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How Bush’s Presidency Paved The Way For Trump Trauma

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

As a public intellectual, playwright and longtime foundation executive, Colin Greer has a unique view on politics and grassroots-oriented change. Formerly a CUNY professor and an expert on education and immigration—he wrote The Great School Legend along with nine other books—he was a founder of Change Magazine and Social Policy Magazine, and was a contributing editor to Parade Magazine for 17 years. Since 1985, he has been president of the New World Foundation, one of the few philanthropies in America that primarily funds grassroots organizing. He also chairs the boards of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and the Lark Theatre. Greer is a board member of the Independent Media Institute, the parent organization for AlterNet.

Don Hazen: Trump’s scapegoating and lies are causing emotional trauma for many Americans, especially immigrants and people who have been sexually and emotionally abused. Do you agree that this trauma has been heightened by Trump?

Colin Greer: I don’t actually agree that the trauma is new. No, I think that Americans have suffered trauma at a high level since that election in 2000 when the Supreme Court gave the election to George Bush in Florida.

DH: Because of the court decision?

CG: Yes, absolutely. First of all, there was a real sense that what we believed in actually did not work. Everybody knew the decision was not true, that it was a lie. The court voted against its own standard—that is States’ Rights, right? We were suddenly seeing corruption at the highest level. Then Bush and Cheney took us to an unnecessary war that we learned very quickly to have no basis—no evidence for it—despite mass U.S. protests, which were shown to be meaningless to those in power. …[T]he intelligence was wrong—in fact, contrived—but they drove us to war.

DH: So Bush is getting off lightly, here in 2017?

CG: Absolutely. That war continues. It has destroyed stability in the world, especially in the Middle East. It intensified terrorism to a level we had not seen it before. It mobilized ethnic Muslim communities all over the world into being enemies of us because of the invasion of Iraq. It destroyed the economy that Obama inherited. [We were] facing intensified loss already under way since Regan showed what limited leverage organized labor possessed. Then, we were powerless to influence the terms of the capitalist theft that was the bail-out, and since which the basic security of workers has been badly undermined and health care out of reach for many Americans so that injury and disease was able to destroy families. Bush, et al., probably had the most traumatic effect of any administration since the early part of the 20th century.

All of this was of course followed by the mobilized racism against our black president. [This] demonstrated once again our progressive powerlessness and the distance between people’s needs and government callousness after 2010, which has been the experience of many working Americans continuously since welfare reform and finance deregulation in 1990.

DH: So you are saying Bush has been much more destructive than Trump, so far.

CG: Yeah, and we haven’t paid attention to it. We need, as progressives, to tell that story, both that it happened, [and] that it’s unresolved. We’ve been powerless to reverse the right-wing movement advances for a long time. Everybody knows that. The public has taken that in viscerally; that’s trauma’s process in action. The right wing was advanced ironically by Obama getting elected and immediately attacked. McConnell said, “Our definition of success will be your defeat every day of your administration.” There was a declaration of war. Basically, a declaration of the Civil War all over again, and they basically paralyzed the government that was a Union government run by Confederates. That’s essentially what we’ve had.

Meanwhile, young people are turned off by political leaders, religious leaders, and face enormously reduced expectations of career, asset growth, freedom from debt. So trauma is running wide and deep cross-generationally. And so it has been for decades now.

DH: Do you think Trump will have the opportunity to out-Bush Bush over the next three and half years or more?

CG: My greatest fear is that his paralyzed government, which will continue to be frozen while the Russian investigation continues, will increasingly frustrate him. Then the shadow, the guy we’re not talking about anymore, Stephen Bannon, will emerge. That comedy of a Cabinet meeting with Bannon looking on: Was he looking out for the internal strength of the cords being woven to strangle democracy? Everyone around that table, everyone should have experienced traumatic assault on their integrity. To quote Orwell, their slavery was dressed up as free will and their fear paraded as hope.

My fear is that they will use surprise events to puncture democracy pretty badly. Either an event from outside or from here at home that allows them to undermine the Constitution; or take an action in the world that diverts from what is happening to numbers of Americans here through budget cuts, deregulation, and assault on the press. That kind of action could make him popular by evoking patriotic response because he’s defending America. Given who he is, he could just do that unilaterally. Then, I think, all bets are off because the politics get shaken up. There will be a lot of uncertainty. Independents will overcome their distaste in a patriotic sense of loyalty.

That’s the negative potential, of course. But it builds on a readiness for emergency response and irrational reaction that is preset. Remember the Patriot Act is an expansive permission to squash opposition. With trauma in mind, it’s worth remembering since 2002 through 2016 (so far), each president has intensified our fears and expectations of repeated attack by renewing the declaration of a state of emergency. It can be worse but the tracks have been laid. I think it’s important to look at the tracks and the current danger, but not only to look at the current danger.

DH: Does that lead to a certain kind of fascism?

CG: That’s the potential, I think. We have a president that relies on demagoguery. He’s not yet ruled through demagoguery. But he has tried to change our reality through demagoguery by turning the only institutions we have that can stand against him into enemies. Like the press, like the intelligence services; anything with any level of independence, he scapegoats. You go after the institutions that hold government accountable. That’s the end assault on liberty. And people buy it like it’s what they chose.

The thing that I fear domestically is a constitutional convention. We are getting closer to that, and they’re planning for it. Who knows what will be on that bill of particulars if two-thirds of the states go that route. It’s scary. They are now seven states short of the power to call a convention. But that’s not so far off. While a “balanced budget” amendment is top of the list, some legislatures and leaders are interested in a multi-issue convention. Imagine constitutional amendments calling for a balanced budget, prohibitions against abortion or gay marriage, even extending the tenure of the presidency. It’s important to remember the frog in boiling water. Authoritarianism grows slowly but steadily before dictatorship develops, and even if it doesn’t a right-wing oligarchy is fearsome too.

DH: What’s to be done about that?

CG: What do you do about all that? Too many people in the not-for-profit political world are talking about a 30-year strategy. I don’t think we have 30 years to defend against this. Progressives did that in 1984 with Reagan. We lost that second election. Then, when Clinton was disappointing, “We need a 30-year strategy.” It’s always a generational strategy. But the fantasy that the rising diverse electorate would close off reactionary homogenous voters was futurizing as destiny. It ran its music all the way through the Obama administration, even while legislatures were going to the right and Democrats lost control of 30+ states.

DH: It is true that the whole notion of the dream demographic change that will lead to long-term Democratic party power—that we will have a minority-majority country soon—does not factor in gerrymandering, a right-wing Supreme Court that virtually eliminates the Voting Rights Act, many new restrictions on voting that has turned, e.g., Wisconsin from blue to red, the millions who can’t vote because of felony disenfranchisement, and a lying, manipulative, reality TV star as president.

CG: Right. And the Democratic message to some voters that we don’t need you has converged with the right and Trump to make the non-white electorate rather fearsome to traumatized white workers and suburban whites. For the last 20 years white identity has been racialized and established itself at the core of conservative politics. We were divided, and then Republicans using the census and gerrymandering were able to massively move the country to the right while Obama was president, probably in part because Obama was president.

DH: Sounds like the Bernie lament. What can we learn from what Corbyn did in Britain?

CG: What Corbyn did was open up the party to open admission, basically. The more people that joined, the more young people that joined, the stronger he got. I think, pretty clearly, that he was able to hold Theresa May to a very narrow victory because of young people voting. That’s the phenomenon I think we need to be paying attention to…

DH: The millennials?

CG: Yeah. We need to pay attention to what’s real in the current resistance politics. It’s young people and older women. It’s not issue politics. There’s a resistance to what Trump represents that’s growing and is the phenomenon we should be supporting.

DH: So okay, we have a mess on our hands. And agreed, Bush trauma predated and led to Trump trauma. That adds up to a lot of trauma. What might be effective approaches to addressing trauma and political anxiety?

CG: Trauma can be ubiquitous when political power is wrested from any popular base and used counterproductively with respect to people’s interests. This results in profound uncertainty, sense of powerlessness, and actual loss. We’ve seen peace politics, economic justice drives, immigrant rights and union strength painfully diminished. Even under Obama, immigrants and Latinos took great losses. Under Clinton, caring and responsible economic and social policies took major hits.

Trauma, like scar tissue, can intensify and do new damage.

I do want to caution that it’s never fully accurate to use clinical diagnostic terms to describe collective behavior or the mental health of a whole society.

However, both as a metaphor for serious dysfunction and in recognition of many years of war and social trauma, many have suffered great loss. The economic crash and the ongoing decline in the trades, in union strength, and the constant punditry about the shrinking of white America has left us in bad shape. Meanwhile, poor and working-class whites now feel themselves as experiencing dispossession, oppression and alienation. And that was not supposed to be when through unions and local politics, they once saw a path to realizing American destiny. Now they feel that they took the wrong road. They can’t see another except to express anxiety and place hope in putative strong men.

The blame game is on as a result. And the president epitomizes it.

There are limits of trauma theory and theories of change too. Rejection of the oppression and domination paradigm requires looking closely at “what is.” That is critical. Expecting answers via psychological and social theory is not going to work. Allowing the motivation of our fear to create an illusory sense of opportunity. Looking at what we face and examining how to interrupt and avoid further consolidation of right-wing forces in all the avenues of power, including a mobilized popular base is critical. What is going on to resist is visible, real, and needs to be supported.

Calls on historic resistance lessons that are not particular to the current circumstance are not so useful unless they are grounded phenomenologically in “what is.”

There are a few straight-forward phenomenological questions to ask ourselves:

First, where is the action, who is the subject of threat by police and legal assault? Second, who are the sympathetic supplementary allies in service oriented non-profits and NGOs? This is a valuable but poorly activated progressive force. Frank Riessman’s work in “self-help” and left study groups has been instructive to me. Frank wrote and often talked about the latent political power in the self-help and service sector domain. He saw groups forming around chronic illness and likened them to study groups formed out of chronic economic and political dis-ease. This was power to harness for mutual benefit through state policy, budgets, and services. Finally, can we find ways forward calling all these elements into a coherent alliance of political infrastructure and robust resistance and advance, remembering that if local and national electorates can participate and lift voting by 10 percent, we likely win.

DH: Do any of the famous international political thinkers of the past, people you’ve admired and read, have anything to teach us about the political climate we are in?

CG: Political thinkers of the recent past are often stimulating, but not terribly useful because almost none of them has a political practice.

DH: What does it mean to have a political practice?

CG: It means… What do you do? What do you do on Monday morning? What’s your short-term, what’s your long-term agenda? With whom? Why? What is there to build on?

So thinkers like Adorno, Deleuze, Derrida did not have a way to put their thinking into practice. As Richard Rorty said, “Philosophy is great for the people that love to do philosophy. If you want action, you need a different kind of discipline.”

These thinkers have things to contribute, but they don’t have action to contribute. Adorno has the whole notion of anxiety and the negative dialectic. People are anxious and that can create a dialectic that’s built on the negative rather than on the positive. You can have a synthesis that’s fascism, as well as you can have a synthesis that is the good society. That’s a good warning.

Derrida has this wonderful conception that logic is a form of face. Don’t get tied up in positivism because the rational thinking doesn’t tell you enough about human experience.

DH: Who of the big thinkers does do politics directly in their thinking?

CG: Well, Gramsci. Gramsci did politics, but he ended up in jail for it. And it didn’t end fascism.

DH: Gramsci was Italian and this is during Mussolini’s time?

CG: Right. He gave us some concepts that were really important. One major concept is civil society: Don’t look only at the economy, which is the Marxist tradition. Civil society is the important form that exists in an alternative sphere and you can make change through civil society. Secondly, we must fight for common sense. Hegemonic systems own common sense. Knowledge and information are crucially important. Study groups and dialogue are key. Claiming national platforms for ideas is essential. Finally, winning airtime in national and local media is necessary work. That’s a great warning and we have not paid enough attention to it. We talk about shaping public opinion, but not how do you actually create deep common sense? That’s a big hole. The only times I know where we actually shape common sense is through movements. When movements rise, they change the fabric of thinking.

DH: Are there any great philosophers of movements?

CG: Well, there are great philosophers in movements, because they’re philosophers of action. There is Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The thing they have in common is they’re the phenomenologists. They look at what’s happening, not what might happen, nor what the theory of change is, but what is happening and what can be mobilized. For King, it’s obvious. For Gandhi, it’s obvious. Now it would be, there are these rising movements. There’s opposition politics, but what strength is there in it, phenomenologically, that can actually be coordinated and grown. Not be directed by a theory of change, not be directed by political philosophy, but what’s the actual practice that can currently be commanded to organize for real change?

DH: What’s the movement potential out there today?

CG: In the end, it is the practice of how you bring people and issues together. What do you actually do about it? Who has the resources to commit? Are resources committed over time? Will leaders and others actually allow their issues to be integrated in a whole picture? You’ve got to work toward a whole picture, because they’re all the same issue in the end. The ecology of social justice is that it’s all one challenge.

DH: As a long-time foundation executive, how do you think philanthropy is responding to Trump and the many crises he is creating?

CG: Badly. Badly, but that’s not new. Most of philanthropy usually responds badly to critical situations. Habit, fear of controversy, legal concerns, institutional over victory calculus all take a toll. It helps me to think about three sectors in philanthropy. There is the right wing, and they just throw money at the issues because they’re in it for themselves. There’s the social engineering philanthropy, which is, “We can make the world a better place by teaching people how to do things better, creating better policies.”

DH: Is that the Gates model?

CG: Yes, Gates. It’s MacArthur. It’s generally the bureaucratic foundations and some big, new donors. Then there’s the left philanthropy, which is, by and large, on behalf of other people, not for themselves. Progressive rich people don’t have skin in the game in the same way right-wing rich people have. They don’t lose if they lose… The conservatives are just as foremost concerned to preserve, consolidate and advance their own hold in power, and so they invest in power. Progressive philanthropy is one step removed. Not ill-intentioned, but one step removed. Their lives are not bound in it in the same way. On a spectrum of those three categories, liberal and progressive philanthropy have the least amount of money to spend and we spend it least generously.

DH: What do you think of Andy Stern’s model of the basic living wage as an antidote to automation and job loss?

CG: We don’t know what that looks like. How people will use their time? People are identified by work, particularly in this culture and all through western culture. Freud and Marx, most everybody has agreed that work is a defining aspect of identity until you get to the society where you achieve Marx’s goal of human fellowship in which our value is what we provide each other in community. We’re a long way from that society, of course, but we do need to imagine a world in which freedom from work gives you leisure to serve in your community from arts to service to governance. Don’t let’s forget WPA and its family programs. And the union movement’s current expansive and expendable efforts to train for actual jobs that are here for something from construction to nursing. There is a ton of jobs to be created if we have the will, infrastructure, service and community quality of life assets which give us the space to build goodwill and purpose for the changes coming.

DH: Like the arts which became controversial with the Public Theatre’s “Julius Caesar” with Shakespeare in the Park.

CG: In my opinion, that was a big mistake. It could have been done so differently, if they’d been a bit more political imaginative instead of a reflexive liberal aversion to the gutter government is groveling in. If it had been Nixon, for example, and not Trump. If it had been Trump and not Melania. I mean, having the wife of Caesar be blonde with a Slavic accent?

Caesar is a metaphor for a demagogue and the problem of removing a dictator without democratic means. You use the sword against the sword and you live by the sword. So it tells that story, but it’s a metaphor. To make it concrete takes it out of the realm of theater and makes it propaganda.

DH: You’re talking about this as a playwright? How would you have done it?

CG: I would have either reset it so that it took place in a butcher shop, so it was ordinary life and it was somebody was vying with somebody else for control, or a real estate industry like Ibsen does with “Master Builder”; it’s a real estate builder. I would set it like that, out of the construct of imperial, or I would have put it in another period of American history, like Hamilton or like Nixon. So you see it played out, but you’re not actually talking about the murder of the current President of the United States.

Times like these I believe require strategically shaped purpose and impact. That can include preaching to the choir but not to simply feel good and righteous.

Trauma, like murder, will out, to paraphrase the Bard. Emotions are extreme and they are explosive unless and until we try to deploy the cerebral cortex too. The enormity of the danger we face requires our fullest selves and our most robust mobilization of a new “common sense.” The story progressives tell is not yet in sync with either the risk or the injury that’s being sustained in in most sectors of society.

Look, devastating social conditions can de-legitimize a sitting administration. Protest and vision have been powerful forces against proto-fascist tendencies and paranoid behavior before. What was Jim Crow, after all? So none of what I am saying is about inevitability. It’s about waking up to the moment it is, seeing that it’s been a long time coming, but also that its popular base is shallow and not at all synonymous with Republican electoral power. The relentless drive to a desperate presidential choice is also a desperate cry for change that progressives must respond to with vigor, smarts, and outreach to the public on a scale reminiscent of past opposition and transformational politics not the knee-jerk Democratic Party search for brand edge. It always comforts me, and I pray it’s not false comfort, that a 10 percent in voter turnout in most state and national elections would begin to heal the wounds.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Will This Be The Biggest May Day Ever In The U.S.?

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

May Day, falling on the weekend of Donald Trump’s destructive first 100 days, makes for much symbolism in the struggle for justice and the soul of America. While Trump and his administration arbitrarily and ineptly attack immigrants from all over the world—especially Muslims—and the administration works to undermine labor rights across the board, hundreds of thousands of people will be pushing back, striking and protesting Monday in what is shaping up to be the biggest May Day demonstrations in at least 40 years.

The biggest and one of the most unified actions will be in Los Angles, a Democratic stronghold and sanctuary city with a vibrant labor movement and home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of them undocumented.

Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center and a vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, explains that this May Day “is being spearheaded by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, representing more than 800,000 union members. Some of the most dynamic labor organizing campaigns in Los Angeles have been led by immigrant workers, including janitors, hotel workers, home care workers, food workers, and car wash workers.”

The massive show of strength and solidarity by the labor movement in L.A. and elsewhere is a relatively new development. Wong explains: “Although May Day grew out of the struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago in 1886, for generations the U.S. labor movement had refused to stand in solidarity with global worker celebrations on May Day. One of the largest May Day demonstrations in U.S. history occurred in 2006, in opposition to draconian anti-immigrant policies being proposed by U.S. Congress.”

Now according to Wong, 120 years after the first May Day in Chicago, “the spirit of May Day has returned to the U.S. led by a new generation of immigrant workers.“

There is large-scale mobilizing in Los Angeles for May Day, with labor unions joining workers’ centers, immigrant rights groups, faith-based networks, and community organizations. Wong says, “Many unions are encouraging their workers to engage in a one-day strike. The broad-based coalition has united with leaders of the women’s march, which mobilized the largest women’s demonstration in history the day after the inauguration. This growing labor and community alliance is also credited with the recent victory of the campaign for the $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles and California.”

On the national level, the hope of many is that May Day 2017 will build lasting alliances for immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights and social justice, to lead the resistance against Trump and to build a broad-based movement for change. Much of the energy for change is coming from the immigrant community.

Wong explains: “While fear of deportations in immigrant communities is high, there is also tremendous courage and resilience. Immigrant youth led walks-outs on college and high school campuses throughout California the days after the Trump election. The campaign to advance sanctuary for immigrants is spreading throughout the country. People of conscience are repulsed by the hateful, anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration.”

Push for Freedom Cities in NY

Among the activities in New York on May Day is the push for Freedom Cities, a vision that goes beyond sanctuary cities. According to organizers, the goal is “to live in cities without fear, where communities control the resources they need to thrive. Freedom Cities is an intersectional movement that seeks to redefine safety, making entire cities, towns, and communities safe for immigrants, black people, workers, Muslims, trans and gender nonconforming people, and all oppressed communities.”

“I am going out on May Day for all of us workers,” says Lydia Tomlin, member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center and the New York Worker Center Federation. She continued, “We are immigrants, women, LGBTQ, people of color, and we work in industries across the city. Without our labor, who will serve New Yorkers their coffee, stock their shelves, clean their houses, construct their buildings? Who will make NYC run?”

Marchers from Freedom Cities, including the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Black Youth Project 100, Million Hoodies, Beyond the Moment, New York Worker Center Federation, and other allies will join the 6th Annual Immigrant Worker Justice Tour, which highlights the struggles of over a dozen social justice campaigns across NYC and elsewhere, with stops throughout downtown Manhattan calling out police and corporate abuse.

The Immigrant Worker Justice tour convenes at 1pm with a rally at Washington Square Park. March begins at 2pm (preview video).

Incredible Diversity of Cultures 

Especially noteworthy about the May Day activities in New York and across the country is the amazing diversity of cultures and of workers, many with common cause provoked by threats from the Trump administration, ICE and security and police forces looming over many communities.

This May Day, according to Zoe West, an organizer with the New York Worker Center Federation (NYWCF), the Freedom Cities effort is “particularly focusing on the issues of economic justice and criminalization with a focus on redefining safety as being about investing in communities rather than investing in more policing.”

She continues, “The NYWCF members are very diverse and experience threats as Mexican street vendors, Bangladeshi restaurant workers, day laborers, African-American retail workers, taxi drivers, immigrants facing the looming threat of ICE, all different folks living in over-policed communities, etc.”

West adds, “Through the growing Freedom Cities coalition, there has been increasing focus on how criminalization is an issue affecting people across a range of communities: immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, low-wage workers and more.”

In Atlanta, Georgiaracial justice organizers will join in solidarity with The Majority, a new coalition of more than 50 social and racial justice organizations across the country, in leading May Day actions “to put forth a truly collective vision of economic justice and worker justice that centers black people, women, LGBTQIA people, immigrants and undocumented people and those that live at the intersections of multiple identities.”

The planned May Day rally and city council speakout will “demand justice for workers, immigrants, women, LGBTQI, formerly incarcerated people, artists and activists.”

A Look Back at May Day in the 1970s

While at this point an historical footnote, May Day celebrations in 1970 and 1971 were watershed protest events in a different era when there was a raging fight to stop the war in Vietnam and rein in corporate power. The invasion of neutral Cambodia by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was the spark that produced a massive outpouring of anger, with large-scale protests In May Day 1970 on hundreds of campuses and in many cities.

Protests led to the shooting of Kent State College students by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970, leaving four dead and nine wounded. In the public mind, this still ranks as one of the most startling examples of excessive police abuse in U.S. history. Shockingly, 11 days later, at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi, a group of students were confronted by city and state police. Shortly after midnight, the police opened fire, killing two students and injuring 12.

On May Day in 1971, people didn’t just march on Washington, they shut it down. Roughly 25,000 protestors calling themselves the May Day Tribe blocked roads with cars, trash cans and their own bodies in order to prevent government employees from getting to work across Washington and at the major bridges and roadways leading into the city. Seven thousand or more were arrested (including yours truly), probably the most ever at a U.S. protest.

So May Day, which is a national holiday in much of the world, has a long complex history, starting from the protests in Chicago for the eight-hour week in 1886, which led to the Haymarket massacre, when a bomb was thrown at police by a never identified individual and the police retaliated by shooting protestors. Overall, seven police officers were killed and 60 wounded, an estimated eight civilians dead, and another 40 injured.

As Kent Wong reminds us: “One of the most powerful slogans that emerged from 2006 May Day is, “Hoy marchamos, manana votamos!” “Today we march, tomorrow we vote!”

The alliance between labor, immigrants, and communities of color in California and elsewhere has resulted in powerful progressive political victories that have rejected Trumpism and the right-wing Republican machine over the last 10 years. This is a movement that must spread throughout the country to embrace a progressive vision for the future.

Let’s hope that May Day 2017 is the biggest yet and keeps building the movement against Trump and the right-wing forces in this country.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

How Google, Facebook, And Amazon Destroy Privacy And Undermine Democracy

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Most of us are active on Facebook, use many of Google’s assets (search, YouTube, calendar) and get Amazon products dropped at our doorsteps. But have we ever stopped to think about the enormous impact these three companies have had on our lives and our society?

Well, Jonathan Taplin has given it a lot of thought. The result is a breakthrough, must-read book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. The book tells the tale of how the internet “was hijacked by a small group of right-wing radicals [led by Trump supporter Peter Thiel] for whom the ideas of democracy and decentralization were an anathema.”

The upshot is that the dominant philosophy of Silicon Valley became heavily based on the radical libertarian ideology of Ayn Rand. The internet is not the product of any mythical cooperative notion as the public may think, shaped by the pervasive, effectively marketed illusion of goodness symbolized by Google’s tagline: “Don’t Be Evil” (changed to “Do the Right Thing” in 2015 in Google’s code of conduct).

The result: “Not since Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan has there been such a concentration of wealth and power” in the hands of so few, according to Taplin’s book. “And the enormous unprecedented fortunes created by the digital revolution have done much to increase inequality in America.”

The five largest firms in the world (based upon market valuation) are Apple, Google (now known as Alphabet), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. In terms of their monopoly power, Google has an 88 percent market share in search and search advertising. Google’s Android operating system has an 80 percent global market share in its category. Amazon has a 70 percent market share in ebooks, and 51 percent of goods purchased online are from Amazon. Facebook has a 77 percent share on mobile social media. Google and Facebook have more than one billion customers, and Amazon has 350 million.

As their “relentless pursuit of efficiency leads these companies to treat all media as commodity,” according to Taplin, “the real value lies in the gigabytes of personal data scraped from your profile as you pursue the latest music video, news article or listicle.”

The value amassed from their methods is enormous. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are in the top 10 of the wealthiest people in America, according to the Forbes 400 list. Each has a personal fortune worth over $37 billion, with Bezos recently becoming the second wealthiest person in the world with a net worth of $75.6 billion.

Jonathan Taplin is an insider/outsider in the music, film and tech businesses. His career stretches from his college days as a roadie and tour manager for The Band and Bob Dylan, to a collaborator and producer of music, film and TV for 30 years, working with Martin Scorsese, among others. He started his own tech business only to run up against many of the realities he describes in his book. He has been a longtime professor and is currently director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California.

Taplin’s book is a tour de force—a compelling, story-driven work focusing on the handful of men who have shaped and essentially taken over the massive tech industry. Along the way, Taplin tells his own personal story with charm and insight. If you want to understand what has happened to our country and where tech will take us in the era of Trump, put aside some time to read this book. It will take your breath away.

Taplin and I spoke by phone in early April.

Don Hazen: Do you agree with me that your story about the dominance of antidemocratic, monopoly-oriented, radical libertarianism values of the titans of technology is not well known? And if so, why?

Jonathan Taplan: I totally agree it’s not well known. The reason is because the tech barons, who are the new robber barons, have done a PR job on America that has been very successful… The strange thing is that the one guy who was not a libertarian, Steve Jobs, probably did more to raise the halo effect of tech than anybody.

He is the one guy whose company respected copyright. In a regular speech I give, I point out that a musician who got a million downloads of one song on iTunes would make $900,000; and if they got a million downloads on YouTube (owned by Google) they’d make $900.

DH: Wow, that’s really depressing. Another aspect could be that most of us use Google and Facebook all the time. We want these companies to be benign in our lives, right? We don’t want to deal with the fact that they are both destructive and convenient.

JT: Well, it seems like it has no cost, but that of course isn’t true. It has many costs. Obviously, fake news could not exist without Google and Facebook. A kid in Macedonia with a Facebook page and a Google AdSense account could make $10,000 a week just putting out phony stuff.

That could never happen if you didn’t have these open platforms. Also, we all pay more because advertisers have to pay a premium to buy ads on Facebook and Google, because they’re what they call micro-targeted. An advertiser says, “I want women in the Nashville metro area who drink bourbon and drive trucks,” and Facebook can do that.

DH: We can even do that at AlterNet—we call it geo-targeting. We’re a progressive nonprofit that’s dependent on Google for close to half of our revenue.

JT: Yeah. Well, there’s no place else to go.

DH: That’s the definition of a monopoly, right?

JT: Yep.

DH: You say the real value in these companies and their profits lies in the gigabytes of personal data scraped from profiles as you pursue the latest music video, news article, etc. Can you say more about that? Are we fundamentally all being victimized? What are the ramifications?

JT: They are essentially monetizing your life, your desires, your dreams, whatever, and you’re not really getting any advantage for that monetization; they are. Certainly the people who make the content, whether it’s AlterNet or most other content makers, are not getting much advantage considering the size of your audience… You are on the bottom end of the food chain in terms of where the advertising dollars flow.

For most it feels like, Oh, well, I’m just exchanging all in my life in return for convenience. That isn’t to say you couldn’t have convenience if there were more players in the marketplace. There’s nothing implicit about having one social network and one search engine.

DH: Peter Thiel is the chief villain of your book. He is a very powerful Silicon Valley radical libertarian, who started PayPal, is on the board of Facebook, and is a mentor and funder of what is sometimes called the PayPal mafia—many who have gone on to start other big successes like LinkedIn. Some of what he says is pretty scary, like: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” What’s the path forward for Peter Thiel? Is his influence growing?

JT: His influence since I wrote the book has grown immensely, because he’s Jared Kushner’s best friend and he’s inside the White House and Donald Trump is holding his hand. He has extraordinary power in the White House in terms of determining technology policy. In fact, there’s even some rumors that Trump’s second Supreme Court appointment would be Peter Thiel.

DH: Oh my god, I didn’t hear that. Kushner has always been a moderate Democrat. How does he become so simpatico with somebody like Thiel, who is so right wing?

JT: Here’s the deal. These people in Silicon Valley have been able to put a Svengali move on the Democrats just as much as they put on the Republicans. Obama was under the spell of Google more than anybody I know about. Eric Schmidt [executive chairman of Alphabet] visited the White House by a factor of five more than any other CEO, and that’s just the official stuff that was written down at the White House gate.

DH: You mention the fact that Sean Parker, Larry Page and I think Thiel all went to the secret meeting of Republicans too, so they’ve got all the bases covered at Google?

JT: They don’t have any political affiliation whatsoever. They may pretend that they’re liberals, but they’re perfectly happy to be conservatives. In fact, one of the stories I tell in the book is that when the conservatives and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh were pounding on Facebook that their trending topics thing was being slanted against conservative media because the kids who were running it, who were the curators, were too liberal, Zuckerberg said, “Okay, well, I’m getting rid of the kids.” He fired them all and he just let the algorithm determine what got into trending topics.

Which was exactly what Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica wanted, because then they could play the algorithm with their armies of bots that they deployed, and completely push anything up trending topics that they wanted to.

DH: Further on in the book, you give Zuckerberg a bit of an optimistic pass in terms of hoping or thinking that he really cares about the four billion people who are not on the internet. He’s not at the same level as Page and Thiel and Parker?

JT: I don’t know. I probably would say that Bill Gates’ wife, Melinda, had more to do with him changing his life than anything. My sense is that Zuckerberg’s wife [Priscilla Chan] is a deeply committed humanist. She was a teacher, and I think like any of these guys, there’s probably a little bit of a battle for his soul. The very fact that she convinced him to give away 99 percent of their Facebook stock to a charity, even though it’s kind of a weird charity organization that he controls, is something.

It’s certainly not what Larry Page or Peter Thiel are doing. They’re giving money to organizations so they can live to 150 years old.

DH: We’re going to save that part until the end, because going to Mars and living forever is a whole final question about what makes these guys tick. Before we get there, let’s go backwards to Ayn Rand. When we were in college, these were crackpot theories, and we always thought they were books that kids read in high school or maybe as sophomores in college, and then we all grew up. Peter Thiel, who is apparently one of the smartest guys in the world, seems to worship the Ayn Rand narrative. What is that about?

JT: You know, it mystifies me so much. Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have both cited Ayn Rand as major influences on their life. My guess is it appeals to a certain kind of man who believes that he is better than most people, and he’s not appreciated.

If you look at those Ayn Rand heroes, they always thought that the average citizen was a total dunce, and that democracy wasn’t a good idea, and that really things had to be run by men of iron will who had no sense of responsibility for other people, just for themselves. They were the kind of people [who would ask], the line that she used is, “Who will stop me?” It’s that kind of pushing, that “I’m going to just forge ahead,” and it’s the will of the power. Like all that stuff we studied about Nietzsche in Princeton probably.

DH: Thiel also said he was for Trump because he would discipline the unthinking demos, the democratic public that constrains capitalism. That’s pretty scary as well. Do we think Trump understands that?

JT: Well, look, I think that they believe capitalism works best when there’s no rules, and they tend to think that the people who want to try and make rules for capitalism don’t understand it, and so they’re going to just screw it up. What Trump is doing right now is trying to get rid of every regulation, whether it’s environmental or internet privacy or anything you can imagine. He just wants to get rid of all these regulations, because he wants Verizon or Google or Exxon or Koch Industries to be able to just do whatever they want to do and not worry about regulation.

Of course, I think that’s what leads to things like the financial crisis in 2008, when the banks had no regulation and they just went crazy.

DH: Speaking of deregulation, you write about a New York Times article on a World Bank report that says internet innovation stands to widen inequality, and even hasten the hollowing out of the middle class. How does this happen?

JT: Well, first place, tech delivers extraordinary monetary returns to a very small group of people. The biggest tech company is employing 20,000-30,000 people, compared to, say, an auto company or General Electric that employs hundreds of thousands. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, it delivers returns to the highest level of those executives of those companies on such a level that Zuckerberg is worth $58.6 billion (fifth richest person in the world), that Bezos is worth $80 billion. In other words, if you’re at the top, your wealth is so great that it inevitably leads to inequality, because what tech does also obviously is eliminate a lot of working-class jobs. The better Elon Musk gets at making his cars, the fewer people he has to hire. He lets the robots do it.

DH: Apparently, according to Capital and Main, the workers at Tesla are not very happy either.

JT: I bet they aren’t.

DH: It was lovely to read in your book about The Band, Bob Dylan, Music from Big Pink and Woodstock, the story of your early days of rock ‘n’ roll, when you began to understand how this digital music system worked. It’s a sad story, because it ends up with Levon Helm, a member of The Band, dying of throat cancer and not being able to make any money because he couldn’t go on the road. Performers didn’t really have anyone protecting them like writers who had ASCAP and BMI.

Of course, behind this is Sean Parker, the king of digital destruction. Can you juxtapose for a moment Sean Parker and Levon Helm and what happened?

JT: Right. Sean Parker was kind of a bratty kid who got into trouble for doing hacking, and while he was on probation, he met another guy who was named Shawn Fanning, and they invented Napster. Their thought was, Well, look at all these tunes [that] are digital now that the CD is out, and what we need to do is build this service that allows anybody to share their music with anybody else for free; what we need to do is just index it.

That’s what they did. Of course, not being musicians, at first they had no idea that it would destroy the music business. And when they fairly quickly got the idea that it was destroying the music business, they didn’t give a f**k. What they cared for was to build this business, which they did to about 70 million users in two years. Once people got a taste of getting music for free, then that made it seem like all music should be free.

Same thing happened in the newspaper business. Once people got a little free news, then why should they pay for news? Why should I buy a newspaper? Newspaper revenues and music revenues plunged by 70 percent from the year 2001 until 2015. That’s just extraordinary, the business cut by two-thirds. I think that what happened is obviously Levon could no longer make a living off of the music, even though if you went to YouTube, the number of plays of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was in the millions; but he wasn’t getting any money from that.

That’s the sad story, and it’s not just Levon. There’s thousands of musicians. T-Bone Burnett and I do a talk every once in a while, and we run into just hundreds of musicians who can’t make a living anymore.

DH: What does it mean, what you describe as the surveillance marketing business? You say that both Facebook and Google are in this business now.

JT: Their main business is what I’ve begun to call surveillance capitalism. Basically, it’s a new kind of capitalism, which means that the greatest value that I hold is the amount of data that I have been able to sweep up from every possible realm on you, Don Hazen. I’m going to get it from your mobile phone, from your shopping online, from your location, from in your home if you have an Amazon Alexa, with the microphone on. I’m going to vacuum it up from there. I’m going to basically look for more places where I can grab your data.

