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From Nixon To Trump: Democracy and Indecency

This January marks my 20th anniversary writing about the American right wing as a historian and a journalist. Wearing my historian’s hat, I’ve documented lunatic John Birch Society members convinced that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”; underground militias stockpiling guns against imminent Communist invasion, threatening death to congressmen who dared abet the evil socialist agenda; drunken louts in a Queens, New York, bar describing Richard Nixon’s impeachment as a liberal coup, opining, “If I was Nixon, that’s what I’d do—I’d shoot every one of them.” I stroked my chin, and explained how such maniacal, anti-democratic, and violently anarchic rage had always been part of the story, though really only at the margins of the American conservative movement.

At the same time, as a citizen and as a journalist, I documented that margin encroaching on the center, until, with Donald Trump’s apotheosis, it seems now to have consumed the entire damned thing.

Let’s look at the score.

1994 was the year I started obsessing myself with conservatism. When I heard that G. Gordon Liddy had advised his radio listeners that when they fired upon agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, “Go for a head shot; they’re going to be wearing bulletproof vests,” I actually wasn’t surprised. I’d been listening to a lot of right-wing talk radio, where the notion that the federal government was a tyrannical occupying army had become a commonplace. Newt Gingrich’s revolutionaries took over Congress that year, trained by a memo called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” to dehumanize their Democratic opponents by using words like “sick,” “pathetic,” and “decay” in reference to them. Two weeks later, gracious in victory, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina—nicely enough on November 22, the anniversary of JFK’s assassination—said President Bill Clinton “better have a bodyguard” if he visited Helms’s state.

Clinton didn’t need more bodyguards. He needed better lawyers—to keep him from impeachment on the heels of his persecution by a power-mad, right-wing special prosecutor, and a Republican Congress determined to fight their 1996 loss of the presidency by any means necessary.

Having tried and failed to turn oral sex into the pretext for a Constitutional coup, they attempted another bite of the apple after the 2000 census. The following year, Republicans in control of state legislatures redrew legislative boundaries with unprecedentedly partisan bad faith—and then, after this increasingly Grotesque Old Party took over the State House in Texas, Rep. Tom DeLay violated a century-old norm to redraw Texas’s Congressional districts without waiting for the next census, in a manner so vicious, a staffer boasted in a 2003 email, it “should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood.”

Came the tragedy of September 11, 2001, which the un-popularly elected president appointed by a right-wing Supreme Court envisioned as an opportunity. Vice President Cheney, as a congressman, had authored a Republican “minority report” to the 1987 Congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal. It asserted: “To the extent that the Constitution and the laws are read narrowly, as Jefferson wished, the Chief Executive will on occasion feel duty bound to assert monarchical notions of prerogative that will permit him to exceed the law.” Now, licking his lips, he advised the Chief Executive to do exactly that—illegally creating military commissions housed solely within the executive branch, inventing the category “enemy combatant” to evade the entirety of Article III of the Constitution, authorizing warrantless surveillance, inventing out of whole cloth a causus belli in Iraq, and authorizing a torture regime that the Justice Department’s John Yoo affirmed would encompass the crushing of an infant’s testicles, if the president so desired.

Honoring election results became optional, especially if they threatened to traduce white privilege. My first big reported journalistic piece was on the campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis of California in 2003. In the Golden State I discovered voters terrified to the point of palpitations by Davis’s proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses: for safety reasons. That fact notwithstanding, a talk radio host (once described by a cynical GOP operative I interviewed as one of his “precinct captains”) explained to listeners that the purpose of the driver’s license was to allow immigrants to vote, in order to turn California into “the northernmost province of Mexico.” Largely, upon that lie, an election won by Davis (in which the Republican finisher won only 42.4 percent of the vote) was overturned; and Republican brazenness vaulted to the skies.

