to resign completely rather than accept a lesser assignment.
On May 2, Trump announced he would be firing Christi Grimm, acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, after she signed a report that said America’s doctors and other health care workers can’t get enough SARS-CoV-2 tests and personal protective equipment to do their jobs properly. Trump had denounced the report as “wrong” on April 6 and claimed Grimm was an appointee of former President Barack Obama, though she’d previously served in government under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Then Trump fired Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general, on May 13 at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Linick had been investigating a number of allegations against Pompeo. Among these were that he was using members of both the State Department staff and his personal security detail to run private errands for himself and his wife. He was also accused of hosting private so-called “Madison Dinners” inside the State Department building for prospective donors, fundraisers and supporters for Pompeo’s future political ambitions, including a possible U.S. Senate run from his native Kansas.
But the most serious allegation that Linick was investigating was that Pompeo had abused the power of the Secretary of State to make an “emergency declaration” that allowed the U.S. to sell arms to the government of Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Pompeo’s “emergency declaration,” the sale went through despite opposition from members of Congress, including some Republicans, who were worried that Saudi Arabia would give the arms to the government of Yemen to commit war crimes against civilians in their Saudi-backed war against the Houthi, a rebel group seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government.
Trump’s letter firing Linick was strikingly similar to the one he’d written against Atkinson, saying he “no longer” had the “fullest confidence” in him. Reportedly Pompeo asked Trump to fire Linick, and Trump had only one question for Pompeo about Linick: “Who appointed him?” Once Pompeo said Linick had been an Obama appointee, Trump agreed to let him go and replace him with proven Trump loyalist Stephen Akard, an ally of Vice-President Mike Pence.

Trump’s Gleichschaltung Threatens Lives!

But President Trump’s determination to rid the government of people he doesn’t consider sufficiently “loyal” to him personally isn’t just interfering with the ability of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress to keep tabs on Cabinet departments and hold them, their secretaries and the President accountable. In the current pandemic of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, the President’s determination to rid the government of the allegedly “disloyal” directly threatens the lives of Americans and others throughout the world.
On May 10, the long-running CBS-TV news program 60 Minutes reported on the decision of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cancel a $3.7 million five-year grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based group of viral researchers who work with similar organizations in other countries to study both ongoing and potential viral pandemics ( Among the organizations EcoHealth Alliance and its director, Dr. Peter Daszak, were working with was the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. Wuhan is generally believed to be where SARS-CoV-2 evolved and became a health threat that eventually affected the whole world.
Though back in January Trump was publicly praising China and its authoritarian president, Xi Jiaoping, for having acted early and got a good start protecting its people and the rest of the world against SARS-CoV-2, the White House “line” abruptly changed in mid-March. Then Trump joined a lot of Right-wing media commentators, including Sean Hannity of Fox News, who believed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had either been studying the new virus in their labs and had accidentally released it into the population; or, worse, had deliberately developed SARS-CoV-2 and let it loose around the world as a bioweapon.
Hannity publicly questioned on his Fox News program why the U.S. government was giving money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (which it wasn’t) and called on the Trump administration to pull the grant. The NIH accordingly canceled the funding just a year after having renewed it and given it one of their highest recommendations. Though the NIH refused to comment to 60 Minutes on why they’d pulled EcoHealth Alliance’s grant, Dr. Daszak was scathing about the potential consequences.
“It matters because number one, our work is used in developing vaccines and drugs to save American lives and the lives of people around the world. So that matters a lot,” Daszak told 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley. “Number two, if we really want to know where viruses are going to emerge and cause the next pandemic, we need to have scientific collaborations like this. They’re our only eyes and ears on the ground in countries that are very difficult, for political reasons, to work in.”
On May 17, a week after breaking the story about the NIH defunding Dr. Peter Daszak’s international viral research program, 60 Minutes presented an even more devastating story about the Trump administration firing a scientist because he refused to toe the administration’s line on SARS-CoV-2. This time the victim was Dr. Rick Bright, who until April 2020 was the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA). Asked by interviewer Norah O’Donnell, who also anchors the CBS Evening News, what BARDA does, Dr. Bright said, “We focus on chemical threats, biological threats such as anthrax, nuclear threats, radiological threats, pandemic influenza, and emerging infectious diseases.”
Having studied virology his entire life — he has a Ph.D. in virology — Dr. Bright recognized early in January 2020 that SARS-CoV-2 had the potential to cause a pandemic. It was, he said, “[a]n unknown virus infecting people, causing significant mortality, and spreading. … It was just a matter of time before that virus then jumped and left China, and appeared in other countries.” He thought his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shared his sense of urgency — but was astonished that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees NIH, did not.
Dr. Bright recalled a January 23 meeting chaired by Secretary Alex Azar, the head of HHS, at which “I was the only person in the room … that said, ‘We’re going to need vaccines and diagnostics and drugs. It’s going to take a while, but we need to get started.’” Instead, Secretary Azar seemed to be intent on minimizing the potential for a SARS-CoV-2 pandemic — and so did President Trump, who spoke in Wisconsin January 30, at a time when there were only five COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and ridiculed the whole idea that it could be a serious threat.
Ironically, Dr. Bright said, just five months before the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak a working group from BARDA and other federal public health agencies had conducted a study called “Crimson Contagion” about what might happen if a pandemic occurred. “There were lessons about shortages of critical supplies such as personal protective equipment; such as masks, N95 masks, gowns, goggles. And there were lessons about the need for funding,” Dr. Bright told O’Donnell. “We had practiced. We’d drilled. We’d been through Ebola. We’d been through Zika. We’d been through H1N1. This was not a new thing for us. We knew exactly what to do.”
Unfortunately, they didn’t get the chance to do it. On January 25, Dr. Bright sent a memo to his superiors warning that the entire U.S. health-care community would face a “severe shortage of masks when the pandemic hit. Dr. Bright said they responded “passively.” Though Dr. Bright had lined up a U.S. company that could have turned out masks immediately, his superiors decided to wait for two months before they ordered them — and they went to a firm in China to buy them. An incredulous O’Donnell asked Dr. Bright if we’ve completely offshored our ability to respond to a pandemic. Dr. Bright said, “We have offshored a lot of our industry for critical supplies, critical health-care supplies, and critical medicines, to save money.”
But the issue that finally cost Dr. Bright his job — and cost Americans the benefits of his expertise in researching viruses and developing vaccines and treatments against them — was hydroxychloroquine. This is a well-known drug documented as effective in treating malaria and lupus, but it’s been touted as a treatment for COVID-19 even though, as the New England Journal of Medicine reported on June 20 (, there is no “robust evidence supporting its use” for this disease. Other studies have warned of potential side effects, including the risk that it could cause heart attacks. “[T]he limited data available told us that it could be dangerous,” Dr. Bright told O’Donnell. “It could have negative side effects, and it could even lead to death.”
On April 20 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that hydroxychloroquine should be used as a COVID-19 treatment only in a hospital setting, and nearly two months later, on June 15 the FDA withdrew its emergency approval of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Nonetheless, President Trump not only pushed hydroxychloroquine and a related drug, chloroquine, as “potential game-cbangers” in the fight against the pandemic, he went on the drug himself for a week and a half even though he said his SARS-CoV-2 tests were negative and he showed no symptoms.
On April 21 Dr. Bright was fired as head of BARDA and given a demotion to a lesser job in HHS. “I believe my last-ditch effort to protect Americans from that drug was the final straw. That they used and believed was essential to push me out,” he told O’Donnell on 60 Minutes. Secretary Azar claimed that, far from opposing hydroxychloroquine, Dr. Bright had actually signed the letter asking the FDA for emergency authorization to use it. Dr. Bright told O’Donnell that that was technically true, but “I was given a directive. I didn’t have a choice, other than to leave at that time. And I went along and signed that letter, knowing that we had contained access to that drug” by confining the FDA’s approval to hospitalized patients only.
Dr. Bright filed an extensively documented whistleblower complaint over his demotion that ran over 300 pages. His public statements and the whistleblower complaint prompted an all too typical and predictable spew of insults from President Trump at a May 13 press conference: “Honestly, it seems to me — I watched this guy for a little while this morning. To me he’s nothing more than a really disgruntled, unhappy person.”
“I am not disgruntled,” Dr. Bright told O’Donnell. “I am frustrated at the lack of leadership. I am frustrated at the lack of urgency to get a head start on developing life-saving tools for Americans. I am frustrated at our inability to be heard as scientists. Those things frustrate me.” (View the full interview with Dr. Rick Bright at

