Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Stony the Road: The Second Half of Henry Louis Gates’ “Reconstruction”


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At 9 p.m. yesterday I watched the remaining two hours of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS mini-series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. The first two hours, shown last week, dealt with the Reconstruction period itself (1865-1877), when for much of the time the South was literally occupied by the U.S. military and, under the rule of a Republican Congress whose leaders took the rights of African-Americans seriously and used federal troops to enforce them, Black Americans became landowners, businesspeople and even elected officials.
Alas, the brave dream of achieving racial equality in America as an aftermath of the Civil War faded quickly under the lash of Southern terror — the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations were founded, often by former Confederate Army officers, and their purpose was to destroy Black-owned property and intimidate Black people into abandoning their dreams of equality and accepting a perpetual state of servitude almost indistinguishable from slavery — and Northern war-weariness.
By the 1890’s Blacks had been driven from power and fortune through a series of increasingly restrictive measures, including voter suppression through poll taxes, literacy tests and bizarre qualifications (dramatized in the opening scene of the movie Selma in which a would-be Black voter, played in a cameo by Oprah Winfrey, is obliged to guess correctly how many jellybeans are in a large jar of them) that had the side effect of disenfranchising a lot of poor white people as well, along with outright terror — including an infamous massacre of Black officeholders and their supporters in Wilmington, North Carolina (the last redoubt of Black political power in the South at the end of the 19th century) that left 600 people dead and the Cape Fear River literally running red with blood.
Gates makes powerful points about the persistence and unscrupulousness of white supremacists in the South and how they’re still operating today — including the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia two years ago in which gangs of neo-Nazi and neo-Klan activists tried to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee against the efforts of a multiracial city government to have it taken down. Gates also discusses the history of these Confederate monuments in the first place, saying that they were part of a Southern propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War as a noble “Lost Cause” in what paternal whites enslaved Blacks with deep kindness and humility and for their own good because these people simply weren’t as good as us. (Barf.)
The combination of racist propaganda, spread throughout the country via books, plays, posters, cartoons, and ultimately movies — including D. W. Griffith’s 1915 masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, both a landmark in the history of cinema as an art form and a bizarre piece of racist propaganda (Gates shows the infamous scene in which Mae Marsh, as the film’s second white female lead, jumps off a cliff to her death rather than allow herself the Fate Worse than Death of being raped by a Black man — played by a white actor in preposterously unconvincing blackface; for once Griffith’s racism overpowered his filmmaking acumen) which won the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson and became the most popular movie of the entire silent era.
The racist propaganda campaign also extended into the halls of academe; not only did history departments rewrite the history of Reconstruction according to the Southern propaganda blueprint (as I’ve noted before, if anyone in 1915 had seen The Birth of a Nation or read about the controversy surrounding it and gone to a library to research whether the film was historically accurate, the books they would have found would have said it was), biologists and anthropologists published elaborate racial typographies to indicate that Blacks were a lower order of humanity, not fully human but simply intermediate stages on our evolution from apes. (I remember being startled, though not really surprised, to read reports at a recent Right-wing convention that they were presenting speakers denouncing the early 20th-century anthropologist Franz Boas, the first scientist to take on the scientific racists and debunk their ridiculous theories.)
Fortunately, Gates’s Reconstruction is not all gloom and doom; he also dramatizes the people in the Black community who fought back, including journalist Ida B. Wells, who traveled the country collecting stories of lynchings and wrote for a Black paper, the New York Age, after she was driven out of Memphis, Tennessee, her home town (I encountered her in an earlier PBS documentary on the Black press and said her story would make a great feature film — I even named Halle Berry as the actress who should play her) and W. E. B. Du Bois, a professor of such giant intellect it’s hard to categorize him into any one discipline, who published sociological studies of Black communities in Northern cities and “made his bones” in 1903 with a collection of essays called The Souls of Black Folk that directly challenged the leading African-American leader of his time, Booker T. Washington.
Washington (a name he chose for himself; the “T.” stood for the name of his former slavemaster, Taliaferro, pronounced “Tolliver”) had become a media superstar in 1895 through a speech he’d made at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition in which he basically said that Blacks should be content to be farmers and manual laborers, and Black schools should train them for these sorts of jobs and to be teachers in Black-only schools, and forget about voting or political power or building businesses or pursuing intellectual careers. Nuts to that, said Du Bois; he thought the Black community should not only aspire to anything whites could do, but should develop what he called a “Talented Tenth” — an intellectual elite who would not only lead the struggle for racial equality but would serve, by their own examples, as a response to the racist arguments about what Blacks were and weren’t capable of doing.
Du Bois also wrote the first major book by a qualified historian challenging the Southern white-supremacist version of Reconstruction, Black Reconstruction in America (1935) — a quarter-century before white historians like Erle McKitrick, Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner (the last of whom is still alive and was interviewed for this program, one of the few white people Gates and the filmmakers cited as a source — in using mostly Black experts for his talking heads Gates was clearly doing a little Talented Tenthing of his own) — though by then he had become a member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. and he had adopted a Marxist analysis of Reconstruction for which Adam Gopnik, reviewing the Reconstruction film and Gates’s book Stony the Road, published in conjunction with the documentary, for the New Yorker (, rather oddly faults him:

Du Bois tries strenuously to fit the story of the end of Reconstruction into a Marxist framework: the Southern capitalists were forcing serfdom upon their agricultural laborers in parallel to the way that the Northern ones were forcing it on their industrial workers. His effort is still echoed in some contemporary scholarship. But an agricultural class reduced to serfdom is exactly the kind of stagnant arrangement that capitalism chafes against. Sharecropping is not shareholding.

Not surprisingly, I think Du Bois got it right and Gopnik got it wrong. The Northern industrialists, financiers and other capitalists who dominated the Republican Party in the last third of the 19th century wanted the South as a largely dispossessed area, a sort of American latifundia that would produce cheap cotton to feed the North’s highly developed textile industry and would also provide a source of cheap industrial labor in case Northern white workers got too uppity and started demanding things like decent wages, limited hours, health and safety regulations and the right to form unions. That’s why there were huge steel mills in Birmingham, Alabama (actually in Bessemer, a suburb created especially to house them and named after one of the inventors of modern steel-making) by the end of the 19th century.
Nothing sums up the change in the attitudes of Northern Republicans like the two statements by Ohio Congressmember John Bingham, the principal author of the Fourteenth Amendment, who in 1871 said he had definitively intended the Amendment to protect the rights of African-Americans — and in 1881 said equally definitively that he had intended it to protect the rights of corporations. In the last fourth of the 19th Century the U.S. Supreme Court swung hard Right on both economic and racial issues: it was in 1886 that the Court declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore protected by the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment — a doctrine that for the next 50 years would be used as a cudgel to strike down virtually any attempt to regulate giant corporations to protect workers, consumers or the environment.
It led to a concept called “substantive due process” which took the idea of “due process” beyond its surface meaning — that if you are going to be prosecuted or regulated, it has to be done within a legal process with certain safeguards to make it fair — and which ruled entire areas of potential government action, including minimum-wage legislation, health and safety regulation, and limits on the development and industrial exploitation of public lands, presumptively unconstitutional as a violation of the “substantive due process” rights of corporate “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment.
It was also in 1883 that the Supreme Court, in a series of consolidated actions called the Civil Rights Cases, ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act, passed by a lame-duck Republican Congress after Democrats swept the 1874 midterms and which was virtually identical to the landmark bill of the same title passed in 1964, was unconstitutional because government had no business telling private business owners whom they may or may not serve. This argument is still heard today; Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said during his campaign that if he’d been in Congress he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act for that reason.
It was also the argument Barry Goldwater made when he did vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a key step in the historic “flip” of America’s two main political parties on civil rights that started in the ’teens but became final in the 1960’s. The Democrats, the party of slavery, segregation and the Klan, became the party of equal rights for African-Americans and, later, other oppressed groups; while the Republicans became the party of white supremacy and racism, still calling themselves the “Party of Lincoln” but losing all connection to what Lincoln and the other Republican Unionists had actually been fighting for in the Civil War and ending up on the other side.

