How We Got Here

As usual, Paul Krugman is both blunt and correct: How did we get here?

The core story of U.S. politics over the past four decades is that wealthy elites weaponized white racism to gain political power, which they used to pursue policies that enriched the already wealthy at workers’ expense.

Until Trump’s rise it was possible — barely — for people to deny this reality with a straight face. At this point, however, it requires willful blindness not to see what’s going on.

For three plus years, credible/mainstream media sources have treated Trump as a legitimate–if unfit–Chief Executive, and the GOP as a normal political party. That approach  finally seems to be giving way to a recognition that–as the saying goes– we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Genuine conservatives are appalled, as they should be; they understand that the appropriation of the label by would-be fascists will make it immeasurably more difficult to rebuild a responsible–or even civilized– GOP.

In the same issue of the New York Times that carried Krugman’s column, conservative columnist Bret Stephens described Trump’s worse-than-tone-deaf response to the protests: “Empathy is a word he can’t define, compassion an emotion he can’t experience, humility a virtue he can’t comprehend and kindness an act he will never undertake.”

In a column for the Washington Post, George Will–someone with whom I have rarely agreed–noted that there is “no bottom” to Trumpian awfulness, and insisted that we must defeat not just Trump but his enablers.

This unraveling presidency began with the Crybaby-in-Chief banging his spoon on his highchair tray to protest a photograph — a photograph — showing that his inauguration crowd the day before had been smaller than the one four years previous. Since then, this weak person’s idea of a strong person, this chest-pounding advertisement of his own gnawing insecurities, this low-rent Lear raging on his Twitter-heath has proven that the phrase malignant buffoon is not an oxymoron.

The Lincoln Project, formed by “Never Trump” Republicans, has aired some of the most hard-hitting ads highlighting Trump’s racist appeal.

As bad as it has been, things are now getting much, much worse.

I have previously characterized this administration as a marriage of the Mafia and the Keystone Kops. But I omitted the Brown Shirts.

Krugman’s column focuses on the way the Mafia contingent has used and abused the Keystone Kop contingent. Will and several other commentators from varying political perspectives have focused on the ineptitude, ignorance and (almost) comical incompetence of Trump and his cronies–the behaviors that remind me so forcefully of the Keystone Kops.

But the administration’s appalling response to the protests reminded me that there is a far more threatening parallel: the genuine “thugs” who are all too eager to smash and burn and incite, to turn peaceful demonstrations into justifications for imposing a police state that would protect white supremacy.

The demonstrations and chaos have reminded many of us oldsters of the rioting and mayhem that took place in the 60s. However, unless my memory is faulty–which is certainly possible– there are some very significant differences.

When I see the television coverage and cellphone videos of the current protests, I see an enormous white presence–it often seems 50/50–evidence that many, many white people understand (as those saccharine TV commercials during the Coronavirus conclude) “we are all in this together.”

Interestingly, in the videos I have seen of people breaking windows and looting, more than half of those caught on camera have been white. (Trump says they are “Antifa;” it is far more likely that they are his storm troopers.)

The final difference: Nixon may have been a crook. He was certainly paranoid, racist and anti-Semitic. But next to Trump, he was a paragon of benign sanity.

How these differences will play out depends on how many Americans–covertly or overtly–sympathize with the Storm Troopers, and how many understand that we really are all in this together.

I think it was Mark Twain who said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. It’s up to us to make sure that this rhyme ends on a positive note.

 

 

 

Facebook And False Equivalence

Is it just me, or do the months between now and November seem interminable?

In the run-up to what will be an existentially-important decision for America’s future, we are living through an inconsistent, contested and politicized quarantine, mammoth protests triggered by a series of racist police murders of unarmed black men, and their   cynical escalation into riots by advocates of race war, and daily displays of worsening insanity from the White House–including, but certainly not limited to, America’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic followed by a phone call in which our “eloquent” President called governors “weak” and “jerks” for not waging war on their own citizens.

And in the midst of it all, a pissing match between the Psychopath-in-Chief and Twitter, which has finally–belately–decided to label some of Trump’s incendiary and inaccurate tweets for what they are.

We can only hope this glimmer of responsibility from Twitter continues. The platform’s unwillingness to apply the same rules to Trump that they apply to other users hasn’t just been cowardly–it has given his constant lies a surface plausibility and normalized his bile. We should all applaud Twitter’s belated recognition of its responsibility.