Gleichschaltung Throughout Trump’s Presidency

Throughout his Presidency — indeed, throughout his entire life — Donald Trump has shown an utter intolerance for other people’s points of view and an insistence on “total coordination and uniformity” within his organization. He made that clear during the first week he was in office, when he signed a succession of sweeping, far-reaching “executive orders” — directives to the entire federal government which push the limits of the Constitutional powers of the Presidency — which made him look less like a constitutionally elected leader than a South American general who had just taken power in a coup d’état.
He made that clear again when he met then-FBI director James Comey for dinner on January 27, 2017 — just one week into his Presidency — and, according to Comey’s later testimony before Congress (, Trump twice asked him to declare his “loyalty” — not to the Constitution or the fair enforcement of federal law, but to Donald Trump personally. Comey described the interactions this way in his opening statement to his Congressional testimony:

[The President] said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.

At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because “problems” come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work.

Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.

It obviously wasn’t what Trump expected — or wanted — because he fired Comey three months later and has continued a steady stream of denunciations of both him and his second-in-command, Andrew McCabe. In these pages, I noted that during World War II the American servicemembers who fought had sworn an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. The German, Italian and Japanese soldiers they fought against had sworn an oath not to a constitution or to the nation as a whole, but to a single person: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or Emperor Hirohito, respectively. Indeed, Nazi Germany defined “the will of the Führer” as its ultimate legal authority.
Trump’s firing of Comey, and the conversation between them that led up to it, indicated that Trump had no desire to be a constitutionally elected leader with limited powers. He wanted to be a dictator, a Führer, and he wanted the people on his staff and throughout the federal government to swear the Führer oath to him. And during the three years of his Presidency, he has consistently and relentlessly purged anyone from the government who refused to take the oath of “loyalty” to the person of Donald Trump.
Whatever Gleichschaltung meant in theory, in practice it meant the systematic purge of independent-minded people from any positions of authority in the government of Germany so Hitler could replace them with dedicated, fanatical Nazis. Indeed, Hitler took it so far that even his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, wrote in his diaries about his futile arguments with Hitler over whether the principal qualification for jobs in the Nazi government should be a “low party number” — i.e., someone who’d joined the Nazis early, well before they took power — or actual ability to do the jobs.
Trump couldn’t care less about the actual ability of his appointees to do the jobs to which he’s appointed them. Nor does he care about their honesty. Despite all the promises to “drain the swamp” of corrupt officials only in government service for their personal gain, he’s appointed plenty of people like that to his Cabinet and other high offices. (Indeed, since he seems to regard the Presidency as largely a source of income for himself, he doesn’t seem to mind if his appointees cut themselves in on a bit of the graft, too.) All that matters is their personal loyalty to Donald Trump. Trump demands only two things from his appointees: “make me look good” and “make me richer.”
The two men Comey mentioned in his Congressional testimony as having said “great things about me” to Trump — former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions — are both now on Trump’s scrap heap. Indeed, Trump fired Sessions right after the 2018 midterm election, in which he kept Republican control of the U.S. Senate but lost the House of Representatives to the Democrats, and ultimately replaced him with William Barr, who has essentially taken the Führer oath and turned the Department of Justice into Trump’s legal handmaiden.
On the actual issues, Jeff Sessions was as Right-wing as Right-wing could be. He eagerly contributed to Trump’s jihad against immigrants (and also contributed his nativist staff member, Stephen Miller, to Trump’s White House staff). He denounced state laws allowing marijuana use and pledged to use the federal government to crack down on them. He joined in the Republicans’ assault on the ability of people to vote — especially young people, poor people, people of color and others not likely to vote Republican.
But he was also enough of an institutionalist to resist the pressure from Donald Trump to turn the Justice Department into Trump’s personal fiefdom. Like Comey, Sessions believed it was “important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House.” When he found that the FBI was already investigating allegations that the government of Russia, particularly its intelligence services, had intervened in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, Sessions recused himself from supervising the investigation on the ground that as a key member of Trump’s campaign (and the first U.S. Senator to endorse him), he had an inherent conflict of interest. Trump never forgave him, and constantly ragged on Sessions in tweets, speeches and interviews until he finally pushed Sessions out the door after nearly two years.
Trump’s current Attorney General, William Barr, has been everything Trump could have wished for — and did wish for in his WMAL-FM radio interview with Larry O’Connor on November 2, 2017. Under Barr’s leadership, the Justice Department has sought a reduced sentence for former Trump campaign associate Roger Stone, convicted on eight counts including repeatedly lying to Congress and intimidating a witness. One of the prosecutors in the Stone case, Aaron Zelinsky, stepped down from it over the recommendation and testified to the House Judiciary Committee June 25 that he and his fellow prosecutors were pressured to give Stone “a break” — and the pressure came from the White House. (