Why Jazz Was Born in New Orleans

The famous test case of Plessy v. Ferguson followed 13 years later and basically enshrined racial segregation into American law. What Gates deserves credit for pointing out in the program is that Plessy v. Ferguson was actually a test case, initiated in 1892 to challenge a law in Louisiana that required separate railroad cars for white and Black passengers. The significance of the case originating in Louisiana and the plaintiff, Homer Adolph Plessy, having a French-sounding last name is that Plessy wasn’t visibly Black at all: he was one of the mixed-race New Orleans Creoles who, like the mixed-race “Coloreds” in South Africa during apartheid, had an ambiguous social position, lower than whites but higher than Blacks.
As the only part of the United States that had originally been settled by the French, who had at least a somewhat gentler attitude towards racial mixing and interracial people than the Anglos who had settled the first 13 colonies that formed the United States, Louisiana had given birth to a class of Creoles that identified with white Western culture, specifically French culture, and regarded France, not Africa, as their true homeland.
Plessy was selected for the test case, brought by the railroads who didn’t want the extra expense of having to maintain segregated cars, because he was a New Orleans Creole who was only one-sixteenth Black, and in order to get himself arrested so he could start the test case he had to cross over from a Black to a white car and announce to a train steward that he was Black and was refusing to leave the white car, so the steward would have him arrested. Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1896 and ruled that the equal protection clause did not bar segregation as long as the facilities were “separate but equal” — which, not surprisingly, they never were; the film contains plenty of photographs of separate white and Black facilities that show, better than any narration or talking-heads could, how decidedly unequal the Black facilities were to the white ones.
Gates doesn’t mention the cultural dynamics created by the segregation laws, especially in Louisiana — though his book (albeit not the show itself) argues that, instead of the elaborate literary and scholarly books published by African-American intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but popular music in general and jazz in particular: “There was, in fact, a genuine renaissance occurring during the Harlem literary renaissance, but it wasn’t among the writers. The renaissance was occurring among those great geniuses of Black vernacular culture, the musicians who created the world’s greatest art form in the twentieth century—jazz.”
What this ignores is that the creation of jazz was itself a direct result of racial segregation, and in particular its imposition in Louisiana, where the proud Creoles were thrown down from their perch midway up the racial hierarchy from Blacks to whites and forced into the same category as the Blacks. That, I’ve long believed, is why jazz was born when (the 1890’s) and where (New Orleans) it was: the Creoles brought their European conservatory training and command of the Western musical instruments to the mix, while the Blacks brought their folk traditions and in particular the spirit of gospel music and the blues.
Had segregation not jammed the Creoles and the Blacks of New Orleans into the same bands and the same venues, I suspect African-American popular music would have bifurcated into the sophisticated ragtime of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries on one hand, and the rough-hewn folk blues of the Black working class on the other — just as white American pop music split between the relative sophistication of Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway (and, later, Hollywood) musical scores that have become known as the “Great American Songbook” on one hand, and the folk traditions of bluegrass, hillbilly and Western music that became the basis of country music on the other.
Tbe extent to which the origin of jazz came from a fusion between the Creole and Black cultures of New Orleans is illustrated by the personnel listings of early jazz bands, which are full of both Anglo (Black) and French (Creole) names. One can hear the tension between the great Creole genius Sidney Bechet and the great Black genius Louis Armstrong on the records they made together with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five and the Red Onion Jazz Babies in 1924.

Minstrelsy and Ethnic Humor in General

Gates’s discussion of Blacks in popular culture in the early 20th century is the one that’s become typical, presenting the whole minstrelsy tradition as racist propaganda and denying that the vaudeville and revue stages of the first 20 years of the 20th century contained equally insulting and stereotypical presentations of white ethnics. As I wrote in my article on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the demands by fellow Democrats for his resignation because he had posed in blackface during his college years:

One of the key elements of the Left-wing McCarthyist attack on Ralph Northam is an hysterical, ahistorical condemnation of the whole idea of blackface. Northam’s critics are speaking and acting as if Northam actually joined the Ku Klux Klan or led a lynch mob. To understand what blackface really means you have to look at it in historical context. It was part of a wide variety of ethnic stereotypes comedians and entertainers in the U.S. trafficked in from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. Look at the products of classic Hollywood and you will see comedians who specialized in playing stereotyped Germans, stereotyped Swedes, stereotyped Irishmen, stereotyped Jews and stereotyped Blacks.
The Marx Brothers began their careers playing ethnic stereotypes: Groucho was the “comic Jew,” Chico the “comic Italian” and Harpo, until he gradually got fewer and fewer lines of dialogue until he stopped speaking on stage at all, was “Patsy Brannigan,” the “comic Irishman.” Since the Marx Brothers actually were Jewish, modern audiences watching their movies tend to regard Groucho as the most “authentic” of them — but the people who went to their vaudeville appearances, their Broadway musicals and the initial releases of their movies saw Groucho as just another ethnic comedian playing a Jew.
There’s evidence that at least some blackface performers regarded their work as a genuine, heartfelt tribute to authentic Black music and culture. One of the most interesting documents of this is the 1934 film Wonder Bar, in which Al Jolson — whose star power and status as the first person who played the lead in a successful sound film kept blackface and the minstrel-show tradition it sprang out of going for about two generations after it would have otherwise died out — has two large production numbers.
On his whiteface number, “Vive la France” (the film is set in Paris and casts Jolson as an American entertainer who owns a nightclub there), Jolson sings in a high, rather whiny tenor with a fast, irritating vibrato. On his blackface number, “Going to Heaven on a Mule,” he drops his register, sings from the chest instead of the throat, slows his vibrato and achieves a sound surprisingly like that of the genuinely African-American concert singers and Broadway performers of the time. The number itself, directed by Busby Berkeley, is a conglomeration of just about every racist stereotype you can imagine (which probably kept this film from being revived in the early 1970’s with Berkeley’s other major films), but Jolson’s sincerity and soul transcend the minstrelsy conventions and are genuinely moving.

