Thursday, May 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Comey’s Firing: Trump Is Above the Law


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

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

The Divine Right of Trump

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

Trump Isn’t Like Nixon: He’s Worse

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

Why Trump Will Survive

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

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

People’s March for Climate Draws 5,000

Event Is Part of Nationwide Mobilization, Including 200,000 Marchers in D.C.


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

Evidence-based science

USA climate map

Leave it in the ground

Crowd at rally

Birds & bees, oceans & trees

Healthy Earth couple

Jim Miller

Bike, Walk, Take Transit

Mukhta Kulkankar & Willow Lark

Make Earth cool again

Not a liberal conspiracy

Governor Brown, ban fracking

Sean Bohac (right) carrying Green Party banner

Denial is not policy

Ann Menasche

Every day is Earth Day

Go vegan

Science trumps B.S.

Earth Spirit

Clean energy revolution

Theory … like gravity

I want my Saturdays back

The People’s March for Climate, which stepped off in various cities across the U.S. on April 29 — the 100th day of the Presidency of Donald John Trump, Jr. — was the first of the major anti-Trump marches I actually attended. They’ve been going on since at least January 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, when the National Women’s March became the largest single public event in Washington, D.C.’s history. But I’d been ducking them so far: a combination of a daunting work schedule and a bizarre health problem kept me away.
But I was determined to make the one on April 29, partly because the organizers had put out written flyers advertising it instead of just trusting to social media to get the word out; partly because the environment is a cause of paramount importance (let’s face it: the civil-rights struggles of people of color, women and Queers won’t mean very much if the Earth ceases to be able to support human life); and partly because Rachel Maddow shamed me into it.
On her April 28 program, she had a guest who’s a major part of the movement to challenge Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial power in Russia (though he now lives in Britain because Putin’s opponents have a way of getting jailed or poisoned) and announced that April 29 was also going to be a day of demonstrations against Putin all over Russia. So I figured that if there are Russian activists who are willing to risk being arrested — or even murdered — to stand up to their country’s dictatorial President, I should be willing to risk much less dire medical consequences to stand up to mine.
The People’s March followed what’s become the usual pattern for such actions. Held at what’s grandly been termed “Waterfront Park” even though it’s only the backyard of the County Administrative Center downtown, it featured a rally with speakers at 10 a.m. and a subsequent march — a brief one, just to the Broadway Pier downtown and back. Marchers carried mostly homemade signs, some with a good deal of wit. One, in black letters on an orange background, read, “Ice doesn’t have an agenda. It just melts!” Another spoke to the sheer plethora of protests since Trump took over as President; it read, “Can You Resign Already? I Want My Saturdays Back.”
There were other more prosaic signs as well, including several with the slogan “Leave It In the Ground” — a reference to the argument of climate scientists and activists that if people continue to extract and burn fossil fuels, the atmosphere will contain so much carbon dioxide there will be no way to stop extensive climate changes that will threaten human survival. Other signs referenced Trump’s statement that human-caused climate change was a hoax cooked up by the Chinese to get the U.S. to de-industrialize, and the sheer number of climate-change deniers, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Trump has appointed to key posts in his administration.