In 2005 came Hurricane Katrina, which the conservative movement literally heralded as a “golden opportunity” to overturn as much of the liberal state as they could manage under the cover of storm-induced darkness. “Bush has what Social Security and tax reform lacked: a real sense of crisis that places his political opponents in an awkward position,” Tod Linberg, editor of the right-wing flagship “intellectual” journal Policy Review, rejoiced in the Washington Times. “He can make demands in the name of New Orleans, including demands for substantive policy changes that he could never obtain in the absence of a crisis.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wrote that Katrina “has introduced a valuable forum to promote the triumph of our ideas and solutions for government over the crumbling and outdated policies of the Democrat-controlled Congresses of past decades.” Jack Kemp spied opportunity to suspend “onerous regulations imposed by the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communication Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” Former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese coauthored a Heritage Foundation report subtitled “Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities.” The principled solutions included “Waive or repeal Clean Air Act (CAA) regulations that hamper refinery rebuilding and expansion,” and “immediately exempt Katrina victims from paying death taxes”—democracy be damned.

Democracy and decency. In the spring of 2007, I reported on a spate of right-wing terrorism and attempts at terrorism, including accounts of a Liberty University student preparing napalm-bomb attacks on protesters at Rev. Jerry Falwell’s funeral, a deadly shooting spree by white supremacists at an Idaho courthouse, and an unexploded bomb left at an abortion clinic in Austin. A simultaneous raid by 150 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers in four counties that yielded 130 grenades and a rocket launcher belonging to the Alabama Free Militia. This convergence was ignored by the media.

For me, 2007 was the watershed, not 2009: that was when I began stating as a matter of fact that millions of Americans now considered a government controlled by Democrats de facto illegitimate. How illegitimate? In March I got a fundraising letter from the National Conservative Campaign Fund signed by the estimable Mr. Meese referring to the two contenders for the Democratic nomination as a potential “‘President’ Obama” and “‘President’ Hillary Rodham Clinton”—“president” in quotation marks, designating them as illegitimate before either of them would win the election. In September, I cited a 327-post thread on FreeRepublic.com “Preparing for the ‘Big What If,’” What sort of weapons to stock in the event of “the breakdown in social order such as happened with the Rodney King riots,” if Barack Obama were to lose. That prediction was subsequently endorsed by National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who can now be seen on television casting himself as the right’s preeminent #nevertrump voice of reason.

Obama won; and on November 25 I totted up Facebook groups dedicated to impeaching not-yet-President Obama. I lost count before I got to a hundred.

What happened next should be fresh still in most readers’ minds: a South Carolina congressman shouted “You Lie” during Obama’s September 9, 2009 joint speech to Congress; members of Congress were shouted down by “death panel” fantasists at the healthcare town halls of 2010; and Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012 on what the overly decorous New York Times called “a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites.” Then came a tsunami of electoral-democracy-repressing statutes passed by Republican state legislatures following the Republican Supreme Court’s overturning of key tenets of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Now Trump. Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.

So what happens next, after January 20?

I was asked this in an interview the day after the election on the British network Sky News. Having cemented myself to my bed three hours after my morning alarm rang, then consuming my customary two daily cigarettes over the next 15 minutes, chased with a generous gulp of rum, I was finally jolted out of my lethargic depression to conceive of an answer. Donald Trump had made scores of promises he could not possibly fulfill. The second biggest was an economic miracle: the dormant Main Streets of Middle America humming with dynamism in the blink of the eye. The biggest, only made implicitly, was the same one fascist strongmen always offer: transcendent national renewal, built upon the cleansing of dangerous untermenschen from the body politic. Then there were the more minor miracles: bringing back the coal industry. Building the wall (Mexico will pay for it). Etc., etc.

None of these things, however, are possible.

So what happens next? His worshipful admirers cannot blame Trump for the stymying of this agenda: Trump is a god. It must be the people he told them to blame who are actually responsible. The lying media. The quisling Democrats. The sellout Republican establishment. Mexicans, of course. The more Trumpism fails, the more, and more violently, scapegoats will be blamed. And only some kind of stalwart resistance will stand between America and fascism.

I got ready to say this. Made my way two sentences in. Then heard, “I’m sorry, Mr. Perlstein, our time is up.”

Maybe it was Hillary Clinton’s fault: her concession speech came at the interview’s scheduled time. Maybe they didn’t like the direction I was heading; Sky News, after all, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, same as Fox. Or maybe I’m just being conspiratorial: Trump may soon be doing that to all of us. The margin has become the center. Paranoia strikes deep.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent and author of bestsellers including Before The Storm:Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill and Wang, 2001) and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

How Will ‘We’ Survive A President Trump?