Indeed, one of the most annoying aspects of the critique of blackface as ipso facto racism is it ignores the fact that many of the most prominent blackface performers, as well as the songwriters who supplied them material, were themselves members of a persecuted minority: they were Jews. That includes not only performers like Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker (whose star-making hit, “Some of These Days,” was written by Black songwriter Shelton Brooks and who, though she didn’t perform in blackface, was advertised as a “coon shouter” — i.e., a white singer who could sound Black) but songwriters like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, as well as producers like Florenz Ziegfeld.
When PBS ran the three-part series Broadway: The American Musical I argued that the entire Broadway musical tradition was a fusion of Black and Jewish culture, to the point where Broadway show creators who weren’t either Black or Jewish consciously tried to emulate those who were. Cole Porter once said that the reason he became a successful songwriter in the late 1920’s after a decade of disappointments was “I learned to write Jewish,” and Jerome Kern’s biggest hit was the faux-spiritual “Ol’ Man River.”
That’s why I got annoyed with the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), real-life co-owner (with his brother) of a record label which marketed Black music to Black (and, later, white) audiences, is portrayed as so naïve about racism his Black artists have to explain it to him. Had I been writing the script, I would have had Chess respond, “Look, I know all about prejudice! I’m Jewish, and a lot of the people who don’t like you don’t like us, either!”
But then one of my problems with a lot of modern-day social criticism from African-Americans and their white supporters is they tend to lump everyone with fairer skin into an amorphous “white” category and ignore the often fierce ethnic and social prejudices between Euro-Americans depending on which part of Europe they came from. I was grimly amused when many of the white supremacists who protested in Charlottesville in 2017 had names that sounded Italian, Slavic or Celtic — i.e., they were people who wouldn’t have been considered “white” by previous generations of white supremacists in the 1890’s, the 1930’s or even the 1960’s.
One good thing Gates’s Reconstruction program did on the cultural front was mount a fairly long segment on the Black minstrel performer Bert Williams, who started out in a comedy team with George Walker and became a huge star on his own — he was the first Black performer featured in a Broadway musical and he joined the Ziegfeld Follies (where W. C. Fields met him and called him “the funniest man I’ve ever seen on stage — and the saddest man I’ve ever seen off stage”).
Gates argues that Williams was the pioneer of the “double act” a lot of Black performers trying to cross over to white audiences have done: played up to the stereotypes of the white audience while also giving his Black fans what Gates called “the wink,” the acknowledgment that he knew he was playing a stereotype that didn’t reflect what Blacks were really like, but he was also making fun of the stereotype and the whites who believed it was what Blacks were really like.
Williams took on the insulting designation of many Black performers, and characters in songs about Blacks, as “coons” and turned it on its head by advertising himself and Walker as “The Two Real Coons” — driving white minstrelsy performers up the wall with their bold claim that essentially said, “Don’t watch them pretending to be us. Watch the real deal!”
Gates compared them to the rap group N.W.A. (whose name stood for “Niggers with Attitude”), though I loathe rap — especially the so-called “gangsta rap” N.W.A. pioneered and personified, with its relentless glorification of murder, rape, crime in general and acquisition of material goods (including the horribly tasteless jewelry known as “bling”) — so much I get cold chills at any documentary that has anything nice to say about it. Still, the point is that Williams paved the way for a lot of Black performers (including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Richard Pryor) who built huge white followings by at once superficially depicting and actually lampooning racist stereotypes.

Reconstruction: The Sequel(s)

Gates races through the last parts of his story — perhaps someday he will be able to do a follow-up about African-American civil-rights activism in the first half of the 20th century, both the relatively sedate legal kind practiced by the NAACP (whose founding is depicted here as part of the segment on Du Bois, who moved from the Black-led Niagara Movement — so called because it had its inaugural convention at Niagara Falls — to the largely white-led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 and of which Du Bois was the only Black member of the founding board; instead of taking the group’s presidency he picked the role of what was essentially its information minister, editing and writing a great deal of its flagship magazine, The Crisis) and more upfront activism that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision invalidating racial segregation in education in 1954 and creating what I’ve argued elsewhere was a sort of “hunting license” to the African-American community.

Brown didn’t grant civil rights immediately but did spark the most intensive decade of African-American activism in U.S. history — even though, as I said when I wrote about the first half of this program, we shouldn’t make the easy assumption that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” One could read the reaction of America under President Trump and the resurgence of white supremacism and ethnic nationalism in general not only in this country but through much of the world as a temporary setback in the arc of history bending towards justice — or one could read the possibility that the gains of the 1960’s civil rights movement, which then and since has often been called “The Second Reconstruction,” will turn out to be as evanescent as the first, as the forces of white supremacism regain control of both America’s politics (which they’ve come close to achieving) and its culture (from which they’re a lot farther away) and make the idea that there ever was an African-American U.S. President as inconceivable as it was 100 years ago that there had ever been an African-American U.S. Senator.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Past as Prologue: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Looks at Reconstruction


