Tomgram: Frida Berrigan, Growing Up With the Threat of Pervasive Violence

Posted by Frida Berrigan at 4:41pm, April 15, 2018.
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It’s been a terrible year for gun makers. The venerable Remington filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy after its sales fell 27.5% in the first nine months of Donald Trump’s presidency. (Its officials had expected a 2016 Hillary Clinton victory to ensure a burst of gun purchases.) And Remington wasn’t alone. Sales have been ragged across the industry. Gun company stocks have slipped, profits have fallen, price wars are breaking out, and corporate debt is on the rise. January 2018 was the worst January for gun purchases since 2012. (A mere2,030,530 firearm background checks were logged that month, down by 500,000 from the same month in 2016!) It was the “Trump slump” in action.

The good old days for the gun makers — you know, the ones when a Kenyan Muslim was in the White House and a mass of Democratic congressional flamethrowers was preparing to shut the spigot on gun purchases in America forever with draconian laws — are long past. The National Rifle Association reigns; Republicans control Congress; Trump rules; gun control laws are something to be found in a galaxy far, far away; and all is safe, sound, and well in the world.

Or put another way, what’s often referred to as “fear-based” gun buying is no longer buoying the industry. One sign of this: in the past, mass shooting incidents (and the media brouhahas around them) were surefire gun-purchase inducers. Those background checks (a good measure of gun sales), for instance, rose 50% after Sandy Hook, 43% after the San Bernardino killings, and 40% after the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre. But after last October’s Las Vegas slaughter in which 58 died and hundreds were wounded, they sank by 13% compared to October 2016. And even the recent Parkland school killings and the gun debate and youthful protests that followed didn’t seem to help sales (at least not until quite recently).

So, fear and guns. After President Obama was elected and the Democrats took Congress, gun production tripled in this country (and imports doubled), while, according to recent studies, white men who fit a certain profile — “anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears” — stockpiled guns in record numbers. The gun, as one study reported, feels to them like “a force for order in a chaotic world,” though such owners are significantly more likely to use a gun in their home to kill or wound themselves or someone in their family than a burglar, intruder, or anyone else.

Think about a country filled with guns in numbers that should stagger the imagination, weapons that often have the power to rend flesh in ways that fit war, not the home. Then imagine the fears that have run rampart in this country in recent years and read the thoughts of TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan, as a mother, as the child of famed pacifists who protested violence and weaponry of every sort, and as a relatively sane soul in a country deeply on edge with itself. Tom

Gunning Down the Easter Bunny 
The Weaponization of Everyday Life 
By Frida Berrigan

Guns. In a country with more than 300 million of them, a country that’s recently been swept up in a round of protests over the endless killing sprees they permit, you’d think I might have had more experience with them.

As it happens, I’ve held a gun only once in my life. I even fired it. I was in perhaps tenth grade and enamored with an Eagle Scout who loved war reenactments. On weekends, he and his friends camped out, took off their watches to get into the spirit of the War of 1812, and dressed in homemade muslin underclothes and itchy uniforms. I was there just one weekend. Somehow my pacifist parents signed off on letting their daughter spend the day with war reenactors. Someone lent me a period gown, brown and itchy and ill-fitting. We women and girls spent an hour twisting black gunpowder into newspaper scraps. I joked that the newspaper was anachronistic — the previous week’s Baltimore Sun — but no one laughed.

A man came by with a long gun, an antique, resting on the shoulder of his jerkin to collect our “bullets” and he must have read the gun terror written on my face.

“Wanna give it a try?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, stumbling to my feet, pushing my gown out of the way, and trying to act like I didn’t have broken-rifle patches, symbols of the pacifist War Resisters League, all over my real clothes. I felt a surge of adrenaline as I took the heavy weapon in my way-too-small hands. He showed me how to wrestle it into position, aim it, and fire. There were no bullets, just one of my twists of powder, but it made a terrifying noise. I shrieked and came close to dropping the weapon.

And there it was: the beginning, middle, and end of my love affair with guns — less than a minute long. Still, my hands seemed to tingle for the rest of the afternoon and the smell of gunpowder lingered in my hair for days.

Got Guns?

One in four Americans now owns a gun or lives in a household with guns. So how strange that, on that day in the late 1980s, I saw a real gun for the first and last time. I grew up in inner city Baltimore. I’ve worked at soup kitchens and homeless shelters all over the East Coast and stayed at dozens of Catholic Worker Houses around the country — Providence, Camden, Syracuse, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles — every one in a “tough” neighborhood. I lived in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the mid-1990s, before you could get a $4 coffee or a zucchini scone on Van Brunt Street, before there was an Ikea or a Fairway in the neighborhood. All those tough communities, those places where President Trump imagines scenes of continual “American carnage,” and I’ve never again seen a gun.

Still, people obviously own them and use them in staggering numbers and in all sorts of destructive ways. Sensing that they’re widespread beyond my imagination, my husband and I have started asking the parents of our kids’ school friends if they own guns when we arrange play dates or sleepovers. We learned this from the father of a classmate of my 11-year-old stepdaughter Rosena. The dad called to make the arrangements for his son to come over after school. We talked logistics and food allergies and then he paused. “Now, I am sorry if this is intrusive,” he said, “but I do ask everyone: Do you keep guns in your house?” He sounded both uncomfortable and resolute.

I almost choked on my urge to say, “Don’t you know who I am?” In certain odd corners at least, my last name, Berrigan, is still synonymous with muscular pacifism and principled opposition to violence and weaponry of just about any kind, right up to the nuclear kind. But that dad probably didn’t even know my last name and it probably wouldn’t have meant a thing to him if he had. He just wanted to make sure his son was going to be safe and I was grateful that he asked — rather than just assuming, based on our Volvo-driving, thrift-shop-dressing, bumper-sticker-sporting lifestyle, that we didn’t.

“You know how kids are,” he said after I assured him that we were a gun-free household. “They’ll be into everything.”

And right he is. Kids are “into everything,” which is undoubtedly why so many of them end up with guns in their hands or bullets in their bodies.

“Do you question everyone about their guns?” I asked the dad. He replied that he did and, if they answered yes, then he’d ask whether those weapons were locked away, whether the ammunition was stored separately, and so on.

“Thank you so much. I think we need to start doing that too,” I said as our conversation was ending and indeed I have ever since.

It’s a subject worth raising, however awkward the conversation that follows may be, because two million kids in this country live in homes where guns are not stored safely and securely. So far this year, 59 kids have been hurt in gun accidents of one sort or another. On average, every 34 hours in our great nation a child is involved in an unintentional shooting incident, often with tragic consequences.

The National Rifle Association’s classic old argument, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” takes on a far harsher edge when you’re talking about a seven-year-old accidentally killing his nine-year-old brother with a gun they found while playing in an empty neighboring house in Arboles, Colorado.

Two weeks after we learn this new parenting life skill in this oh-so-new century of ours, my husband Patrick is on the phone with a mom arranging a sleepover for Rosena. I hear him fumble his way through the gun question. From his responses, I assume the mom is acknowledging that they do have guns. Then there’s the sort of long, awkward silence that seems part and parcel of such conversations before Patrick finally says, “Well, okay, thanks for being so honest. I appreciate that.”

He hangs up and looks at me. “They do keep guns for hunting and protection, but they’re locked up and out of sight,” he tells me. “The mom says that the kids have never tried to get at the guns, but she understands the dangers.” (He had heard in her voice apology, embarrassment, and worry that the guns might mean no sleepover.)

I grimaced in a way that said: I don’t think Rosena should go and he responded that he thought she should. The two of them then had a long conversation about what she should do and say if she sees a gun. She slept over and had a great time. A lesson in navigating difference, trusting our kid, and phew… no guns made an appearance. And we know more about our neighbors and our community.

Anything Can Be a Gun

My son Seamus, five, received an Easter basket from a family friend. He was happy about the candy of course and immediately smitten with the stuffed bunny, but he was over the moon about what he called his new “carrot gun.” It wasn’t a toy gun at all, but a little basket that popped out a light ball when you pressed a button.

The idea was that you’d catch the ball, put it back in, and do it again. But that wasn’t the game my kids played. They promptly began popping it at each other. His little sister Madeline, four, was in tattle mode almost immediately. “Mom, Seamus is shooting me with his carrot gun!”

“Mom, mom, mom,” he responded quickly, “it’s a pretend play gun, not a real play gun. It’s okay.” He made popping noises with his mouth and held his hand as if he were grasping a genuine forbidden toy gun. It was an important distinction for him. He’d been a full-throated participant in the March for Our Lives in Boston on March 24th, chanting with the rest of us “What do we want? Gun Control! When do we want it? NOW!” for four hours straight.

At the march, he pointed out that all the police officers managing traffic and the flow of people were wearing guns on their belts.

“I see a gun, Mom,” he kept saying, or “That police officer has a gun, Mom.”

Repeatedly, he noticed the means to kill — and then four days after that huge outpouring of youth-led activism for gun security, Stephon Clark was indeed gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California. The police officers who shot him were looking for someone who had been breaking car windows in the neighborhood and they fired 20 shots into the dark in his direction. The independent autopsy found that he had been hit eight times, mostly in his back. Clark turned out to be holding only a cellphone, though the police evidently mistook it for a tool bar, which could have done them no harm from that distance, even if he had wielded it as a weapon.