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet. 

“There’s a whole generation of dead queer men and dead poor women of color who didn’t survive Reagan. There’s over a million dead Iraqis who didn’t survive Bush. There’s millions upon millions whose lives were destroyed by the muscular policing policies of Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and Obama. Stop saying ‘we’ survived them. Stop ignoring all those dead, incarcerated and disenfranchised people.” — Dr. Shanté Paradigm Smalls

“We will survive Trump,” I keep hearing people say, often followed by a reference to how “we” survived Bush, or Reagan, or Nixon, or so many other historic calamities.

At worst, I’ve seen this sentiment expressed by people whose safety and well-being are all but guaranteed, mostly to dismiss or silence outpourings of fear, anger and grief from the vulnerable and justifiably petrified. At best, I’ve heard it from folks who stand to lose the most in the coming years — whose erasure, exclusion or expulsion were voted for by people eager to make this country exclusively theirs again — in an effort to turn resignation into reassurance, to transform a history of needless suffering into a warped kind of relief that what we’re facing is just more of the awful same.

But there’s little consolation and even less truth in this trifling phrase. The same hindsight it urges is proof of the very real danger that looms, evidence we’re likely facing an era far too dark to be illuminated by historically revisionist optimism. If our calamitous past has taught us anything it should be that mere survival is not enough. And assurances that “we will survive” refer to a privileged and limited “we.”

That “we” excludes more than 650,000 Americans — overwhelmingly LGBTQ men and poor people of color — who ultimately didn’t survive Reagan’s indifference to the AIDS crisis, an epidemic the president didn’t dedicate a speech to until the American death toll hit 21,000. As many as 200,000 Iraqi and Afghan civilians and thousands of American soldiers didn’t survive Bush and Obama’s wars. The Obama administration’s deportation of more than 2.4 million immigrants—a total that nearly rivals the previous two administrations combined—has left countless families broken and barely surviving. The misguided war on drugs launched by President Nixon and exponentially expanded by President Clinton has wasted $1 trillion, led to mass incarceration of black and brown citizens, devastated countless communities and families, and exacerbated police violence and abuse in communities that have long suffered state-sanctioned terror.

“We” didn’t all survive Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed and displaced thousands of poor black lives while President Bush continued his vacation at his Texas ranch. Millions are still doing their best to survive the myth of Reagan’s “welfare queen,” which led to Clinton’s devastating welfare reform, a policy that increased poverty around the country, particularly for poor children. Reagan offered a model for how to blame the poor for poverty (he did little to address the exploding homeless population and then falsely derided people living on the street “by choice”) and launched the current anti-union climate that has helped erode the middle class, further enrich the .1 percent and widen the wage gap by miles. Thirty years later, Reagan’s policies are tied to the diminished survival of the white working class, which still fares better on every count than working-class people of color.

With the most recent election, we now have a vice president-elect who has repeatedly voted in favor of LGBT discrimination, pushed to defund Planned Parenthood, blocked efforts to stop the spread of AIDS while praying about it, and presided over the worst AIDS outbreak in Indiana’s history. Pence is joined by Tom Price, the pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-Obamacare, anti-Medicare, anti-LGBT newly appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general pick, lost out on a federal judgeship in the 1980s for being too racist but may soon be in charge of a criminal justice system that has notoriously failed black and brown people. Trump’s new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is friendly with white supremacists on social media and propagates the idea that fearing Muslims is rational. All of these people will get to spend the next few years working alongside Steve Bannon, white nationalist sympathizer and propagandist, and now chief strategist to President-elect Trump.

While it’s impossible to fully predict how the next four years will look, it’s a good bet to plan for the worst. Let’s be real: Trump’s predecessors have all made decisions that have led to death, injury and isolation. But never in recent history has a candidate made his dangerous and destructive goals, his incompetence, his disregard for the U.S. Constitution and international law, and his tendency toward violence and bigotry so nakedly clear.

