The Man Behind Trump’s Throne

President Donald Trump Signs Executive OrdersThe media has reported extensively on the flurry of activity surrounding Donald Trump’s first week in office.  But perhaps “flurry” is not the right meteorological analogy.  To myself and many others it seems more like a destructive hurricane.

So many unprecedented events filled the news cycle this week, that is it impossible to comment on them all.  For those who wish a refresher, this brief summary from British television should suffice. Overall, it provides a rather chilling tally not only of a long-anticipated right-wing wish list, but also of actions to curtail civil liberties and democratic freedoms including the freedom of dissent, information and expression.

As noteworthy as these events have been – many of them gathering considerable media attention – what has been going on behind the scenes is even more important in the long run, And unfortunately, this has not been given near the attention it deserves.

trump-appointeesAs the Senate confirmation hearings of Trump’s Cabinet appointees has revealed, there is considerable daylight between some of their positions and those of Trump himself.  Politico reported this week that to ensure they do not stray from Trump’s own agenda,

The White House is installing senior aides atop major federal agencies to shadow the administration’s Cabinet secretaries, creating a direct line with loyalists who can monitor and shape White House goals across the federal bureaucracy.

voalogoThen there is Donald Trump’s so-called “war” with the media.  Things are falling into place for him to erect his own tightly controlled alternative to the public media.  In mid-December the newly-convened Congress passed legislation to abolish the independent body that oversees government-backed media outlets like Voice of America, replacing it with a chief executive named by the President and approved by the Senate. As Politico reported this week,

On the first Monday of his administration, Trump, who has flirted with the idea of launching his own TV network, deployed two “transition officials” who will evaluate the managers and studios of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has an annual budget of $800 million and includes Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.

Many people are not aware that legislation passed in 2013 now permits these government-funded outlets to broadcast to American audiences as well as to those in other countries.   Throughout the cold war, the Voice of America was the official propaganda arm of the U. S. government, and some people within this organization are now concerned that it may be turned into a propaganda mouthpiece for the Trump administration.

trump-and-mediaNote that this comes on the heels of Trump railing against CNN and Buzzfeed as “fake news” at his first official press conference, his press secretary Sean Spicer attacking the news media the day after the election for not backing Trump’s false claims on the size of the inauguration crowd, and Trump himself launching a similar attack on the public media during his visit to the CIA headquarters, calling journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”  The next day Trump’s chief White House Strategist, Stephen Bannon, called the media “the opposition party, and stated that “It should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” The following day Trump said that he fully concurred with Bannon’s view.

The Bannon Factor

This kind of rhetoric is completely unprecedented, and one might well wonder what is behind it.  The source of this animosity toward the mainstream media does not seem to originate with either Donald Trump or his Press Secretary Sean Spicer (or even his chief spokesperson and surrogate Kellyanne Conway).  All the evidence points to it originating with Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon.

bannon-and-trumpAs Michael Gyrnbaum explained in the New York Times this week,

Among Mr. Trump’s advisers in the White House, Mr. Bannon is responsible for putting into action the nationalist vision that Mr. Trump channeled during the later months of the campaign, one that stemmed from Mr. Bannon himself. And in many ways Mr. Trump has acted on that vision during his first week in office — from the description of “American carnage” he laid out in his inauguration speech to a series of executive actions outlining policies on trade agreements, immigration and the building of a border wall.

Mr. Bannon is one of the strongest forces in an administration with competing power centers. A savvy manipulator of the press, and a proud provocateur, he was among the few advisers in Mr. Trump’s circle who were said to have urged Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, to give a confrontational, emotional statement to a shocked West Wing briefing room on Saturday, when the White House disputed news reports about the size of the inauguration crowd.

A very revealing article in Axios this week reveals the extent of Bannon’s influence in the Trump administration (along with policy guru Stephen Miller):

  • They wrote the Inaugural speech and set in fast motion a series of moves to cement Trump as an America-first Nationalist.
  • They maneuvered to get more key allies inside the White House and positioned for top agency jobs.
  • Theywrote many of the executive orders, sometimes with little input from others helping with the transition.
  • They egged on Trump to take a combative approach with the media, China, Mexico and critics.
  • And Bannon punctuated the week with a full-throated, Trump-pleasing bashing of the media.

Just how small this group of decision-makers is was revealed this week is a series of reports stating that

trumo-executive-order2-jpgPresident Donald Trump’s team made little effort to consult with federal agency lawyers or lawmakers as they churned out executive actions this week, stoking fears the White House is creating the appearance of real momentum with flawed orders that might be unworkable, unenforceable or even illegal.

For example,

The White House didn’t ask State Department experts to review Trump’s memorandum on the Keystone XL pipeline

And

Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo were “blindsided” by a draft order that would require agencies to reconsider using interrogation techniques that are currently banned as torture

In addition,

Just a small circle of officials at the Department of Health and Human Services knew about the executive action starting to unwind Obamacare, and only less than two hours before it was released. Key members of Congress weren’t consulted either, according to several members. And at a conference in Philadelphia, GOP legislators say they had no idea whether some of the executive orders would contrast with existing laws — because they hadn’t reviewed them.

This was especially true with regard to Trump’s executive order limiting the entry of refugees into the U.S. issued this past Friday.  Politico reported that

When President Donald Trump declared at the Pentagon Friday he was enacting strict new measures to prevent domestic terror attacks, there were few within his government who knew exactly what he meant.

Administration officials weren’t immediately sure which countries’ citizens would be barred from entering the United States. The Department of Homeland Security was left making a legal analysis on the order after Trump signed it.

Furthermore,

It wasn’t until Friday — the day Trump signed the order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days — that career homeland security staff were allowed to see the final details of the order.

stephen-bannon3It is completely unheard of for the Executive office to not vet its executive orders with the Department of Justice or to keep its Cabinet officers and department heads in the dark about them until after they are proclaimed.  Stephen Bannon along with a tiny group within Trump’s circle of trusted advisors are in many cases drafting these articles without proper consultation with the offices that must implement them.  It is the kind of unilateral (even dictatorial) action that President Obama was (without justification) frequently accused of taking, but which is quickly becoming a hallmark of the Trump Administration.

Since the inauguration, Stephen Bannon has been busy consolidating his influence within Trump’s inner circle with the facilitation of Trump himself. On Friday Donald Trump issued an executive order restructuring the National Security Council, creating a new position installing Stephen Bannon on the Council alongside the Secretary of Defense (James “Mad Dog” Mattis) and Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson). At the same time, the Director of National Intelligence (Dan Coats) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Joseph Dunford) are being shunted to the side and will henceforth only attend committee meetings that pertain to their “specific responsibilities and expertise.”  David Ferguson notes that while serving on the council “Bannon will be privy to some of the country’s most highly classified military and intelligence secrets.”

