White Working Class Blues – posted 6/18/2017

June 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Social science research does not often make news. One exception was the study by two Princeton University researchers, Anna Case and Angus Deaton, which showed that middle-aged white Americans were dying younger. In their study, they showed that suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses are an increasing problem for middle-aged white people, aged 45-54.

The trend is uniquely American and it is country-wide. There is not a similar process going on in other advanced industrial countries. It flies against a history of public health improvement.

The rise in mortality is being largely driven by those with a high school degree or less.

Case and Deaton do not attribute the trend to any single factor. They write,

“The deaths of despair come from a long-standing process of cumulative disadvantage for those with less than a college degree. The story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, childrearing and religion.”

The researchers concluded that the overall life prospects for white middle-aged people without a BA have declined over time. They state that stagnation in wages and in income have bred a sense of hopelessness.

The story shows a parallel rise in self-reported midlife morbidity. There was a significant decline in the fraction reporting excellent or very good health and a corresponding increase in the fraction reporting fair or poor health. The increase in poor health was matched by increased reports of pain, serious psychological distress, difficulties with activities of daily living and alcohol use.

So what are we to make of this? I see the trend as connected to the loss of the American Dream. The myth was that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. While there always are exceptions, that has not turned out to be true for a huge number.

The trend Case and Deaton describe needs to be situated inside our economy of economic inequality where the top 10%, and especially the 1%, reap all the economic gain. Overall, white working class people have not fared well. The prospects for landing secure, good-paying jobs with benefits have lessened over time. Low-paying, no-benefit jobs are more the norm.

The suicides, the increased alcoholism, the opiate overdoses, like what we have seen in New Hampshire, are all about the hopelessness and grim future prospects.

It does nothing to diminish the fight against racism to acknowledge new trends. So often the dilemma of white working people gets counterposed against Blacks or immigrants. I think it is valid to separate how the white working class has fared. By white working class, I mean those who work for wages whether they are blue collar or white collar. I am not talking about the professional managerial class.

I do not see either political party as speaking to the needs of the white working class. There is a lack of empathy and a cultural distance. It pains me to acknowledge that the Republicans have done a better job appealing to the white working class than Democrats have. Republicans have talked about jobs and they have pursued the white working class vote aggressively. Trump talked about forgotten Americans and it is hard to argue with that. They have been forgotten.

The irony is that prior to the election, the closest Trump ever came to working class people were caddies at his golf courses or possibly food servers at Mar-a-Lago and his other resorts. Trump’s track record with the working class is a history of stiffing contractors and blue collar trades people. He has a history of being a businessman who repeatedly failed to pay his workers and then doggedly fought paying in court.

We are at a watershed moment now for Democrats. Democrats need to step back and reevaluate their program and their message. All the losses should force a reexamination. It is like when your football team keeps losing. At some point, you need to fire the coach. The Democrats keep rehiring the coaches who lose and they fail to recognize the importance of new blood.

They lost the Super Bowl. Are they going to keep doing the same thing?

In the last election, Hillary Clinton could not articulate a persuasive rationale for why her election would improve the lives of working people. More than the Russians or Comey, that was her downfall. Saying she was more qualified than Trump did not cut it with voters. Neither did attacks on Trump’s character, no matter how justified.

Part of what the Democrats need to look at is how they have failed to reach white working class voters across all the states. They should not be losing so badly in rural and small town America. The Clinton campaign was far too ready to write these voters off even though many of them inhabited key battleground states. Her failure to even campaign in places like Wisconsin was inexcusable.

I fault the Party – not just the Clinton campaign. The problem is hardly new. The infamous “basket of deplorables” comment by Clinton did not come out of nowhere. It followed Obama’s 2008 comment about bitter people who cling to their guns or religion. The elitism and condescension have a history in the party.

Attacking Trump is a grossly insufficient strategy.

It may seem obvious but the Democrats need to seek the white working class vote. A good start would be tackling economic inequality. They need to be far bolder in projecting a vision of pro-worker change. Milquetoast ideas of reform are not what is needed now. On the economy, Bernie Sanders was far closer to the program the Democrats should push.

A remedy for much of the despair is a meaningful plan to rebuild America with a 21st century green economy. The Democrats need to credibly argue for a full employment economy, single payer national health insurance and much more affordable housing. Only that kind of powerful plan will break through the cynicism and get the millions who never vote to the polls.