Indeed, while other aspects of the Trump agenda have been stymied by Congress or the courts, his assault on the environment has proceeded full speed ahead. As Jim Miller, professor at San Diego City College and vice-president of the San Diego chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), put it at the rally, “The Trump administration, which has illustrated flaming incompetence in almost every other area, has proven to be pretty darned good at gearing up to kill the planet. Indeed, the Trump administration has delayed new energy and fuel efficiency standards, signaled that it will revoke Obama’s Clean Power Plan, proposed a budget that guts the Environmental Protection Agency, and threatened to upend the Paris accord on climate.”
On the eve of the People’s March for Climate, Trump signed two executive orders vastly expanding the public land area available for offshore oil drilling, including the Arctic as well as the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The order that would allow oil companies to drill off the California coast was an especially intense spit-in-your-eye attack on environmentalists, since the modern environmental movement began largely as a response to the oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in February 1969, which sparked a nationwide movement that held the first Earth Day celebrations in April 1970 and pushed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act through Congress.
Trump’s bold assault on environmental regulation stands as a sharp contrast to Richard Nixon, the Republican President who signed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act into law. On December 31, 1970 Nixon signed a bill to restrict pollution from automobiles and publicly announced, “I think 1971 will be known as the year of action, and as we look at action, I would suggest that this bill is an indication of what action can be. Because if this bill is completely enforced, within four years it will mean that the emissions from automobiles which pollute the environment will be reduced by 90 percent.”
But the tradition of environmental activism within the Republican Party, which had begun with President Theodore Roosevelt and his Secretary of the Interior, Gifford Pinchot, in the first decade of the 20th century and continued through Nixon and his successor, Gerald Ford, was first reversed by Ronald Reagan. In his 1980 campaign, appearing in Western states, Reagan publicly endorsed the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” of ranchers and hunters trying to privatize federal land and remove restrictions on its use.
As with so many other parts of his agenda, Trump on the environment has been Reagan on steroids. In a lead article in the April 30 Los Angeles Times (, reporter Evan Halper quoted California Congressmember Jared Huffman as calling Trump’s environmental policy “a wrecking ball right out of the gate … We shouldn’t underestimate the amount of damage that has already been done to the environment by an administration that can’t seem to get almost anything else done.”
Halper’s article identified controversial radical-Right multibillionaire financiers Charles and David Koch as the masterminds of Trump’s attack on environmental protection. The Koch brothers, whose name has become a symbol of political control by the super-rich to progressives today the way the names “Rockefeller” and “Morgan” were in past decades, made their money in fossil fuels and have set up a network of lobbying organizations and think tanks to remove government restrictions on fossil-fuel exploitation and block efforts by the EPA and other federal agencies to protect the environment.
“Some of the attacks have been high-profile and attention-grabbing: the dismantling of the Clean Power Plan that promised to put the nation’s dirtiest power plants out of business; the shelving of aggressive fuel mileage standards that California and other states are dead-set on implementing; the move to get rid of national monuments; the hasty approval of contentious, massive oil pipelines,” Halper wrote in his L. A. Times article. “But even on days when the announcements don’t make headlines, the tearing-up of environmental rules marches along. Often the rules involved are obtuse and escape broad public notice, but the impact of stripping them piles up.”