By way of contrast, Tillerson will assume his position as Secretary of State in a very weakened position.  On Wednesday it was announced that the entire State Department Management Team had been fired by the Trump administration.  As Allegra Kirkland reported for Talking Points Memo,

“It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” David Wade, State Department chief of staff under Secretary of State John Kerry, told the newspaper. “Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.”

This leaves Stephen Bannon as the second most powerful person in the Trump administration next to the Donald Trump himself.  It has been reported that he sits in on all of Trump’s phone calls with international leaders, and has a direct hand in all major decisions.

Who is Stephen Bannon?

stephen-bannon2

Sixty-three year old Stephen Bannon was a founding member of Breitbart News, an extremist right-wing online news service dominated by provocative reporting and “fake news.”  Upon Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012, Bannon became its Editor-at-Large. As David Ferguson explains, Bannon

presided over the expansion of Breitbart.com from a fringe right-wing web community to a sprawling hub of the so-called “alt-right,” a collection of white nationalists, racists, anti-feminists and neo-Nazis.

Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart, described Bannon as a “pathological liar who has a temperament that governs by bullying and intimidation.” And as Ben Shapiro, a former staff member at Breitbart, writes,

Bannon has goals. One of those goals is maximization of personal power, which is why he spent the last decade and a half glomming onto powerful right-wing personalities … and then moving on up the chain. With [Andrew] Breitbart and Trump, he picked two winners in a row – and that means he’s now at the pinnacle of American power.

So, what will he do with that power? He’ll target enemies. Bannon is one of the most vicious people in politics. … [M]ore importantly, Bannon’s interested in turning the Republican Party into a far-right European party.

Bannon’s personal agenda was further clarified by Ronald Radosh on the day after Trump’s inauguration when he related a conversation he had with Bannon at a social gathering back in 2013.  In their conversation, rather describing himself as a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed, “I’m a Leninist.” He quickly clarified that by this he did not mean that not mean that he was a communist (he was most certainly not), but rather that he saw himself as a radical revolutionary.

“Lenin,” he said, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

By “all of today’s establishment” he meant the traditional establishment parties – both Democratic and Republican – as well as the traditional conservative press.

Donald Trump found in the Breitbart press managed by Bannon exactly the kind of anti-establishment message that appealed to him.  Bannon became one of Trump’s most trusted allies in waging his own public war against the existing political “establishment,” and Trump soon brought him into his inner circle.  When Trump’s Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign after his lobbying work for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs became public, Trump turned to Bannon, naming him as his “chief strategist and senior counselor.”

In November The Hill reported that although Bannon is best known for his populist nationalist views on domestic issues such as immigration, he is also “fascinated with the military and global affairs.”

Bannon admires right-wing nationalists and hard-line illegal immigration opponents in Europe and elsewhere. He wants to work more closely with them and sees them as part of a worldwide movement to overthrow the “globalists,” according to multiple sources familiar with his thinking.

Bannon is a longtime skeptic of international alliances like the United Nations and the European Union. He cheered on Brexit — the decision made by British voters in a June referendum to leave the EU — and he admires French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

stephen-bannon1This may be the first time that an actual agent provocateur has held a key position within an American administration.  Donald Trump trusts Stephen Bannon implicitly, and has given him access to all aspects of administrative responsibilities.  As Trump’s chief strategist he is responsible for rolling out the president’s executive orders, his media events, and his public pronouncements.  He is both the gate keeper and the initiator operating behind the scenes.  Everything that Trump does passes through his hands and is shaped by his counsel.

One ultimately has to ask, who is really in charge of the presidency?  Donald Trump the showman?  Or Stephen Bannon the presence behind the throne?

Photo credits: Gerald Herbert/AP; Ron Sachs – Pool/Getty Images; Reuters; Christine Frapech – AP/Newseum; Joshua Roberts/Reuters; ABC News; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Alex Brandon / AP

The Death of Establishment Politics

donald-trumpDuring the primary battles Donald Trump made his attack on the Republican establishment a central feature of his campaign. With his strong populist message, he ultimately triumphed over all of his primary contenders and decisively clinched the Republican nomination.

Yet Donald Trump was a contentious figure from the very beginning.  Many prominent Republicans saw him as being so objectionable and abrasive that they could not support him.  Some claimed he was not a “true” Republican, citing the many years that Trump was a registered Democrat supporting Democratic candidates and policies, before becoming an Independent, and only a few years ago joining the Republican Party.

Establishment Republicans, incensed that Trump was taking the Party away from its traditional ideals, fought back.  They mounted a vigorous “Never Trump” campaign which, for a time, seemed to be gaining steam.  By the final weeks of the presidential campaign 275 prominent Republicans either currently or previously serving in federal state and party administrations had gone on record saying they could not in good conscience vote for Donald Trump.  Another 55 conservative academics, journalists and commentators had also declared their opposition to Trump.

bernie-sandersOn the other side of the fence, Bernie Sanders mounted a vigorous populist campaign from the left during the primary season against the favored establishment candidate of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton.  The Sanders campaign strongly criticized the Democratic National Committee for siding with Clinton and working behind the scenes to ensure her nomination.  In the end, despite summoning large enthusiastic crowds wherever he went and winning 22 state primaries, Bernie Sanders had to yield to Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

Despite Hillary Clinton’s embrace of some of Sander’s progressive language, most observers were convinced that she actually represented the party’s establishment center and would remain faithful to its ideals if elected.

trumpclintonThe resulting contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the official candidates of the two parties quickly devolved into a mudslinging match over personalities and trustworthiness rather than policy issues.  Americans as a whole were disappointed with both candidates.  In the tallying of last Tuesday’s vote it was discovered that many people had left the top of their ballots blank, voting for neither presidential candidate, while filling in the remainder of the ballot largely along party lines.

After all the votes have been counted (they are still being tabulated) Hillary Clinton, the Democratic establishment candidate, is expected to win the popular vote by some 2 million votes. However, Donald Trump has chalked up the most Electoral College votes, and in the early hours of Wednesday morning was proclaimed as the President-elect.