As Democrats work out a new program, they need to keep in mind that two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees. They need to speak to this group, not just those with a BA degree.

The Democratic Party needs a rebirth. Whether that happens, we shall see.

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Disrespecting the Rule of Law – posted 6/3/2017

June 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Possibly the most worrisome aspect of the Trump presidency has been disrespect for the rule of law. Since I know there are many who will disagree with this view, let me be specific.

In the first travel ban case, the government lawyer representing the President argued that Trump’s executive order was “unreviewable”. In a government founded on separation of powers, the argument is remarkable. Trump is arguing the power of a president is absolute and cannot be challenged.

In response, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the President’s argument was “contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy”.

When Judge James L. Robart, a George W. Bush appointee to the Federal Court in Washington state, initially enjoined the travel ban, Trump called him a “so-called judge” whose decision was “ridiculous”. Trump tweeted “if something happens, blame him”.

No judge is beyond criticism but name-calling and ad hominem attack by the President on a federal court judge is debased. It is an assault on the judge’s legitimacy and on separation of powers. Trump’s tweets are a sad substitute for a reasoned argument.

When Judge William Orrick blocked the plan to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities, Trump blamed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, not realizing Judge Orrick was a Federal District Court judge. Trump then suggested that the Ninth Circuit needs to be broken up because he does not like its rulings.

The reaction is juvenile. Courts deal with a myriad of issues and it is guaranteed that there will be rulings to make everyone unhappy. I see Trump’s attack on the Ninth Circuit as an attack on an independent judiciary. He wants courts who will only rule his way.

During the campaign, Trump criticized Judge Gonzalo Curiel for his rulings in the Trump University fraud case. Trump complained Curiel was “Mexican” and “was giving unfair rulings”. Judge Curiel is a U.S. citizen born in Indiana. Trump said that he favored building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and Curiel could not be fair in the Trump University case because of his Mexican heritage.

Criticizing a judge for being “Mexican” is transparently racist. Even worse, it reflects a poor understanding of the need for a modern judiciary to be diverse so that it is representative of the public served. There is a legacy of racism the law must overcome and Trump appears to be unaware of that.

In the second travel ban case, Trump’s lawyer argued that the Court should ignore all the things he said during the campaign and only consider if the travel ban mentioned Islam. At issue was whether the travel ban violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Trump had previously said on the Christian Broadcasting Network that his travel ban was designed to favor Christian refugees over Muslim refugees. He also famously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Ignoring these statements is like whitewashing reality and courts cannot simply ignore context.

Trump has expressed dissatisfaction with the First Amendment. Recently, in an interview with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Reince Priebus, White House Chief of Staff, said that the administration was considering an effort to amend the First Amendment. Trump has long wanted to increase the liability of journalists.

Calling reporters “enemies of the American people” and calling news outlets “evil” does not reflect an understanding of the First Amendment which expressly guarantees freedom of the press. I think physical assaults on reporters like the attack on the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs occur, in part, because of Trump’s demonizing journalists. Constant berating can unhinge human behavior and lower the bar.

In an interview on Fox News to discuss his first 100 days as president, Trump denounced the constitutional system of checks and balances as “archaic”, saying “it’s a really bad thing for the country”.

Certainly, as I noted, judges are not beyond criticism but the way criticisms are offered and the substance of the criticism matter. Trump appears to want to be an all-powerful autocrat like Putin or Erdogan. Leaders like that do not have to contend with checks and balances.

I found it telling when Trump gave President Duterte of the Philippines a shout-out for the war on drugs Duterte has conducted. Trump said,

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

During Duterte’s presidency, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 7000 Filipinos have been disappeared by government death squads. They have carried out vigilante killings with no due process for the victims. It is appalling for an American president to green light extra judicial murders in any country.

The fact that our judiciary has not rolled over and has performed its constitutional duties admirably is maybe the most encouraging aspect of the response to Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. At the same time, lawyers and law students stepped up, volunteering and setting up legal clinics at airports to assist airline passengers. At least part of the Bar has been galvanized.

Where countries have headed down an authoritarian road, one reason has been the failure of lawyers and the judiciary to oppose the creeping authoritarianism. Lawyers and judges may both be subject to opportunism and careerism. The perception of personal advancement and desire for business profit can lead to cowardly choices. Rocking the boat, in the face of advancing authoritarianism, has a history of being both professionally and personally dangerous.