Maybe the police saw a weapon the same way my five-year-old son sees one. He can make a stick or just about anything else, including that little basket, into a “gun” and so evidently can the police. Police officers have killed black men and boys holding pipeswater hose nozzlesknives, and yes, toy guns, too.

Where Does the Violence Come From?

Parkland (17 killed, 14 wounded). Newtown (28 killed, 2 wounded). Columbine (15 killed, 21 injured). School shootings are now treated as a structural part of our lives. They have become a factor in school architecture, administrator training, city and state funding, and security plans. The expectation that something terrible will happen at school shapes the way that three- and four-year-olds are introduced to its culture. Part of their orientation now involves regular “shelter in place” and “secure-school” drills.

At my daughter’s pre-school, the kids are told that they’re hiding from rabid raccoons, those animals standing in for marauding, disaffected white boys or men roaming the halls armed. As parents, we need to do more than blindly accept that these traumatic exercises are preparing our kids for the worst and helping them survive. Kids are vulnerable little beings and there are countless dangers out there, but they have a one-in-600-million chance of dying in a school shooting. We endanger them so much more by texting while driving them home from school.

After every episode of violence at a school — or in the adult world at a churchnight clubconcertmovie theater, or workplace like San Bernardino’s Inland Regional Center or the YouTube headquarters — there’s always a huge chorus of “why”? Pundits look at the shooter’s history, his (it’s almost always a guy) trauma, and whatever might be known about his mental health. They speculate on his (or, in the rare case of those YouTube shootings, her) political leanings, racial hatreds, and ethnic background. The search for whys can lead to hand wringing about hard-driving rock music or nihilistic video games or endemic bullying — all of which could indeed be factors in the drive to kill significant numbers of unsuspecting people — but never go far enough or deep enough.

Two questions are answered far too infrequently: Where do the guns come from? Where does violence come from?

Guns of all sizes and description are manufactured and sold in this country in remarkable numbers, far more than can be legally absorbed in our already gun-saturated land, so thousands of them move instead into the gray and black markets. Evidence of this trend shows up repeatedly in Mexico, where 70% of the weapons seized in crimes between 2009 and 2014 turned out to be made in El Norte. We have an estimated 300 million guns in this country, making us first by far in the world in gun ownership and some of them couldn’t conceivably be used for “hunting.” They are military-style weapons meant to tear human flesh and nothing but that — like the AR-15 that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz legally bought and used in his grim Parkland shooting spree.

This country, in other words, is a cornucopia of guns, which — honestly, folks — doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the Second Amendment.

Where does the violence come from? I’ve already shared my inexperience with guns. Now, let me add to it my inexperience with violence. I don’t know what it’s like to have to react in a split second to or flee an advancing perpetrator. No one has ever come at me with a gun or a knife or a pipe, or anything else for that matter. And I count myself lucky for that. In a nation in which, in 2016 alone, 14,925 people were killed due to gun violence and another 22,938 used a gun to kill themselves, it’s a significant thing to be able to say.

And yet, I know that I’m the product of violence (as well as the urge, in my own family, to protest and stop it): the violence of white privilege, the violence of American colonialism, the violence of American superpowerdom on a global scale… and that’s no small thing. It’s a lot easier to blame active-shooter scenarios on poor mental-health screening than on growing up in a world layered with the threat of pervasive violence.

Power is about never having to say you’re sorry, never being held accountable. And that’s hardly just a matter of police officers shooting black men and boys; it’s about the way in which this country is insulated from international opprobrium by its trillion-dollar national security state, a military that doesn’t hesitate to divide the whole world into seven U.S. “commands,” and a massive, planet-obliterating nuclear arsenal.

And don’t think that any of that’s just a reflection of Trumpian bombast and brutality either. That same sense of never having to say you’re sorry at a global level undergirded Barack Obama’s urbane dispassion, George Bush Junior’s silver spoon cluelessness, Bill Clinton’s folksy accessibility, George Bush Senior’s patrician poshness, Ronald Reagan’s aura of Hollywood charm, and Jimmy Carter’s southern version of the same. We’re talking about weapons systems designed to rain down a magnitude of terror unimaginable to the Nikolas Cruzes, Dylann Roofs, and Adam Lanzas of the world.

And it doesn’t even make us safe! All that money, all that knowledge, all that power put into the designing and displaying of weapons of mass destruction and we remain remarkably vulnerable as a nation. After all, in schools, homes, offices, neighborhoods across the country, we are being killed by our kids, our friends, our lovers, our police officers, our crumbling roads and bridges, our derailing trains. And then, of course, there are all those guns. Guns meant to destroy. Guns beyond counting.

So what might actually make us safer? After all, people theoretically buy the kind of firepower you might otherwise use only in war and pledge allegiance to the U.S. war machine in search of some chimera of safety. And yet, despite that classic NRA line — “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” — are we truly safer in a nation awash in such weaponry with so many scrambling in a state of incipient panic to buy yet more? Are my kids truly on the way to a better life as they practice cowering in their cubbies in darkened classrooms for fear of invading rabid “raccoons”?

Don’t you think that true security lies not in our arming ourselves to the teeth against other people — that is, in our disconnection from them — but in our connection to them, to the web of mutuality that has bound societies, small and large, for millennia? Don’t you think that we would be more secure and so much less terrified if we found ways to acknowledge and share our relative abundance to meet the needs of others? In a world awash in guns and fears, doesn’t our security have to involve trust and courage and always be (at best) a work in progress?

As for me, I’m tackling that work in progress in whatever ways I can — with my neighbors, my town, my husband, and most of all my children, educating them in the ways violence scars and all those weapons just increase our journey into hell, never delivering the security they promise.


Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhoodand lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2018 Frida Berrigan

 

How the GOP Used a Two Santa Clauses Tactic to Con America for Nearly 40 Years

This scam has been killing wages and enriching billionaires for decades

By Thom Hartmann / Reprinted from AlterNet

The only thing wrong with the U.S. economy is the failure of the Republican Party to play Santa Claus.
-Jude Wanniski, March 6, 1976 

Ronald Reagan (Photo credit: whitehouse.gov)

The Republican Party has been running a long con on America since Reagan’s inauguration, and somehow our nation’s media has missed it – even though it was announced in The Wall Street Journal in the 1970s and the GOP has clung tenaciously to it ever since.

In fact, Republican strategist Jude Wanniski’s 1974 “Two Santa Clauses Theory” has been the main reason why the GOP has succeeded in producing our last two Republican presidents, Bush and Trump (despite losing the popular vote both times). It’s also why Reagan’s economy seemed to be “good.”

Here’s how it works, laid it out in simple summary.

First, when Republicans control the federal government, and particularly the White House, spend money like a drunken sailor and run up the US debt as far and as fast as possible.  This produces three results – it stimulates the economy thus making people think that the GOP can produce a good economy, it raises the debt dramatically, and it makes people think that Republicans are the “tax-cut Santa Claus.”

Second, when a Democrat is in the White House, scream about the national debt as loudly and frantically as possible, freaking out about how “our children will have to pay for it!” and “we have to cut spending to solve the crisis!” This will force the Democrats in power to cut their own social safety net programs, thus shooting their welfare-of-the-American-people Santa Claus.

Think back to Ronald Reagan, who more than tripled the US debt from a mere $800 billion to $2.6 trillion in his 8 years. That spending produced a massive stimulus to the economy, and the biggest non-wartime increase in the debt in history. Nary a peep from Republicans about that 218% increase in our debt; they were just fine with it.

And then along came Bill Clinton. The screams and squeals from the GOP about the “unsustainable debt” of nearly $3 trillion were loud, constant, and echoed incessantly by media from CBS to NPR.  Newt Gingrich rode the wave of “unsustainable debt” hysteria into power, as the GOP took control of the House for the first time lasting more than a term since 1930, even though the increase in our national debt under Clinton was only about 37%.

The GOP “debt freakout” was so widely and effectively amplified by the media that Clinton himself bought into it and began to cut spending, taking the axe to numerous welfare programs (“It’s the end of welfare as we know it” he famously said, and “The era of big government is over”).  Clinton also did something no Republican has done in our lifetimes: he supported several balanced budgets and handed a budget surplus to George W. Bush.

When George W. Bush was given the White House by the Supreme Court (Gore won the popular vote by over a half-million votes) he reverted to Reagan’s strategy and again nearly doubled the national debt, adding a trillion in borrowed money to pay for his tax cut for GOP-funding billionaires, and tossing in two unfunded wars for good measure, which also added at least (long term) another $5 to $7 trillion.

There was not a peep about the debt from any high-profile in-the-know Republicans then; in fact, Dick Cheney famously said, essentially ratifying Wanniski’s strategy, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. We won the midterms [because of those tax cuts]. This is our due.” Bush and Cheney raised the debt by 86% to over $10 trillion (although the war debt wasn’t put on the books until Obama entered office).

Then comes Democratic President Barack Obama, and suddenly the GOP is hysterical about the debt again.  So much so that they convinced a sitting Democratic president to propose a cut to Social Security (the “chained CPI”). Obama nearly shot the Democrats biggest Santa Claus program.  And, Republican squeals notwithstanding, Obama only raised the debt by 34%.

Now we’re back to a Republican president, and once again deficits be damned. Between their tax cut and the nearly-trillion dollar spending increase passed on February 8th, in the first year-and-a-month of Trump’s administration they’ve spent more stimulating the economy (and driving up debt by more than $2 trillion, when you include interest) than the entire Obama presidency.