Laying a New Course

Donald Trump’s victory leaves a divided party in its wake.  Populism triumphed over conservative ideology, leaving many party conservatives on the outside looking in.  Commentators have noted Trump’s long record of vindictiveness toward those who publicly oppose him.  The experienced establishment old-hands within the party who had opposed him will have no place in his administration.

This divide extends to sitting members of Congress.  Following the shift in conservative ideology in Congress with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 (typified by Ted Cruz and others), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is seen by many as the last prominent torchbearer of Reaganite Republicanism.  But now that too is in jeopardy.

paul-ryan-800x430On the night of the election, as Paul Ryan was back in his home state of Wisconsin with his supporters celebrating his re-election victory (with Fox News coverage of the election playing in the background), Sean Hannity came on the TV saying that Paul Ryan should not remain Speaker of the House since he had not supported Donald Trump during the campaign.

This past weekend Donald Trump announced that Steve Bannon would serve as the chief strategist in his administration working on par with (rather than under) Reince Priebus who will be Trump’s Chief of Staff.  Bannon, who was senior editor of Breitbart News before becoming the head of Trump’s campaign team, has targeted Paul Ryan as the “the enemy” – the very epitome of establishment Republicanism. He called on his staff at Breitbart to destroy Ryan, pledging that he would be gone as Speaker by this spring.”

A battle for control of the House and Senate looms as Donald Trump and his administrative team prepare to take charge.  It is not the traditional battle between Democrats and Republicans – Republicans have a safe majority in both Houses following the election – but between sitting establishment Republicans and the Trump Administration.

A cardinal feature of traditional Republican ideology has been a commitment to small government and balanced budgets.  Yet Donald Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a comprehensive system of coverage that is “even better,” to launch a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure renewal program, and to end sequestering and dramatically increase military expenditures, all while reducing taxes.

David Frum. (CHUCK KENNEDY)The conservative critic David Frum has stated that Donald Trump is bringing the same business plan to government that he has used so successfully in his own business empire, namely, borrow as much money as you can from other people and never pay it back.

Will conservatives in Congress go along with Trump’s return to “big government” (Keynesian-styled) expenditures to expand the economy with its resulting huge deficits, or will they balk?  The next vote on the Debt Ceiling comes up in mid-March, shortly after Congress resumes sitting, so we shall soon see.

Members of Congress must choose their sides carefully.  Donald Trump has displayed a well-established pattern of retaliating against all those who publicly oppose or criticize him.  If members don’t side with Trump, will their access to campaign funds be cut when they seek re-election?  Will they be primaried out of the nomination?  The pressure on them to back Trump’s agenda will be immense – even if it flies in the face of traditional conservative Republican values.

On the other hand, if the Republican members of Congress closely align themselves with the Trump administration and the economy tanks, or inflation spikes, or the anticipated job numbers don’t improve, or the US becomes mired down in another war, or Trump is brought down in a major scandal – in short, if the Trump revolution falls apart for any of a variety of reasons – will voters blame his supporters in Congress for the mess?  Will these Republicans be able to survive the next election referendum?

The Challenge for Democrats

Democrats also face a number of challenges in the days and months ahead.  In backing the widely disliked establishment candidate from their own party in the 2016 election, they have not only forfeited the presidency, but also both houses of Congress.

Just as the Republican Party did after their 2012 election loss to Barack Obama, they will need to conduct a thorough post mortem to determine why they lost this election so unexpectedly and decisively.  They will need to identify their own winning coalition of voters for the next election and decide how they can best appeal to them.

bernie-crowdIf they are wise, they will revisit the Bernie Sanders phenomenon of the primary season and identify the factors that so enthused his base (Hillary had her loyalists, but she never succeeded in enthusing the masses).  One basic factor is already evident: Bernie excited younger voters; they turned out for him in huge numbers.  They identified with him in a way that they never did with Hillary Clinton.  Polls show that if Bernie Sanders had been on the ticket opposite Donald Trump he would have won the election handily.

The nation’s demographics are changing.  The baby boomer generation is retiring and will soon be dropping in numbers while the millennial generation continues to grow in size and influence. One remarkable map drawn up after the election shows how the electoral college vote would have gone if one only counted the votes cast by 18 – 25 year olds.  It would have generated an enormous landslide of 504 votes for the Democratic candidate to just 23 for Donald Trump.

youth-vote-2016The Sanders faction is not waiting around for the next election.  They have launched campaigns to replace party officials in many states and are actively lobbying for the selection of a new Chair of the Democratic National Committee who will be more supportive of their concerns.  And they are already lining up progressive candidates for the next presidential election in 2020.

The 2016 election marked a remarkable sea change in American politics.  In a very real sense, the primary division is no longer between conservatives and liberals but between establishment and populist candidates.  In this election the establishment candidates – on both sides of the aisle – lost out, while voters rallied around their populist choices.

In the coming months we will witness parallel contests within the Republican and the Democratic camps for control of the party machinery moving forward to the next election.  Will the establishment forces be able to wrestle control back from the populist insurgents?  Or will the populists – on both the left and right – become the new face of both parties?

Photo credits: APP/Getty Images; Jim Watson/AFP; Chuck Kennedy; AP

Trump’s Victory Is Only Temporary

2016 Election TrumpI am still in a state of shock over Tuesday’s election results.  Never in a million years could I even conceive of Trump winning the election.  It was worrisome enough that he had been steadily polling at over 40% support for some weeks. That alone I found incredible.

It was like the entire country was oblivious to Trump’s true character, his erratic conduct, his inflated ego, his dangerous demagoguery, his racist and misogynistic views, his record as a sexual predator, his dishonest business dealings, his personal vindictiveness, and his steady stream of lies.  The false equivalence between his public record and that of Hillary Clinton was, to me, astounding and quite unbelievable.

david-dukeBut it has actually happened. The first African-American president has been succeeded by a candidate endorsed by the KKK.  Incredible! David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard, tweeted out, “This is one of the most exciting nights of my life.  Make no mistake about it, our people have played a huge roll in electing Trump.”

marine-lepenOne of the first congratulatory messages from a foreign leader came from Marine LePen, leader of France’s far-right National Front. Vladimir Putin was also quick to applauded Trump’s win. And, perhaps most disturbing, it was welcomed by Al-Qaeda and Egyptian Jihadis. “Trump’s victory is a hard slap to those promoting the efficiency of democratic systems,” the spokesperson for the Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda, tweeted. “Starting today we won’t need media releases clarifying the West’s machinations, All we need to do is retweet what Trump says.”