I do want to make clear that I do not see Trump”s disrespect for the law as a total outlier among American presidents. Over the last 50 years, since at least Vietnam, Executive Branch overreach has been a continuing theme that implicates both political parties. From Watergate to torture, rendition and black sites to drone assassinations and kill lists, there is a degree of continuity. Trump has upped the ante though.

Historical experience shows the necessity for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, regardless of the political party in power. It remains to be seen how far down the authoritarian road Trump will go.

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What Direction Forward for the Democrats? – posted 5/21/2017

May 21, 2017 1 comment

With so much focus on the Trump presidency and its daily spectacle, it is easy to overlook the dilemma of the Democrats. The Democrats are having an identity crisis. It is not clear where the Democratic Party is heading and what kind of Democratic Party will emerge.

I do not think the question of what kind of Democratic Party we need gets asked enough. Maybe some Democrats just want to be a big tent that is not Republican with no further self-definition.

While according to a new Gallup poll, Trump has a 38% favorability rating which is one of the lowest a president has ever had, especially early in a presidency, Democrats’ poll numbers are equally bad. The Democratic Party has a 40% favorability rating. The Democrats’ favorability rating has dropped 5% since the November election.

More people now identify as independents than as Republicans or Democrats.

The opinion that the Democrats are out of touch is widespread. In a different poll authorized by the Washington Post, only 28% of those polled felt the Democrats were in touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today. Among Democrats themselves, 44% felt the Party was out of touch.

Certainly the accuracy of any poll can be disputed but by any objective standard, the Democrats are weak. All the losses speak for themselves. The Democrats have been losing badly for some time now, especially in rural America.

To think it is enough to be simply anti-Trump would be a big mistake. There are many possible ways to oppose but opposition to Trump alone guarantees nothing about the Democrats’ future prospects.

Looking at statements made since the election by Democratic Party leaders, I find the Party lacking in genuine self-reflection. I would begin with the previous standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton. In her public statements and apparently in her upcoming book, Secretary Clinton faults Russian meddling in the election, former FBI Director Comey’s actions, Wikileaks’ theft of emails from her campaign chair, John Podesta, and misogyny as the reasons for her loss.

So far nothing has been articulated about the role of the DNC and the failure of the Democrats to highlight a resonant message for how the election of Democrats would change the lives of ordinary Americans.

Sadly, and I speak as a progressive Democrat, I do not think the Democratic Party establishment gets it. They do not grasp what went wrong in 2016. Right now I would say there is a good chance that in spite of widespread revulsion to Trump, the Democrats could blow it again.

At the outset, let me say that this is not about Hillary versus Bernie. That is water under the bridge. There are no doubt hard feelings on both sides but that is the past and the Party needs to move on.

So what is the Party not getting? I think it is a matter of vision and self-definition. The Party does not clearly stand for anything. Even with its silos of position papers, it lacks a bold vision. No one can really say what the Democratic Party would want America to look like in 2050.

Although it has a history of being the political party allegedly representing the little guy, in 2016 it gave up on being a party of change. Instead, Democrats were widely viewed as the status quo party.

Democrats allowed Trump and the Republicans to define themselves as a party of change. Stealing the mantle of change was shrewd campaign strategy and the Democrats never grasped the harm.

The absurdity of the Republicans as a change political party cannot be emphasized enough. The Republicans have always represented the interests of the 1%, the most conservative billionaires. No amount of public relations will ever change that.

In an era defined by economic inequality, the Democrats have failed to recognize the economic desperation of masses of working people, including those in rural America. This desperation has been right under their noses but, with some notable exceptions, they have missed it. Clinton’s failure to even campaign in Wisconsin maybe be the best single example of this cluelessness.

It should probably not need to be said but for the last 40 years, the American working class was hammered by our own corporate class who closed up shop and sent jobs to cheap labor in the Third World. That was all about maximizing profit at the expense of American workers. So many of the previously good-paying union jobs disappeared and when jobs have been replaced too often they are low-paying Mcjobs. Economic mobility has declined, especially for those lacking a college degree.

Instead of representing the interests of working people, the Democrats have too often acted as representatives of the prosperous professional class or of liberal billionaires. The Democrats failed to show working people both that they understood the misfortune inflicted or that they cared about it.