Consider the amazing story of where this strategy came from, and how the GOP has successfully kept their strategy from getting into the news; even generally well-informed writers for media like the Times and the Post – and producers, pundits and reporters for TV news – don’t know the history of what’s been happening right in front of us all for 37 years.

Republican strategist Jude Wanniski first proposed his Two Santa Clauses strategy in 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace and the future of the Republican Party was so dim that books and articles were widely suggesting the GOP was about to go the way of the Whigs.  There was genuine despair across the Party, particularly when Jerry Ford began stumbling as he climbed the steps to Air Force One and couldn’t even beat an unknown peanut farmer from rural Georgia for the presidency.

Wanniski was tired of the GOP failing to win elections.  And, he reasoned, it was happening because the Democrats had been viewed since the New Deal as the Santa Claus party (taking care of people’s needs and the General Welfare), while the GOP, opposing everything from Social Security to Medicare to unemployment insurance, was widely seen as the party of Scrooge.

The Democrats, he noted, got to play Santa Claus when they passed out Social Security and Unemployment checks – both programs of the New Deal – as well as when their “big government” projects like roads, bridges, and highways were built, giving a healthy union paycheck to construction workers and making our country shine.

Democrats kept raising taxes on businesses and rich people to pay for things, which didn’t seem to have much effect at all on working people (wages were steadily going up, in fact), and that added to the perception that the Democrats were a party of Robin Hoods, taking from the rich to fund programs for the poor and the working class.

Americans loved the Democrats back then. And every time Republicans railed against these programs, they lost elections.

Wanniski decided that the GOP had to become a Santa Claus party, too.  But because the Republicans hated the idea of helping working people, they had to figure out a way to convince people that they, too, could have the Santa spirit.  But what?

“Tax cuts!” said Wanniski.

To make this work, the Republicans would first have to turn the classical world of economics – which had operated on a simple demand-driven equation for seven thousand years – on its head. (Everybody understood that demand – aka “wages” – drove economies because working people spent most of their money in the marketplace, producing demand for factory output and services.)

In 1974 Wanniski invented a new phrase – “supply side economics” – and suggested that the reason economies grew wasn’t because people had money and wanted to buy things with it but, instead, because things were available for sale, thus tantalizing people to part with their money.

The more things there were, he said, the faster the economy would grow. And the more money we gave rich people and their corporations (via tax cuts) the more stuff they’d generously produce for us to think about buying.

At a glance, this move by the Republicans seems irrational, cynical and counterproductive. It certainly defies classic understandings of economics.  But if you consider Jude Wanniski’s playbook, it makes complete sense.

To help, Arthur Laffer took that equation a step further with his famous napkin scribble. Not only was supply-side a rational concept, Laffer suggested, but as taxes went down, revenue to the government would go up!  Neither concept made any sense – and time has proven both to be colossal idiocies – but together they offered the Republican Party a way out of the wilderness.

Ronald Reagan was the first national Republican politician to fully embrace the Two Santa Clauses strategy.  He said straight out that if he could cut taxes on rich people and businesses, those tax cuts would cause them to take their surplus money and build factories, and that the more stuff there was supplying the economy the faster it would grow.

George Herbert Walker Bush – like most Republicans in 1980 who hadn’t read Wanniski’s piece in The Wall Street Journal – was horrified. Ronald Reagan was suggesting “Voodoo Economics,” said Bush in the primary campaign, and Wanniski’s supply-side and Laffer’s tax-cut theories would throw the nation into such deep debt that, he believed, we’d ultimately crash into another Republican Great Depression.

But Wanniski had been doing his homework on how to sell “voodoo” supply-side economics.

In 1976, he rolled out to the hard-right insiders in the Republican Party his “Two Santa Clauses” theory, which would enable the Republicans to take power in America for the next forty years.

Democrats, he said, had been able to be “Santa Clauses” by giving people things from the largesse of the federal government. From food stamps to new schools to sending a man to the moon, the people loved the “toys” the Democrats brought every year.

Republicans could do that, too, the theory went – spending could actually increase without negative repurcussions. Plus, Republicans could be doubleSanta Clauses by cutting people’s taxes!

For working people it would only be a small token – a few hundred dollars a year on average – but would be heavily marketed. And for the rich, which wasn’t to be discussed in public, it would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts.

The rich, Reagan, Bush, and Trump told us, would then use that money to import or build more stuff to market, thus stimulating the economy and making average working people richer. (And, of course, they’d pass some of that money back to the GOP, like the Kochs giving Paul Ryan $500,000.00 right after he passed the last tax cut that gave them billions.)

There was no way, Wanniski said, that the Democrats could ever win again. They’d be forced into the role of Santa-killers by raising taxes, or anti-Santas by cutting spending. Either one would lose them elections.

When Reagan rolled out Supply Side Economics in the early 80s, dramatically cutting taxes while exploding spending, there was a moment when it seemed to Wanniski and Laffer that all was lost. The budget deficit exploded and the country fell into a deep recession – the worst since the Great Depression – and Republicans nationwide held their collective breath.

But David Stockman came up with a great new theory about what was going on – they were “starving the beast” of government by running up such huge deficits that Democrats would never, ever in the future be able to talk again about national health care or improving Social Security.

And this so pleased Alan Greenspan, the Fed Chairman, that he opened the spigots of the Fed, dropping interest rates and buying government bonds, producing a nice, healthy goose to the economy.

Greenspan further counseled Reagan to dramatically increase taxes on people earning under $37,800 a year by doubling the Social Security (FICA/payroll) tax, and then let the government borrow those newfound hundreds of billions of dollars off-the-books to make the deficit look better than it was.

Reagan, Greenspan, Winniski, and Laffer took the federal budget deficit from under a trillion dollars in 1980 to almost three trillion by 1988, and back then a dollar could buy far more than it buys today. They and George HW Bush ran up more debt in eight years than every president in history, from George Washington to Jimmy Carter, combined.

Surely this would both starve the beast and force the Democrats to make the politically suicidal move of becoming deficit hawks.  And that’s just how it turned out.

Bill Clinton, who had run on an FDR-like platform of a “New Covenant” with the American people that would strengthen the institutions of the New Deal, strengthen labor, and institute a national health care system, found himself in a box.

A few weeks before his inauguration, Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin sat him down and told him the facts of life: he was going to have to raise taxes and cut the size of government. Clinton took their advice to heart, raised taxes, balanced the budget, and cut numerous programs, declaring an “end to welfare as we know it” and, in his second inaugural address, an “end to the era of big government.”

Clinton was the anti-Santa Claus, and the result was an explosion of Republican wins across the country as Republican politicians campaigned on a platform of supply-side tax cuts and pork-rich spending increases. State after state turned red, and the Republican Party rose to take over, ultimately, every single lever of power in the federal government, from the Supreme Court to the White House.

Looking at the wreckage of the Democratic Party all around Clinton by 1999, Winniski wrote a gloating memo that said, in part: “We of course should be indebted to Art Laffer for all time for his Curve… But as the primary political theoretician of the supply-side camp, I began arguing for the ‘Two Santa Claus Theory’ in 1974. If the Democrats are going to play Santa Claus by promoting more spending, the Republicans can never beat them by promoting less spending. They have to promise tax cuts…”

Ed Crane, then-president of the Koch-funded Libertarian CATO Institute, noted in a memo that year: “When Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Vin Weber, Connie Mack and the rest discovered Jude Wanniski and Art Laffer, they thought they’d died and gone to heaven. In supply-side economics they found a philosophy that gave them a free pass out of the debate over the proper role of government. Just cut taxes and grow the economy: government will shrink as a percentage of GDP, even if you don’t cut spending. That’s why you rarely, if ever, heard Kemp or Gingrich call for spending cuts, much less the elimination of programs and departments.”

Two Santa Clauses had gone mainstream. Never again would Republicans worry about the debt or deficit when they were in office; and they knew well how to scream hysterically about it as soon as Democrats took power.

George W. Bush embraced the Two Santa Claus Theory with gusto, ramming through huge tax cuts – particularly a cut to the capital gains tax rate on people like himself who made their principle income from sitting around the mailbox waiting for their dividend or capital gains checks to arrive – and blew out federal spending.

Bush, with his wars, even out-spent Reagan, which nobody had ever thought would again be possible. And it all seemed to be going so well, just as it did in the early 1920s when a series of three consecutive Republican presidents cut income taxes on the uber-rich from over 70 percent to under 30 percent.

In 1929, pretty much everybody realized that instead of building factories with all that extra money, the rich had been pouring it into the stock market, inflating a bubble that – like an inexorable law of nature – would have to burst.

But the people who remembered that lesson were mostly all dead by 2005, when Jude Wanniski died and George Gilder celebrated the Reagan/Bush supply-side-created bubble economies in a Wall Street Journal eulogy:

“…Jude’s charismatic focus on the tax on capital gains redeemed the fiscal policies of four administrations. … Unbound by zero-sum economics, Jude forged the golden gift of a profound and passionate argument that the establishments of the mold must finally give way to the powers of the mind. … He audaciously defied all the Buffetteers of the trade gap, the moldy figs of the Phillips Curve, the chic traders in money and principle, even the stultifying pillows of the Nobel Prize.”