Thousands of protesters have since taken to the streets in many American cities to protest Trump’s election, shouting “He’s not my president.”

election-protests-seattle

I have spent much of the past day sifting through various media reports on the election results, trying to understand what has just happened. I find that international commentary provides a much better perspective on Trump’s victory than most of what comes out of the U.S. right now.  (Americans are notoriously blind to the international implications of their actions.)

the-guardian-logoIt turns out that my own thoughts are quite accurately expressed in the following strongly worded article in Wednesday’s Guardian from England:

We thought the United States would step back from the abyss. We believed, and the polls led us to feel sure, that Americans would not, in the end, hand the most powerful office on earth to an unstable bigot, sexual predator and compulsive liar.

People all around the world had watched and waited, through the consecutive horrors of the 2016 election campaign, believing the Trump nightmare would eventually pass. But today the United States – the country that had, from its birth, seen itself as a beacon that would inspire the world, a society that praised itself as “the last best hope of earth”, the nation that had seemed to be bending the arc of history towards justice, as Barack Obama so memorably put it on this same morning eight years ago – has stepped into the abyss.

Today the United States stands not as a source of inspiration to the rest of the world but as a source of fear. Instead of hailing its first female president, it seems poised to hand the awesome power of its highest office to a man who revels in his own ignorance, racism and misogyny. One who knows him well describes him as a dangerous “sociopath”.

And what awesome power he will soon have. Republicans did not just defy almost every projection, prediction and data-rich computer model to win the presidency. They also won the House of Representatives and much of the Senate. Trump will face few checks on his whims. A man with no control of his impulses will be unrestrained, the might of a superpower at the service of his ego and his id. …

The most obvious impact will be on the country he will soon rule. Just think of what he has promised. A deportation force to round up and expel the 11 million undocumented migrants who make up 6% of the US workforce. A ban on all Muslims entering the country, later downgraded to a pledge to impose “extreme vetting” on anyone coming from a suspect land. A giant wall to seal off the Mexican border. “Some form of punishment” for women who seek an abortion. And prison for the woman he just defeated.

This will be America’s ordeal primarily. But it will affect all of us. A reality TV star with no experience of either politics or the military will have the nuclear button as his toy. This, remember, is the man who reportedly asked several times, during a military briefing, why the US didn’t use nuclear weapons since it had them. This is the man who has said “I love war”. Whose proposed solution to Isis is “to bomb the shit out of them” and steal the oil.

Think of the anxiety this morning in Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn. In the summer, Trump told the New York Times he did not believe in Nato’s core principle: that an attack on one member should be met by a response from all. He seemed to see Nato as a mafia protection racket: unless the little guys paid up, they should be left undefended. Vladimir Putin – Trump’s hero, admired as the very model of a leader by the president-elect of the United States – will not need more of a hint than that. The Russian dictator will surely see his opportunity to invade one or more Baltic states and expand his empire. … A trade war looms with China, the imposition of tariffs that could imperil the entire global trading system. America is about to turn inward, towards protectionism. …

And what about our planet? Trump believes climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. He will do nothing to reduce emissions: he does not believe they exist.

But beyond all that, there is another consequence of this terrifying decision, no less dark. Trump’s success has delighted white nationalists and racists in his own country and beyond. His victories in the key battleground states were hailed by David Duke, a former luminary of the Ku Klux Klan: “God Bless Donald Trump,” he tweeted. “It’s TIME TO TAKE AMERICA BACK.” The Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders was in similarly cheery mood: “The people are taking their country back,” he said, “So will we.” Marine Le Pen will feel the same jubilation, as will every other populist or nationalist who traffics in hate.

The most powerful country in the world is to be led by its most dangerous ever leader … [FDR] once told Americans they had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. That is not true today. America and the rest of us have plenty to fear – starting with the man who now stands on top of the world.

vox_website_logoThe best American commentary I have found comes from Ezra Klein, writing on Wednesday for Vox. He, I think, provides a very realistic view of Trump’s impulses, but also the limits to his power. And he provides some very sound advice for the Republican Congress as they try to work constructively with Trump.

Donald Trump has won the election. Now it is up to America’s institutions, and the people within them, to check his worst instincts.

There is danger in Trump. He’s a man with authoritarian impulses, a conspiracy theorist’s bent, and a taste for vengeance. He has an alarming temperament, little impulse control, and less decency. He has a demagogue’s instinct for finding enemies and a bully’s instinct for finding their weaknesses. He is uninterested in policy, unrestrained by shame, and unbound by norms. He surrounds himself with sycophants and enablers, and he believes both the facts and the falsehoods he finds congenial.

But he is entering an office that is weaker than many realize. For all the same reasons Barack Obama could not bring about the change he had made people believe in, Trump cannot wrench America to his vision of greatness. He is constrained by the House and the Senate, by the Supreme Court, by the executive agencies, and — in ways less formal but no less powerful — by his own staff and party.

There would be more comfort in this if there were more opposition inside these institutions. But Republicans control everything — the House, the Senate, and, after an appointment, the Supreme Court. If Trump is to be checked, it will be because his own party checks him.

So far, the GOP has not shown much interest or ability in standing up to their standard-bearer. Top Republicans closed ranks around Trump despite believing him fundamentally unfit for office. Their embrace did not, however, lead to Trump surrounding himself with more professional staff, developing sounder policy, or moderating his worst instincts.

Already, the Trump campaign has leaked that they will fill their administration with the most supportive staff they can find, not the best. But the number of jobs they appear to have candidates for is slim. They will need many more bodies to fill both the White House and the executive agencies. This is a place where the Republican Party could potentially play a role in surrounding Trump with calmer, wiser advisers who could provide him better information and curb his worst impulses. …

House and Senate Republicans know that Trump’s success is their success, that his strength is their strength. The same goes for his staff, and his appointees. The question is whether they can structure a version of success for him that keeps the country safe, and whether they will be willing, if the worst comes to pass, to cross their president for their country.

If there is hope, it is here: The incentives of governance are different from the incentives of opposition. The Republican majority will have to face the voters in 2018, and then again in 2020. If they have taken health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, if they have ripped open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, if they have embroiled us in disastrous wars or confrontations, if they have sent the economy into tailspin, those elections will not be pleasant.

Perhaps this is a weight Trump will feel in a way he has not over the course of the campaign, and he will change his behavior accordingly. But even if he doesn’t, Republicans have a majority, and it will be one they hope to keep. To keep it, they will need to govern well, or at least convince the electorate they have governed well. And to govern well, they will need to keep Trump’s worst tendencies in check. Now we see how strong the American system really is.