I see the last election as a smackdown on the Democrats for their elitism. Even though Trump is a phony populist who will not deliver for working people, many were willing to roll the dice and bet on him because at least he promised change. He talked a good game about forgotten Americans even though he is a con man of the first rank.

So what would a pro-worker agenda look like? It is not just a laundry list of issues like $15 an hour minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, Medicare-for-all health insurance, expanded union and worker rights and free college tuition at public colleges and universities. It is more of an outlook of caring and concern for hardworking Americans wherever they are. Whether you are white, black, Latino, or Asian, it does not matter. Democrats need to leave behind the division between red states and blue states. The Party needs to care about working people issues in all 50 states.

There is a need for the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for our own hollowed out economy that rebuilds infrastructure and cares about the many places in America that have been neglected. This needs to be done with an ecological awareness too.

While the FDR coalition is a long time ago, Democrats could learn from that historical experience. There was a reason working people loyally supported FDR for years. He did much to support them. Hope will replace economic fatalism when Democrats have a vision, outlook and agenda that genuinely speaks to the needs of the masses of Americans.

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┬áThe Dark Spectre of Anti-Semitism Re-Emerges – posted 5/6/2017

May 7, 2017 2 comments

For a long time, it seemed like anti-semitism was dead in America. Sure, there were anti-semitic incidents but they were few and far between. Now it appears that anti-semitism is making a comeback.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), anti-semitic incidents have spiked in the first quarter of 2017. ADL reported 541 anti-semitic incidents nationally, including 380 harassment incidents, 155 vandalism incidents, and 6 physical assaults. That follows a surge of anti-semitic acts in the last quarter of 2016.

Just to give a flavor:

In Whitefish, Montana, since December, a Jewish woman, Sherry Gersh, her husband, and her 12 year old son have been targets of a campaign of harassment, trolling and intimidation by white supremacists and the alt-right. Gersh and her family have received more than 700 anti-semitic emails, phone calls, texts, social media comments, and letters. Many of the messages have been extremely threatening calling her a “slimy jewess” and an “oven-dodging Christ killer”. The “troll storm” initiated by a neo-Nazi website featured day and night harassment of Gersh. The Southern Poverty Law Center has now filed a federal court lawsuit against the neo-Nazi website and its publisher seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

In February this year, Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in Philadelphia, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and just outside St. Louis. The perpetrators damaged more than 100 headstones in Philadelphia, almost 200 headstones near St Louis, and 55 headstones in Fort Wayne.

Last November, Marna Street, a violist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was walking to her car after a rehearsal. Someone painted a swastika on the trunk of her car. Street had placed a magnet on her car indicating that she was Jewish.

In 2016, the writer Julia Ioffe wrote a profile of Melania Trump for GQ Magazine. She received a flood of hateful tweets, phone calls and emails many of which were anti-semitic. On Twitter, users posted photos of Ioffe’s face superimposed on a mug shot from Auschwitz.

Ioffe’s experience was not unique. The conservative Jewish writer, Bethany Mandel, found her anti-Trump tweets met with a terrifying response. She was told that she “deserved the oven”. Trump’s anti-Semitic followers “doxed” her. “Dox” is a term for adversaries’ attempt to ferret out private or identifying information online, with malicious intent. Mandel, who had converted to Judaism, felt so threatened that she purchased a gun.

I think it is worth mentioning that many journalists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have received similarly abusive and disgusting treatment by the alt-right if they did not support Trump.

In response to all these incidents, Oren Segal, the Director of the ADL Center on Extremism said:

“These incidents need to be seen in the context of a general resurgence of white supremacist activity in the United States. Extremists and anti-semites feel emboldened and are using technology in new ways to spread their hatred and to impact the Jewish community on and off line.”

So why the uptick in anti-semitism now? I think undoubtedly it is connected to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Trump unleashed the dogs. During the campaign he looked the other way while white supremacists, anti-semites and the alt-right became more assertive in his campaign. It was well known that one component part of the Trump coalition was hardcore racist.

Although no candidate can be responsible for all the actions of his supporters, the candidate does set a tone. By his inaction, Trump conciliated the racists and anti-semites. The fact that Trump has a Jewish son-in-law does not change that. The problem was his long failure to speak out. That silence was acquiescence.

