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, 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

A Right to Gun Ownership?

orlando-shooting-memorialAs people continue to reflect on the horrors of the mass shooting last week in Orlando, FL, it is important to consider the U.S. policy on firearms that enables such easy access to weapons of mass destruction.

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, columnist Doug Saunders wrote an outstanding article for Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, entitled, “How U.S. gun ownership became a ‘right,’ and why it isn’t.”

It is the best piece of journalism on this subject that I have seen, and contains some surprising facts that are rarely reported in the American media. Portions of article follow:

The American gun crisis, and the attitudes and laws that make it possible, are very new. The broad idea of a right to own firearms, along with the phenomenon of mass shootings, did not exist a generation ago; the legal basis for this right did not exist a decade ago.

Until 2002, every U.S. president and government had declared that the Constitution’s Second Amendment did not provide any individual right for ordinary citizens to own firearms. Rather, it meant what its text clearly states: that firearms shall be held by “the People” – a collective, not individual right – insofar as they are in the service of “a well-regulated militia.” …

“For 218 years,” legal scholar Michael Waldman writes in his book The Second Amendment: A Biography, “judges overwhelmingly concluded that the amendment authorized states to form militias, what we now call the National Guard,” and did not contain any individual right to own firearms.

Warren_e_burger_photoThe U.S. Supreme Court had never, until 2008, suggested even once that there was any such right. Warren Burger, the arch-conservative Supreme Court justice appointed by Richard Nixon, in an interview in 1991 described the then-new idea of an individual right to bear arms as “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” …

NRA-logo-300x298For most of the 20th century, the National Rifle Association fought hard for gun control and strict limits on the availability of weapons. … [Later, however,] the gun-rights movement emerged from the anti-government fringes in the 1960s and ’70s, took over the NRA and raised huge sums to impose its agenda on U.S. lawmakers. And it crept, rather quickly, into mainstream U.S. thought through the Republican Party.
John_AshcroftIn 2002, John Ashcroft, previously known for his strong stances against racial desegregation and birth control, became the first federal attorney-general to proclaim that individuals should be able to own guns.

Then in 2008, in a reversal of all its precedents and a bizarre overturning of mainstream legal and historical scholarship, the Supreme Court ruled that there is indeed an individual right to own weapons (though one with limits).

That court was loaded with seven conservative judges appointed by Republican Presidents: John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia.

A Controversial Supreme Court Decision

A bit of additional detail on this Supreme Court ruling is in order: The case the ruled on was District of Columbia v Heller. It concerned a D.C. policeman who, under a restrictive gun control law passed in Washington D.C. in 1976, was denied permission to register a handgun he wished to keep at home. The issue focused on whether or not the government can restrict the possession of firearms in light of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states,

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The attorney for the defence made the traditional argument that the Second Amendment applied specifically to the right to bear arms as part of a militia. Heller’s attorney, on the other hand, argued against that interpretation, insisting that the D.C. handgun ban was unconstitutional because it unnecessarily infringed upon an individual’s right to bear arms.

Antonin_Scalia_Official_SCOTUS_PortraitJustice Antonin Scalia wrote of the Supreme Court’s opinion in its 5 to 4 decision in favour of Heller, stating that in the court’s judgment individual possession of firearms is a constitutional right under the Second Amendment. This was a significant departure from previous interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Scalia’s judgment was challenged in a dissenting opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens who argued that the Second Amendment did not protect the use of firearms for non-military purposes. Stevens claimed that,

In reaching their decision “the Majority had set aside normal standards of interpretation in its decision.

[This is seen as a criticism of Scalia’s controversial use of “originalism” in interpreting constitutional documents.] As part of his dissenting view, Stevens specifically charged that,

The Majority had inappropriately ignored the first part of the Amendment: ‘A well regulated Militia.”

troiani-lexington-greenSince the right to bear arms as described in the Second Amendment is specifically within the context of a “well regulated Militia” providing for “the security of a free State,” it is difficult to see how this amendment applies to the private, non-military use of firearms. However Justice Scalia’s commitment to “originalism” allowed him to detach the second phrase of the Second Amendment, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” from the first phrase describing “a well regulated Militia.” In the view of many, this fundamentally distorted the reading and meaning of this article.