In reality, his tax cuts did what they have always done over the past 100 years – they initiated a bubble economy that would let the very rich skim the cream off the top just before the ceiling crashed in on working people. Just like today.

The Republicans got what they wanted from Wanniski’s work. They held power for thirty years, made themselves trillions of dollars, and cut organized labor’s representation in the workplace from around 25 percent when Reagan came into office to around 6 of the non-governmental workforce today.

Over time, and without raising the cap, Social Security will face an easily-solved crisis, and the GOP’s plan is for force Democrats to become the anti-Santa, yet again. If the GOP-controlled Congress continues to refuse to require rich people to pay into Social Security (any income over $128,000 is SS-tax-free), either benefits will be cut or the retirement age will have to be raised to over 70.

The GOP plan is to use this unnecessary, manufactured crisis as an opening to “reform” Social Security – translated: cut and privatize.  Thus, forcing Democrats to become the Social Security anti-Santa a different way.

When this happens, Democrats must remember Jude Wanniski, and accept neither the cut to disability payments nor the entree to Social Security “reform.” They must demand the “cap” be raised, as Bernie Sanders proposed and the Democratic Party adopted in its 2016 platform.

And, hopefully, some of our media will begin to call the GOP out on the Two Santa Clauses program. It’s about time that Americans realized the details of the scam that’s been killing wages and enriching billionaires for nearly four decades.


Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of over 25 books in print

Can New California Water Storage Projects Win State Funding?

An initial review by the California Water Commission slashed the ‘public benefits’ claimed by project applicants, prompting outrage in some quarters. Others say the process is working exactly as voters intended.

Bear River CA

The Bear River in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, shown here, is the site for the Centennial Dam project proposed by the Nevada Irrigation District. Image: Wikimedia Commons


Written by Matt Weiser

If California taxpayers are going to spend $2.7 billion on new water storage projects, the projects had better come with many more environmental benefits.

That was the message sent by the California Water Commission, which on February 2 released its first analysis of 11 projects vying for a share of the riches. The money will come from Proposition 1, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2014, which empowered the state to issue nearly $2.7 billion in bonds for water storage, whether new reservoirs, groundwater recharge or some form of hybrid.

But according to Prop. 1, the money can only pay for “public benefits” associated with the projects, not just the cost of storing water. This includes environmental enhancements like improving streamflow for fish, the capacity to capture or convey floodwaters, recreational amenities and emergency response capabilities.

The State Water Commission is charged with vetting the public benefit claims. This is a weighty undertaking, because such a thing has never been done before.

In its initial review of the projects, the commission found that none would deliver all the public benefits claimed in their applications. Some were very far off the mark, the commission found, especially concerning environmental benefits. In a few cases, the commission actually zeroed-out the claimed benefits.

This triggered a swift backlash from the water industry and some conservative politicians in the state, who criticized the commission for setting the bar too high.

A cosponsor of the original Prop. 1 legislation, state senator Scott Wilk, R-Antelope Valley, urged the commission in a letter to revamp its application process, claiming “dereliction of the duties bestowed upon the Water Commission and its staff.”

The Association of California Water Agencies called the low rankings “deeply concerning.” State senator Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, told the Sacramento Bee he felt “visceral anger” at the news and suggested the commission was thwarting the will of the voters.

But others said the commission is doing exactly what the voters wanted: Holding water storage projects to a higher standard, and rigorously vetting the claims they make.

“In quite a number of cases they said, ‘Well, these numbers just look too high.’ I thought it was pretty brave of them,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, and a professor of engineering. “This is public money. It’s going to be coming out of the state budget for decades to come. So I’m glad to see them doing a reasonable job of it.”

The projects that took the biggest hit in the Water Commission evaluations include Pure Water San Diego, which involves recycling and storing wastewater; Centennial Dam, proposed on the Bear River by the Nevada Irrigation District; and the Willow Springs groundwater banking project proposed in the San Joaquin Valley. The water commission found all of these had no public benefits to offer, or that the claimed benefits could not be verified.

Two others were reduced to near zero, including Temperance Flat Reservoir, a new dam proposed on the San Joaquin River, which has been heavily criticized by environmental groups; and a Tulare Lake groundwater storage project in the San Joaquin Valley, which is opposed by some neighboring water users.

The best-performing projects are a proposal by the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District to use recycled wastewater for farm irrigation, helping to recharge groundwater; and a proposal by the Inland Empire UCtilities Agency to recycle water for groundwater recharge, easing pressure on Feather River diversions. The commission reduced their public benefits by less than one-third.

Others fall somewhere in between these extremes. One is the Sites Reservoir project in Colusa County, which proposes to divert Sacramento River water into a new 1.8 million acre-foot off-stream reservoir. The commission rated its ecosystem benefits at only 13 percent of what the backers claimed, and its overall public benefit at 40 percent.

The biggest setback for the Sites project involved the claim that its stored water could be used at critical times to improve flows for salmon migration, and that this would ease pressure on other reservoirs to provide fishery flows, thereby stretching regional water supplies. These benefits either didn’t measure up as claimed, or could not be fully verified.

Yet Jim Watson, general manager of the Sites Joint Powers Authority, said he wasn’t entirely surprised by the scrutiny.

“We figured that with the size of the project, and some of the bold concepts that we put into our proposal, that we would have to clarify some of them,” Watson said. “We were very disappointed we were not able to be scored on environmental benefits in terms of water for salmon.”

This isn’t the end for these projects. The water commission is urging the applicants to amend their proposals, and it has set up an appeal process, with revised applications due by February 23. After that, it will conduct another review, with preliminary funding decisions expected in July.

“The commission has every confidence the information received in the coming weeks will help us fund eligible projects and the public benefits they provide,” Armando Quintero, the commission’s chair, said in a statement.

In a few cases, the shortcomings found by the commission appear to be more technical than substantive. One example is the proposal to expand the existing Los Vaqueros Reservoir, located south of Antioch and operated by Contra Costa Water District.

The project has become something of a favorite among environmental groups, because some of the additional water it proposes to store would be dedicated to wildlife refuge areas in the San Joaquin Valley. This would help hundreds of migratory bird species, as well as many other kinds of wildlife, that have been shortchanged on water deliveries for decades.

Los Vaqueros had its public benefits slashed by the commission partly because its backers used a modified computer model that was not familiar to the reviewers.

I’m confident it can overcome the analytical problems with its application,” Rachel Zwillinger, a water policy adviser at Defenders of Wildlife, said of the Los Vaqueros project. “It’s heartening to see the commission is taking their review seriously and are trying to make sure we select projects that provide real environmental benefits. I expect to see a lot of new analysis come in as a result of this appeal process.”

Some projects will probably have to make major changes to continue through the application process. This could include revising operations to produce more public benefits, or requesting less money to bring the project into alignment with the benefits it offers.

The Sites Reservoir proposal, for example, already has enough funding commitments from interested water agencies. Yet Watson says he is committed to the process.

“I know the commissioners will make investment decisions in projects,” said Watson. “The fact that our biggest selling point (water for salmon) wasn’t recognized is the part that we’re working on.”

Some proponents may decide to pull their projects from the process and proceed without state funding.

This article originally appeared on Water Deeply. You can find the original here. For important news about water issues and the American West, you can sign up to the Water email list.

A Great Blue Heron, Cherry Garcia and the Founding of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance

By Don Pelton and Jane Pelton
Members, Wolf Creek Community Alliance

INSPIRATION

CLICK TO ENLARGEOne day in the fall of 2002, local contractor Jonathan Keehn had an unforgettable experience while walking along a stretch of Wolf Creek in downtown Grass Valley. He described that experience a couple of months later in an influential article: “I was walking along the creek behind the Safeway and came across a great blue heron standing knee-deep facing upstream, obviously fishing. After eyeing me for a few moments, she took off. A few wing flaps brought her over the freeway as she headed down toward French Ravine.”

Reminiscing years later about the founding of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance (WCCA), two of the founding members said that it was Jonathan’s original article that inspired them to join with him to create the environmental non-profit, dedicated to “preserving and protecting Wolf Creek and its watershed for the benefit of present and future generations”.

In the early months of 2003, the founding group met frequently to talk about the alarming threats to water quality in creeks and streams in the Wolf Creek watershed, and about how a small group of local citizens could enlist community support to restore Wolf Creek. One staple of these early meetings was Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. As Jonathan recalled, people would say, “Not another meeting! … Oh wait, there’s gonna be ice cream?” The Wolf Creek Community Alliance wasn’t just another environmental non-profit, it was becoming a community of like-minded souls.

By means of a huge volunteer effort, plus donations from local citizens and occasional grants, the Wolf Creek Community Alliance has grown into a mature and effective watershed organization.

Wolf Creek is a major tributary to the Bear River; it is 20+ miles long, and its watershed encompasses about 78 square miles from the slopes of Banner Mountain to its confluence with the Bear. Within the watershed, population and land uses vary widely so that the interacting streams range from highly degraded and urbanized to relatively wild. Because of the elevation, sun exposure, and variety of soils, the watershed once supported very productive and diverse ecosystems. But today, water and soil contamination persists from past mining and logging. Development has led to increasing deforestation, impermeable surfaces, erosion, and increased water usage. Setbacks and riparian corridors for the Creek have not been consistently maintained. Portions of Wolf Creek have been diverted into culverts and paved-over. Periodic accidents at the City’s waste water treatment plant spill sewage into the Creek. Winter rains wash contaminants into the Creek. The urban and mining-waste effluents that enter Wolf Creek and its tributaries in and around Grass Valley affect downstream farmers who use irrigation water that comes from Wolf Creek. Wolf Creek has been listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act due to bacteria levels.


ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN ITS FIRST 15 YEARS

Water Quality Monitoring: Since 2005, WCCA volunteers have been monitoring water quality at sentinel sites on Wolf Creek and some of its tributaries. The scientific data collected helps to identify and address problems, disturbances, and contamination affecting the health of our watershed and that of all of its human and wild inhabitants.

Education and Outreach: WCCA volunteers work to increase community understanding of water quality problems in the watershed by tabling at local events, and producing brochures, display materials, videos, maps, handouts, and an informative website. WCCA volunteers produced a film about the proposed Wolf Creek Trails plan, “A Creek Runs Through It”. 

Restoration and StewardshipWCCA volunteers lead Stewardship Days to remove non-native invasive vegetation and plant stabilizing native plants along creek banks on public lands, and are available to consult with Creekside property owners who have questions concerning stream stewardship. Volunteers worked with the City of Grass Valley to adopt Grass Valley’s first riparian set-back regulations, and were instrumental in the development of the Wolf Creek Parkway conceptual plan for a connecting system of walk-able and bike-able trails along Wolf Creek through Grass Valley. In partnership with American Rivers and the City of Grass Valley, WCCA is helping to restore a reach of Peabody Creek, a tributary of Wolf Creek that flows through Condon Park.

Creek-Friendly Development: WCCA volunteers attend City and County Planning Commission meetings in order to advocate for creek–friendly practices in construction and landscaping – erosion and sediment control, creek setbacks and easements, riparian buffer zones, wetlands protection, storm water catchment, permeable surfaces, water conservation, wildlife habitat and trails.

Watershed Assessment and Planning: In 2017, in partnership with Sierra Streams Institute and funded by the Bella Vista Foundation, WCCA began work on a 3-phase pre-restoration assessment of conditions throughout the Wolf Creek watershed including land use, land cover, hydrology from historical and current perspectives, abandoned mine sites, and planned future developments.

Collaboration: In addition to project partnerships with American Rivers and Sierra Streams Institute, WCCA volunteers participate with groups working to protect and restore neighboring watersheds: South Yuba River Citizens League during their annual river cleanup, the Fire Safe Council during their annual Scotch Broom Challenge, and The Sierra Fund during their events to bring attention to mining’s toxic legacy.

DO YOU WANT TO HELP?

Volunteer: WCCA welcomes volunteers for water monitoring, restoration and stewardship, wildlife surveys, outreach and education, fundraising and grants, creek advocacy at city and county planning meetings, publicity, and office support. See “Support our Work” on the WCCA website.

ROUND UP when you shop at Briarpatch In the month of February, 2018, WCCA is the Briarpatch “COOP-CAUSE” of the month. You can help when you shop at Briarpatch in February by remembering to tell the cashier at the register to “ROUND UP!” when you pay your bill.

DONATE

Earn rebates for WCCA when you shop at SPD (hand in this form to any SPD market) and Save Mart (use this form).

SAVE THE DATES APRIL 28 – MAY 6, 2018 FOR KNOW YOUR WATERSHED WEEK:

Wolf Creek is spearheading the first annual “Know Your Watershed” event planned for April 28 through May 6 involving over 18 watershed organizations, tribes, land trusts, and other organizations focused on protecting the Bear, Yuba, and American River watersheds. It will be 8 days of learning and fun with hikes, bio-blitzes, school programs, and art programs throughout the watersheds. If you would like to be involved with this event, send an email to  wolf@wolfcreekalliance.org.


CLICK TO ENLARGECLICK TO ENLARGE

Climate Change Denial in the Age of Trump

Our best hope is perhaps that Trump comes to realize that climate change is a threat not just to human civilization but to the one thing he cares about—Trump.

by Michael Mann
Describing our study, one journalist summarized our key finding as "a snowball’s chance in hell that this was natural."(Photo: Oil Change International/Twitter)

Describing our study, one journalist summarized our key finding as “a snowball’s chance in hell that this was natural.”(Photo: Oil Change International/Twitter)

With a climate change denier in the White House, climate denialism has reached a new low point in America. Indeed, my co-author Tom Toles and I have devoted a whole new chapter to the matter (“Return to the Madhouse: Climate Change Denial in the Age of Trump”) in the new paperback edition of our book The Madhouse Effect (now available for pre-order).

But any chapter on the topic will inevitably become out of date quickly. Indeed, we have our latest episode in the saga. In a new interview with Piers Morgan, Donald Trump continues to deny the basic facts about climate change. As is often the case with Trump, the Costanza principle seems to apply: If Trump makes a claim, then the opposite almost certainly.must be true.

Let’s take a closer look at the veracity (or rather, lack thereof) of The Donald’s latest climate change claims:

1. When asked whether he accepts the scientific consensus behind human-caused climate change, Trump replied “There is a cooling, and there’s a heating”, a version of the standard denialist trope that “climate is always changing“. If you look past the year-to-year fluctuations in temperature due to natural phenomena like El Nino and volcanic eruptions (keeping in mind that Trump can’t even appear to see past day-to-day fluctuations in temperature), it is clear that planet is steadily warming and at a rate that is remarkably consistent with the model simulations as seen in this up-to-date comparison of model-simulated and observed warming produced by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) Director Gavin Schmidt:

The last four years were the warmest, globally, on record–and that record warmth cannot be explained in terms of natural climate variability. My co-authors and I published an article last year demonstrating that the consecutive 2014, 2015, and 2016 global temperature records were extremely unlikely to have happened in the absence of long-term human-caused planetary warming. Describing our study, one journalist summarized our key finding as “a snowball’s chance in hell that this was natural”. So much for Trump’s first talking point…

2. Trump was also quoted as saying that “The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records”.

In referring to the “ice caps” Trump fails to distinguish between sea ice (which floats on water and which does not contribute to sea level rise when it melts) and the continental ice sheets i.e. the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets (which store huge amounts of ice and once they begin to melt are difficult to stop). The distinction is important when it comes to larger climate change impacts, but for our purposes it doesn’t matter, because by either definition of “ice cap”, Trump couldn’t be more wrong with regard to the predictions. Ironically though he does get one thing right: The “ice caps” are setting records–records for rate of ice loss.

The long-term trend in Arctic sea ice is strongly downward and the late summer Arctic sea ice minimum is decreasing faster than the models predicted, as my co-authors and I showed in our 2009 Copenhagen Diagnosis report:

Attempting to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was simply regurgitating the favorite climate change denier talking point that
“southern hemisphere sea ice is on the increase”. There is some truth to that–a small increase was seen for a number of years, though in the southern ocean sea ice extent has far more to do with changing circumpolar wind patterns than temperatures. But that increase is very small, and it is overwhelmed by the dramatic loss in Arctic sea ice. Globally, we are in fact seeing record sea ice….lows. We see that the opposite of what Trump said is in fact true.

OK, but what about the ice sheets? Arguably, from the standpoint of climate change impacts, the melting of the ice sheets is far more significant his is ice that is on land, rather than floating on the ocean, it contributes to sea level rise when it melts.

Here too the best evidence is that the ice sheets that are vulnerable to melting–the Greenland and west Antarctic Ice Sheets–are losing ice, and far sooner than the models predicted. Indeed, the latest research, in particular a 2016 study in Nature co-authored by Rob Deconto of the University of Massachusetts and my Penn State colleague David Pollard, identified processes that had not been include in previous climate modeling assessments that favor accelerated collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet. That finding has led scientists to double the projections of global sea level rise by the end of the century from roughly a meter i.e. roughly 3 feet (as indicated in the last IPCC report) to about two meters i.e. roughly 6 feet. Once again, the opposite of what Trump claimed is actually true.

Now, we all know that Donald Trump really only appears to care about himself, so perhaps what Trump really means is that climate change simply isn’t a problem…for Donald Trump. Well, even here, he is sadly misguided.

In an article my co-authors and I published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last year, we showed that the latest projected increases in sea level rise, combine with more intense hurricanes, combine for greatly increased flood risk where things hit home for Trump–New York City. We even produced a map of maximum projected flood extent that Trump might want to check out—Trump Tower itself is eventually within the danger zone.

By now, most of us have also heard about the special approval that Trump got to build a sea wall to defend his golf course in Ireland from the mounting threat posed by global sea level rise (yes hypocrisy thy name is trump). And Trump’s “winter White House” Mar-a-Lago? Yeah, that’s probably toast too, if we don’t act on climate change.

When it comes to climate change policy in the current administration, our best hope is perhaps that Trump comes to realize that climate change is a threat not just to human civilization but to the one thing he cares about—Trump. But don’t count on it.


Michael Mann Michael Mannis Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University. He was recognized with other Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change authors for their contribution to the IPCC’s 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Follow him @MichaelEMann

 

The Tax-the-Rich Animation that Riled the 1%’s Most Fervent Cheerleaders

Reprinted under a Creative Commons 3.0 License

By Fred Glass

Five years ago, an eight-minute cartoon delightfully demolished all the conventional rationales for grand concentrations of private wealth.

“Do Kids Die, Mom?”