ADL reported 34 incidents linked to the election, In Denver, graffiti posted in May 2016 said, “Kill the Jews, Vote Trump”. In November a St Petersburg Florida man was accosted by a stranger who told him, “Trump is going to finish what Hitler started”.

ADL also found an increase in anti-semitic incidents at non-Jewish elementary, middle, and high schools. In 2015 there were 114 reported incidents. That increased to 235 in 2016. In the first quarter of 2017, 95 incidents were reported. It is not surprising that if more parents are expressing anti-semitism, it will show up among children.

Trump has played a cagey game with anti-semitism. While he very recently denounced it, which is certainly positive, he spent the campaign conspicuously ignoring it, remaining silent. He got support from white supremacists and neo-Nazis like David Duke, Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin. The Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party endorsed Trump.

Trump’s denunciation of anti-semitism has been weak – too little, too late. He consistently passed on denouncing the creepy anti-semites and racists who infested his campaign. Now we have one denunciation after almost two years of silence.

I would agree with the assessment made by the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. In February, they released a statement directed at the President.

“Rightly or wrongly, the most vicious anti-semites in America are looking at you and your administration as a nationalistic movement granting them permission to attack Jews.”

Trump appeared to condone and even encourage violence at his campaign events. Singling out protesters to be ejected from his campaign rallies, encouraging the audience to remove those with contrary opinions, saying he would pay the legal bills of his supporters who attacked his opponents – that is not exactly behavior worthy of any President. Anti-semitism fits right into that type of mindset.

There is a reason anti-semitism is called the longest hatred. There is an ancient tradition of blaming Jews for disasters. The tradition partly has its roots in religious rivalry. Ruling elites also found it convenient to scapegoat Jews to deflect blame away from themselves.

The relative economic success of some American Jews should not lead to a dismissal of the danger of anti-semitism. Oppression is not entirely a matter of economic hardship. I think anti-semitism is similar to the oppression of LGBTQ people or women. The hatred transcends economic class.

What I find particularly worrisome now is the new form of online anti-semitism. In 2016, Twitter and social media saw a steep rise in the spread of anti-semitic content. Anti-semitic and racist cowards, hiding anonymously on the internet, are viciously harassing perceived opponents of all political persuasions.

I do not think that bigotry against Jews can be separated from the wider assault against Latinos, Muslims, people of color, gays and lesbians or immigrants. All forms of hatred must be fought.

Considering the 20th century experience of the Holocaust, anti-semitism must never be taken lightly. It must always be vigorously combated. That is true whether you are conservative, libertarian, moderate, liberal, progressive or socialist. 

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Shock Treatment As a Way To Fascism – posted 4/23/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/29/2017

April 23, 2017 4 comments

I would be lying if I did not admit that one reaction I have had to the presidency of Donald Trump is a paranoid fear that he represents a new form of American fascism. I know I am not alone in that view.

Part of what makes Trump hard to understand is that he is not a normal Republican. He is something different and it is hard to peg that difference. He has often praised dictators. During the campaign, at one time or other, he praised Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein. He retweeted Benito Mussolini. I would acknowledge though that it is hard to say he believes in anything including fascist ideology.

While there are certainly ways Trump is not like other famous fascist leaders, it is impossible to ignore his megalomaniacal, authoritarian, and racist tendencies. At the same time it would be wrong to look at him statically rather than as evolving. Like all past presidents, Trump’s presidency is subject to changing circumstances. What remains unclear is how Trump will respond to some as yet unforeseen crisis.

My own paranoid fear has been a scenario where a terrorist attack, a war, or some other disaster acts as a catalyst and justification for Trump to consolidate power and suspend rights previously taken for granted by Americans. The emergency would allegedly require greatly expanded executive powers to manage the public fear and terror.

Such a crisis could also be used as a vehicle to impose a speeded-up transformation of the economy more to the liking of the 1% – tax cuts, privatized services, cuts to social spending, and deregulation.

Manipulating terror is now a time-tested strategy in the authoritarian leader playbook as exemplified by Putin.

In her book, The Shock Doctrine, the writer, Naomi Klein, presents many examples of this type of scenario. For example, Klein looks at what happened in Chile after the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. In that instance, the trauma of the coup acted to facilitate the political adjustment to sudden, dramatic changes pushed by Pinochet. Klein calls it shock treatment.

Real American fascism would likely include: suspension of freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; dissolution of opposing political parties; the end of checks and balances; no more due process of law; no right to a fair trial; and the arrest and imprisonment of activists hostile to the new regime.