Klein’s article pushes a bit beyond the limits of my own optimism. I do not see the Congress successfully reigning in Trump.  On some legislative matters he will not care what they do, and may gladly sign their legislation into law. But on other matters I expect there to be a real confrontation.  Donald Trump has promised a better health care plan for everyone, massive spending on infrastructure, a return of good-paying jobs, and massive increases in military spending. In other words, a return to (or continuation of) big government spending.

113 Congress1But Congress controls the purse strings, and one would expect the Republican-led Congress to insist on reducing government expenditures, having even lower taxes, and keeping a lid on the deficit.  The next vote on the debt ceiling is scheduled for March 17, 2017, just two months into Trump’s term.  It should prove interesting and quite revealing to see which side will yield on these expenditure issues.

My guess is that Donald Trump is so inexperienced in the ways of politics and completely resistant to following the advice of others, that he will quickly make some major missteps.  When called on it, he will place the blame on others. If challenged, he will lash out against any who defy him.  That is his nature. That is how he acts.

Donald Trump already has a number of opponents within the Republican Party. There are many who accuse him of not being a ‘true’ Republican. (He was a registered Democrat, then an Independent, before running for president under the Republican banner.) Will one see a widening fissure along ideological lines? Or will it simply become an open contest for power? Politics is all about power, after all. And in the end, which faction will emerge as the true standard-bearer of Republican values? It’s all up for grabs. Expect to see your idea of Republicanism become radically redefined.

trump-supportersMore importantly, what will happen in 2 years’ time when the multitudes of the anger-filled supporters who put Donald Trump in the White House to “make America great again” find that he has accomplished little to make their situation better? Who will be blamed for his unfilled promises – Trump himself or the Republican members of Congress? As Ezra Klein says in his article,

The Republican majority will have to face the voters in 2018, and then again in 2020. If they have taken health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, if they have ripped open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, if they have embroiled us in disastrous wars or confrontations, if they have sent the economy into tailspin, those elections will not be pleasant.

It looks very much like a lose-lose situation, and all parties are going to have to tread very carefully to avoid another angry revolt by the electorate against those currently in office. The new Republican hegemony could end up being very short lived.

This is far from over. In fact, the next stage of massive voter alienation is just getting underway. Trump has made too many grand promises and raised expectations far too high for him to get away with backing out of them now. I predict that it will not end well.

Mind you, this is not just going to be a problem for Republicans. As Aaron Blake noted in Wednesday’s Washington Post, with Hillary Clinton’s loss, the Democrats are now a party without a leader or direction, and will have to work hard to redefine themselves before turning to the voters again for support. I expect to see a contest between ‘establishment’ figures and the progressives within the Democratic Party emerging by the 2018 midterm election that will be much more intense than the one in the recent primary campaign. And by 2020 it may be in full force – a counterpart to the newly radicalized ‘non-establishment’ faction that helped put Donald Trump in office.

The next voter revolution may not be far away.

Photo credits: John Locher/AP; Martin Bureau/AFP; Reuters; Gettyimages

From the “New Right” to the “Alt-Right”

What just happened this week American politics seems all too familiar to those who remember the past. Yet in another sense, we have never seen anything like this before.

Barry GoldwaterFifty-two years ago Barry Goldwater, backed by a populist grass-roots movement and skilled political operators, defeated his moderate rivals to win the Republican presidential nomination. It was a seminal turning point in American politics.

The Goldwater campaign took political ideals that until then had been promoted only by fringe groups like the John Birch Society and brought them into mainstream political discourse. It marked the creation of what soon came to be known as “The New Right.”

Goldwater’s campaign policies ultimately proved to be far too radical for the American public at the time. In the presidential election he carried only five states and suffered one of the worst political defeats in American history.

But activists for the New Right seized on the momentum that the Goldwater campaign had provided. A key handful of political operatives (notably Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, Morton Blackwell, Howard Phillips and Terry Dolan) worked tirelessly to perpetuate the new movement. They founded a host of conservative political organizations, publications, media outlets, and think tanks to promote their right-wing agenda, and branded it as a genuinely populist movement. By 1980 their chosen candidate, Ronald Reagan not only won the Republican nomination, but went on to win the presidential election as well in a landslide victory.

220pxPresident_Reagan_1981Over the next three decades Reagan served as the public standard-bearer for the New Right, so much so that the movement became synonymous with his name. Fiscal conservatism (small government & lower taxes) and a strong military were the original twin pillars of the new right.

Unmentioned in polite political discourse, but well established in fact, was the en masse defection of Southern Democrats opposed to the Civil Rights legislation of President Johnson who gravitated to the Republican Party. The Republican Party proved quite willing to accommodate the racist attitudes of many of these Southerners.

During the Reagan years activists like Paul Weyrich also sought to formally add a third pillar to the New Right’s platform – that of social conservatism. It focused extensively on anti-abortion legislation, opposition to gay rights, abstinence education in schools, and defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.

falwell_ht_timeThese efforts were ultimately successful, creating a strong alliance with the Moral Majority (which spun off into a separate short-lived political movement in 1989) and a more long-lasting alliance with the Christian Right that continues today. During this time most moderate Republicans were either forced out of the party or voluntarily left on their own.

Since 1964 The Republican Party has continued to shift rightward in its policies, making many of Goldwater’s and Reagan’s policy ideals seem moderate by comparison. By the 1990s Barry Goldwater was being ostracized by other Republicans for being too moderate in his views.

As I reported in a previous blog,

In 1996, Barry Goldwater sat in his Paradise Valley home with Bob Dole [the Republican nominee that year] and joked about his strange new standing as a GOP outsider. ”We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party,” Goldwater told Dole, who was then facing criticisms from hard-line conservatives in the presidential campaign. ”Can you imagine that?”

Tea-Party-Polls-Show-Importance-To-GOP-BaseSince the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008, the Republican Party has shifted even further to the right, as evidenced in the rapid growth of a new populist faction known as the Tea Party in the 2010 mid-term elections.

When Bob Dole was asked in a 2013 interview with Mike Wallace,

Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan, could you make it in today’s Republican Party?

he replied,

I doubt it. … Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it.

Some have wondered what could be next in the Republican Party’s steady march to embrace ever more extreme right-wing policies.

Enter Donald Trump.