Facing the Future With Trepidation in the Age of Trump
By Frida Berrigan

As a mother and an activist, here’s what I’ve concluded as 2018 begins: it’s getting harder and harder to think about the future — at least in that soaring Whitney Houston fashion. You know the song: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way…” These days, doesn’t it sound quaint and of another age?

The truth is I get breathless and sweaty thinking about what life will be like for my kids — three-year-old Madeline, five-year-old Seamus, and 11-year-old Rosena.  I can’t stop thinking about it either.  I can’t stop thinking that they won’t be guaranteed clean air or clean water, that they won’t have a real healthcare system to support them in bad times, even if they pay through the nose in super high taxes. They may not have functional infrastructure, even if President Trump succeeds in building a yuge gilded wall on our southern border (and who knows where else). The social safety net — Medicare, Medicaid, and state assistance of various sorts — could be long gone and the sorts of nonprofit groups that try to fill all breaches a thing of the past. If they lose their jobs or get sick or are injured, what in the world will they have to fall back on, or will they even have jobs to begin with?

The country — if it even exists as the United States of America decades from now when they’re adults — will undoubtedly still be waging war across the planet. Our Connecticut town, on a peninsula between Long Island Sound and the Thames River, will be flooding more regularly as sea levels rise. And who knows if civil discourse or affordable colleges will still be part of American life?

What, I wonder all too often, will be left after Donald Trump’s America (and the possible versions of it that might follow him)?  Will there, by then, be an insurgent movement of some sort in this country?  Could Indivisible go rogue (please)?  Maybe they’d have a nonviolent political wing the way the Sandinistas did in Nicaragua in the 1980s?  With the help of volunteers from all over the hemisphere, they eradicated illiteracy, brought in the coffee harvest, and vaccinated against diseases (while their armed wing fought against the U.S.-backed Contras). Maybe in our city, my grown-up kids can harvest potatoes — no coffee grows here, not yet, anyway — teach reading, and write revolutionary propaganda.

And when it comes to dystopian futures, I’ve got plenty more where that came from, all playing in a loop on the big screen in the multiplex of my mind as I try to imagine my kids as adults, parents, grandparents. Please tell me I’m not the only one in America right now plagued in this fashion.  I’m not fixated on passing our modest family house down to my three kids or making sure that our ragtag “heirlooms” survive their childhood.  What preoccupies me is the bleak, violent, unstable future I fear as their only inheritance.

It’s enough to send me fumbling for a parental “take back” button that doesn’t exist. I just don’t know how to protect them from the future I regularly see in my private version of the movies. And honestly, short of becoming one of those paranoid, well-resourced doomsday preppers, I have no idea how to prepare them.

Recently, I had a chance to school them in the harshness of life and death — and I choked. I just couldn’t do it.

Death and Breakfast

“When will I die, mama?” Madeline asked at breakfast one day recently.  She’ll be four next month. Her tone is curious, as if she were asking when it will be Saturday or her birthday.

“Not for a long time, I hope,” I responded, trying to stay calm. “I hope you’ll die old and quiet like dear Uncle Dan.”

“I want to die LOUD, mama!”

I’m not sure what she means, but already I don’t like it.

“I want to die like a rock star!” her brother Seamus interjects. He is in kindergarten and thinks he’s both wise and worldly.

Great, I think, just great. What does that mean? “Yes,” I say, my voice — I hope — neutral, “rock stars do tend to die, buddy.”

“Do kids die, mom?” he asks suddenly.

“Yes,” I reply, “kids die sometimes.”

My head, of course, is suddenly filled with images of dead kids, little Syrian bodies washing up on Turkish beaches, little Afghan bodies blown to bits, little Yemeni bodies brittle with starvation or cholera. There’s no shortage of images of dead children in my head as I talk with a kind of painful calmness to my two small ones on a school-day morning in southeastern Connecticut.

“Do teenagers die?” Seamus asks. They love teenagers.

“Yes,” I say, my voice heavy and sad by now, “teenagers die sometimes, too.” New images swirl through my head of teenagers drunk, in cars, on drugs, in stages of undress, in mental anguish, dying because they don’t believe they can. I keep all of this to myself.

“People die,” I say, trying to regain control of the conversation. “We all die eventually. But you don’t have to worry. You have a lot of people working hard to make sure you have what you need to live long, happy lives.”

Long, Happy Lives and Other Lies

And that was the end of that. Their existential, morbid curiosity satisfied for the moment, they moved on to an argument about the fantasy character on the back of their cereal box.

I, on the other hand, haven’t moved on.  I’m still right there, sitting at that breakfast table discussing life and death — the when, the where, and the grim how of it all — with my three-year-old and five-year-old.  And wondering if I’ve already failed them.

When I was a kid, my own parents, Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, Catholic peace activists who spent long stretches of time in jail as nuclear weapons disarmament activists, never missed a chance like this to knock some hard lessons about the power structure’s monopoly on violence into my head. Innocent queries about life and death were regularly met with long discourses on nuclear weapons and how such Armageddon weaponry threatened to ultimately cheapen all life, including mine and those of my brother and sister.

To this day, I can still replay those homemade history lessons that regularly began with tales of rapacious white colonizers landing on these shores, wiping out Native Americans from sea to shining sea, and launching the succession of seizures, invasions, and wars that built the United States into an imperial power and guaranteed its future global dominance. (At a certain age, we could even follow along in our own copies of A People’s History of the United States by their friend Howard Zinn). Those lessons were an education in violence and its bloody, brutal efficacy, at least in the short term.  They were also an introduction to its fundamental failures, to the way such violence, deeply embedded in a society, requires an accompanying culture of pathological distraction, fearfulness, and deep insecurity.

That was my childhood. Some version of that once-upon-a-time-in-America, no-sleep-for-you nuclear nightmare of a bedtime story was always playing in my house. And thanks to their clear-eyed, full-disclosure approach to parenting, I grew up feeling prepared for a brutal, unequal, unfair world, but in no way protected from it.  At least as I now remember it, I felt exposed, terrified, and heart-broken too much of the time.

If Madeline and Seamus were 10 years older and asking such questions, what would I have told them? If their big sister and my step-daughter Rosena (who lives with us half the time) were there, would I have been less circumspect? Could I have shared my fears of the future and the myriad ways I dread the passing of each year? Like my parents, would I have held forth on the long-term consequences of our settler-colonial origins, the ways the use of force and violence at the highest levels have come to permeate society, corroding every interaction and threatening us all? Could I have lectured them on guns, drugs, and sex — on the cheapening of life in the era of the decline of this country’s global version of a Pax Americana? Would I have pulled back the curtain to show them that everyone is not working hard to make sure that they — or any other kids — have what they need to lead long, happy lives? I don’t think so.

All these years later, I’m not convinced of what such rants — however well reasoned and well footnoted — truly accomplish. I’m not convinced of what such demoralizing verbal versions of a Facebook scroll of bad news and hypocrisy do for any of us, which is, of course, why I’m sparing my kids, but dumping all my fears on you.

A World on Fire and on the Move

As for my kids, I tried my best to keep that breakfast of ours in the upbeat realm of death-is-part-of-life. That’s where I want to live with them. That’s how my father died — as he lived, surrounded by the people who loved him. His two closest brothers died that way, too. When I imagine the deaths of those I love, I hear a last gasp of breath, feel a last grip of fingers, witness a peaceful slumber that doesn’t end.

But the peace that I treasured in my father’s death, the joyful stability I want for my children, these things that I can tell myself are the bedrock of a meaningful life, are already denied to so many people on this planet. In fact, in a world engulfed in flames (both the literal and figurative fires of war), increasing numbers of them are running as fast as they can in hopes of somehow getting away.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, 1.7 million people are reportedly displaced, mostly fleeing from one part of that vast African nation to other regions to escape spreading violence. In total, four million people are displaced within that fractured land alone. Similarly, in Myanmar, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group subjected to terrible violence, have been on the move in staggering numbers. In the wake of a deadly crackdown by that country’s security forces, 647,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh where many are now living in fetid, desperately overcrowdedrefugee camps. And that’s just to mention two countries on an increasingly desperate planet.

Last year, an estimated 65.6 million people were displaced, a record for the post-World War II period, and tens of millions of them crossed a border, becoming refugees as they fled war, poverty, persecution, and the destructionof urban areas (from major cities to small towns). They regularly left their homes with what they could carry, kids on their hips, in search of imagined safety somewhere over the horizon, just as people have done for millennia, but increasingly — with a twenty-first-century twist — consulting Google maps and WhatsApp, while constantly sharing intel on social media.

And scientists are predicting that this world in motion, this world already aflame, is just the prologue. As the effects of global climate change become more pronounced, the number of displaced people will double, then triple, and possibly only continue to grow.

Charles Geisler, an emeritus development sociologist at Cornell University, predicts that two billion people may be displaced by rising sea levels by the turn of the next century. Coastal peoples will press inland, while farmland off the coasts is likely to be increasingly compromised by drought and desertification. He concludes: “Bottom line: Far more people are going to be living on far less land, and land that is not as fertile and habitable and sustainable as the low-elevation coastal zone… And it’s coming at us faster than we thought.”

Madeline and Seamus will be in their eighties (god willing) when Geisler’s predictions come to pass. They can’t, of course, know about any of these possible catastrophes, but I already sense that they’re picking up on something subtly fragile and vulnerable about our relatively settled lives together. How do I respond to them? What do I as a parent do in the face of such a potentially bleak future?  How and when do I break news like that? Am I supposed to help my children cultivate a taste for crickets instead of hamburger or start building a solar powered hydroponic farm in our basement? Worse yet, whatever I could imagine suggesting wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t protect them. It wouldn’t even prepare them for such a future.

I’m No Fireman

In 1968, my uncle, Dan Berrigan, called Vietnam the “land of burning children” in a beautiful polemic he wrote to accompany a protest by a group that came to be known as the Catonsville Nine. He and eight other Catholics — including my father (long before he was a parent) — publicly burned hundreds of draft files at a selective service office in Catonsville, Maryland, a symbolic attempt to obstruct the sending of yet more young men to the killing fields of Vietnam. My father served years in prison due to actions like that one. Throughout my life, my family drew hope from such creative acts of resistance, elaborate and effective performances of street theater that extended right into the courtroom and sometimes the jailhouse. My uncle, a poet and Jesuit priest, turned that Catonsville trial into an award-winning playthat’s still performed.

And yet, despite their sacrifices, almost half a century later, children are still on fire and I’m no fireman. I’m not breaking into whatever the equivalent of draft boards might be in the era of the all-volunteer/all-drone military. I’m not sitting in at my congressman’s office either. I’m nowhere near a “movement heavy” (a Sixties-era term I often heard applied to my dad). I’m just a gardener who tries to be a good neighbor, a mother who tries to look after a whole community of kids. I’m just one more set of hands. And even though these hands of mine are working hard, my efforts feel ever more paltry, inadequate, token.

Still, I’ll get up tomorrow morning and do it again, because if my efforts don’t matter, what does?  I’ll hug my kids tight, answer their endless questions, and try to equip them for a future that scares the hell out of me. Even if I can’t see that future clearly, I do know one thing: it will be desperate for love, humor, some kind of balance, and the constant if distracted probing of inquisitive children.


Frida Berrigan harvests lettuce with her daughter Madeline, 2

Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhoodand lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2018 Frida Berrigan

Trump’s bizarre obsession with his questionable intelligence

Trump is “very intelligent.” Just ask him. (Actually, you don’t have to ask—he’ll tell you.)

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Many Americans complain that Donald Trump has a tiny vocabulary. But he disproved his critics Wednesday during an impromptu press conference on the South Lawn of the White House.

In the past, Trump has repeatedly reminded people about his keen intellect by insisting “I’m smart.” Wednesday, he dug deep into his massive personal word bank and uttered a five-word sentence, “I’m a very intelligent person.”

Not only is that sentence three words longer than “I’m smart,” it is also three words longer than the phrase “f**king moron,” which is what his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly called him not long ago.

Wednesday’s boast came in response to a reporter who asked Trump if he should be more civil.

“Well I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am,” the president said, and then quickly switched the topic from his manners to his mind.

“You know, people don’t understand, I went to an Ivy League college. I was a nice student. I did very well. I’m a very intelligent person.”

Even long before he started running for president, Trump repeatedly claimed that he’s both well-educated and brainy. Each time, it isn’t clear if he’s trying to convince his interviewers or himself.

In a 2004 interview with CNN, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I got very good marks. I was a good student. It’s the best business school in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”

In 2011, in an interview with ABC, Trump said, “Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country,” referring once again to Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1968.

“I went to the Wharton School of Finance,” he said during a speech in Phoenix in July 2015, a month after announcing he was running for president. “I’m, like, a really smart person.”

The next month, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump describedWharton as “probably the hardest there is to get into.” He added, “Some of the great business minds in the world have gone to Wharton.” He also observed: “Look, if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time. The super genius of all time.”

During a CNN-sponsored Republican town hall in Columbia, South Carolina, in February 2016, Trump reminded the audience that he had gone to Wharton and repeated the same boast: “Look, I went to the best school, I was a good student and all of this stuff. I mean, I’m a smart person.”

Even after winning the White House, Trump couldn’t help reminding people about his mental muscles. He did it a few days after his inauguration during a visit to CIA headquarters. Trump’s handlers staged the event so he could demonstrate his full support for the agency (despite having spent much of his campaign bashing the nation’s intelligence community) and to divert media attention away from the 750,000 Americans who had come to Washington, D.C., that day to protest Trump’s presidency. But Trump’s scripted remarks turned into an impulsive rambling rant that included attacks on the media and his insistence that as many as 1.5 million people attended his inauguration (despite photos revealing no more than 250,000).

In the middle of his tirade, Trump felt the need to tell the nation’s top spies that he was a bright guy.

“Trust me,” Trump said. “I’m, like, a smart person.”

Last December, Trump repeated those same words while explaining why he intended to be the first president since Harry Truman to avoid getting daily updates from intelligence professionals about national security threats.

“I’m, like, a smart person,” he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.

Anyone who feels compelled to boast how smart he is clearly suffers from a profound insecurity about his intelligence and accomplishments. In Trump’s case, he has good reason to have doubts.

Trump has the kind of street smarts (what he’s called “gut instinct”) characteristic of con artists and hucksters, but his limited vocabulary, short attention span, ignorance of policy specifics, indifference to scientific evidence, and admitted aversion to reading raise questions about his intellectual abilities—his capacity to absorb and analyze information and ideas.

Many observers have noted that Trump has a difficult time expressing himself and speaking in complete sentences. A linguistic analysis by Politico found that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level. A study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University compared last year’s Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in terms of their vocabulary and grammar. Trump scored at a fifth-grade level, the lowest of all the candidates.

Some might suspect that this is not an intellectual shortcoming, but instead Trump’s calculated way of communicating with a wide audience. But Tony Schwartz, who spent a great deal of time with Trump while ghostwriting his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, noted that Trump has a very limited vocabulary. It would hardly be surprising if these observations infuriated the vain and insecure Trump.

Trump’s persistent insults directed toward anyone who disagrees with him also suggest his deep insecurity. Trump has constantly denigrated his opponents and detractors as “losers,” among them actresses Rosie O’Donnell, Cher, and Meryl Streep, civil rights icon John Lewis, businessman Mark Cuban, GOP political operatives Karl Rove and Ana Navarro, NBC’s Chuck Todd, Jeb Bush, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and conservative columnist George Will.

It turns out that loser is one of Trump’s favorite words. An archive of Trump’s Twitter account reveals that between 2009 and his January 2017 inauguration he used the word “loser” 234 times. His other favorite insults included “dumb” or “dummy” (222 tweets), “terrible” (202), “stupid” (182), “weak” (154) and “dope” (115).

On May 8, 2013, at 6:37pm, Trump tweeted: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.”

At 3:52 pm on Sept. 26, 2014—nine months before he announced his candidacy for the White House—Trump tweeted: “I wonder if I run for PRESIDENT, will the haters and losers vote for me knowing that I will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN? I say they will!”

On September 17, 2016—after CNN anchors criticized Trump for promising a “big announcement” to get the media to come to an event, only to use the moment to tout his new hotel and then invite several military figures onstage to praise him—Trump had another Twitter tantrum at 8:13am: “CNN just doesn’t get it, and that’s why their ratings are so low – and getting worse. Boring anti-Trump panelists, mostly losers.”

Trump sometimes uses other words to convey the same thought (he recently called Tennessee Senator Bob Corker a “lightweight”), but his insults all seek to demean his critics in order to boost his own ego. Whether he’s attacking Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona or San Juan’s Democratic Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, Trump views the world in zero-sum terms, as if there were a finite number of IQ points.

Truly smart people don’t have to constantly boast about how smart they are. Only someone who doubts his own intelligence would feel compelled to make these kinds of public statements.

Trump surely knows he didn’t get into Wharton on his own merits. He transferred into the University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham University in New York, where he had no significant achievements.

“No one I know of has said ‘I remember Donald Trump,’” Paul F. Gerken, a 1968 Fordham graduate and president of the Fordham College Alumni Association, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Whatever he did at Fordham, he didn’t leave footprints.”

According to Gwenda Blair’s 2001 biography, The Trumps, Trump’s grades at Fordham were not good enough to qualify him for a transfer to Wharton. Blair wrote that Trump got into Wharton as a special favor from a “friendly” admissions officer who knew Trump’s older brother, Freddy. The college’s admissions staff surely knew that Trump’s father was a wealthy real estate developer and a potential donor. Other than his father’s money and his family’s connections, Trump had no qualifications that would have otherwise gotten him into Wharton. (Most people who mention Wharton refer to its prestigious MBA program, but Trump was an economics major in the undergraduate program.)

Moreover, Trump has for years exaggerated his academic accomplishments at Penn.

On at least two occasions in the 1970s, the New York Times reported that Trump “graduated first in his class” at Wharton in 1968. That’s not true. The dean’s listfor his graduation year, published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, the campus newspaper, doesn’t include Trump’s name. He has refused to release his grade transcripts from his college days.

It is likely that Trump was the original source for that falsehood, but it isn’t entirely clear, since neither Times article attributes it directly to him. But the fabrication that Trump was first in his class has been repeated in many other articles as well as books about Trump, so he clearly knew it was out there in the public domain and has never bothered to correct it.

“He was not in any kind of leadership. I certainly doubt he was the smartest guy in the class,” Steve Perelman, a classmate of Trump’s at Wharton, told the Daily Pennsylvanian in 2015.