Barr also ordered prosecutors to drop the pending case against Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and Trump’s national security advisor for the first three weeks of his Presidency. Flynn had twice pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI in 2016 about his lobbying contacts with Russia and Turkey, and it’s highly unusual for the Justice Department to drop a case in which they’ve already won a conviction.
“Mr. Barr’s move was widely seen as extraordinary and a break with the Justice Department’s approach in cases not involving a presidential favorite, fueling accusations of politicization,” New York Times reporter Charlie Savage wrote June 24 ( “In particular, legal experts broadly disputed his notion that the false statements were immaterial, since they bore on the broader counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump campaign officials had coordinated with Russia’s 2016 election interference.
The judge in the case, Emmet T. Sullivan, balked at the dismissal and appointed a so-called “special master” — a retired fellow judge — to argue the case that Flynn’s guilty plea should stand. But on June 23 a sharply divided three-judge panel of the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 decision ordering Sullivan to drop the Flynn prosecution. “The order from the panel — a so-called writ of mandamus — was rare and came as a surprise, taking its place as yet another twist in the extraordinary legal and political drama surrounding the prosecution of Mr. Flynn,” Times reporter Savage wrote.
In addition to protecting Trump friends and associates like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, William Barr has used his position as Attorney General to go after Trump’s enemies, real or perceived. In late May Trump signed an extraordinary executive order targeting Twitter and social media companies, just two days after Twitter red-flagged two Trump tweets about the alleged potential for fraud in mail voting and Trump accused the platform, which he has used extensively, of trying to censor him.
“Trump’s order aims to limit the companies’ legal immunity for how they moderate content posted by users, a goal that legal experts said exceeds the president’s authority unless he persuades Congress to change the law,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Megerian in a May 28 article ( “But the move could increase political and financial pressure on Twitter, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants by opening the door to lawsuits and regulatory reviews.”
A month later, on June 25, Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Litman reported on an even more far-reaching assault on social media companies by Attorney General Barr ( “Picking up on Trump’s bitter but unsubstantiated criticism of Facebook, Twitter and other internet companies, Barr is determined to rattle the DOJ’s antitrust saber at Silicon Valley, and first up is the advertising and search giant Google,” Litman wrote. “According to various news reports, the department is already drafting an antitrust complaint against Google and interviewing lawyers to prosecute the case. That’s after only a year of investigation, which is actually warp speed in terms of bringing an antitrust complaint.”
While progressives and leftists have called on the federal government to investigate the social-media giants both for their economic power and their potential political influence, Barr’s attack on Google and threats to other companies like Facebook and Twitter is, among other things, a threat to force them to highlight more Right-wing voices and be more sympathetic to Trump. In a Fox News interview, Barr quoted Right-wing Congressmember and fanatical Trump supporter Devin Nunes (R-California) as saying the big social-media platforms censored conservatives, and added, “One way that this can be addressed,” Barr went on, “is through the antitrust laws and challenging companies that engage in monopolistic practices.”
Barr also attacked voting by mail in the same Fox interview in which he threatened antitrust prosecution against Google. Echoing Trump, who has attacked voting by mail as inherently fraudulent even though Trump votes by mail himself, Barr said that mail voting “absolutely opens the floodgates to fraud. Those things are delivered into mailboxes. They can be taken out. There’s questions about whether or not it even denies a secret ballot.”
“Barr has shown himself willing to use his vast powers in the service of the president’s political interests,” Litman wrote. “So when he lays out an election-year agenda that plainly coincides with Republican Party interests, we should take him at his word: The DOJ is gearing up for a battle on behalf of Trump. The conduct will be dressed up in law enforcement garb, but the attorney general is being nakedly partisan.”
Trump’s attitude towards law enforcement, his demands of a complaisant Attorney General, his disinterest in other people’s points of view and his Gleichschaltung-like insistence on “loyalty” as the number one quality he expects from his staff — not idealism, integrity or even competence — is yet more evidence that Trump has no interest, and never had any interest, in being a powerful but constitutionally limited President of the United States. Instead, he wants to be a dictator, ruling by decree and with either a rubber-stamp legislature or no legislature at all — just like Vladimir Putin of Russia, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and all the other despots he admires and fawns over at international meetings.
If the voters of the United States of America want their country to remain a democracy — even the limited bourgeois republican democracy it has historically been — they will HAVE to reject President Trump decisively in the November 2020 election and vote for the only candidate who, despite his own flaws, has a chance of defeating and replacing Trump: the likely Democratic Party nominee, former Vice-President Joe Biden.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

“Gone with the Wind”: The Racial, Sexual and Artistic Issues of a Great but Flawed Film


Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Just like a flame,
Love burned brightly, then became
An empty smoke dream that is gone with the wind.”
— Herb Magidson and Allie Wrubel, “Gone with the Wind” (1937 song)