The New “Alt-Right”

donald-trump-1Since the beginning of his campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump has mounted a distinctively populist campaign focused on winning the support of what has turned out to be a core group of older white voters who feel that their economic livelihoods and personal security are being threatened by “others” – those who are not like themselves. Often resorting to crude and vitriolic attacks, Trump has singled out Blacks, Hispanic migrants, and Muslims as being at the root of America’s problems.

Trump’s Campaign Chairman, Paul Manafort, has repeatedly tried to get Trump to tone down his rhetoric and start acting “more presidential” to broaden his appeal. But this week Trump declared in an interview with station WKBT in Wisconsin,

Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, well, you’re going to pivot. … I don’t want to pivot. I mean, you have to be you.

Another regular object of Trump’s attacks has been “the Republican establishment” in general and the RNC [the Republican National Committee] in particular. Tensions have been growing within the RNC for some time over Trump’s frequently erratic behaviour, emotional outbursts, and outrageous statements. Many prominent Republicans have refused to support him, and some have even left the Party. Yet Trump’s populist message continues to enjoy strong support within his supportive base.

Last week there seemed to be a resolution to the feuding between the RNC and the Trump camp. On August 12 it was reported that the Trump team would be meeting with Republican Party officials in what was termed a “come to Jesus” moment for the Trump team to “patch up a rift that just keeps unfolding.” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus personally introduced Trump at a rally later that day and even embraced him on stage.

steve-bannonThe RCN was subsequently taken by complete surprise with the bombshell announcement the following Wednesday that Steve Bannon, the Chairman of Breitbart News, had been recruited to be the new CEO for the Trump campaign. Two days later Paul Manafort announced his resignation as Campaign Chairman.

Under Steve Bannon’s editorship Breitbart News has savagely attacked the RNC and its leadership on many issues including failing to take a strong stance against Muslims and immigrants. One Republican House member was quoted as saying,

Breitbart has no credibility outside of the most extreme conservative wing of our party. … This would seem to signal that Trump is ready to go double-barrel against all of Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike.

He then added,

Breitbart takes a flamethrower to Washington and plays very loose with the facts. I would anticipate an even more bellicose, even less-connected-to-the-facts approach from the Trump campaign moving forward.

AltRightIt should also be noted that Bannon, who took over Breitbart News in 2012, has since then built the news service into a major voice for what is termed the “alt-right,” peddling a steady stream of “white identity, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and Clinton conspiracies.”

In fact, a former Breitbart News spokesperson (who has since resigned in protest) has complained to ABC News that Bannon “regularly disparaged minorities, women and immigrants during daily editorial calls” at Breitbart and that editorial meetings presided over by Bannon sounded “like a white supremacist rally.”

Meanwhile, white nationalists and white supremacists speak glowingly of Breitbart News. Richard Spencer, who heads a white supremacist think tank (the National Policy Institute), has proudly claimed that

Breitbart and Bannon have helped Alt Right ideas gain legitimacy—and, more importantly, exponentially expand their audiences.

Steve Bannon and Donald Trump see eye to eye on most matters. Trump has long depended on Breitbart News for many of the “facts” he quotes at his rallies and the conspiracy theories he embraces. It is expected to be an enduring partnership, even if Trump looses the presidential race. Bannon will be in an excellent position to expand his “news” network with the backing of Trump much as the now disgraced Roger Ailes did in creating Fox News after playing a key role in Ronald Reagan’s and George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.

With Ailes departing the Fox Network, could Bannon become the new media voice for a newly branded Republican Party? That’s not such a far-fetched idea. We have already seen in the original “New Right” movement just how effective media outlets run by well-placed conservative operatives can be in creating a durable political movement.

In his own version of populist rhetoric, Donald Trump has repeatedly announced his refusal to be “politically correct.” He has made it acceptable at his political rallies to demean women, to denounce Hispanic migrants, to attack Muslims, to assault Blacks, and to spread conspiracies, lies and falsehoods at will.

Trump has campaigned on a platform of misogyny, xenophobia, hatred and bullying. He is directing his campaign toward a growing base of older white voters who share his racist, nativist views. He has become the new face of the Republican Party as he personally takes it into its next phase of right-wing extremism. Welcome to the Republican Party of the future.

Who would have imagined 52 years ago that it would come to this?

Photo credit: Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP

Preparing for President Trump

Trump - RNCThis week Donald J. Trump was formally declared to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. In his acceptance speech Trump capitalized on fear, presenting a dystopian view of America, and blaming blacks, Hispanic migrants, Muslims, and foreign actors for America’s woes.

KKK leader David Duke claimed that he could not have said it any better. A fact check of Trump’s statements reveals nearly every one to be a distortion of the facts.  It is well worth reading.

Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump has promised to bring a grand solution to America’s problems without supplying any details and without providing any kind of roadmap for getting there. In his acceptance speech he presented himself as the “law and order” candidate, the strongman America needs in its hour of peril who will singlehandedly deliver America from its internal and external enemies.

His message was simple and direct: Trust me. I am the only one who can save America. “I am the only one who can do this.” trump-stagejpg-d661c16fd81ea8d7Against the massive backdrop of the stage – changed overnight from RNC silver to Trump gold – and with his name emblazoned bigger than anyone could imagine, the message was clear that this event marked the coronation of “King Trump.”

To be quite honest, I genuinely fear for America’s future. The fact that 40% or more of Americans polled say they actually support Donald Trump for president scares me. I still believe that he will not win the election. He is far too divisive, polarizing, narcissistic, bombastic, nasty, and erratic to win the confidence of the majority of Americans. (At least I fervently hope this is the case.)

Donald Trump-aBut Donald Trump has accomplished one very important thing. He has (likely permanently) changed ground rules of campaigning.

In making his statement that “we will not be politically correct” a near constant theme in his campaign (and in not being called out on it by a timid media),

Trump has succeeded in normalizing hate speech in American politics.

He has normalized lying and deception.

He has normalized scapegoating and personal attacks.

He has normalized demonizing one’s opponents.

He has normalized misogyny and xenophobia.

He has normalized fear mongering and physical attacks on other.

He has made all of these things “acceptable.”

We can expect to see these tactics employed again in future campaigns. I am not so much worried that Donald Trump will be able to use them to go all the way to the White House. I am worried about what a future, less abrasive and controversial candidate may do with these tools.

America has never been closer to embracing authoritarian fascist-like leadership than at this moment. I am not saying that Donald Trump is a fascist. I am not name-calling. I am merely pointing out, as others have before me [see here and here], that he has been using a standard set of tools from the fascist playbook from the very beginning. We have seen it played out before in the populist rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco two generations ago.