Upon graduating from college, Trump didn’t have to apply for jobs or go through interviews with potential employers who would judge him on his merits. Instead, his father Fred Trump handed young Donald the keys to his real estate empire. Trump’s insecurity about his accomplishments is also revealed in his efforts to portray himself as an up-by-the-bootstraps self-made entrepreneur.

“It has not been easy for me,” Trump said at a town hall meeting on October 26, 2015, acknowledging, “My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.”

At a news conference last year, Trump repeated the same story: “I got a very, very small loan from my father many years ago. I built that into a massive empire and I paid my father back that loan.”

An investigation by the Washington Post in March 2016 demolished Trump’s claim that he made it on his own. Not only did Trump’s multi-millionaire father provide Donald with a huge inheritance, and set up big-bucks trust accounts to provide his son with a steady income, Fred was also a silent partner in Trump’s first real estate projects. According to the Post:

“Trump’s father—whose name had been besmirched in New York real estate circles after investigations into windfall profits and other abuses in his real estate projects—was an essential silent partner in Trump’s initiative. In effect, the son was the front man, relying on his father’s connections and wealth, while his father stood silently in the background to avoid drawing attention to himself.”

Fred Trump’s real estate fortune was hardly due to his faith in the free market, but instead stemmed from his reliance on government subsidies. He made his money building middle-class apartments financed by the Federal Housing Administration.

In 1954, when Donald was 8 years old, his father was subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Banking Committee on allegations that he had ripped off the government to reap windfall profits through his FHA-insured housing developments. At the hearings, the elder Trump was called on the carpet for profiteering off public contracts, including overestimating the construction costs of his projects in order to get larger mortgages from FHA. Under oath, he reluctantly admitted that he had wildly overstated the development costs.

Donald has followed in his father’s corrupt footsteps. Trump’s career is littered with bogus businesses (like Trump University); repeated ripoffs of suppliers, contractors and employees whom he failed to pay for services rendered; and the misuse of the Trump Foundation to feather his own nest while trying to look like a philanthropist. Six of Trump’s businesses have gone bankrupt.

Despite this, on April 18, 2015, Trump tweeted this falsehood: ”For all of the haters and losers out there sorry, I never went Bankrupt.”

Trump has also lied about the size of his wealth, as various business publications have pointed out. Many observers suggest that one reason Trump has refused to release his tax returns is that they will show that he has repeatedly and wildly exaggerated his wealth and thus his success.

Embarrassed by his lackluster academic record, his dependence on his family’s connections and wealth to get into college and to succeed in business, and his troublesome and abusive business practices, Trump lashes out at anyone who challenges him, no matter how insignificant the matter.

Many observers have noted Trump’s sociopathic, thin-skinned, demagogic, authoritarian, impulsive, and vindictive personality. Although Trump has the self-awareness of an adolescent, it is obvious to many others that his compulsion to constantly boast “I’m smart” and to deride others as “losers” is rooted in his profound sense of insecurity.

Presidents don’t have to be geniuses. But a successful president must recognize his own limitations and be willing to rely on others’ expertise. He has to take constant criticism—from the media, political opponents, and his own advisers—without taking it too personally. Surrounding oneself with yes-men and -women who are afraid to tell the president he’s wrong is a recipe for disaster. Most important, an effective president needs good judgment—to be able to hear different viewpoints, weigh evidence, think several steps in advance rather than act impulsively, and be calm under intense pressure. Trump fails each of these tests.

Beneath Trump’s public bravado is a deeply insecure, troubled man who is unfit to be president. This makes him a danger to the country and the world.


Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).

How should we protest neo-Nazis? Lessons from German history

How should we protest neo-Nazis? Lessons from German history

File 20170820 22783 12tnnxh
A supporter of President Donald Trump, center, argues with a counterprotester at a rally in Boston on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017.
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

By Laurie Marhoefer, University of Washington

After the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, many people are asking themselves what they should do if Nazis rally in their city. Should they put their bodies on the line in counterdemonstrations? Some say yes.

History says no. Take it from me: I study the original Nazis.

We have an ethical obligation to stand against fascism and racism. But we also have an ethical obligation to do so in a way that doesn’t help the fascists and racists more than it hurts them.

History repeats itself

Charlottesville was right out of the Nazi playbook. In the 1920s, the Nazi Party was just one political party among many in a democratic system, running for seats in Germany’s Parliament. For most of that time, it was a small, marginal group. In 1933, riding a wave of popular support, it seized power and set up a dictatorship. The rest is well-known.

It was in 1927, while still on the political fringes, that the Nazi Party scheduled a rally in a decidedly hostile location – the Berlin district of Wedding. Wedding was so left-of-center that the neighborhood had the nickname “Red Wedding,” red being the color of the Communist Party. The Nazis often held rallies right where their enemies lived, to provoke them.

The people of Wedding were determined to fight back against fascism in their neighborhood. On the day of the rally, hundreds of Nazis descended on Wedding. Hundreds of their opponents showed up too, organized by the local Communist Party. The antifascists tried to disrupt the rally, heckling the speakers. Nazi thugs retaliated. There was a massive brawl. Almost 100 people were injured.

I imagine the people of Wedding felt they had won that day. They had courageously sent a message: Fascism was not welcome.

But historians believe events like the rally in Wedding helped the Nazis build a dictatorship. Yes, the brawl got them media attention. But what was far, far more important was how it fed an escalating spiral of street violence. That violence helped the fascists enormously.

Violent confrontations with antifascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it.

It worked. We know now that many Germans supported the fascists because they were terrified of leftist violence in the streets. Germans opened their morning newspapers and saw reports of clashes like the one in Wedding. It looked like a bloody tide of civil war was rising in their cities. Voters and opposition politicians alike came to believe the government needed special police powers to stop violent leftists. Dictatorship grew attractive. The fact that the Nazis themselves were fomenting the violence didn’t seem to matter.

One of Hitler’s biggest steps to dictatorial power was to gain emergency police powers, which he claimed he needed to suppress leftist violence.

Thousands of Nazi storm troops demonstrate in a Communist neighborhood in Berlin on Jan. 22, 1933. Thirty-five Nazis, Communists and police were injured during clashes.
AP Photo

The left takes the heat

In the court of public opinion, accusations of mayhem and chaos in the streets will, as a rule, tend to stick against the left, not the right.

This was true in Germany in the 1920s. It was true even when opponents of fascism acted in self-defense or tried to use relatively mild tactics, such as heckling. It is true in the United States today, where even peaceful rallies against racist violence are branded riots in the making.

Today, right extremists are going around the country staging rallies just like the one in 1927 in Wedding. According to the civil rights advocacy organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, they pick places where they know antifascists are present, like university campuses. They come spoiling for physical confrontation. Then they and their allies spin it to their advantage.

A demonstration on the University of Washington campus where far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

I watched this very thing happen steps from my office on the University of Washington campus. Last year, a right extremist speaker came. He was met by a counterprotest. One of his supporters shot a counterprotester. On stage, in the moments after the shooting, the right extremist speaker claimed that his opponents had sought to stop him from speaking “by killing people.” The fact that it was one of the speaker’s supporters, a right extremist and Trump backer, who engaged in what prosecutors now claim was an unprovoked and premeditated act of violence, has never made national news.

We saw this play out after Charlottesville, too. President Donald Trump said there was violence “on both sides.” It was an incredible claim. Heyer, a peaceful protester, and 19 other people were intentionally hit by a neo-Nazi driving a car. He seemed to portray Charlottesville as another example of what he has referred to elsewhere as “violence in our streets and chaos in our communities,” including, it seems, Black Lives Matter, which is a nonviolent movement against violence. He stirred up fear. Trump recently said that police are too constrained by existing law.

President Trump tried it again during the largely peaceful protests in Boston – he called the tens of thousands who gathered there to protest racism and Nazism “anti-police agitators,” though later, in a characteristic about-face, he praised them.

President Trump’s claims are hitting their mark. A CBS News poll found that a majority of Republicans thought his description of who was to blame for the violence in Charlottesville was “accurate.”

This violence, and the rhetoric about it coming from the administration, are echoes – faint but nevertheless frightening echoes – of a well-documented pattern, a pathway by which democracies devolve into dictatorships.

The Antifa

There’s an additional wrinkle: the antifa. When Nazis and white supremacists rally, the antifa are likely to show up, too.

“Antifa” is short for antifascists, though the name by no means includes everyone who opposes fascism. The antifa is a relatively small movement of the far left, with ties to anarchism. It arose in Europe’s punk scene in the 1980s to fight neo-Nazism.

The antifa says that because Nazism and white supremacy are violent, we must use any means necessary to stop them. This includes physical means, like what they did on my campus: forming a crowd to block ticket-holders from entering a venue to hear a right extremist speak.

The antifa’s tactics often backfire, just like those of Germany’s communist opposition to Nazism did in the 1920s. Confrontations escalate. Public opinion often blames the left no matter the circumstances.

What to do?

One solution: Hold a counterevent that doesn’t involve physical proximity to the right extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a helpful guide. Among its recommendations: If the alt-right rallies, “organize a joyful protest” well away from them. Ask people they have targeted to speak. But “as hard as it may be to resist yelling at alt-right speakers, do not confront them.”

This does not mean ignoring Nazis. It means standing up to them in a way that denies them a chance for bloodshed.

The ConversationThe cause Heather Heyer died for is best defended by avoiding the physical confrontation that the people who are responsible for her death want.

Laurie Marhoefer, Assistant Professor of History, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Reprinted under a