I’ll say one thing right off: I am hugely opposed to censorship in any way, shape or form. I’m a First Amendment absolutist who thinks the remedy for bad speech is good speech, not speech suppression. That’s why I was horrified when I read the commentary by John Ridley, writer-director of the film 12 Years a Slave, in the June 8 Los Angeles Times ( demanding that the new HBO Max streaming service pull the 1939 film Gone with the Wind off their site “temporarily” and not restore it without some sort of front-and-back content explaining that the film’s rosy view of the pre-Civil War South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery was nothing like the real deal.
Two other commentators added articles to the Times’ op-ed section. One, Carla Hall (, which only appeared on the Times’ Web site, argued (as I would) that Gone with the Wind may be racist, but it should not be suppressed.  Another author, Pamela Jackson (, wrote in a column published June 12 that she didn’t like Gone with the Wind either, but suppressing it would deprive HBO Max viewers of seeing Hattie McDaniel’s acting as Mammy — the first performance by an African-American actor to win an Academy Award. (There wouldn’t be a second until Sidney Poitier won for Lilies of the Field a quarter-century later.)
So on Monday, June 14 I decided to screen Gone with the Wind, all nearly four hours of it, for my husband and I. I ran the movie at least in part as a fuck-you to all the P.C. Thought Police types who want to suppress it “temporarily” and slap on it explanatory content to the effect that the “Southern Way of Life” was based on white people literally owning Black people as slaves. The calls to ban (at least “temporarily,” though such “temporary” censorship has a way of becoming permanent) Gone with the Wind led me to an ire-filled letter to the Los Angeles Times protesting the suppression of an acknowledged American classic film — which they actually printed last Saturday, June 12, along with two other letters defending the suppression. I suspect the defenders of the ban haven’t actually seen Gone with the Wind in years — as I hadn’t either — and their memories, like mine, don’t really match the film Charles and I just watched last night.
Like all major movies, Gone with the Wind involved a huge number of people in its manufacture, but there were two particular individuals who had more than any others to do with creating this film. One was Margaret Mitchell, a Southern woman who had briefly tried her hand at journalism and playwrighting until she married her second husband, John Marsh. Bored with life as a housewife, she started using her spare time to write a book about the tales and legends of the Old South before and during the Civil War. As a girl, she’d been taken by her family to see old Civil War battlefields and monuments, and she’d got such an earful about the so-called “Lost Cause” that for much of her childhood she hadn’t believed that the cause had been lost: it was not until she was 10 that she realized the South had lost the Civil War.
Mitchell spent 10 years, 1926-1936, writing Gone with the Wind. Instead of working on the novel straight through, start to finish, she divided it into chapters, put each chapter in a manila envelope, and filed them in the order in which they would appear. That way she could work on whatever section pleased her fancy instead of writing the story in the order in which it took place. It’s not clear whether she originally intended the novel for publication, but that decision was forced on her when John Marsh invited a vacationing literary agent from New York to dinner at their home in Atlanta. Over dinner, the agent lamented that he hadn’t seen any worthwhile manuscripts in a while and asked Marsh if he knew anyone who was writing. “Well, my wife is working on something,” Marsh said — and the agent got hold of three of Mitchell’s manila envelopes, copied their contents and immediately decided Mitchell’s manuscript had the makings of a blockbuster best-seller and possibly a film adaptation as well.
The other individual primarily responsible for the film Gone with the Wind was producer David O. Selznick. He had begun in the late 1920’s and had risen fast through the movie industry, including stints at Paramount, RKO and MGM before he left in late 1935 to form his own studio, Selznick International. When Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind came out he immediately saw its film possibilities and determined to grab the movie rights, even though he also had doubts about the ability of his independent company to get the money to mount a production of the size and scope that would do justice to the novel. Selznick also did something highly unusual at the time: he hired George Gallup’s survey research film to study movie audiences and find who they wanted to play the principal roles in Gone with the Wind.
The result was an overwhelming vote — about 65 percent — for Clark Gable to play the book’s rakish leading male character, Rhett Buttler. At the time Gable was the leading adult moneymaker in Hollywood (the top star in the business was the little girl with the long curls, Shirley Temple) and the main attraction for Selznick’s father-in-law and former employer, MGM production chief Louis B. Mayer. Regarding the story’s female lead, Scarlett O’Hara, about one-third of Gallup’s respondents wanted Bette Davis to play her — but, as Selznick recalled later, there was just as much opposition as support for Davis in the role. Though Selznick had finished his deal for the movie rights to Gone with the Wind in 1936, he soon learned that Mayer would allow Gable to make Gone with the Wind only if MGM’s parent company, Loew’s Incorporated, released the film. Selznick had a distribution deal with United Artists that didn’t expire until the end of 1938, so he somehow had to maintain audience interest in a story he wouldn’t be able to film for another three years.
Selznick’s strategy was to hire a public relations genius named Russell Birdwell to launch an ongoing publicity stunt called “The Search for Scarlett O’Hara.” Virtually every actress in the U.S., and some from outside it as well, got to read for the role, and Selznick had so many screen tests shot he ended up with 24 hours’ worth of them. A number of actresses more or less impressed Selznick, but it wasn’t until December 21, 1938 that he found the woman he finally cast. His brother, agent Myron Selznick, had signed a young British actress named Vivien Leigh as a client, and on that fateful day he took her to the fire on Selznick’s back lot — needing a sequence showing Union General William Tecumseh Sherman burning down Atlanta, David Selznick had decided to gather up all the standing sets on his backlot, pass them off as Atlanta and burn them for real to clear the space for the big sets he needed for Gone with the Wind — and as the flames of the faux Atlanta burned around them, Myron walked up to David and said, “Meet Scarlett O’Hara.”
Gone with the Wind is probably the most documented production in the history of filmmaking, at least partly due to Selznick’s habit of writing down memos to his directors, writers and production staff to make sure they understood what he wanted from them. Selznick’s memos and the other surviving documents and interviews with people involved in the production make it clear that he was deliberately setting out to make not only the greatest movie that had been made to that time but the greatest that would ever be made. He insisted that the film be shot in three-strip Technicolor at a time when making a film in color doubled its production cost. Louis B. Mayer tried to talk him out of using color on the ground that the attractions were Gable and Mitchell’s bestselling book and the film wouldn’t make a dime more in color than it would in black-and-white. “I know, but the story demands color,” Selznick told Mayer — and Selznick was right not only artistically but financially. Gone with the Wind continued to be shown theatrically long after color films had become standard, lasting longer as a commercial property than it would have in black-and-white.
Selznick scoured the studios of Hollywood for the best actors to cast in the other roles as well. He got British free-lancer Leslie Howard to play Ashley Wilkes, Scarlett’s unrequited love interest, even though the 40-something Howard had already been savaged by critics for playing Romeo in MGM’s 1936 film of Romeo and Juliet and was reluctant to play another character so much younger than he was for real. He borrowed Olivia de Havilland from Warner Bros. to play Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett’s friend and the woman Ashley finally marries and stays with through the rest of the story. He cast veteran character actors Thomas Mitchell and Barbara O’Neil as Scarlett’s parents, and for the principal Black role of the O’Haras’ house slave Mammy, he got Hattie McDaniel, whose authority and power throughout the film made her a worthy choice even in a stereotypical role. McDaniel was often criticized for playing maids, to which she replied, “I have a choice — I can make $500 a week playing a maid or $5 a day being one.”
Selznick also relentlessly platooned people in and out of the behind-the-camera roles. For the three years of preparation and the opening weeks of shooting he used George Cukor as director — until, under pressure from Clark Gable, who thought the Gay Cukor would turn the film into a “women’s picture,” Selznick fired Cukor and replaced him with Gable’s friend and hunting buddy Victor Fleming. Later, when Fleming had a nervous breakdown and was out for a couple of weeks, Selznick hired Sam Wood — and when Fleming recovered he kept Wood on and had two separate units shooting scenes for the film with different actors at the same time. Though the first writer Selznick hired to adapt the book, Sidney Howard, got sole screen credit, he put many other writers to tweak the script — including Oliver H. P. Garrett, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten, Ben Hecht (who wrote the fustian title cards that gave the audience important information about the progress of the Civil War) and, briefly, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Selznick also fired his initial director of photography, Lee Garmes, and borrowed Bette Davis’s favorite cinematographer, Ernest Haller, from Warner Bros. to replace him, largely because he didn’t think the colors in Garmes’ work were bright enough.
When Gone with the Wind was finally released it broke all box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time and retaining that status until the release of The Sound of Music in 1965. Indeed, if you simply count the number of times people have paid to see it instead of trying to count how much they paid and then adjust for inflation (a particularly difficult way to measure a film like Gone with the Wind which has had many theatrical re-releases in widely varying economic contexts), Gone with the Wind is still the most popular film of all time. It is a movie that set standards for what a mainstream Hollywood production could be, and for decades after it was made was held up as a sort of gold standard for artistic excellence as well as commercial appeal. But it was also a film that bought into a lot of the mythmaking Southern whites created about the Civil War in their efforts to reverse their military defeat and return Southern Blacks to the status of a permanent servant class, which they did successfully until the explosion of Black civil-rights activism in the 1960’s. And it’s that mythmaking that is at the heart of the current demand to suppress Gone with the Wind.