Justice Scalia’s ideological commitment to “originalism” was a radical departure from previous standards of jurisprudence. As described by Justin Driver, writing for The Guardian,

Rather than searching for the “original intent” of constitutional Framers, Scalia insisted, originalists should search for the Constitution’s “original meaning” for the public. This shift toward “original meaning” represented a shrewd intervention, suggesting that the Framers’ own understandings of constitutional text were less important than what ordinary citizens would have understood that text to mean.

It is easy to see the fallacy of this “originalist” argument. It is as if the content of a lecture by a respected scholar should be judged, not by that person’s careful research, noted expertise, and deliberate reflection, but rather by the average listener’s personal impression of what was said. Ridiculous!

When the highest court in the land tosses out any consideration of the “original intent” of the framers of the constitution, and relies instead on popular interpretation, the nation is in serious trouble.

Saunder’s article, however, ends on a hopeful note, saying.

The individual right to bear arms is only a few years old, and based on nothing; its fall could be as quick as its rise. Once the Supreme Court has two more appointments by Democratic presidents, it will eventually provide a correct interpretation of the amendment, the interpretation Americans knew and respected for 217 years.

Let us all hope so.

Credits: Militiamen painting by Don Troiani

Trump, Sanders, and the Future of American Politics

crossroadsAmerica stands at a crossroads. The general consensus is that government is not working as it should. People are resentful. They are angry. They no longer trust the traditional solutions that their elected leaders have been offering them.

There is a powerful insurgency in the making. And it is not pretty. In fact, it has the potential to be quite dangerous.

donald-trump-1Observers around the world have watched in disbelief as Donald Trump, an inexperienced political outsider with outrageous ideas and inflammatory rhetoric, has captured the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency. His message is, in the words of Michael Enright, one of “populism, protectionism, and hostility toward immigrants, coupled with anger directed as mainstream” politicians.

And he is not alone. Insurgent candidates from the far-right of the political spectrum have fast been gaining ground in France, England, Austria, The Netherlands, and even Switzerland. Their movement is on the rise. But what kind of a movement is it? And why is it gaining ground at this time?

FrumThe conservative political commentator David Frum provided some helpful insights in an interview with Michael Enright on CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning program earlier this year (rebroadcast this past week on Ideas). Frum stated,

There’s an old saying that every election presents a choice: More of the same or something new. When times are good, people vote for more of the same – whatever you guys are doing, please keep doing it. But for most Americans, times have been very grim now for the past seven or eight years, and have been troublingly oppressive for close to fifteen.

Even today, after six years of economic recovery the typical American household makes $4,000 a year less than it did in 2007, there’s a lot of evidence that upward mobility has slowed down, and pessimism is overwhelming. And that is especially true among white Americans …

Frum went on to explain,

When you are doing well, people value experience. But what is the experience now? What has happened over the past fifteen years from the point of view of an American voter [when all the things] recommended to them by clever people [turned] out to be a calamity for most people – from investing in dot.coms to the Iraq war…, to the housing bubble, to the Wall Street catastrophe, to the stimulus that produced such disappointing results for so many people?

The result has been that

the people who are the accustomed and self-expected leaders of American society have just consistently failed to deliver results that were beneficial to the voters. And of course, and unsurprisingly, the voters no longer accept that leadership.

This certainly helps to explain why, at one point in the Republican race for the presidency the three leading contenders at that time – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – all had absolutely no political experience. They were complete outsiders who rejected the proposed solutions of the political establishment and put forward their own distinctive ideas instead. And they had a considerable following. People didn’t want to hear the ideas that the career politicians and political insiders were offering. They carried no weight. People were looking for fresh answers – for different solutions.

Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist who has been running for the Democrats on the left, is also a political outsider. Although he is a career politician, he has always until this point run as an independent, unaligned with and unbeholding to the party establishment. And Bernie too has denounced the traditional establishment thinking of his adopted Democratic Party.

To nearly everyone’s amazement, Bernie Sanders has mounted a groundswell electoral campaign that has seriously rivaled that of the Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. He has captured people’s imagination. His rallies have enjoyed enormous turnouts. His followers are every bit as enthusiastic and engaged as are those of Donald Trump on the right.