Trump’s cabinet selections are an unmistakable sign that this administration has zero interest in assuaging the fears of African Americans and other people of color, Muslims, women, and the many marginalized groups who were alienated and terrified by his campaign. The thoroughly anti-gay character of Trump’s cabinet will influence both legislation and American culture, inflaming hostilities toward queer and other LGBT people. Having a man who has bragged about criminal sexual acts heading up the executive branch, advised by reproductive rights opponents, bodes ill for women. For people with intersecting marginalized identities, the consequences are likely to be doubly bad.

Republicans are already giddy at the prospect of defunding Planned Parenthood next year, and will likely make disastrous changes to Medicaid. There is good reason to believe that this administration will immediately get down to work eliminating Obamacare and, in cahoots with Paul Ryan, Medicare, leaving millions of Americans without health insurance or even basic care in the near future. It also means expensive and life-saving anti-retroviral drugs for people living with HIV could soon be out of reach.

We’re likely to see a worsening of the opioid epidemic, most notably in the rural counties and industrial towns that overwhelmingly went for Trump. We should probably expect an abrupt end to the recent modest efforts to end mass incarceration, and a likelihood the justice system will rededicate itself to the criminalization of black and brown folks and the destruction of their families. Even more women in even more parts of the country will be further denied access to family planning and legal reproductive justice, though history has shown they will continue to get abortions, even if it imperils their own health. We can be sure that there will be an escalation in the militarization of law enforcement and a more overt disregard for police abuses in communities of color.

Survivability will drop off for numerous communities in the next four years. It’s foolish to trust that Trump won’t carry out his promises because of his record as a flip-flopping liar, which should actually be a reason for even less confidence. Even among politicians and reality television stars, Trump stands out as a person who says whatever he needs to in any given moment, without shame or fear of consequences. This president-elect and his cabinet will make terrible decisions for this country, decisions that will be catastrophic for those he targeted during his campaign. His base won’t emerge unscathed, but at least they can feel good about getting the president they voted for.

This is the truth of this election. Yes, some of us will survive the next few years, and the horrible outcomes of this presidency. But “we” as a whole, will not. Because the reality is, “we” never have.

IMAGE: DonkeyHotey

Endorse This: Watch Jeb Bush Joke About Hurricane Katrina

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The political world is now abuzz after Jeb Bush’s campaign appearance Wednesday night in South Carolina, where he praised a local supporter, state senator Katrina Shealy — by nicknaming her after a disastrous hurricane.

“In fact, when I was governor, in 16 months we had eight hurricanes and four tropical storms. One of them was called ‘Katrina,'” Bush said, as some in the audience laughed. “I don’t know why your great state senator reminds me of a hurricane, but she does. She’s strong, and she’s fierce, and she is solving problems for you at the state capitol. You should be honored to have you as your elected official, I hope you agree with me.

“That’s your new nickname — the Bush family always gives out nicknames. Yours is now ‘Hurricane Katrina.'”

Keep in mind that when Jeb was governor, as he fondly reminisced, 14 people in Florida died as a result of Hurricane Katrina — a mere fraction of the more than 1,000 who died in Louisiana, the major site of the hurricane’s landfall.

So how did Katrina Shealy take it? Actually just fine, she explained — because her family was already joking about Hurricane Katrina way back ten years ago.

“Everybody in my family, when they had Hurricane Katrina, it was kind of like a big joke in my family because I’m the feisty one in the family,” Shealy told CNN. “I’m the one that kinda bosses everybody around.”

“In fact, I’m kinda glad he said it because I can just keep on with my bad self,” she also added. “I can keep on being feisty and fierce and whatever those words are that people think I am already. When they see me coming into the room, maybe they’ll just get out of the way.”

Well, it’s good to know that Jeb Bush’s supporters are just as conscientious and dignified as he is.

Video via Jeffrey Randazzo/YouTube.

Photo: Neighborhood cleanup effort along Bayou St. John creates a trash art piece out of some of the junk to be hauled away. “Bush Mobile” is a negative reference to George W. Bush. Via user Infrogmation, Wikimedia Commons, uploaded January 29, 2006.

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Ten Years Later, Resilient New Orleans Reflects On Katrina

By Kathy Finn and Edward McAllister

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) — From the Lower Ninth Ward to the Super Dome, New Orleans launched a day of events on Saturday to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, paying tribute to its victims and homage to the city’s resilience in the face of disaster.