The Soft Racism of the “Lost Cause”

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South … Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow … Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave … Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind … ”
— Ben Hecht, opening title card, Gone with the Wind

To understand the racial politics of Gone with the Wind it’s important to understand both what they are and what they are not. In 1915 pioneering filmmaker D. W. Griffith had made an even more openly and blatantly racist depiction of the Civil War and its aftermath than Gone with the Wind. It was called The Birth of a Nation and is an even bigger problem for film scholars than Gone with the Wind because it was a pioneering work, an indispensable subject for film students because it was the first feature-length film of real artistic integrity and power. It was the film in which Griffith brought together all the experimental techniques he’d been working on in his previous shorts — close-ups, panoramic shots, dramatic intercutting to show two events happening in different locales at the same time — and he established the basic grammar of film its directors have used ever since.
The Birth of a Nation was also a politically disgusting piece of racist propaganda in which Black characters were shown getting elected to Southern state legislatures (as part of a plot instigated by Northern white “carpetbaggers”) and rolling their eyes, playing craps and devouring watermelons on the legislative floors. When they’re not doing that, their main preoccupation is chasing after virginal, innocent white Southern women with rape (and worse) in their eyes. To add injury to insult, Griffith cast all his “Black” characters with white actors in hideously unconvincing blackface. The heroes of The Birth of a Nation are the Ku Klux Klan, who not only force the Blacks to give up their guns and their votes but ride to the rescue of white womanhood in an exciting climax that, though the film was silent, Griffith stipulated be accompanied by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Though the NAACP and other civil rights groups protested The Birth of a Nation from its release (and even before that they’d picketed the same story, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, when it was done on stage as a play), Virginia-born President Woodrow Wilson praised it as “history written in lightning” and added, “And the worst thing is it is all so terribly true.” Not only was Wilson the President, he had previously been a professor of American history and political science, so his praise gave The Birth of a Nation an historical imprimatur that was reflected in the literature of the time. Had anyone in 1915 seen The Birth of a Nation or heard about the controversy surrounding it, and wondered, “Is it historically accurate?,” the books available in public libraries at the time would have said it was.
Indeed, The Birth of a Nation directly inspired a revival of the Ku Klux Klan that became more powerful and influential than the original had been — and not just in the South, either. By 1924 the Klan had elected so many officials in Indiana they had essentially seized control of its government. At the 1924 Democratic National Convention a resolution to denounce the Klan failed by one vote. In 1927 the Klan staged a protest against racial equality in New York City and seven people were arrested. One of the Klansmen taken into custody that day was Fred Trump, father of the current President, which sheds an interesting light on Donald Trump’s calls for “law and order” and for the military to “dominate the streets” of American cities during an era of mass protests for racial equality and justice.
Gone with the Wind is not The Birth of a Nation. David O. Selznick worked hard to soften the racism of the original material. He’d experienced the controversy over The Birth of a Nation firsthand because his father had been one of its distributors, and he said in one of his copious memos during the making of Gone with the Wind that he’d been offered the remake rights to The Birth of a Nation but had turned them down because he didn’t want to reawaken the controversy over a story that openly glorified the Ku Klux Klan. The most problematic scene in Gone with the Wind is the one in which Scarlett drives her carriage through a low-brow area at night and is assaulted by both white and Black miscreants. She is rescued by her old Black foreman Sam (Everett Brown) and then avenged by a raiding party organized in a so-called “political meeting” led by her then-husband, Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye), who gets conveniently killed. In Mitchell’s book that mysterious “political meeting” was a Klan meeting.
The Birth of a Nation can be described as a “hard” racist film and Gone with the Wind as a “soft” racist film. Gone with the Wind doesn’t contain the scenes of maniacal, slavering Blacks just itching to rape Southern white women that weighed down The Birth of a Nation. It also doesn’t present the Ku Klux Klan at all, much less depict them as heroes. What it does do is soft-pedal the fundamental injustice of slavery. Indeed, it barely mentions slavery at all; though Hecht’s written prologue, quoted above, uses the S-word, the opening credits euphemistically list the characters the film’s Black actors play as “servants.”
There are a few explicit references to the slave status of the Black characters — like when Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) threatens Prissy (Butterfly McQueen, whose voice I had always assumed was a “trick” one she’d created for the character until she was interviewed in a 1980’s making-of documentary and she sounded exactly the same) with being “sold South.” It was a common threat owners made to rebellious or insubordinate slaves to sell them from their plantations in Virginia or the Carolinas or the so-called “border states” (the ones that had slavery but didn’t secede) like Maryland to the presumably even harsher and nastier conditions in the Deep South, though given that Gone with the Wind is set in Georgia it’s something of a mystery how much farther south Scarlett could sell her. There’s also a curious scene taking place between the end of the Civil War in April 1865 and the death of Scarlett’s father that December in which he tells her she’s being too nice to the Black characters and needs to treat them more harshly to maintain their subservience.
Gone with the Wind is certainly a racist movie, but the racism in it is “soft,” the sort of “Lost Cause” retrospective glorification and whitewashing of slavery as a beneficent, paternal institution begun by Southern journalist Edward Pollard in an 1866 book he actually called The Lost Cause, in which he wrote:

We shall not enter upon the discussion of the moral question of slavery. But we may suggest a doubt here whether that odious term “slavery” which has been so long imposed, by the exaggeration of Northern writers, upon the judgment and sympathies of the world, is properly applied to that system of servitude in the South, which was really the mildest in the world; which did not rest on acts of debasement and disenfranchisement, but elevated the African, and was in the interest of human improvement; and which, by the law of the land, protected the negro in life and limb, and in many personal rights, and, by the practice of the system, bestowed upon him a sum of individual indulgences, which made him altogether the most striking type in the world of cheerfulness and contentment.

It’s not like we didn’t know better. The evils of American slavery had been documented decades before in accounts by Northern researchers and activists and at least one white Southerner, Angelina Grimke. She was the daughter of a Southern planter and slaveowner whose religious convictions led her to reject the “Peculiar Institution.” In 1838 she published a book called American Slavery As It Is which documented, among other things, how often recalcitrant or rebellious slaves were punished by being starved, beaten or whipped. The realities of slavery were exposed in books by former slaves, including the most famous one, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845 with the provocative words “Written by Himself” on the title page — a challenge to the whole idea that Black people were inferior to whites and therefore deserved and even benefited from slavery. How, Douglass’s title page said, can you justify enslaving a whole race when at least one of them can write a book?
The most famous anti-slavery book written before the Civil War was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She started publishing it as a newspaper serial in 1851 and brought it out as a book in 1852. The first edition sold 300,000 copies — more than any other novel to that time — and was so influential that when Stowe met Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1862 he told her, “So you’re the little lady whose book started this Great War?” Though later generations of Black people regarded Stowe’s slave characters as themselves stereotypical and insulting, Uncle Tom’s Cabin set the template for anti-slavery stories — including naming the white overseers, who directly supervised the slaves and ordered the whippings and other punishments, as the real villains of slavery.
There’s an interesting reflection of the villainous-overseer stereotype in Gone with the Wind. The overseer on the O’Haras’ plantation, Tara, is Jonas Wilkerson (Victor Jory), a Northern transplant who runs the plantation and essentially gives the O’Haras plausible deniability for anything bad that happens to their slaves. He disappears during the Civil War and later returns during Reconstruction as a Northern carpetbagger who tries to take a leading role in the government of Georgia. Wilkerson even engineers a $300 tax increase on Tara in the hope that Scarlett will default on the tax bill and he will be able to buy Tara at auction.
Certainly Gone with the Wind is part of the “Lost Cause” mythology that, among other things, put up all those statues of Robert E. Lee and other “heroes” of the Confederate rebellion that are now being fought over and toppled — legally or otherwise — today. They were meant to send a message to Black Southerners, “We may have lost the war, but we won the peace. You’re back where you belong; you are our workforce and we are your masters, and that’s as it should be.” Belaboring the racial politics of a movie that is far more about the romantic and business intrigues of its white characters than the condition of its Black ones is somewhat beside the point — though it’s occurred to me that the current descendants of Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” role are the Black urban professionals in Lifetime movies, who may have careers and responsibilities but are still there to try to talk the white characters out of the stupid things they have to do for Lifetime movies to have plots at all.
Yes, Gone with the Wind is a problematic film, Certainly, as I conceded in my Los Angeles Times letter opposing HBO Max’s censorship, it “portrays slavery in a benign light, and it could not be remade today without a major rewrite to dramatize the horrors of slavery and include multidimensional Black characters.” It shouldn’t be taken as a serious piece of Civil War historiography, even in a fictional context. It should be acknowledged as a work of its time. But it also should not be censored, especially since it is a landmark in film history and, though artistically as well as politically flawed, a worthy piece of entertainment and the kind of thematically broad epic, appealing to many different kinds of audience, today’s movie business seems to have forgotten how to make.

Feminist Heroine or Rape-Culture Victim?