Whatever the dramatic event or series of events that would shock the public, the process of becoming fascist is about removing obstacles to more centralized power.

The historical example that I have seen most cited to describe the process is the German Reichstag fire in February 1933. The Reichstag building housed the German parliament. No one ever learned who set the fire but the German Nazis used the fire as an excuse to suspend the rights of all German citizens.

In a very short time, the Nazis used the emergency to preventively detain political opponents including Jews, liberals, social democrats and leftists of all stripes. They arrested thousands on no specific charges. The security forces put many into Dachau concentration camp and disappeared others. Even in the early Nazi years, hundreds of labor leaders, leftists, and Jewish prisoners died in custody.

On March 23, 1933, a new Nazi-led parliament passed an enabling act which allowed Hitler to rule by decree. For the next twelve years until the end of World War II, Germany was a dictatorship and it remained in that state of emergency. The Reichstag fire had opened that door.

I would also mention the role of a German government campaign called Gleichschaltung which means “coordination” or “synchronization”. With astonishing speed, in an act of anticipatory obedience, many Germans willingly placed themselves under the Nazi rule and command. Almost overnight, millions fell in line.

The best dramatization of this type of coordination is the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. In the 1930’s Ionesco had watched the growth of the fascist Iron Guard movement in Romania. He saw many former friends transform into vicious anti-semites. The Iron Guard was xenophobic, strongly nationalist, and it claimed all Jews were illegal immigrants in Romania. In the absurdist play, Ionesco had people turn into mindless, rampaging rhinoceros.

The coordination campaign was reflected in the new Nazi salute. By 1933, the expectation was that everyone would give the Hitler salute. The German public widely embraced the salute and people incessantly saluted each other.

I think it would be a mistake though to see German fascism as entirely sudden. Fascism evolved and worsened through multiple incremental steps, a cumulative radicalization.

Americans need to discard the notion that a fascist-type state could never happen here. Authoritarianism is very alive in the world. I expect many Americans have believed we were immune from the awful things that have happened elsewhere. It is an American conceit that somehow we are beyond history.

On the positive, we do have far stronger democratic institutions than existed in Germany. Also, the American people are more rebellious, have a stronger tradition of dissent and will not be so easily coordinated as evidenced by all the anti-Trump demonstrations since his election.

Still it is sobering to know how few people in Europe actually opposed the fascists during their rise. I have seen historians estimate that only 2% of the French population or 400,000 people engaged in armed resistance during the Occupation.

How will Americans respond if fascism becomes real here? I think that remains an open question.

I admire the honesty of the response of Toivi Blatt, a Holocaust survivor, when he was asked about the human response to fascism he saw. Blatt, who was a Polish Jew, saw his whole family die in Sobibor extermination camp. At the age of 16, he was one of 300 prisoners who participated in an uprising at Sobibor. 200 escaped. Of those, 150 were captured and killed. Blatt was one of 50 Sobibor prisoners who survived the war. After the war he moved to the United States. This is what Blatt had to say about his experience:

“People asked me “What did you learn?” and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person, on the street, you ask them, “Where is North Street?” and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. The same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking, “How will he be in Sobibor?”.”

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What we are up against – posted 4/9/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/19/2017

April 9, 2017 2 comments

These are uneasy times for those of us on the liberal/progressive side. Trump’s win was a devastating blow with an avalanche of awful consequences. It is painful to contemplate all the harm that will ensue. Revolted at the prospect of four years of Trump, many liberals and progressives are mesmerized at the Russia collusion story and whether we are watching Watergate II, ending in President Pence.

While the Trump show is perversely fascinating to watch, focus there misses a deeper political picture. In spite of what has seemed like increasingly favorable population demographics, Democrats nationally have been getting beaten badly.

The White House aside, Republicans now dominate state governments. They control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control the legislature in just 13 states. Only 5 of these chambers have veto-proof majorities. Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states and Democrats control 16 with 1 state having an independent governor supported by the Democrats.

By any objective standard, the Republicans have had extraordinary success. They control all branches of the government. Nationally, during the Obama presidency, the Democrats lost over 900 state legislative seats.

Beyond just the numbers is the further reality that the far right fringe has become a dominant faction in the Republican Party. The moderate Republican, denigrated as a RINO, is an endangered species. The Republican Party now aims to gut the government by wholesale elimination of federal programs, cutting taxes, removing regulation and shredding the safety net.