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 9 p.m. last night I watched the first half of a fascinating PBS documentary program on Reconstruction, given the rather academic title Reconstruction: America After the Civil War for a political era that could almost be described as a second American Civil War, coming right after the first one — spanning the years 1865 to 1877 — and featuring some of the same combatants, including generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman and Phil Sheridan for the North and Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest for the South. The outcome, however, was profoundly different: the South, losers of the first U.S. Civil War, won the second one and were able, through sheer tenacity and resort to violence and terrorism, to revert the South’s African-American population to a state as close to slavery as possible without violating the Thirteenth Amendment.
Reconstruction was produced under the overall supervision of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American professor at Harvard and a distinguished academic who a few years ago felt the hot breath of white supremacy up close and personal when police in Boston arrested him for trying to enter his own house. They assumed he was a burglar because they couldn’t conceive of any African-American actually being affluent enough to own a house in that neighborhood. At the time Barack Obama was President and he invited Gates and the police that arrested him to the White House, where he brokered an apology. One suspects our current President would have had the white officers to the White House on their own and congratulated them on a job well done!
Interestingly, the show is structured into four episodes, of which only the first two (the ones shown back-to-back last night) deal with what most historians consider the actual Reconstruction period, 1865 to 1877. The first hour dealt with the presidency of Andrew Johnson, who had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as his running mate in 1864 on a so-called “National Union” ticket (those Republicans who still insist on calling their party the “Party of Lincoln” forget that in 1864 the Republican Party actually repudiated Lincoln and failed to renominate him, then couldn’t find a candidate willing to run against him), replacing Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first-term vice-president.
According to Gates’s narration here, two days before his assassination Lincoln gave a speech in which he advocated giving the vote to some African-Americans — mainly landowners and veterans of the Union Army — and John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd and, upon hearing that announcement, turned to the person standing next to him and said, “That’s the last public speech he’ll ever give.” Gates made it seem like Lincoln’s advocacy of at least some Black suffrage was what made Booth decide to kill him; in fact Booth was part of a conspiracy that involved at least seven other people and was an attempt by Southern bitter-enders to achieve by decapitating the Union government what they had failed to win on the battlefield.
An assassin entered the bedroom of Secretary of State William Seward and slashed his face open; Seward survived but the newspapers of the time reported the attack on Seward in the same articles in which they covered the Lincoln assassination and the reporters obviously understood the link between the two events. Andrew Johnson was spared only because his would-be assassin, George Adzerodt, got drunk and lost his nerve — ironic that Johnson, himself an alcoholic, was spared assassination because his designated killer was also fond of the bottle.
Gates points out in the program that Johnson, a poor-white Tennessean who had worked himself up (the show does not mention that Johnson grew up not knowing how to read or write: he learned those skills only as an adult, after he married a schoolteacher who taught him), hated both the rich white Southern planters who owned the slaves and the slaves themselves. The way Johnson set up Reconstruction, the Southern white aristocrats had to come to him and beg him for pardons personally, but once he had exacted his ritual humiliation against them he generally came through and restored their full civil and political rights. Frederick Douglass met Johnson early on in his presidency and noticed booze on his breath (the meeting took place at 11 a.m.); Johnson made enough racist statements that Douglass reported back on the meeting, “Whatever he is, Andrew Johnson is no friend of the Black man.”
Johnson had the advantage that he took power in April 1865 and the next session of the U.S. Congress didn’t start until that December; he decided to enact his own version of Reconstruction by executive order (sound familiar?). Oliver Howard, who had been put in charge of the Freedmen’s Bureau — the federal agency charged with responsibility for easing and ensuring the ex-slaves’ transition to freedom — wanted to break up the old Southern plantations and give 40-acre plots to former Black slaves on a three-year loan with the proviso that if the Black farmers did well enough to make enough money to pay the loan, they would own the land free and clear (the origin of the famous phrase “40 acres and a mule”).
Johnson countermanded the order and instead said that the federal government would restore the plantations to their former white owners, and he stood back as the white men of the South re-elected their old Confederate officials to the new “Union” state governments and enacted the so-called “Black Codes” by which every adult Black resident had to sign an employment contract to a white landowner or employer, and if they didn’t they would be arrested and fined, and their services would “belong” to any white person who paid their fine.
In December 1865 the U.S. Congress reconvened and, led by the so-called “Radical Republican” leaders Congressmember Thaddeus Stevens (who got mentioned in this program) and Senator Charles Sumner (who didn’t), started passing laws to clamp down on the attempts of white Southerners to force Blacks back into near-slave conditions. Their main weapon was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which they passed over Johnson’s veto and which they soon sought to protect against judicial review by inserting it into the U.S. Constitution as the Fourteenth Amendment.
As Gates pointed out, the three constitutional amendments passed just after the Civil War — the Thirteenth, which formally abolished slavery and “involuntary servitude”; the Fourteenth, which established birthright citizenship[1] and barred state governments from denying their citizens the “equal protection” of the laws, or “due process” under law (terms that would launch seemingly endless judicial arguments over what they meant and how much they constrained states from acting against broadly defined groups of their citizens); and the Fifteenth, which said that states could not infringe on the right to vote on the basis of race[2] — basically transformed the U.S. Constitution and made it at least potentially a tool for achieving racial equality.
The first hour of Reconstruction told the story of the Johnson Administration and its clashes with Congress over who should have authority over the Southern states — in particular whether they could automatically be readmitted to the U.S. or they had to go through a process and petition for readmission as states — as well as how deeply the federal government would intervene to protect the rights of Southern Blacks against the attacks of Southern whites.
It mentions Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and narrow escape (his conviction was defeated in the U.S. Senate by just one vote) just in passing, without explaining what the motivation for it was: at a time when the U.S. had no civil service system, government jobs were patronage appointments and the people holding them were routinely fired en masse when the White House changed parties. Andrew Johnson may have run for vice-president as the running mate of the Republican Lincoln, but once he was President he thought of himself as a Democrat (indeed, in 1868 he sought the Democratic, not the Republican, nomination to continue as President — and got exactly nowhere) and fired Republican officeholders en masse and replaced them with Democrats.
The Republicans who were subject to Johnson’s purges appealed to Congress to pass the Tenure of Office Act to put the brakes on Johnson firing them and replacing them with Democrats, and Johnson really ticked off the Congressional Republicans when he tried to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. A lot of Northerners thought Stanton had been the key player in the North’s victory in the Civil War; picked by Lincoln in 1862 to replace the corrupt Simon Cameron (to whom Lincoln had promised the job in exchange for enough convention delegates to win the 1860 nomination over the party establishment’s favorite, William Seward[3]), Stanton had made sure the Union Army got the weapons and supplies Northern taxpayers were paying for, and many people attributed the victory to Stanton’s honest and effective management of the War Department.
The Stanton firing led directly to Johnson’s impeachment and near-removal from office, though the real conflict between Johnson and Congressional leaders (who won a veto-proof majority of over two-thirds in both houses in the 1866 midterms) was over the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. These acts essentially called for the division of the former Confederate states into five zones of occupation, each one under the command of a Union general, and essentially suspended local authority until new state governments could be constituted through elections in which all free men, Black as well as white, could vote. The Reconstruction Acts also required the states to petition the federal government for permission to rejoin the Union, and as a condition of doing so required them to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.
Under the occupation, quite a number of African-American men won political office in the formerly secessionist South — and one of the most fascinating aspects of the Reconstruction program is that, though Gates’ narration doesn’t mention it, a lot of these people don’t look especially Black in their surviving photos. It seems likely some of them were the mixed-race children of white Southern planters and the Black women slaves they took as mistresses or simply raped. Aside from Louisiana, a former French colony in which the mixed-race Creoles were recognized as a distinct social class with lower standing and fewer privileges than the whites but higher standing and more privileges than the Blacks, in the rest of the South mixed-race children were considered Black (indeed, some of the most effective anti-slavery propaganda before the Civil War consisted of photos of white-looking mixed-race children which were distributed by abolitionist groups to get people angry that people who looked white were nonetheless being considered “Black” and kept in slavery).
Gates mentions several of the Black politicians who won office during the Reconstruction era, including Hiram Revels (R-Mississippi), the first African-American U.S. Senator, but the one he presents as his paradigmatic figure of Black advancement during Reconstruction is Robert Smalls. Robert Smalls escaped slavery on May 13, 1862, when he and a crew of fellow slaves commandeered a Confederate cotton steamer, sailed it to the Union blockade line and surrendered it. After the war Smalls got elected to the Mississippi state legislature and eventually to Congress, and he wrote a memoir that was one of Gates’s primary sources on the rise and fall of Black political power in the South during Reconstruction.
America looked well on its way to a peaceful resolution of the issues raised by the Civil War and an effective transition to a multi-racial society, but the white Southerners fought back with a mix of terrorism and propaganda. In 1865 white Southern bitter-enders formed the Ku Klux Klan, which Gates explains was an extension of the former white slave patrols, freelance vigilantes who had patrolled the South looking for fugitive slaves. The Klan and similar organizations like the Knights of the White Camellia launched a campaign of no-holds-barred terrorism to intimidate Black officials from taking office and rank-and-file Blacks from voting at all.
They also sought to steal the property of Blacks who had built up successful farms and businesses — one woman farmer depicted in the show said she was tied to a tree by a white mob whose leader said he would either rape her or kill her, her “choice” — and as the 1870’s continued they were largely successful in wearing down Northern resistance. The white Southerners, particular the landed aristocracy that had owned most of the slaves in the first place, not only fought a terror campaign against free Southern Blacks, especially Black landowners, business owners and politicians, they bolstered it with a two-pronged propaganda campaign.
One prong was aimed at poor Southern whites to make them identify their interests with those of the white planter class rather than poor Southern Blacks — not the first time nor the last time that lower-income whites have been induced by racist and prejudicial appeals to vote against their own economic interests (this was revived by the Republican Party, after the historical reversal of the 1960’s in which the two major political parties switched their positions on civil rights in general and African-American equality in particular, in the so-called “Southern Strategy” by which Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond neutralized the threat of George Wallace’s independent Presidential candidacy in 1968; originally intended just to stop Wallace from splitting the Right-wing vote in 1968, the appeals to racism at the heart of the “Southern Strategy” proved effective at winning Northern working-class whites as well, splitting the New Deal coalition and putting the Republican Party and the Right in general in ongoing control of American politics, with only minor and transitory interruptions, ever since).
The other prong was aimed at public opinion in the North. Part of this was a deliberate romanticization of the cause of the Confederacy — it became known as the “Lost Cause,” following the publication of a successful book of that title by Virginian author and journalist Edward Pollard in 1866 — which presented the pre-war South as a gentle, well-mannered aristocracy and said the Civil War had been fought for “State’s Rights.” Pollard’s (and his fellow “Lost Cause” authors’) attitude towards slavery and their willful ignorance of the fact (demonstrated, as Gates points out, in the ordinances of secession themselves) that the “right” the Southern states were fighting the federal government over was the “right” to own other people as slaves — is indicated in this passage from Pollard’s book, quoted on the Wikipedia page about the “lost cause” mythology generally:

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.