In the 20 to 30 years (I can’t remember which) since the last time I’d seen Gone with the Wind I’d remembered it as a feminist parable whose progressive gender politics had at least partly made up for its terrible racial ones. Indeed, in my Los Angeles Times letter defending the film I had written that Gone with the Wind “presents a heroine who grows from a shallow schemer into a woman of strength and power.” Now, however, I’m not so sure; though Scarlett O’Hara has a fascinating character arc — spoiled rich bitch who toys with men loses her wealth and social standing as her side loses a war, then gains it all back again through her own grit and determination — the gender politics of Gone with the Wind, though nowhere nearly as problematic as its racial politics, still mark it as a work of its time and have some unpleasantly sexist resonances when seen today.
Scarlett O’Hara is introduced (in a scene that was actually the last one Vivien Leigh shot for the film, since after five previous tries producer Selznick still hadn’t seen what he wanted from it) toying with a couple of suitors called the Tarleton twins, who are so interchangeable the movie’s credits have them backwards. It’s actually George Reeves (future TV Superman whose mysterious death was the subject of Allen Coulter’s film Hollywoodland, featuring Ben Affleck in his finest performance) as Stuart Tarleton and Fred Crane as his twin brother Brent. “Fiddle-de-dee,” she says — and keeps saying throughout most of the first half of the movie, when she isn’t putting off her dilemmas (including fending off most of the men who want to marry her in her futile pursuit of Ashley Wilkes, who’s engaged to marry his cousin Melanie for no better apparent reason than all the Wilkeses marry their cousins) by saying, “Tomorrow is another day.”
One of Gone with the Wind’s most interesting and least spoken-of film antecedents is the 1931 MGM production A Free Soul. Though A Free Soul has nothing to do with slavery, the South and the Civil War, it is a two-men-one-woman romantic triangle with Clark Gable and Leslie Howard as the two men. In A Free Soul Norma Shearer stars as a young upper-class woman whose attorney father (Lionel Barrymore) has just returned to practice following a stint in rehab for alcoholism. (They didn’t call it “rehab” then — they called it “drying out” — but the principle was the same.) Howard is her effete upper-class boyfriend and Gable is the gangster she meets and falls for out of attraction to his sheer roughness. In the end Howard shoots and kills Gable — obviously we’re supposed to “get” that he’s “grown a pair,” as it were — and attorney Barrymore wins his acquittal but drops dead in court of a heart attack just after finishing his closing argument to the jury.
A Free Soul was one of the key films that helped make Clark Gable a star, and set the template for a lot of his future vehicles: the macho stud who confronts the female lead, takes her down several social pegs, and ultimately overpowers her into submission. Though at least one of his frequent co-stars, Jean Harlow, was a powerful enough screen presence to fight him back, he made most of his films opposite either Shearer or Joan Crawford, who were easy prey for him. Rhett Butler fits the pattern of Gable’s previous roles so well it’s not surprising 64 percent of the respondents in Gallup’s poll waned Gable in the role.
He delivers the goods, skewering the pretensions of his fellow Southerners in the early scene in which he warns them that the North’s much greater industrial base and more extensive railroads are advantages all the gallantry and honor in the world won’t be able to overcome. When he approaches Scarlett, it’s in the same Taming of the Shrew manner with which he approached his other co-stars, especially in films like It Happened One Night and this one in which the woman has more money and a higher social status than he. And for all his skepticism about the Southern cause, Rhett supports it first as a blockade runner (“for money,” he insists), delivering supplies to the South and racking up huge profits he stores in a bank in Liverpool, and then by volunteering for the Confederate army just when it’s dawning on everyone else that the South’s cause is lost.
It’s a measure of Margaret Mitchell’s peculiar skill as a writer that she managed to convince readers both in the 1930’s and since that Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are living one of the great fictional love affairs when the scenes between them are highly combative and frequently quite nasty. Rhett opens by telling Scarlett that “you need to be kissed, quite often, and by someone who knows how to do it.” He shocks the crowd at a benefit dance for the Confederate cause by paying money for a dance with Scarlett (which at least one crowd member denounces as a “slave auction,” a bizarre bit of irony given that the whole point of Southern secession was to preserve an economy that depended on the buying, holding and selling of human beings as property!) when she’s supposed to be in mourning for her first husband, Melanie’s brother Charles, whom she married just to spite Melanie and who got measles and pneumonia at the front, dying a most unheroic death.
Rhett keeps turning up in Scarlett’s life, returning after the war when Scarlett is looking for anyone who can give her the $300 tax money she needs to save Tara. She finds him in a Union prison camp, and he tells her he’s broke because his fortune is tied up in England and if he tried to reclaim any of it, his captors would notice and seize it all. After Frank Kennedy, Scarlett’s second husband and a successful merchant she married because he could pay off the tax bill on Tara, conveniently gets killed in the raid after that mysterious “political meeting,” Rhett returns again and ultimately proposes marriage to her. She accepts and they have a modicum of happiness, but they still do a lot of sniping at each other.
They have a daughter, whom Rhett names “Bonnie Blue Butler” after the Confederate battle anthem “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” but she dies in a fall from her pony in a riding accident. Even before that, Scarlett has stopped having sex with Rhett because having one child already spoiled her figure and made it virtually impossible for Mammy to get her into the 18 ½-inch corset she wore before her pregnancy, and she doesn’t want to risk her figure with another child. So one night Rhett literally sweeps her off her feet, carries her to their bedroom and … thanks to the Production Code enforced on Hollywood between 1934 and 1966, the scene can’t get too graphic but it’s clear Rhett rapes her. When she realizes that he’s impregnated her again, she throws herself down the great staircase of Tara to induce an abortion and ensure that, to paraphrase her line from the end of the film’s first half that “as God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again,” she’ll never get pregnant again.
Margaret Mitchell managed in her novel to create two leading couples, the aristocratic but ultimately weak Ashley and Melanie — who stay together for life and whose son lives, or at least is still alive at the end — and Scarlett and Rhett, who snipe at each other through most of the story. Scarlett and Rhett are the most strong-willed characters in the tale, and they’re obviously at least superficially “right” for each other, but they’re also so strong-willed that neither of them will make the compromises needed to hold their relationship together. And after Rhett blows off Scarlett and leaves her with his famous kiss-off line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” — a word Selznick had to fight with the Production Code Administration to get to use in the film at all — Scarlett is left alone (except for all the faithful-to-a-fault Black ex-slaves who for some reason are still working for her) with her precious plantation. Only her final thoughts aren’t the goodbye-and-good-riddance-to-him-and-all-men ones a true feminist heroine would be uttering; they’re a promise to herself to win Rhett back, no matter how much she has to scheme to do it, because, “After all — tomorrow is another day!”