Then, of course, there’s Facebook.

It isn’t that Mark Zuckerberg is unaware of the harms being caused by Facebooks current algorithms. Numerous media outlets have reported on the company’s internal investigations into the way those algorithms encourage division and distort political debate. In her column last Sunday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd reported

The Wall Street Journal had a chilling report a few days ago that Facebook’s own research in 2018 revealed that “our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness. If left unchecked,” Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

Mark Zuckerberg shelved the research.

The reasons are both depressing and ironic: in addition to concerns that less vitriol might mean users spending less time on the site, Zuckerberg understands that reducing the spread of untrue, divisive content would require eliminating substantially more material from the right than the left, opening the company to accusations of bias against conservatives.

Similar fears are said to be behind Facebook’s unwillingness to police political speech in advertisements and posts.

Think about it: Facebook knows that its platform is enormously influential. It know that the Right trades in conspiracy theories and intentional misinformation to a much greater extent than the Left, skewing the information landscape in dangerous ways. But for whatever reason– in order to insulate the company from regulation, or to curry favor with wealthy investors, or to escape the anger of the Breitbarts and Limbaughs–not to mention Trump–it has chosen to “allow people to make their own decisions.”

The ubiquity of social media presents lawmakers with significant challenges. Despite all the blather from the White House and the uninformed hysteria of ideologues, the issue isn’t censorship or freedom of speech–as anyone who has taken elementary civics knows, the Bill of Rights prohibits government from censoring communication. Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites aren’t government. For that matter, under current law, they aren’t even considered “publishers” who could be held accountable for whatever inaccurate drivel a user posts.

That means social media companies have the right to dictate their own terms of use. There is no legal impediment to Facebook or Twitter “censoring” posts they consider vile, obscene or untrue. (Granted, there are significant practical and marketing concerns involved in such an effort.) On Monday, reports emerged that Facebook’s own employees–including several in management–are clamoring for the platform to emulate Twitter’s new approach.

There have always been cranks and liars, racists and political propagandists. There haven’t always been easily accessible, worldwide platforms through which they could connect with similarly twisted individuals and spread their poisons. One of the many challenges of our technological age is devising constitutionally-appropriate ways to regulate those platforms.

If Mark Zuckerberg is unwilling to make FaceBook at least a minimally-responsible overseer of our national conversation–if he and his board cannot make and enforce reasonable rules about veracity in posts, a future government will undoubtedly do it for them–something that could set a dangerous precedent.

Refusing to be responsible– supporting a false equivalency that is tearing the country apart– is a much riskier strategy than Zuckerberg seems to recognize.

On the other hand, it finally seems to be dawning on Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, that (as Dowd put it in her column)”Trump and Twitter were a match made in hell.”

 

The Country Is Burning And Our Sad Little “Emperor” Is Hiding

Our would-be “Emperor” has no clothes.

While the nation is being torn apart, those who are (nominally) in charge are playing “duck and cover.” As protestors massed in front of the White House, Trump turned off the lights, reminding the writer of the linked Raw Story of Halloween nights when neighbors who’ve run out of candy turn off their lights and pretend no one’s home.

Not exactly a profile in courage. Or leadership.

The would-be autocrat, the lover of military parades, the bullying issuer of bluster and threats spent an hour last Friday night in the White House underground bunker.  Multiple media outlets have shared leaks from GOP insiders who report that Trump is worried for his safety, and that he’s been frightened by the size and venom of the crowds.

Heather Cox Richardson shared a stunning–and telling– paragraph from an  AP story:

 As cities burned night after night and images of violence dominated television coverage, Trump’s advisers discussed the prospect of an Oval Office address in an attempt to ease tensions. The notion was quickly scrapped for lack of policy proposals and the president’s own seeming disinterest in delivering a message of unity.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden was out in the streets talking to protesters.

Raw Story described the act of turning off the White House lights as “a metaphor for President Donald Trump’s leadership,” and shared the sentiments of multiple Twitter users, who weighed in using the hashtag “Bunker Trump”–“stoke the hate, then run…how pathetic,” “Lights out at #WhiteHouse is a powerful symbol. Total lack of leadership from @realDonaldTrump.” And another tweet that was particularly on point:

Like all other strong men, Donald Trump is a coward and soft and terrified. Hiding in the White House and turning off the lights is all on brand. These are insecure, sad little men who build themselves up with the iconography of fascism to hide their fear.

It has become abundantly clear that Trump’s tweeted insults are examples of projection.( A recent, telling example: In a telephone conversation yesterday with a number of governors, Trump reportedly accused them of being weak.)

The Guardian called the President “the destroyer.”

Not even Trump’s harshest critics can blame him for a virus believed to have come from a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, nor for an attendant economic collapse, nor for four centuries of slavery, segregation, police brutality and racial injustice.

But they can, and do, point to how he made a bad situation so much worse. The story of Trump’s presidency was arguably always leading to this moment, with its toxic mix of weak moral leadership, racial divisiveness, crass and vulgar rhetoric and an erosion of norms, institutions and trust in traditional information sources. Taken together, these ingredients created a tinderbox poised to explode when crises came.

The Guardian–voicing the obvious–notes that Trump, who was “uniquely ill-qualified”for the Presidency, is ignoring crises he has no competence or desire to address, and meeting unrest in dozens of cities with authoritarian language: “thugs”, “vicious dogs” and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The nation waits in vain for a speech that might heal wounds, find a common sense of purpose and acknowledge the generational trauma of African Americans. That would require deep reading, cultural sensitivity and human empathy – none of which are known to be among personal attributes of Trump, who defines himself in opposition to Barack Obama.

A spokesperson for Black Lives Matter was quoted putting into words an opinion held by most thinking Americans since 2016:

He doesn’t have a clue. He’s a TV personality. He has a cult following that’s centred around this white power broker persona rooted in white supremacy and racism. Wherever he goes, he carries that role and that kind of persona, but ultimately right now with what we’re looking for in this country is real leadership. He is incapable of providing that because that’s not who he is.

A civil rights leader also quoted in the Guardian article noted that, while Trump didn’t create hostility and division, he incites it and thrives on it.” And in words that echo many of the comments that have been posted to this blog since 2016, he added:

The problem here is that we can focus this simply on Trump or we can also focus on all of those folks that have enabled Trump: the Republican leadership, the corporation that may make statements in support of this work but, on the other hand, do all sorts of things to prop up, support, donate to Donald Trump. You don’t get Trump and Trumpism without a whole host of institutions and individuals that support and enable him.”

We don’t just need a “blue wave.” We need a blue tsunami.

 

Got A Brown Shirt?

Our kids all tend to be snarky. (I have no idea where they get that….)

At any rate, when a reader shared an article from Slate about the Federalist Society, it immediately reminded me of a long-ago exchange between my youngest son and another lawyer. My son had just returned to Indianapolis to practice law, and a colleague had invited him to join the local chapter of the Federalist Society. He’d declined, saying “Sorry, but I don’t have a brown shirt.

At the time, characterizing the Federalist Society as fascist was (arguably) unfair. As Dahlia Lithwick and Richard Hasen write in the linked article,

There’s nothing nefarious about like-minded people coming together to debate the issues of the day from a particular political perspective and to network with others of a similar mindset. (That’s the model of the American Constitution Society too, which engages in this activity from a progressive perspective and where we have both spoken.) Nor is there any question that groups of like-minded lawyers can and should gather together to mentor young attorneys and steer them into networks and eventually careers that will fulfill them. There’s been a recent controversy over whether it is inappropriate for federal judges to formally be a part of the Federalist Society, or the ACS, but even if these judges gave up their formal ties, the fact remains that the network and pipeline of clerkships and judgeships would remain intact. Again, none of this is new or particularly scandalous; Until recently, the biggest difference between the Federalist Society and ACS was less what they were doing and more that the former was simply better at it.

Until recently.

The article was a troubling report on what we might call “spawn of the Federalist Society.” A Senate report released by Senators Chuck Schumer, Debbie Stabenow, and Sheldon Whitehouse documents how a right-wing legal network spawned by the Federalist Society has–in Lithwick and Hasen’s words– gone “full Trumpian,” morphing from an organization of principled conservatives  into a secretly-funded cabal spouting conspiracy theories such as the myth of widespread voter fraud, and how Leonard Leo, co-chairman of the Federalist Society, has been spearheading the effort to fill the federal judiciary with judges who are likely to rule in favor of secret, monied interests.

The Senate Democrats’ report details how an interlocked group of anonymous donors have been directing the judicial nominations process through media and lobbying campaigns. Many of these campaigns, including the Judicial Crisis Network, have ties to Leo, who has twice taken a formal “leave” from the Federalist Society to advise President Trump on his Supreme Court nominations, then hopped back into his old post, while boasting that his organization was in firm control of the nominations process.

According to Lithwick and Hasen, while the Federalist Society continues to claim that it is uninvolved in politics, policy, or judicial nominations, and the group avoids taking “official” positions on such matters, Leo (who has effectively directed the group until very recently) has developed “a network of political groups, none of which disclose their donors, funded at about a quarter of a billion dollars.”  That money has mostly been used to help Mitch McConnell seat so-called “conservative” (and frequently unqualified) judges on the federal bench.

Judicial Crisis Network –one of the organizations in that shadowy network– spent $7 million opposing Merrick Garland, $10 million to support  Neil Gorsuch (targeting ‘vulnerable Democrat Senators’), and another $10 million in advertising to support Brett Kavanaugh. And nobody knows where the money came from.

More recently, that shadowy network has engaged in a new initiative: an effort to engage in political dirty tricks to help keep its cronies in power.

But the big news today is where that conservative network is heading: Their activities now go well beyond dark money political hardball into conspiracy mongering and election-meddling efforts around the November presidential elections that endanger our democracy.

And while this is happening, the Trump administration is rolling back the rules that would require these organizations to disclose their donors….

If there isn’t a blue wave in November, what is essentially a bloodless coup will have succeeded–making my son’s snark about needing a brown shirt terrifyingly true.

 

Mad As Hell And Unwilling To Take It Any More

There’s a famous scene from the movie Network in which–prompted by a furious anchorman–people lean out of their windows and scream “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Any honest American knows that racist, dehumanizing and frequently violent attacks on black people, most of whom are simply going about their business and trying to live their lives, have been a constant of American life. With the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, however, it has become much more difficult to rationalize these incidents away–to tell ourselves, well, it couldn’t have happened the way it’s being reported, there must have been more to the story, or to engage in other denial mechanisms allowing those of us privileged by our whiteness to avoid really knowing.

It’s so much easier not to know, because if we know, we will also know we should do something, even if we’re not sure what that something is.

Over the past several years, there has been a constant stream of videos documenting unjustified and frequently horrific treatment of African-Americans–too often by the police who are charged with protecting members of the public, too often in striking contrast to the way those same officers are shown treating white hoodlums, and too often encouraged by the White Nationalist currently defiling the Oval Office.

The protests underway around the country are a response to the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by a police officer; they’re the equivalent of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Those protests began as peaceful demonstrations, but a number have morphed into violence and looting.

Violence and property destruction, of course, give the Trumpers an excuse to double-down on the racism and ignore the appalling behavior that triggered civil unrest in the first place. It plays into their hands. And it is beginning to look as if some of them weren’t going to wait for black rage to ignite those fires and break those windows.

Minneapolis officials have charged that “outside forces” (mainly White Nationalists, some of whom are eager for civil war) are infiltrating peaceful protests and kicking off the violence and mayhem.

At a press conference, Gov. Tim Walls, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison alleged that outside forces infiltrated the state, and began setting fire to historic businesses in communities of color. Ellison cited a widely circulating video (cameras, again!) of a white man in a gas mask holding an umbrella who was caught by protestors on video methodically breaking windows.

The Mayor reported that every person arrested during the protests was from out of state.

Authorities will begin releasing the names of those arrested, and those individuals will be “contact-traced” to determine whether they are known members or sympathizers of the white nationalist groups that have been encouraging members to wreak havoc in Minneapolis and other cities where protests are occurring.

So here we are.

After three-and-half years in which Trump has engaged in racist rhetoric, modeled bullying behavior, and displayed contempt for the rule of law, the Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are understandably emboldened.

The people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 weren’t all racists–although a substantial proportion of them demonstrably were. In 2020, a vote for Trump or for any of the Republicans who continue to enable him will unequivocally be a vote for racism– and for the complete abandonment of what I have called “the American Idea.