The romanticization of the Confederacy went into hyper-drive in 1870, when the death of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee was used as an occasion for both official and unofficial mourning throughout the South — Gates’ program includes a photo of a Southern courthouse in which every one of the outside columns was wrapped in a black spiral ribbon of mourning — including the erection of statues of Lee, usually on horseback, in public places throughout the South. These statues have become flash points of controversy in public life today as anti-racist Blacks and whites have demanded they be taken down, and white racists and nationalists (including President Trump) have insisted that they should remain. The bitter clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 began when a liberal mixed-race city government in Charlottesville ordered a Lee monument removed from a public park and Right-wing nationalist and racist Richard Spencer issued a nationwide call, “Unite the Right,” for white supremacists, nationalists and conservatives in general to come to Charlottesville to protect the Lee statue — which led to the death of one counter-protester and President Trump’s statement that “there were good people on both sides.”
White authors, not just in the South but the North as well, put out propaganda that said the Black-run state governments in power during the Reconstruction years had been either incompetent, corrupt or both; Gates’s program includes cartoons, some drawn by the legendary Thomas Nast, which depicted Black legislators as little more than apes. Probably the most powerful piece of propaganda for the “lost cause” mythology was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation, based on a novel called The Clansman by the fanatically racist North Carolina author Thomas Dixon — which, in one of those uncomfortable bits of history, also turned out to be the finest film, from purely artistic criteria, made to that time. It depicts the Black legislators of the Reconstruction government (almost all played by white actors in blackface) as eye-rolling stereotypes playing craps on the legislative floor and lusting after innocent, virginal white women.
The good guys in Griffith’s film are the Ku Klux Klan, who seize power back from these corrupt monsters and secure renewed white rule by taking the Blacks’ guns away — all to the strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (It was a silent film but it went out with a musical score to be played in the theatre as the film was shown, and for his exciting finale with the Klan saving the white South from the depradations of the Blacks, Griffith and his musical director, Joseph Carl Breil, specified the “Ride of the Valkyries.”)
Northern Republicans in Congress and the newly elected president from the 1868 election, Ulysses S. Grant, fought back. In 1871 Congress held hearings as part of an elaborate investigation into the activities of the Klan and other Southern vigilante groups, and as a result they passed the so-called “Enforcement Acts” under the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment (which has since become boilerplate in most subsequent Constitutional amendments) that “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
Alas for the cause of racial equality in the U.S., the Grant administration also turned out to be spectacularly corrupt; while Grant himself (like later Republican President Warren G. Harding and unlike Donald Trump) was apparently personally honest, he appointed a lot of crooks and grafters to his Cabinet, The most famous scandal of the Grant administration was the Crédit Mobilier, a sham “bank” through which the Union Pacific Railroad funneled its construction contracts and created what amounted to a slush fund through which they could buy influence in Washington, D.C. through outright bribes of public officials.
The Democratic Party swept into power in both houses of Congress in the 1874 midterms — though the outgoing Republicans managed to hold out long enough that in their lame-duck session they passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which like the one a much later Congress passed in 1964 made it illegal for private businesses to discriminate in public accommodations on the basis of race. Unlike the one passed in 1964, the one passed in 1875 was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883, saying that the government had no authority to tell private business owners whom they could or couldn’t serve.
Earlier, in 1876, the Supreme Court had gutted the Enforcement Acts by ruling that a group of private vigilantes who slaughtered African-Americans en masse could not be convicted in federal court of violating their civil rights because they were not “state actors” — i.e., part of the state government. The final blow to Reconstruction came with the 1876 Presidential election, in which the Democrats nominated New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden — who based his campaign almost exclusively on the corruption of the federal government by Northern business interests and the economic “Panic” (19th-century speak for “depression”) of 1873 caused largely by the rampant self-dealing of the giant corporations that were taking over both the American economy and, through campaign contributions and out-and-out bribery of public officials, American politics.
The Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, whose main qualifications seem to have been that he’d been a Union general in the Civil War and he’d somehow escaped being corrupted by the Grant administration scandals. Tilden won the popular vote but Hayes and the Republicans made a deal with the governments of three Southern states where the election was still in dispute to get their electoral votes in exchange for withdrawing the last federal troops from the South.
One curious thing about this program is that though it’s scheduled to be four hours long, only the first two hours deal with the actual Reconstruction period, 1865-1877; the rest of it deals with the success of the self-styled “Redeemers” of the South — the white politicians, activists and vigilantes who restored white supremacy after Reconstruction and kept the terror campaign going through, among other things, lynchings — along with the nationwide success of their anti-Black propaganda campaign and the efforts of African-Americans and their shrinking (and then growing) number of white allies to reverse the racist trend and win Black equality in the courts, in the law generally and in society.
The tenacity of white racists in the South in particular — and in the nation generally — is illustrated by how quickly Southern (and some Northern) states enacted laws aimed at suppressing Democratic voters in general and Black and Latino voters in particular were passed as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act and removed the “pre-clearance” requirement by which states with a history of racial discrimination in voting had to get any changes in their elections laws approved in advance by the federal government to make sure they did not have a discriminatory intent or effect.
It’s clear Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the many people (mostly Black, though one quite important white person in Reconstruction historiography — Eric Foner, who along with white historians Eric McKitrick and Kenneth Stampp and Black historian John Hope Franklin began the re-examination of Reconstruction in the early 1960’s[4] and started moving away from the pro-white, pro-“Redeemer,” anti-Black consensus that had ruled Reconstruction historiography since the 1890’s — was prominently featured) he interviewed on screen are seeing the current upsurge in white racism that helped elect Donald Trump President is merely an interruption in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the arc of history … bend[ing] towards justice” and that the civil rights movement that started in the 1960’s (or earlier) was the beginning of a permanent trend towards racial (and other) equality in this country.
But what if it isn’t? What if Donald Trump and the racists in his coalition will be as successful in snuffing out the gains of the civil rights movement (what some historians have actually called the “Second Reconstruction”) long-term as their predecessors in the white-supremacist “Redeemer” movement were in snuffing out the gains of the first Reconstruction? What if America’s future is a so-called “nationalist populist” one in which the nation is ruled indefinitely by a Right-wing coalition who regards the ideas that whites are inherently superior to people of color, men are inherently superior to women, and Queers are pond scum who deserve jail instead of marriage? What if someday Barack Obama is viewed as as bizarre an anomaly in his historical era as Robert Smalls is viewed today in his?
If nothing else, the tragic story of Reconstruction is an object lesson in the dogged persistence of America’s racists and their determination, no matter how many strides African-Americans make towards equality, to push them back into the subservient position they regard as their inborn “nature”? At this point I’d have to say that one of those futures is as least as likely as the other!

[1]The guarantee in the Fourteenth Amendment that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside” — so hated by modern-day Right-wingers for granting automatic U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants if they are born on American soil — was largely intended to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that African-Americans were not U.S. citizens and “the Black man has no rights which the white man is obliged to respect.”

[2] — One of the most misunderstood aspects of American constitutional law is that it gives state governments virtually unlimited authority to determine who may — or may not — vote in their states. The great amendments that extended the franchise — the 15th, which extended the vote to people of color; the 19th, which extended it to women; the 24th, which barred disqualification of voters for failing to pay a poll tax (a favorite device of white Southern governments to deny the vote to Blacks); and the 26th, which lowered the minimum voting age to 18 nationwide — are all framed as specific limits on the otherwise absolute power of state government to enfranchise or disenfranchise people.