The great battle on the world stage at that time was to defeat this right-wing authoritarian autocratic form of government known as fascism. Now, under the banner of “Make America Strong,” Americans seem willing to embrace it on their own soil. As Alan Gopnik recently warned in the New Yorker,

If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate.

With the events of this last week, and the endorsement of Donald Trump for the presidency, I truly fear for America’s future. It has embarked on a very, very dark path from which it may be impossible to emerge.

Photo credits: Gus Chan / The Plain Dealer; Brian Snyder/Reuters/Landov

Fear and Loathing at the Republican National Convention

republican-national-conventionThis past week the Republican Party held its national convention in Cleveland, Ohio to confirm the nomination of Donald Trump as its candidate for the presidency. It did not go well.

During the extensive primary process of selecting delegates to the convention Trump had defeated 16 other Republican contenders and accumulated the required number of bound delegate votes to ensure his nomination. However a broad “Never Trump” movement of disaffected Republican leaders and delegates also emerged who were firmly committed to preventing Trump’s nomination at the convention.

Trump children at RNCDonald Trump personally orchestrated the convention’s theme, stage décor, and speaker list, which prominently featured his own family. Many prominent Republican leaders (including past presidents and presidential nominees) stayed away. In many ways it was more like a Trump family event than a RNC event. The convention was unlike any other in the history of the Republican Party.

The first and last day of the convention served as bookends to highlight the central message Trump wanted to present. Instead of Reagan’s memorable sunny “Morning in America” message, Trump’s message more on the order of “Be afraid; be very afraid.” According to Trump, we are in a time of crisis; everything is falling apart. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are to blame, and I am the only one who can save you.

The tone of the convention was orchestrated to generate a mood of fear, rage and loathing among the delegates.

makeamericasafeThe first day’s theme at the convention was “Make America Safe Again.” It featured the mother of one of the soldiers slain in the attack on Benghazi who blamed Hilary Clinton personally for the death of her son. This was followed by a video on the Benghazi attack (whose real purpose was to attack Hillary), followed by two former U.S. security contractors in Benghazi who falsely accused Hillary of watching the attacks live via drone feed and doing nothing.

Then the focus shifted to a lineup of speakers who talked about the tragic deaths of family members and the grave dangers posed to American lives by undocumented Hispanic immigrants. (The GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, called these presentations “the weaponization of grief.) Milwaukie County Sheriff David Clarke then launched an attack on Black Lives Matter and former New York mayor Rudi Guiliani whipped the crown into a frenzy by emphasizing the dangers posed by Islamic extremist terrorists and saying that Obama and Clinton would not be counted on to keep America safe. This led the way for Donald Trump to finally come on stage.

The convention theme on the second day was “Make America Work Again.” It was supposed to focus on jobs, but little was actually said about that. The real theme (echoing that of the previous day) was on how a Clinton presidency would put America in danger, featuring more attacks on Hillary’s character.

It was also on this day that Donald Trump became the official nominee of the Republican Party. However, rather than unifying the party around himself, dissention remained strongly in the air. Many delegates were still angry at the way the “Stop Trump” movement had been procedurally overruled by the platform committee and gavelled into defeat on the first day through a voice vote that was anything but decisive.

I remember as I heard the voice votes both yea and nay, how they sounded equally strong. If that many delegates at the convention were solidly opposed to Trump, I thought, it would take a lot of effort to mend fences. When speakers came to the mike to question the chair’s ruling, they were abruptly told to shut up and live with it. So much for mending fences.

On day three the theme was “Make America First Again,” but problems over party unity continued to surface. Ted Cruz was the only speaker of the day to present an actual conservative policy agenda; it was strangely lacking from the other speakers at the convention.

Ted Cruz at RNCBut Cruz was booed off stage when he refused to personally endorse Trump, instead encouraging delegates to “vote their conscience” in November. His wife Heidi had to have protection in leaving the arena. The next day Cruz explained that he could not support anyone who attacked his wife and his father the way Trump had done during the campaign. Trump, in turn, quickly doubled down on the story that Ted Cruz’ father was connected to John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. He even cited the cover of the National Inquirer as proof!

But it did not end there. On Saturday Bloomberg reported that

Donald Trump plans to create and fund super-PACs specifically aimed at ending the political careers of Ted Cruz and John Kasich should either run for office again, after both snubbed the Republican nominee during his party’s convention this week.

Talk about a vindictive streak!

Hillary ClintonInstead of uniting around Trump, the only thing the delegates seemed to be united on was their manifest hatred of Hillary Clinton. At various points orchestrated chants of “Lock Her Up” echoed through the arena, and sales of T-shirts with the slogan “Hillary for Prison” were said to be brisk. Some supporters at the convention screamed that Hillary should be shot. West Virginia delegate Michael Folk tweeted that she should be “tried for treason, murder, and crimes against the U.S. Constitution … then hung on the Mall in Washington, D.C.” And Trump’s advisor on veterans issues, Al Baldasaro, also stated that Hillary Clinton should be put in a firing line and shot for treason.

This is astonishing! Donald Trump has gone from encouraging his supporters to “rough up” dissidents at his rallies to standing by while his supports call for his chief opponent’s execution! Michael Enright, reporting for the CBC, called the attacks on Hillary Clinton at the convention “venomous.” In a report for CBC News, he noted how this shatters the conventional political rules of behaviour, saying

In 1983, 241 U.S. Marines were killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut. The president at the time was Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

[The next year] Democrats held their national nominating convention in San Francisco. They chose Walter Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro. Had they chosen the low road, they could have blamed Ronald Reagan for the deaths of those 241 Marines.

They didn’t dare.

Trump acceptance speechTrump gave his “victory speech” on the final day of the convention. That, and reaction to it, will be the subject of my next blog.

 Photo credits: Getty Images; Washington Free Beacon; Jim Young/Reuters; Scott Applewhite/AP

Do Black Lives Matter?

blacklivesmatter1As I have come to understand it, racism as it is experienced in America, is not primarily about hatred toward a particular group or about deliberately wanting to harm certain people. It is about those in control seeking to protect their own privileged status by denying those privileges to others.