The Artistic Issues

So if Gone with the Wind is racially problematic (to say the least) and isn’t exactly the feminist tale that might make amends for its racial stereotyping and whitewashed view of slavery, does it at least hold up as a movie? Yes and no. Producer Selznick threw the entire armamentarium of mature Hollywood at it; if The Birth of a Nation is really the birth of movies as an artistic medium, Gone with the Wind is the full flowering of the innovations of Griffith and others and the creation of the well-oiled machine of classic Hollywood storytelling as they stood on the eve of World War II.
Gone with the Wind is very much a film of its moment. While the novel had been published in 1936, at a time when the U.S. was working its way out of the Great Depression and what was going on in those weirdly named countries in Europe and Asia was a matter of profound disinterest to most Americans, the film came out three years later, just as World War II was beginning and many Americans feared we would get dragged into it as we had been during World War I. As a film set on the home front during wartime, Gone with the Wind avoids any depiction of actual combat but brings home the horrors of war through the scenes of anxious Southerners awaiting the arrival of the printed casualty lists, frantically scanning them to see if their relatives are on them; and in the famous scene in which Scarlett, a volunteer nurse in a wartime hospital, loses it completely and wanders through an entire street full of wounded men. Selznick and cinematographer Haller had to rent a construction crane to shoot that sequence because no camera crane in Hollywood was long enough, or rose tall enough, to film it.
The connections between Gone with the Wind and World War II continued after the film was released and after the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. Clark Gable enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps after his wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash in January 1942 while returning from a public-appearance tour selling war bonds. The corps originally wanted to use him only for training missions and propaganda films, but Gable insisted on flying in actual combat and, according to one member of his unit, volunteered for the most dangerous missions because “I think he wants to be with his wife.” At least Gable survived the war; Leslie Howard didn’t. He was killed in 1943 on a commercial airliner flying from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol, England through an area the Germans considered a war zone. German gunners shot down Howard’s plane, and some accounts claimed they did so because they mistakenly thought British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was on it.
Certainly the fact that Gone with the Wind was made about a major war on the eve of another, even more major war gave it even more emotional resonance than it might otherwise have had. But it’s also a powerful story, vividly told, with four principal actors almost perfectly “right” for their parts (five if you count Hattie McDaniel’s role as a principal, which you should) and the virtues of Hollywood’s technological and aesthetic maturity.
The problem with Gone with the Wind as a work of art is it really doesn’t extend itself beyond the virtues of Hollywood’s technological and aesthetic maturity. The use of the expensive and elaborate three-strip Technicolor process helped the film’s appeal — especially after color productions became standard and Gone with the Wind could therefore still be shown in theatres after audiences expected all films to be in color — though the currently available DVD Charles and I watched has had its color toned down to the more burnished brown-and-green look common to a modern color film instead of the vivid, sometimes overly garish hues for which three-strip Technicolor was known. Indeed, the first feature film shot entirely in three-strip had been made four years earlier — Becky Sharp, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a book that had strongly, shall we say, “influenced” Margaret Mitchell when she wrote Gone with the Wind.
The biggest problem with Gone with the Wind was aptly described by F. Scott Fitzgerald during his short stint as a screenwriter on it. He wrote David Selznick a memo saying, “I still think it’s dull and false for one character to describe another.” The characters in Gone with the Wind describe each other to each other at great length — indeed, it’s largely through their descriptions of each other to each other that Mitchell and the filmmakers let us know how they want us to feel about them. Gone with the Wind is also one of the most obviously “planted” films of all time. “Planting” was a highly valued skill among 1930’s screenwriters; it meant dropping a hint early on in the action that suggested, and gave an audience forewarning of, a major plot development later on. Done well, it could give a powerful sense of unity to a film’s story. Done poorly or too obviously, it just seemed like arbitrary coincidence-mongering.
The most obvious and outrageous example of “planting” in Gone with the Wind is the sequence in which the dipsomaniac Gerald O’Hara, adjusting (or failing to adjust) to life after the North has won the Civil War, its soldiers have laid waste to Tara and Scarlett and his other two daughters have been reduced to picking cotton themselves to keep the plantation going, takes his favorite horse out on the grounds of Tara, tries to make a difficult jump over a fence and falls to his death. Almost two hours of running time later Gerald’s granddaughter Bonnie Blue Butler takes out her pony for her first attempt at a sidesaddle ride (since Scarlett has been told it isn’t “lady-like” to let her daughter use a man’s saddle), attempts the same jump … and just to make sure we get the point, we get a closeup of an increasingly frantic Scarlett as she says, “Just like Paw … just like Paw!” before, you guessed it, Bonnie takes the same jump her granddad had, with the same fatal result.
One other element in Gone with the Wind that seems really bothersome today is Max Steiner’s overwrought musical score. He usually worked at Warner Bros., where studio head Jack Warner told his music people, “I want the music to start when it says ‘Warner Bros. Present’ and not stop until it says ‘The End.’” Even here, in a non-Warner film (though it now bears the Warner Bros. logo since Ted Turner acquired MGM’s film library and then Warner Bros. acquired Turner’s media company), Steiner all too faithfully followed instructions.
His music not only almost never stops, it comments directly on the action and mirrors the visuals so closely it was sometimes derisively referred to as “Mickey-Mousing.” (The term originated out of Walt Disney’s belief that audiences wouldn’t accept a sound cartoon unless picture and sound were kept very closely in synch, and it became applied to live-action movies that also had an especially tight coordination between the visuals and the soundtrack.) Steiner’s music is so relentless that when we finally get a scene in which he shuts up — Rhett’s actual marriage proposal to Scarlett — the scene oddly seems more powerful from the absence of Steiner’s music.
When Gone with the Wind was new it got the reaction David Selznick wanted: not only enormous success at the box office but critical acclaim as the greatest movie that had ever been or would ever be made. More modern critics have soured on it; though Dwight Macdonald applauded it on its 1961 reissue (deliberately timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Civil War) as “adult entertainment” because of the complexity of its characters, in 1973 Richard Schickel slammed it for many of the same reasons anti-racist writers attack it today: “Frankly, my dear, I didn’t (and still don’t) give a damn about the South’s yokel notion that it once supported a new age of chivalry and grace. … I never could join Miss Mitchell in mourning the era gone with her wind, which seemed to me far from an ill wind.” He also dismissed it as romantic kitsch typical of Selznick’s overall output. (
I still like Gone with the Wind, though its soft-racist depiction of American slavery is pretty off-putting and how I ache to see a self-actualizing Black character in the film. (I once had the fantasy that Selznick and his writers had had one of the slaves at Tara teach himself to read and write, get whipped for that transgression, ultimately escape and then return as a Reconstruction politician humiliating the O’Haras by forcing them to take orders from a man they’d once owned. I even wished that Paul Robeson could have played this part.) But I’m not even sure it deserved the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1939; though it has its own set of problems, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a much nervier film, audaciously blending Right- and Left-wing political sensibilities (Capra was a Republican and his writer, Sidney Buchman, was a Communist) and featuring a star, James Stewart, who stretched himself beyond his usual range instead of neatly fitting into his comfortable groove the way Clark Gable did in Gone with the Wind.