[3] — An historical parallel: in 1860 Lincoln, an upstart failed Senate candidate from Illinois, beat William Seward, based in New York and the party elite’s favorite, for his party’s Presidential nomination and then, once in office, appointed Seward Secretary of State. In 2008 Barack Obama, an upstart Senator from Illinois, beat the New York-based Hillary Clinton, the party establishment’s favorite for the nomination, and once he was elected he appointed Clinton Secretary of State.

[4] — Actually, the first serious historian to challenge the mythology of Reconstruction as an oppression against white Southerners by unworthy Blacks, white “carpetbaggers” from the North and Southern white “scalawags” who helped them was W. E. B. DuBois in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America. But because DuBois was both Black and a Communist his book was dismissed as special pleading and the challenge to the white-supremacist view of Reconstruction didn’t catch fire in academe for another quarter-century.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

It’s Time for Democrats to Let Go of Mueller


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When you strike at a king, be certain you kill him.
— Old proverb

It’s time for the Democratic Party, and particularly its leadership in the House of Representatives, to let go once and for all of Robert Mueller’s investigation and the forlorn hope that President Donald Trump can be driven out of office early over allegations of collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. It’s time for the Democrats running the House to step back from the gargantuan investigations they’ve launched against Trump and instead start legislating: passing bills to protect people’s health care, workers’ and consumers’ rights, the environment, national security, a humane approach to immigration and a realistic approach to national security: the issues the Democrats won their current House majority in 2018.
When Trump won the election in November 2016, the Democrats made a fundamental miscalculation about his relationship with Russia. They thought that, by leveling accusations that Russia somehow stage-managed the Trump victory and swung the election to him, they could hook the Republicans’ age-old Cold War animosity towards Russia and split the party off from Trump. They were spectacularly wrong. It was not “Russia” that Republicans had hated during the Cold War: it was the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union fell and, after a decade-long “Time of Troubles” between 1991 and 2000, Russia transitioned from a brutal Left-wing dictatorship to a brutal Right-wing one, Republicans were just fine with it.
When President Trump fired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James B. Comey on May 8, 2017, the Democrats thought they had him dead to rights. Blowing the White House’s official cover story to smithereens, President Trump told NBC News anchor Lester Holt on TV that he had fired Comey because of “this Russia thing,” and a day later hosted the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office. Trump told them that by getting rid of Comey he’d made the investigation of his alleged ties to Russia go away. What’s more, he carefully concealed this meeting from the American people by barring U.S. media from covering or photographing it. We only found out about it because Russia’s state-controlled media covered it.
Though Democrats were then the minority in both houses of Congress, they nonetheless called on the Department of Justice to appoint a special counsel to mount an independent investigation of the allegations that Trump had won the election with Russian help, that his campaign officials had conspired with the Russians to do that, and that Trump’s firing of Comey was part of a plan to obstruct justice and cover up his ties to Russia. Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who had been put in charge of matters relating to Trump and the 2016 campaign because his boss, Jeff Sessions, “recused” — that is, took himself out of involvement with the case — because he’d been an integral part of Trump’s campaign, duly appointed a special counsel.
The counsel’s name was Robert Mueller, and he came with an impressive pedigree. He had served as director of the FBI for 12 years — longer than anyone except J. Edgar Hoover — and, though registered to vote as a Republican, he’d scrupulously avoided partisan identification and had served Presidents of both major parties. At the start of the investigation, even Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker who led the Republicans’ successful takeover of the House in 1994 after 40 years in minority-party wilderness, said Mueller was the perfect choice.
But the honeymoon between Mueller and Republicans — in the White House, in Congress and on the Right-wing media machine of Fox News and talk radio — didn’t last long. Trump himself said Mueller was biased against him, partly because Mueller had asked to be reappointed FBI director after Comey’s firing (an allegation which remains unproven) and partly because Mueller had once been a member of one of Trump’s golf clubs until they had a dispute about fees. Over and over again, Trump, congressional Republicans and Right-wing media called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” and railed that, even though he was a Republican, he had appointed “13 partisan Democrats” as his key staff members, and they were part of a “Deep State” cabal aimed at reversing the 2016 election and taking Trump down by any means necessary.
For 22 months Mueller conducted his investigation, saying virtually nothing to the media and “speaking” only through the indictments he got grand juries to issue. Many of Mueller’s indictments were unusually long and detailed — largely because the crimes he was alleging, especially those involving the Internet and social media, were complicated. Indicting someone for murder, bank robbery or rape is relatively simple; you don’t have to go into long, detailed explanations about what the crime was or why it’s illegal. With computer crimes, you do.
Other special counsels — notably Kenneth Starr, who began by investigating President Bill Clinton’s role in a failed land development in Arkansas and ended by charging him with lying under oath to cover up an extramarital affair — had done much of their work in public. Not Robert Mueller. He kept such a low profile that whenever they needed visuals to illustrate a story about his investigation, news networks like MS-NBC trotted out an old film clip of him speaking to something called “Tabor Academy.” (In case you’ve been wondering all these months, Tabor Academy is described by Wikipedia as “an independent preparatory school located in Marion, Massachusetts … known for its marine science courses.”)
So for 22 months Robert Mueller labored behind the scenes, issuing only one public statement — to denounce as untrue a media report about his immediate boss, Rosenstein — while controversy swirled around him. Republicans kept screaming that he was leading a partisan witch hunt aimed at bringing down a duly elected president and enabling the Democrats to achieve through trickery what they hadn’t been able to do at the polls. (Never mind that three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton to be their President than voted for Donald Trump.) Meanwhile, Democrats — especially after their partial victory in the November 2018 midterm elections (in which they actually lost seats in the U.S. Senate but gained a majority in the House of Representatives) — hoped that Mueller would issue a definitive finding that Trump and his campaign had colluded with Russia that would shock enough Republicans to join them in removing Trump through impeachment and conviction in the Senate.

Mueller’s Mountain, Barr’s Mouse

Well, in March 2019 Robert Mueller’s mountain labored and brought forth a mouse, midwifed by Trump’s hand-picked attorney general, William Barr. Trump had laid the groundwork for suppressing a Mueller finding against him by firing Jeff Sessions the day after the midterms and appointing Matthew Whitaker, a thug-like ex-Senate candidate who looked astonishingly like the Dick Tracy villain Cueball, as “acting” attorney general pending confirmation of a new one. The new one, William Barr, had served as attorney general before during the presidency of George H. W. Bush and had been the architect of the mass pardon of virtually all the people convicted by special counsel Lawrence Walsh in the Iran-contra scandal of the mid-1980’s — an action bitterly described by Walsh as “the last cover-up” in that case.
Barr auditioned for the job by writing an unsolicited 19-page memo to the Trump administration during which he called Mueller’s obstruction case against Trump “fatally misconceived.” He also told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that in order to protect the “privacy” of individuals who weren’t being indicted — meaning President Trump, since existing Justice Department policy says a sitting President cannot be indicted or made to face criminal charges during his term — he might not release the Mueller report at all.
For a month or so before Mueller finished his report and sent it to Barr — and only to Barr, as the regulations under which he was working stipulated — word started to spread through the Washington grapevine that the Mueller report might not be all that Democrats or Trump’s enemies were hoping for. We started getting hints on MS-NBC and throughout the mainstream media that instead of focusing on Mueller and the relatively narrow questions he was charged with answering — did Russia try to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, did members of Trump’s campaign help them, and did Trump obstruct justice by interfering with the investigation of Russia’s role in the election — we should be looking at the broader questions about Trump, including his foundation, his inaugural committee, whether he was violating the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution by using his office for personal gain (“emoluments” is simply 18th-century speak for “bribes”), whether he’d broken campaign finance laws by paying off women he’d had sex with to keep silent.
It was a virtual admission on the part of the Democrat-friendly media that Mueller’s report, when it finally emerged, was going to be a damp squib. So it turned out to be. Aided by a finely honed public relations strategy from an administration whose members sometimes seem to be their own worst enemies, Trump and his associates were able almost instantly to declare that the report had totally “exonerated” him. How did they do it?
First, Mueller turned over his report to Barr. Then Barr, as he was obliged to do under the special counsel regulations, turned it over to the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees — Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Doug Collins (R-GA) in the House, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) — and likely to Donald Trump as well. The rest of Congress, the government and the public got only a four-page letter by Barr explaining what he called the “principal conclusions” of the Mueller report: (Barr, for some reason, later denied that this letter was supposed to be a “summary” of the report, but that’s clearly what it is.)
Since the initial release of Barr’s letter, he’s promised us we’ll get the Mueller report — or a portion thereof after he’s finished “redacting” grand-jury testimony, material relevant to ongoing investigations, or to protect the “privacy” or “reputational interests” of anyone mentioned but not charged with a crime (which, as Barr conceded in his Senate confirmation hearings last January, basically means anything that might embarrass Donald Trump: see — sometime in mid-April.
One of the two sentences — or portions of sentences — in Barr’s letter actually written by Robert Mueller are, “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Regarding the other set of allegations Mueller was supposed to be investigating — whether President Trump or anyone in his administration obstructed justice by firing FBI director James Comey or any other actions to impede the Russia investigation — Mueller, according to Barr, said, “[W]hile this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

“Total and Complete Exoneration”

Despite the clear language in Mueller’s report, as quoted by Barr, that his investigation “does not exonerate” President Trump of charges of obstruction of justice, Trump himself went on the warpath almost as soon as Barr’s letter was released. Trump declared that the report was a “total and complete exoneration” that ended the “witch hunt” of the Mueller investigation, and basically sent marching orders both to Democratic Congressmembers and federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials that all investigations into him should now stop.
Indeed, Trump did a good deal more than that. Reflecting the authoritarian, dictatorial tendencies that have been the hallmark of his entire presidency (and of his political statements as a private citizen, businessperson and Presidential candidate for #0 years before that!), Trump’s re-election campaign released an extraordinary letter that amounted to a demand to “television producers” that they blacklist six specific individuals and no longer permit them to appear on TV news shows to comment on Trump.
The six people named in the memo were House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), House Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), House Intelligence Committee member Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, and former CIA director John Brennan. The memo referred to them as “Democrat leaders and others lying to the American people by vigorously and repeatedly claiming there was evidence of collusion” during the Mueller investigation, and called on TV news producers to reconsider whether these people “warrant further appearances on your programming given the outrageous and unsupported claims made in the past.”
Trump had already effectively blacklisted Brennan by revoking his security clearance, a privilege usually given to former intelligence officials in case their successors want to ask them for advice on specific policy issues. The Trump campaign’s memo called for “introspection from the media who facilitated the reckless statement and a serious evaluation of how guests are considered and handled in the future,” and said that if TV producers continue to put the six on the air — or any others the Trump campaign may add in the future, since they said the list was not complete — they should  demand that the six “provide the evidence which prompted them to make the wild claims in the first place.”
Adam Schiff has become a particular target not only for Trump but also his supporters in Congress. At a hearing called to discuss something else, all nine Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee presented a letter demanding his immediate resignation as committee chair. Trump himself went farther and sent a tweet demanding that Schiff resign from Congress altogether.
Scott Jennings, Republican political activist and member of George W. Bush’s campaign staff, also demanded Schiff’s political head in an op-ed the Los Angeles Times published March 25 ( “If [Schiff and Swalwell] choose to plow forward, they will look like unhinged conspiracy theorists hell-bent on proving themselves right,” Jennings wrote. “Schiff in particular ought to, at a minimum, step down from the House Intelligence Committee. Honestly, he should probably just resign from Congress in shame.”
Schiff’s response to Trump, Jennings and all nine Republicans on his committee was to list all the instances already in the public record of Trump and his campaign soliciting the aid of Russians against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. As Rolling Stone reported his remarks (

“My colleagues might think it’s O.K. that the Russians offered dirt on the Democratic candidate for president as part of what’s described as the Russian government’s effort to help the Trump campaign. My colleagues might think it’s O.K. that when that was offered to the son of the president, who had a pivotal role in the campaign, that the son did not call the FBI, he did not adamantly refuse that foreign help — no, instead that son said he would ‘love’ the help with the Russians. You might think it was O.K. that he took that meeting. You might think it’s O.K. that Paul Manafort, the campaign chair, someone with great experience running campaigns, also took that meeting. You might think it’s O.K. that the president’s son-in-law also took that meeting. You might think it’s O.K. that they concealed it from the public. You might think it’s O.K. that their only disappointment after that meeting was that the dirt they received on Hillary Clinton wasn’t better. You might think it’s O.K. I don’t.
“You might think it’s O.K. that the president’s son-in-law sought to establish a secret back channel of communication with Russians through a Russian diplomatic facility. I don’t think that’s O.K. You might think it’s O.K. that an associate of the president made direct contact with the GRU through Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks. You might think it’s O.K. that a senior campaign official was instructed to reach that associate and find out what that hostile intelligence agency had to say, in terms of dirt on his opponent. You might think it’s O.K. that the national security adviser-designate secretly conferred with a Russian ambassador about undermining U.S. sanctions, and you might think it’s O.K. he lied about it to the FBI. You might say that’s all O.K., that that’s just what you need to do to win. But I don’t think it’s O.K. I think it’s immoral, I think it’s unethical, I think it’s unpatriotic and, yes, I think it’s corrupt, and evidence of collusion
“I do not think that conduct, criminal or not, is O.K. The day we do think that’s O.K. is the day we will look back and say that is the day America lost its way.”

Pardons for Services Rendered

Given the prima facie evidence of Trump’s campaign officials meeting with Russians, both directly (the “Miss V from Moscow” meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016 between Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner — Trump Sr.’s son-in-law — and Paul Manafort, then chair of Trump’s campaign, with Russian government-affiliated attorney and lobbyist Natalia Veselnitskaya and at least four other Russian officials) and indirectly (the negotiations between the Trump campaign, independent activists working for Trump and WikiLeaks, which received e-mails “hacked” from Hillary Clinton, her campaign manager John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee by Russian intelligence and made them available to Trump’s campaign), as well as Trump’s own famous call in a public speech to Russia to see if they could find Clinton’s 33,000 “missing” e-mails, it’s hard to see how Robert Mueller could possibly have concluded that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
We won’t know unless and until we get to read Mueller’s full report, but it seems likely that what he meant by that is that he didn’t have enough evidence for a criminal conspiracy prosecution against Trump’s staff, aides and family members. From what we do know about Mueller’s investigation — particularly the series of indictments and plea deals he announced while it was going on — it seems like Mueller conducted his investigation less like a standard inquiry into political corruption and more like a Mafia case. Prosecutors going after long-standing criminal conspiracies like the Mafia patiently work their way up the organization’s food chain, “flipping” lower-level members and gradually ascending the hierarchy until they reach the capo di tutti capi (“boss of all bosses”) at the top.
Mafia prosecutors have tools on their side Robert Mueller didn’t. First, they have time; they can stretch their work over decades. They can accept that sometimes the Mafiosi they prosecute will be acquitted — often because they’ve intimidated witnesses or bribed jurors — because they can keep the Mafiosi under surveillance and be there to arrest them again when they commit additional crimes. Mueller had a shade under two years. Mafia prosecutors also don’t work under the glare of harsh publicity, with one of America’s two major political parties denouncing them at every turn and calling their prosecution a “witch hunt.”
Third, and most important, Mafia prosecutors don’t have to worry that their capo di tutti capi can give members of their organization pardons. Mafia leaders can threaten to kill people who rat them out, but often that’s counterproductive; lower-level Mafiosi can often decide they’ll be safer in prison, or in federal witness protection, than out and about on the street where their bosses can take them out. From the get-go Mueller and his prosecutors had to worry about the countervailing force President Trump, the ultimate capo they were investigating, could exert to keep potential witnesses silent by dangling them the offer of pardons.
I suspect that the real reason Robert Mueller wasn’t able to prosecute the Trump administration and campaign officials for conspiring with Russians to rig the 2016 election was he wasn’t able to “flip” Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, Manafort’s former business partner and allegedly the principal go-between from the Trump campaign to WikiLeaks. Mueller successfully prosecuted Manafort on tax evasion and other charges stemming from his lobbying work for a former Ukrainian President with close ties to Russia a decade ago, and after being convicted on eight of 18 counts in his first trial Manafort made a plea agreement to testify for Mueller in exchange for leniency on the second batch of charges.
Then Manafort reneged on Mueller. In his alleged “cooperation” interviews he kept lying to protect Trump, and Mueller eventually gave up on him and let him get sentenced. As for Roger Stone — a truly bizarre figure with a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back (no kidding: I’ve seen it on TV) and a penchant for Nixonesque gestures — he made it clear from the get-go that he wasn’t going to help Mueller nail his friend of decades, Donald Trump. Had Mueller got Manafort and Stone to turn state’s evidence against Trump, his report and Trump’s (and America’s) political future would look quite different. Instead Manafort and Stone both stood with Trump, and he will no doubt reward them with pardons for services rendered.

Dems Need to Get to Work

The ignominious end of the Mueller investigation — especially given the hopes Democrats had for it that it would not only convict Trump’s top aides but bring down the Trump administration — leaves Trump in what is probably the strongest political position he’s been in during his entire Presidency. It drives the final nail in the coffin of the hope for a Trump impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had already pretty much squelched that when she gave members of the Democratic caucus marching orders not to seek impeachment, and the end of Mueller’s investigation not only ensures that Trump will be able to finish his first term (unless he dies in office like Warren Harding, who headed America’s most corrupt Presidential adminstration until Trump’s, did in 1923), it significantly boosts his chances for winning a second one.
Democrats still hold a majority in the House of Representatives, and they can still investigate quite a lot about Trump: his international business dealings and whether they violate the “emoluments clause” of the U.S. Constitution (which basically makes it illegal for U.S. government officials to take bribes or do favorable business deals with people in other countries); his use of the so-called (and now closed) “Trump Foundation” as a personal and political piggy bank; the collection of funds for the Trump inaugural and whether it was cover to allow the rich and powerful to buy influence with him; Trump’s tax returns (which he’s refused to release but which Congress could subpoena from the Internal Revenue Service); and the like.
But Democrats who continue the Trump investigations run the risk that the American people will decide they’re just “piling on.” For an administration that has suffered a surprising number of self-inflicted image gaffes, Trump, William Barr and their people have handled the Mueller report with consummate skill. They’ve managed to convey to quite a few of the American people — including those much-talked-about “swing voters” in the Rust Belt who swung the election to Trump in 2016 and could conceivably do so again in 2020 — that the conclusion of the Mueller investigation has “exonerated” Trump not only of the specific charges of conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice, but everything.
What Congressional Democrats need to do right now is cut back on the number and range of anti-Trump investigations and focus on legislating. Particularly they need to address the issue that won them their House majority in the first place: health care. Polls in the run-up to the 2018 midterms indicated that voters whose primary concerns were the economy and immigration broke for the Republicans — but they were overwhelmed by the voters whose primary concern was protecting their access to health care. Those voters broke overwhelmingly for Democratic House candidates and essentially gave the Democrats their House majority.
Democrats in the House need to hold open hearings on how to protect people’s access to health care, to improve the Affordable Care Act (colloquially still known as “Obamacare”) and work out a smooth, affordable transition to health coverage for all. They should be open to single-payer “Medicare for All” systems but should not make that a litmus test for Democratic Presidential or Congressional candidates. (The national health care system of Germany, in which people are insured through a number of competing non-profit corporations, is a conceivable alternative to both the current profit-driven U.S. system and single-payer.)
In addition to health care, House Democrats should also be working on infrastructure programs and how to fix the inequities in current international trade deals without scrapping altogether the concept of a global economy, the way Trump wants to do. They should be holding hearings on how to deal with America’s real drug problems, including the rising addiction rate to prescription opiates, without making the hysterical mistakes of the neo-Prohibitionist era in the 1970’s. They should also be holding hearings on how to balance America’s immigration policy between humane concern for immigrants and safeguarding economic opportunities for Americans threatened by corporations’ ability to hire an immigrant workforce for sub-minimum wages and few or no legal rights.
And they should be holding serious hearings about how to deal with the rising threat of climate change, including how to fund a transition to renewable energy (which, like reforming health care, is likely to carry a high initial price tag even though it’ll be cheaper for the American people, as both taxpayers and consumers, in the long run). Instead of batting around slogans like “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal” that only invite cynical but effective attacks by Republican propagandists, they should be looking for solutions that could, with a Democratic Senate, conceivably be enacted into law.
The Democrats in the House should write, debate and pass bills to address these issues even knowing that they will never be enacted into law as long as there is a Republican in the White House and Republicans control the U.S. Senate. Right now Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell can personally kill any bill he doesn’t want to become law simply by refusing to let the Senate vote on it — a far-ranging dictatorial power I don’t think any of the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted one person to have. If the House Democrats are able to pass a legislative agenda and claim that these wonderful bills can become law if only voters give Democrats back the President and the Senate as well, the Democrats can build an impressive case for turning Trump out of office in 2020 and it won’t matter anywhere near as much who their Presidential candidate will be.
What’s more, Donald Trump has already given Democrats a huge boost in carrying out this agenda. Flush with the political capital he’s earned by what he’s called (and a lot of American people believe is) his “total and complete exoneration” by Robert Mueller, the first thing he went after is his quixotic attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Trump says he’s got an alternative in mind that will be simpler, cheaper and cover more people, but it’s what computer executives call “vaporware” — a software program a computer company announces to scare off competition but which in fact doesn’t exist. (Ironically, there is a health-care plan that would be simpler and cheaper than Obamacare and would cover more people — but it’s a Canadian-style single-payer system which Trump has already denounced as “socialism.”)

Trump has given the Democrats a rare opportunity to show that they, not he, are on the “people’s side.” If the Democrats want to win the Presidency and the Senate in 2020, they have to use the power of their House majority to show the American people that they can actually govern — that they can come up with bold, progressive proposals that will benefit ordinary Americans, and it’s only Trump and the Republican Senate standing in the way. And that means, not stopping the investigations of the Trump administration, but scaling them back to a normal level of Congressional oversight and concentrating on legislating.