Democrats and progressives need to ask: how did we get to such a weak place? Reading the press and watching social media, you do not see much self-criticism or very deep analysis of how and why we have gotten clobbered from still shell-shocked Democrats.

No one likes to air dirty laundry. Also there seems to be a repetition compulsion to just keep doing what we have done – only do it harder. Rationalizations include: “we were close”; “the Russians”; “Jim Comey” etc. The truth is that with the notable exception of the presidency of Barack Obama, we have been getting our asses kicked in much of the country.

I do not think most liberals or progressives have a good grasp on the scope or depth of what we are up against. I would acknowledge that picture is hard to see and for a good reason: much has been hidden from the public. Secrecy is part of the brilliance of the design.

The arch-conservative billionaires have been spending an almost limitless fortune for a generation to create what has been called a “fully integrated network”. In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, this spending further accelerated. By joining forces, these billionaires have advanced an extreme strain of conservative politics which serves their bottom line, the public be damned.

In her brilliant book, Dark Money, which is a model of investigative journalism, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, exposes the extreme right wing billionaire methodology and agenda.

A central part of this story is the role of Charles and David Koch, the infamous Koch brothers. Moving from the right wing netherworld of the John Birch Society to the heart of the Republican Party, they have been key political operators in building what has been called the Kochtopus. They have subsidized think tanks, created academic programs, hired a flotilla of lobbyists, financed legal groups and advanced political front groups and operatives. Using the guise of philanthropy and being ever mindful of secrecy, they have created a private political machine which Mayer correctly says threatens to subsume the Republican Party.

In doing this, they invented a right wing universe of jobs and career opportunities for their wannabees. Think Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Federalist Society, Americans for Prosperity, State Policy Network and American Legislative Exchange Council and that is just for starters.

Of course, the Kochs did not build this remarkable structure alone. Other hugely wealthy people have been on board. Mayer names Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the Mellon banking and Gulf oil fortunes; Henry and Lynde Bradley, who made a fortune through defense contracts, John C. Olin, a chemical and munitions firm owner; the Coors family of Colorado brewers; and the DeVos family, founders of Amway.

Together, over a period of almost 50 years, they have raised billions of dollars toward their goal of an America modeled on the Gilded Age before the FDR presidency. They aim to dismantle every safety net and government program created for workers, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and the environment while obliterating all campaign finance law. These folks think big. Their vision is rapacious Social Darwinism, a you-are-on-your-own society with greed as the highest value.

Doubters might consider the current example of environmental protection and the evisceration of the EPA. As Mayer points out, coal, oil and gas companies form the nucleus of the Koch donor network. These companies are major funders of the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming. It is no accident Trump picked Scott Pruitt, a notorious climate change denier, to head the EPA. That was a gift to the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry. Through funding cuts and the elimination of programs, EPA is being reduced to a shell of its former self.

Duplicate that model throughout the whole government and you will have an idea what the Kochs and their allies are up to.

I expect some may respond that the Democrats have their billionaires too. One could legitimately cite George Soros or Tom Steyer. However, the sides are not symmetrical. The overwhelming billionaire money is on the Republican side and it has long been that way.

The Republicans represent the billionaire class and that class does not need two political parties to represent it. I would suggest that if your goal is to collect billionaire funders, the Democrats cannot compete on that turf and they would be barking up the wrong tree even to try. In this area, the campaign of Bernie Sanders pointed in the right direction.

So what are liberals and progressives to do?

To use the immortal words of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!”. It is the 99% against the 1%. They have the money but potentially we have the numbers. We can learn from the systematic, long-term perspective and institution-building adopted by the Kochs. They don’t quit when they lose. Politics is a life-long engagement. The fact that we have been beaten badly should be seen as just one round in a fifteen round bout.

Liberals and progressives can come back. The womens’ marches show both the energy and the enthusiasm is there. Progressives need to do better in speaking respectfully and empathetically to all kinds of people outside their enclaves. The superiority of the progressive vision is that it can speak to the needs and humanity of all Americans.

All the money in the world does not change the fact that the Kochs and their Republican allies are wedded to a selfish vision of oligarchy that will ultimately immiserate the majority of Americans while being an environmental time bomb for the planet.