The key to doing that of course is to get you to go on my services, whether it’s YouTube or search or on Facebook, and stay there as long as possible, and the more you stay there, the more data I’m grabbing from you. Now, I take that data, and I sell it back to advertisers in a way of being able to target a very narrow page of just who I want to get to. And it is not just companies that do that. Politicians, as we saw in the past election, can do that just as easily. If you want to suppress the vote among young black men in Detroit, it’s very easy to just send to them a piece of content that says, “Hillary Clinton says all young black men are predators.” You can be assured that that will be somewhat successful.

DH: How did the $84 billion Koch brothers get into your book about tech monopolies?

JT: Because they provided, through ALEC and the other organizations that they finance, the underlying power in Washington, D.C., to make sure that companies don’t get regulated. If you think about some of the problems that Trump is having now, these guys thought that the Republican health care bill was too much regulation in it, and so they offered basically a bounty to any of the Freedom Caucus who would vote against it.

They said, “We’ll put up to $2 million in ad money for your campaign if Trump comes after you.” Basically, these people have so much money, they’re just… basically the Peter Thiels and Larry Pages have just kind of surfed behind their propaganda, which says the market is always right, and the government is always wrong. When the government tried to do a few things to regulate Google, they come down on the government like a ton of bricks. Why do you think this internet privacy law was passed so quickly? Because the Koch brothers said it was fine.

DH: This question has to do with what you mentioned earlier about outsized imaginations. Musk is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to go to Mars, and Page and Thiel are investing as many millions to extend their lives. What does this tell us about these guys?

JT: It just seems so bizarre to me that we haven’t solved malaria or typhoid or cholera, and these guys are spending millions of dollars so they personally can live to be 200 years old. Now, to my mind the whole idea is insane because I would imagine by the time you were 130, you had spent four or five million to extend your life—because it’ll be expensive, and only the rich will be able to afford it—you’d be so afraid to come out of your house because you might get hit by a car and your whole $5 million investment would go down the tubes. It would seem to me you’d become a prisoner of your own longevity. I don’t know, but the whole thing is so screwy to me.

Elon Musk, at this conference that I went to that Vanity Fair put on, literally said, “We should set off a nuclear bomb on Mars, and it would melt the ice, and then we could grow vegetables to feed the colonies.”

DH: That’s wild. Really crazy. All right, anything else I should be asking you? 

JT: I think you’ve covered it, man. I’m pleased that you liked the book.

DH: There is so much shocking and sobering information in your book that it should be required reading for everyone who wants to understand how we have arrived at this point in history, and the connections between tech monopoly, inequality and even Trump’s election.

JT: Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor friend who runs the history department there, said, “Tap, you’re the new muckraker.” I said, “Well, that’s kind of cool.” Because in a sense, 100 years ago we had to face this same problem with Standard Oil and J.P. Morgan and the railroads. We’ve been here before. The 1912 election between Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt was run on [the question:] what do we do about monopolies? That was the main issue.

DH: Yes, but it is more difficult now because there’s no split in the ruling class. Obama was just as tight with Google as the Republicans, or more so. It was easier to scapegoat the railroads or Rockefeller and Standard Oil than it is to do the same thing to the guys wearing hoodies and sneakers, and saying, “We do no evil.”

JT: I know. I know. I will tell you, Don, that I think the dialogue is beginning to change. I was at a Chicago conference last week on monopoly, and it was at the Chicago School of Business, which is the most conservative, where Milton Friedman dominated. By the end of the conference even the old-fashioned Friedmanites were saying, “This surveillance capitalism is different, and we may have to rethink what we thought about regulation and monopoly.” I think something’s changing.

DH: The challenge is that many of us just don’t want to hear the reality about these companies because it makes our lives more uncomfortable, more challenging. Because we shouldn’t be doing half the stuff we’re doing, it’s just easier. We hang out on Facebook, give our information to Google, don’t take our money out of Merrill Lynch, Chase or Citibank. And often we don’t support local business—just have Amazon delivering those packages, helping make Bezos a gazillionaire, because it is easier to do. Anyway, congratulations on the book. I hope it is a big success.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Resisting Trump Is Easy With Michael Moore’s 10-Point Plan

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, perhaps one of the most visible and active leaders of the Trump Resistance movement, has stepped up with two major contributions to the battle ahead. He has created an easily accessible website—calling it a Resistance Calendar—where people can post news about all upcoming resistance activities and find out what is going on in their community and region:

“I’ve promised you a one-stop site, a clearinghouse of all actions—a RESISTANCE CALENDAR—where you can find every upcoming action, protest, march, sit-in, town hall, anti-Trump, pro-democracy event in all 50 states!”

Moore also unleashed “The Michael Moore Easy-to-Follow 10-Point Plan to Stop Trump,” published as part of this article, which contains Moore’s list of tactics for resisters all over the country to take on. Part of Moore’s plan is to take over the Democratic Party, which means to him getting Congressman Keith Ellison elected to head the DNC when it meets this Saturday, February 25.

A key element of Moore’s plan is creating with 5 to 20 friends and family members a personal “Rapid Response Team.” Moore also wants thousands of progressives to run for office and make their own media using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media sites to spread news and information.

He says: “Make sure all your friends and family are signed up.”

—Don Hazen, Executive Editor of AlterNet

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