This would also be what lies at the root of sexism and the denial of equal opportunities to women. And, I believe, it underlies much of the negative attitude toward Hispanic migrants and refugee claimants. The charge is that these people are undermining the rights enjoyed by the majority, and those rights must be kept exclusively within the existing group or they will cease to exist – or at the minimum they will become diluted if spread too broadly – and we will all be the worse off for it.

nametag-white-privilegeWhat we are really talking about here, however, are not “rights” but the “privileges” enjoyed by the dominant group. As I stated in a recent blog, with others now clamouring for fair treatment and access to the same privileges enjoyed by the majority, these

privileged individuals now see themselves and their traditional values as being under attack. They complain of a supposed “war against Christian values.” They claim that immigrants are taking away their jobs, that whites are being discriminated against in the workplace, that women should keep in line, and that homosexuals and transsexuals somehow threaten heterosexuals’ own identity.

There is a fear on the part of the dominant group that the privileges they are accustomed to may disappear. But, they argue, they have a right to their accustomed way of life, and no one is going to take that away from them. And so to secure those rights – those privileges – for themselves, they attempt to deny them to others.

Mapping The Problem

lincoln-emancipation-proclamationThis, in a nutshell, is the story of what happened to Black Americans after emancipation. The Reconstruction project was systematically dismantled throughout the South to deny Blacks economic opportunities. No longer slaves, they were soon reduced to indentured sharecroppers. After federally being given the right to vote, new eligibility laws made it virtually impossible for them to do so. Segregation (“separate but equal”) removed fair access to education, employment, wages, and living conditions. The Ku Klux Klan, with the backing of local police and government officials, systematically terrorized the black population to keep them in their place. This continued without opposition from those in power for a hundred years. Finally the demands for justice and fair and equal treatment led to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Johnson-Civil-Rights-ActAlthough new civil rights legislation was passed under President Lyndon Johnson, it polarized the country. Johnson admitted that he had probably lost the Democrats the southern vote for a full generation. (It has actually been much longer than that.)

Once again the gains were contained, and then rolled back. I was amazed to learn the story of how George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father), while serving as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration in the early 70s tried to use federal regulations to dismantle segregationist housing policies at the state and local level. He was rebuffed by Nixon and his advisors, blackballed, and ultimately removed from Nixon’s Cabinet.

In reflecting on the racially-charged events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, Joshua Holland, writing for BillMoyers.com, stated that

White America has come up with a number of rationales for these enduring pockets of despair. An elaborate mythology has developed that blames it on a “culture of poverty” — holding the poor culpable for their poverty and letting our political and economic systems off the hook.

However, his interview with Richard Rothstein of The Economic Policy Institute details how

throughout the last century a series of intentionally discriminatory policies at the local, state and federal levels created the ghettos we see today.

It is well worth the long read.

In recent decades new tactics were developed to keep American Blacks marginalized. As Michelle Alexander notes in her recent book, The New Jim Crow,

New Jim Crow book_cvrIn the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination— employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Donna March similarly reported in the New Republic in February this year,

In the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration became de facto urban policy for impoverished communities of color in America’s cities. Legislation was passed to impose mandatory minimum [sentences], deny public housing to entire families if any member was even suspected of a drug crime, expand federal death penalty-eligible crimes, and impose draconian restrictions of parole. Ultimately, multiple generations of America’s most vulnerable populations, including drug users, African Americans, Latinos, and the very poor found themselves confined to long-term prison sentences and lifelong social and economic marginality.

As shown on the following chart, America’s prison population jumped 800% between 1970 and 2010.

US Prison Population

Writing for The New Yorker in 2012, Alan Gopnik revealed the astonishing fact that

Prison-Blacks-mass-incarceration-150x150More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.

The “broken windows” policy followed by many police departments in the U.S. beginning in the 1990s (vigorously prosecuting misdemeanors to discourage more serious crimes) didn’t just result in lengthy incarceration of many young black men for minor offenses and their and their families’ loss of the social benefits described above. It also resulted in the systematic harassment of black and other minority groups by police. In a survey conducted in 2009,

more than half of African-American millennials indicated they, or someone they knew, had been victimized by violence or harassment from law enforcement.

In fact, many local police forces use the courts to open prey on these minorities.

According to Radley Balko of The Washington Post, some towns in St. Louis County [Missouri] collect 40 percent or more of their revenue from fines levied by their municipal courts for petty violations. The town of Bel-Ridge (population 2,700, and more than 80 percent black), for example, was projected to collect an average of $450 per household in municipal court fines in 2014, making those fees its largest source of revenue.

And so is it any wonder that we hear African-Americans today calling for justice while at the same time viewing the police as primary agents of injustice? And it is not just that Blacks fear the police. The police and many ordinary citizens have been taught to fear Black Americans. One has to be careful. Look at where and how these people live. They are all potentially criminals.

Mapping a Solution

So, how does one break the cycle? How does one create hope and generate self-esteem within this group without also providing access, training and actual opportunities? Crispus_Attucks_Public_School,_ChicagoEducation is just the first step, and from what I can see, Americans have abandoned the public education system, leaving it to those with money and means to send their children to private schools while the rest are left with a crumbling educational system, inadequate resources, and under-salaried teachers. America had a long way to go in accomplishing even Step One.

slum neighborhoodStep Two addresses the Black communities themselves. How can one begin to change their circumstances without repairing the conditions that they live in, without having a strong local economy, secure jobs, reasonable wages, decent housing and reliable community services? This would require an enormous public investment, something akin to what was spent on the Space Race back in the 1960s, or the trillion dollars that is scheduled to be spent in modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal over the next decade. It’s not that America can’t afford such a massive social renewal project. It repeatedly commits this kind of money to other projects that are deemed in the national interest. It’s a matter of priorities. And the consensus seems to be that these people aren’t worth spending money on. After all, since the Reagan and Clinton eras, funding for the social support structures they rely on have been reduced in every administration.

113th_congressIn the end, however, nothing will be accomplished without a fundamental change of a very different kind. I am referring here to the understanding of privilege by those who currently maintain privilege, who hold the reins of power, set the policies, make and enforce the rules, and distribute the resources. As long as they pursue policies that make privilege an exclusive “right” available only to some and not others, nothing will fundamentally change.

Because with privilege comes power, especially the power to withhold privilege from others. Those with privilege see this as their fair and reasonable “right,” while those without it see it as injustice.

And now, just as in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, we are once again hearing their impassioned pleas for Justice. We are hearing their vehement assertion (often, it seems, falling on deaf ears) that their lives do matter. They know that their lives matter. But do we?

We whites (and particularly we white males) are the ones holding the power, the ones who through our majority elect the officials, set the policies, make the laws and distribute the resources. The ball is in our court. Nothing will change unless we act.

Photo credits: PA; AP; Shannon Stapleton/Reuters; Kevin Lamarque/Reuters