The Speakers Sound the Alarm

The speakers at the San Diego People’s March for Climate rally sounded the alarm over Trump’s anti-environmentalist actions and called for popular resistance to them. Among the biggest attacks by Trump on the environment were his approvals for constructing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, which environmentalists had attacked for two reasons: the projects themselves would harm the earth and underground water supplies where they were built, and they’d facilitate the burning of more oil-based fuels, increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus speeding up global warming. They successfully lobbied former President Barack Obama to block these projects — but then in came Trump, who green-lighted both of them.
The Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota became a particularly emotional issue not only for environmentalists but also for Native Americans, who not only linked the pipeline to the U.S. government’s constant expropriation of their lands but said it would directly threaten their water sources. The rally’s opening speaker, Bobby Wallace, was a Native American from San Diego’s Kumeyaay Nation who talked about his participation in the protests at Standing Rock, site of the Dakota Access pipeline. He said he personally witnessed military-style attacks against anti-pipeline protesters by federal and North Dakota state armed forces.
“We’ve been to Standing Rock five times,” Wallace said. “We’ve seen the abuse on the whites, on the Blacks, on the Natives, on everybody. We were there on the front line when little girls got their arms blown off. … They were dropping chemicals out of the sky. I had something in my lungs for over a month. I had a headache for over a month. You know, I think my boots right here, if they’re a little torn up and shattered, that’s from chemicals, you guys. It’s real. These guys are coming after us in a big way.”
“It’s our responsibility to remain hopeful and keep up this fight,” said the next speaker, Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, California State Assemblymember and former head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council. “We’re lucky, because we live in a state of resistance, a true state of resistance. We live in the state of California, where we say we’re not going backwards on immigration. We’re not going backwards on workers, or women, or LGBTQ rights. And we’re not going backwards on all the gains that we’ve made for the environment in the last few years. We’re going to continue, persist and push, and make sure our air is clean.”
But, Gonzalez Fletcher added, “Everything we do at the state has to be replicated here locally.” She used the rally to promote AB 805, a bill she wrote to reform SANDAG, the local consortium of city and county governments and agencies that sets transit policy for San Diego County. SANDAG — the initials stand for San Diego Association of Governments but that’s only one of the agencies in the transportation consortium — put a measure on the November 2016 ballot to raise the local sales tax to fund transportation needs. But the measure failed, at least in part because the San Diego County Democratic Party endorsed against it on the ground that it allocated too much of the money for freeway and road construction and not enough for public transit, footpaths and bike lanes.
AB 205, whose text is available online at, is an elaborate and rather wonky piece of legislation that reshuffles the SANDAG board and changes its personnel and voting rules. It also would require that, in writing the regional comprehensive plan for transportation in San Diego County, SANDAG must “address the greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets set by the State Air Resources Board as required by Section 65080 of the Government Code and include strategies that provide for mode shift to public transportation.”
This is important, Gonzalez Fletcher told the crowd at the People’s March for Climate, because “50 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. … It’s time we reduce the numbers of cars on the freeway, increase the number of walk lanes and bicycles and mass transit, and we can all do it by supporting AB 805. I hope you’ll help me in that effort, because it’s time we reform the way we do transportation in San Diego County.” Indeed, at one point the rally MC’s stopped the program to ask everyone there to use their smartphones to call the office of State Senator Toni Atkins at (619) 645-3133, or tweet her at @sentoniatkins, to tell her to sponsor AB 805 in the State Senate.
The next speaker was Dr. Jeff Severinghaus, professor of geosciences at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UC San Diego. The rally MC who introduced him read his bio and stumbled over the phrase that he had studied “whether the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels could also produce a rapid change in climate, rather than the slow, steady rise in temperature that many computer models of global climate now predict.” She read the word “addition” as “addiction” — and Dr. Severinghaus began his speech by saying that she was basically right: fossil fuels are an addiction and need to be fought as one.
“When people ask me, ‘Do you believe in climate change?,’ I say, ‘No,’ because it’s not a matter of belief,” Dr. Severinghaus said. “It’s a matter of an overwhelming amount of evidence. Now, if you don’t believe that carbon dioxide causes warming, just look at our neighbor planet, Venus. Venus has about 100,000 times more carbon dioxide in its atmosphere than we do, and the surface temperature is 856°F, hot enough to melt lead. … So we literally are cooking ourselves.”
Dr. Severinghaus called the continued emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a form of theft from our children and grandchildren. “It’s not ethical to take something away from future generations when they’re not at the negotiating table,” he said. “They’re not present. And it’s not ethical to cause other species to go extinct when they don’t have a voice. So we, who do have voices, we have an obligation to speak for the trees, to speak for the animals, and the plants, to basically speak for those who are not present at the negotiating table, for future generations.”
California Governor Jerry Brown was held up by Dr. Severinghaus as a model of an environmentally conscious political leader, a counter-example to Trump. “Jerry Brown is doing great stuff,” Severinghaus said. “The other day, he came to one of my colleagues at Scripps, Helen Fricker, and he spoke to her for two hours about the ice sheets in Antarctica. It was so cool. And he really does pay attention to what’s going on with the science.” Other participants in the march were less sanguine about Brown: one demonstrator held up a sign criticizing him for refusing to ban fracking, the environmentally devastating oil and gas drilling technique that involves pumping toxic chemicals into the ground to bring fossil fuels to the surface.
Jim Miller, the next speaker, linked the fight for environmental justice to the fight against economic inequality. “It is clear that Trump and his anointed wrecking crew of fossil-fuel industry billionaires will not be denied this opportunity to attack not just sound environmental policy but also the very idea that such governmental intervention is even necessary,” he said. “Now, 100 days into Trump’s Presidency, it’s obvious that he has no agenda, or even a coherent ideology, perhaps excepting greed. But two qualities that clearly have no place in his muddled, deconstructive administration are caution and restraint, and as a result the planet and everything else on it will suffer.”

Inclusive or Exclusive?

The next speakers, student activists Willow Lark and Mukhta Kulkankar, took the linkage between environmental protection and other issues even farther than Miller had. Both are studying various aspects of environmental science — Lark studies environmental engineering at San Diego State and is active in the Young Democratic Socialists and Green Love, and Kulkankar is a UCSD student in marine science and environmental biology. They spoke together, tag-teaming each other so you really had to look closely to figure out which one was speaking at any given moment, and they used the term “intersectional” essentially to read out of the environmental movement anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the entire issue agenda of the American Left.
“You cannot call yourself an environmentalist if you’re racist,” Lark said. “You cannot call yourself an environmentalist if you don’t empower women. You cannot call yourself an environmentalist if you do not support workers and labor. You cannot call yourself an environmentalist if you don’t believe in equality, and you endorse the exploitation of the countries in the global East and the global South by the capitalist imperialists!”
Lark clearly intended her remark to link the various social-justice issues and portray the struggle to preserve the environment as an integral part of the broader movement for economic equality, civil rights and social justice. But it also set up a high bar and basically told Americans who aren’t part of the socialist Left that they’re not welcome in the fight against climate change.
This is significant because in some local struggles over environmental issues, the cause has picked up some unexpected and valuable allies whom Lark’s stand would probably drive away. Hunters, for example, have frequently joined battles in the Midwest and rural West to protect public lands from oil and gas drillings, on the ground that game animals can’t live in areas being despoiled by energy extraction. But a march in which one participant carried a sign saying that the way to save the planet is to go vegan (the argument being that raising meat animals requires a lot more energy than growing edible plants) isn’t one where a hunter is going to feel welcome.
Indeed, much of the history of progressive organizing in the U.S. consists of coalitions that made sense at the time but look like awfully strange bedfellows today. Denis Kearney, who founded the Workingmen’s Party — the first labor political party in U.S. history — in San Francisco in the 1870’s gave speeches whose attacks on the political power of corporations and wealthy individuals would have seemed right at home in the Occupy rallies. But he also railed against immigrants, especially Chinese, in terms that made him sound like Pat Buchanan or Donald Trump.
Likewise, William Jennings Bryan was hailed as a progressive champion when he emerged as a dark-horse candidate for President in 1896 and advocated controls on the rampant corporate power of the day. He also supported making silver coins as a way of increasing the money supply to stimulate the economy. But he’s best known today for his late-in-life embrace of Fundamentalist Christianity and his leadership of the attempt to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools in the 1920’s. Indeed, in his mind his progressive economic positions and opposition to evolution were linked: he was so appalled by the so-called “social Darwinist” theory that the corporate rich were superior people to the common run of humanity that he decided he was against not only social Darwinism but biological Darwinism as well.
Ironically, the site at which the San Diego People’s March for Climate assembled was also one rife with contradictions. The San Diego County Administrative Center was built in the 1930’s by the U.S. Works Project Administration (WPA), a program of the New Deal to put people to work by having them build infrastructure for which the federal government would pay. But many of the WPA projects were giant dams and other massive public works that the environmentalists of the time opposed.
Lark’s exclusive attitude as to who can and can’t be an “environmentalist” also has its echoes in the different values by which Right and Left American voters judge candidates. During the 2016 election one aspect that perplexed a lot of political commentators was the willingness of members of the radical religious Right to vote for Donald Trump, a man whose lifestyle was in many ways a living contradiction of their stated ideals. Trump, who’s currently on his third wife and has publicly boasted of his adulteries and his unwelcome advances to women, has made much of his money from building gambling casinos, and was so unfamiliar with the Bible that when he tried to quote it in one speech, instead of citing the book he was reading from as “Second Corinthians” he said “Two Corinthians,” nonetheless got an overwhelming 80 percent of the votes of white evangelicals in November 2016.
That’s an indication of the extent to which, despite their reputation for hard-nosed “moralism,” members of the radical religious Right “keep their eyes on the prize” and vote for candidates not for who they are as people, but for what they say they will do in office. The only other divorced man ever to be President, Ronald Reagan, won in 1980 partly by mobilizing the votes of white evangelicals even though his major-party opponent, Jimmy Carter, was a white evangelical himself.
Reagan delivered for the radical-Right constituency via at least some of his U.S. Supreme Court appointees and through the infamous “gag rule” that bars organizations receiving U.S. funding for health work abroad even to mention abortion as an alternative. Likewise Trump delivered for evangelicals by proclaiming a stronger version of the “gag rule” and by getting Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court. Indeed, Trump has promised that any future appointees he makes will be from the radical-Right Federalist Society — thereby making it likely that by the end of Trump’s first term in 2020 there’ll be a solid radical-Right majority on the Court ready to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion decision and all the Court’s ruling protecting Queer rights.
Compare the way the radical Right treated Donald Trump with the way the San Diego Left treated former Mayor Bob Filner. Rather than cover up or explain away Filner’s inappropriate treatment of his female staff members, prominent local Democrats with progressive reputations — including former City Councilmember Donna Frye and activist attorneys Cory Briggs and Marco Gonzalez (Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher’s brother) — actually led the charge against him and publicly exposed his conduct. The result was that Filner was driven from office in disgrace and replaced by a business-friendly Republican, Kevin Faulconer, who reopened the Jacobs plan to desecrate Balboa Park, supported a giveaway of public money and land to keep the Chargers football team in San Diego and refuses to do anything substantive to help the city’s homeless population.

The March

The actual march for climate justice followed the rally and was relatively short — down Harbor Drive to Broadway, out to the Broadway Pier and then back the way it came — and uneventful. One interesting aspect was the waves the marchers got from construction workers on one of the projects lining the waterfront. Evidently these workers haven’t fallen for the propaganda of Trump and other anti-environmentalist Republicans that protecting the environment will cost them their jobs.

The marchers returned to the great lawn behind the County Administrative Center and there was a festive atmosphere as the event drew to a close and people either trickled out or stayed to hang out and party.