Something important is going on here – something that may even signal the demise of the old political process.

Seeking New Answers

When asked last month by Michael Enright what lay behind this serious rift between established politicians and voters, Freddy Gray, the deputy editor of the conservative British magazine, The Spectator, explained,

I think we’re living in a time of tremendous change – technological change, social change – and political parties and the political centre both on left and right are struggling to comes to terms with this change, and they are struggling to adapt to what their voters want. And we see a lot of angry people who feel that there is a sort of elite who is getting richer, … and their country has been left behind. And this is affecting the right more than the left ….

He then added,

it used to be said that the left won the cultural war, the right won the economic war, and the centre won the political war. I don’t think any of those things are true any more. I think the right is losing the economic argument in many ways. The left is probably still culturally dominant, but with issues like free speech we are beginning to see things changing. And the centre – the politically central parties or neo-liberal parties that have been so dominant for the last twenty years (we think of Bill Clinton and Tony Blaire as the great examples of that) they are breaking down.

If the solutions being promoted by the traditionally “centrist” parties no longer have credibility, what will gain their trust? As David Frum reminds us,

The job of political professionals is to pay attention to what the non-professionals are worried about, and to compete to find solutions. When the political professionals don’t do that, they open the door for hucksters and flim-flam men of all kinds.

donald-trump-2Enter Donald Trump.

As I stated in a previous blog, Donald Trump, in his own audacious way,

single-handedly swept aside the carefully constructed coalition of conservative interests that have defined Republican ideology for the past 40 years.

The prevailing Republican strategy since the Nixon presidency had been to craft an alliance between a hard-core anti-communist faction, those opposed to new civil rights legislation, and those promoting a governmental “hands off” approach to economics.

This “three-legged stool” of core Republican principles, as Josh Barro refers to them, namely militarism, social conservatism and libertarian economics, has now been replaced by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric focusing on immigrants, Muslims, and the very rich.

As David Frum noted in his interview with Michael Enright,

Donald Trump either intuited or discovered, that he could put together a new kind of message that was appealing to many of the people who had voted Republican, and it turned out that that so-called conservative base was not ideologically conservative in the way the inner party had assumed it was.

So if conservative ideology is not determining the political message, what is? The answer according to an increasing number of commentators is – Anger. Anger with the political establishment. Anger with the political and the economic elite. Anger with those who are seen as threats to traditional social and economic security.

Donald Trump has tapped into this widespread – and until now largely unvoiced – seething mood of anger against “the others” – those who are different, either culturally, economically or socially.

Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims, women and minorities, has been frequently been linked with racism and xenophobia. And there is certainly that dimension to it. But these, I believe, are expressions of a yet more fundamental grievance underlying everything else.

neil-macdonaldNeil McDonald, senior correspondent for CBC and formerly CBC’s chief Washington correspondent, put his finger squarely on this fundamental grievance in a CBC Radio national news broadcast this past Thursday. He said,

We’ve all heard of the angry white male. The angry white male thinks that he is somehow being deprived – which is a bit ridiculous because really white males still run everything. But it’s not just angry white males. It’s angry males and females. In fact, it’s class rage. And they feel that the ground is shifting under them. They are losing agency and they are losing power, and it’s the blacks and the Mexicans, and gays and transgendered – it’s all these people that are clamoring for a seat at the table that was previously populated by them.

One proposed solution taken by many, then, is to attack those “others” who seek a place at the table, who demand to be included and who, in doing so, subvert the privileged status of the dominant group that is accustomed making all the rules.

These formerly 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.

We have seen these attitudes at play over many decades in the case of African-Americans. As Carole Anderson, the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, stated this week in an interview with Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC Radio’s The Current,

When African-Americans advance, you begin to see an incredible movement to undercut that advancement. … [T]his white rage is in fact very methodical, very clinical, and it cloaks itself in the language of democracy. Protecting democracy, valuing justice, valuing the ballot box. But in fact, doing just the opposite.

The well-documented phenomenon of “white rage” must now be extended to the broader issue of “class rage” that McDonald speaks of. Donald Trump has harnessed this class rage and has made it the cornerstone of his election campaign. It is potent. It is divisive. And it is extremely dangerous.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has harnessed the power of a very different kind of anger. It does not target those who are already marginalized and merely asking for fair treatment and some degree of inclusion. It instead focuses on the various special interest groups that seek to maintain their privileged status – the careerist establishment politicians, the influential power brokers and political insiders, and the Wall Street elite along with their highly paid lobbyists.

Although this week Hillary Clinton secured her nomination as the candidate for the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders has pledged to continue to his efforts to focus

on social justice, on economic justice, on racial justice [and] on environmental justice,


that will be the future of America.

Two paths thus lie before the American people. In rejecting the policies of the past and mobilizing this new mood of public anger and even rebellion, they may take one of two courses of action: They may to attempt to retain the old lines of privilege, or they may work to ensure that all parties have representation at the table to hammer out new policies that will be of benefit to all.

At this point in time, however, it is not clear which path American voters will take.


Photo credits: Charlie Neibergal/AP; Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Imag

Trump’s Triumph and the Death of Republican Ideals

donald-trumpTuesday was quite the decisive day in American politics. Not only did Donald Trump win big in the Indiana Primary, but Ted Cruz also finally threw in the towel and suspended his presidential campaign. Today John Kasich is reported to be withdrawing from the race as well,  leaving Trump in an uncontested position for the Republican nomination.

tea-partyWhat Paul Krugman calls “Movement Conservatives” – those who support the increasingly right-wing trajectory of American conservative policy from Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964 through the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and on through the Tea Party era – these “true” conservatives must be shaking their heads in disbelief now that Ted Cruz, their last standard-bearer of conservative ideology, has given up the fight in this year’s presidential race.

nixon_dixielandIn one audacious and masterfully crafted campaign Donald Trump has single-handedly swept aside the carefully constructed coalition of conservative interests that have defined Republican ideology for the past 40 years. The prevailing Republican strategy since the Nixon presidency has been to craft an alliance between a hard-core anticommunist faction, those opposed to new civil rights legislation, and those promoting a governmental “hands off” approach to economics.

trump-making America hate.jpgThis “three-legged stool” of core Republican principles, as Josh Barro refers to them, namely militarism, social conservatism and libertarian economics, has now been replaced by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric focusing on immigrants, Muslims, and the very rich.

troops in IraqTrump’s rejection of traditional Republican ideology in his campaign is remarkable. With regard to America’s military policies, Trump has denounced G. W. Bush’s war in Iraq, and called into question America’s continuing support for NATO. In a recent speech laying out his vision for America’s role in the world Trump decried what he called “the dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a western democracy.”

trump-universal-government-healthcareOn social issues Trump long ago carved out a liberal position that strongly departs from official Republican policy. In 1999 he stated on Meet the Press that he was “very pro-choice” and the same year he stated in an interview with Larry King that he was “very liberal when it comes to health care” and that he believed in “universal healthcare.”

In a major departure from traditional Republican economic policy, Social Security cardsTrump has argued that the wealthy get too many tax breaks and they should be required to pay more. He has denounced America’s international trade agreements, which he claims have not created more jobs for Americans but taken them away. He has defended existing social entitlements and has pledged to leave Social Security Medicare and Medicaid benefits intact.

Donald Trump has repudiated a slew of core Republican policies and harshly criticized the Republican National Committrncee itself.  He has thumbed his nose at attempts within to RCN to deny him the party’s candidacy, and in all of this he has prevailed.

The question now is, with Trump poised to claim the Republican Party nomination at its upcoming convention, will the party establishment come around to aligning itself with Donald Trump? Trump has emerged as a polarizing figure both within and beyond the Republican Party. Polls show that fully two-thirds of Americans give him an unfavorable rating, a number that has “no equal among major party nominees in presidential campaigns over the last 23 years.” And so, if Trump loses badly in this fall’s election (as many expect will happen) will the party itself lose credibility in aligning itself with him and his nonconformist policies?

donald-trump-grow-upA new reality has now dawned for the Republican Party: In consolidating his standing as the sole remaining party candidate as an outlier, Donald Trump is well on his way to overseeing the destruction of the Republican brand and, some contend, possibly the destruction of the Republican Party itself.

And so far Republican insiders have been able to do nothing to stop it.

Photo credits: Associated Press; Steve Helber/AP; Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images; Tom Pennington/Getty