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Immigrant Bashing – posted on 3/26/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/6/2017

March 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Being very hard on immigrants was one of Donald Trump’s campaign promises. He said, ” I will deport illegal immigrants so fast, I will make your head spin.” I would have to say that in scapegoating immigrants and in fear-mongering, Trump has exceeded expectations.

When he was running for President, Trump promised he would deport violent criminals, gang members, and drug dealers, the people he described as “bad hombres”. Since he became President, he vastly expanded who qualifies as a bad hombre. Now undocumented immigrants can get deported for almost any criminal violation.

Trump has directed the full force of the government to find, arrest, and deport undocumented immigrants, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes.

Probably the story that has generated the most publicity is the deportation of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos. Garcia came to the United States with her parents at age 14. She had lived in Arizona for over 20 years. She has two children, both U.S. citizens by birth.

In 2008, then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio organized a raid on Garcia’s work site, an amusement park where she was part of the cleaning crew. Garcia had worked there for 10 years. To get the job, she had made up a Social Security number.

State prosecutors persuaded Garcia to sign a plea agreement on a felony charge of criminal impersonation. She served 90 days in a federal detention facility but was allowed to remain in the country on supervised release. Every year she faithfully checked in at the Phoenix Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) office. She did that for 8 years.

In her first check-in under the Trump Administration, she ended up detained and then deported back to Nogales, Mexico. The fact that she had two U.S. born children and she had an otherwise clean record for over 20 years did not stop her deportation.

Then there is the story of Roberto Beristain, who came to the United States in 1998 to visit an aunt. He ended up staying, meeting his future wife and starting a family. He lived in Indiana. In 2000, he came to the attention of immigration authorities when he and his wife made a trip to Niagara Falls. At the time, they accidentally crossed the border into Canada.

Immigration agents discovered Beristain was undocumented. Although he was ordered to leave, he never did. Immigration authorities placed Beristain in a supervised status. He had checked in with ICE once a year for the last 17 years. ICE agents helped Beristain obtain a driver’s license, a work permit and a legal Social Security number. Beristain went to work in the restaurant business at a steak house in Granger, Indiana. In January, he actually became a co-owner of the restaurant.

When Beristain checked in with ICE in February this year, he was detained. He has appealed but he is now being held at a detention center in Wisconsin. Beristain’s wife had voted for Trump. She was quoted: “Trump did say the good people would not be deported…”

Gerardo Marinez-Morales, a 52 year-old man who had lived near Houston was deported on March 17. Martinez-Morales had lived in the United States for almost 20 years. He married a U.S. citizen and he has four U.S. born children under the age of 12.

In 2004, Martinez-Morales returned to Mexico to see family. When he returned, immigration authorities arrested him for crossing illegally at the Texas border. That set in motion his deportation order. Martinez-Morales returned to the Houston area where he lived uneventfully until this March when the police pulled him over for a broken tail light. The immigration authorities deported Martinez-Morales one week after his detention.

The Obama Administration had allowed people living in the U.S. illegally with no criminal record to stay in the country even if they had a deportation order that predated January 1, 2014. Under the Trump regime, people like that are now a priority for removal. As is apparent, Trump and his agents are ripping families apart without concern for the human consequences.

Compounding the harm, Trump is promoting a propaganda campaign against immigrants. In his speech to Congress, Trump announced the creation of a new federal program called VOICE, an acronym that stands for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. The purpose of VOICE is to publish information about crimes committed by immigrants.

As a matter of public policy, VOICE flies in the face of rationality. Innumerable studies show immigrants are less likely to commit serious crime than the native-born. In fact, high rates of immigration are actually associated with lower crimes rates, including violent crime rates. Singling out immigrants this way is simply immigrant bashing.

This is sadly reminiscent of a Nazi practice used against the Jews. The Hitler government publicized Jewish crime statistics as a way to drum up anti-semitism. Nazi newspapers published reader accounts of Jewish crimes. The historian Saul Friedlander, a Holocaust expert, has written that until 1938, Hitler’s Ministry of Justice ordered prosecutors to forward every criminal indictment against a Jew so that the government’s press office could publicize it. VOICE is in this tradition.

Needlessly cruel, legally questionable deportations and hateful propaganda should be beneath the office of an American president. By stigmatizing immigrants, Trump is trying to shift blame from his own failures. Immigrants are a convenient scapegoat.

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