Dignitaries made speeches to honor the 1,500 who died, brass bands marched through the streets and neighbors gathered for block parties across the city, where the mood shifted in turns from somber to reflective to celebratory.

“It is kind of bittersweet. We want to celebrate because we are still here, but a lot of people are not,” said Natasha Green, 36, a resident of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward at the time of the storm. “It is important to remember what we went through here.”

Saturday was the culmination of a week of reflection about a storm that left 80 percent of the city under water and displaced 130,000 residents. While residents and visitors alike said it was difficult to deny the rebound that New Orleans has made, there was also recognition that the poorest areas, like the Lower Ninth, have lagged.

The day began with Mayor Mitch Landrieu leading a somber tribute for the 83 “forgotten” victims whose unclaimed bodies lie in mausoleums at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial, housed in one of the city’s historic above-ground cemeteries. A decade after Katrina, 30 of those bodies remain unidentified.

“Though they are unnamed, they are not unclaimed because we claim them,” Landrieu said on a clear morning reminiscent of the calm before storm’s landfall on Aug. 29, 2005.

“This has been 10 years of struggle,” said the mayor, who was joined by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other dignitaries. “But New Orleans is unbowed and unbroken.”

Across town, hundreds gathered in the Lower Ninth Ward on a grass verge that abuts the Industrial Canal levee that was breached 10 years ago, causing some of the worst flooding.

Some locals wore traditional Mardi Gras parade dress including colorful headdresses. Vendors sold soft drinks and beer from large coolers.

The mood started out reflective but not downbeat. There was also an undercurrent of anger over the lagging redevelopment of the Lower Ninth, where empty lots and the shells of destroyed houses are still common sights.

“The people that have given this city its culture have been overlooked,” Willie Muhammad, a student minister at the Nation of Islam, said to the crowd. “We shouldn’t be surprised that the rebuild overlooked us.”

At noon, brass bands began marching, bringing a celebratory atmosphere. Hundreds of people danced behind the blaring trumpets, horns and drums. About a dozen marchers rode horses.

Chad Peterson, a 29-year-old trumpet player with one of the brass bands, was upbeat.

“This is about my city. This is about Katrina. I’m just enjoying it. This is more of a celebration.”

Other hard-hit parts of Louisiana were hosting memorials as well. At Shell Beach, in lower St. Bernard Parish just east of New Orleans, public officials and residents gathered along a waterway that burst through a levee in 2005 and killed 127 people. The ceremony will feature a reading of the names of victims, now etched into a monument there.

Similarly, Lakeview, Broadmoor, Mid-City and a host of other locales are looking back on 2005.

By mid-morning a crowd was gathering with cold drinks and food in a park along Harrison Avenue in Lakeview as kids played soccer nearby. Along a main street in the Mid-City neighborhood, colorful flags swayed in the breeze from 52 wooden poles arranged across a green space as a commemoration by sculptor Michael Manjarris. A block party is planned near the site later.

A march and hand-holding ceremony is scheduled at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the football arena that housed thousands of displaced people after the storm and became an emblem of the chaos and hardship that engulfed New Orleans after the flooding.

For several sweltering days, people were virtually trapped inside the Superdome without adequate food or water and little communication with the outside world. The scene became one of horror and despair, with some people who were already ill succumbing to the conditions and dying on the spot.

The scene was a political embarrassment for President George W. Bush and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, who were roundly criticized for a slow response to a crisis that mostly affected the poor and African Americans.

Later, crowds were expected at the Smoothie King Center, home of the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team, where former President Bill Clinton would deliver a speech.

In a show of solidarity with other coastal states damaged by Katrina, a group called Gulf South Rising set up shop in Louis Armstrong Park at the edge of the French Quarter.

“The seas are rising and so are we,” read banners hung on either side of the gateway to the park.

Speakers included representatives from Black Lives Matter, an advocacy group formed after a series of unarmed black men were killed by police officers over the past year.

The event will feature music, ceremonial drumming and dance performance on two stages, culminating in one of the city’s trademark second-line parade at midnight.

(Writing by Frank McGurty; editing by Andrew Roche, Editing by Franklin Paul)

Photo: A brass band performs in Jackson Square one day before the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, August 28, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman