The Donald and the Fake News Media: An Affair to Remember

By Tom Engelhardt

Face it: it’s been an abusive time, to use a word he likes to wield. In his telling, of course, it’s he or his people who are always the abused ones and they — the “fake news media” — are the abusers. But let’s be honest. You’ve been abused, too, and so have I. All of us have and by that same fake news media.

It isn’t complicated, really. Thanks to them, to those cable news talking heads who never stop yammering about him, to the reporters who clamor over his every word or twitch, he’s always there, 24/7. I know that it’s still called covering the news, but it’s a phrase that no longer faintly fits the situation. Yes, a near majority of Americans voted for him as president, but no one voted to make him a living (and living-room) icon, a never-ending presence not just in our world, but in all our private worlds, too.

Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.

And if that isn’t really almost too obvious to write down, then what is? Still, just briefly, let’s try to take in the obvious. Let me put it this way: never, not since Adam or certainly Nebuchadnezzar, not to speak of Eve or Cleopatra, has anyone in history been so unrelentingly focused upon or mercilessly covered — so, in a sense, fawned upon (and, of course, “abused”). In the past, I’ve labeled what we’re living through “the white Ford Bronco presidency” because, for the last nearly three years, the media has covered him as if he were indeed O.J. Simpson in that car fleeing the police over his wife’s murder, as if, that is, there were nothing else on Earth worth gluing our eyeballs to, and not as in O.J.’s case for a relatively few hours, but for what already seems like an eternity.

In a way, this is the simplest piece I’ve ever written, because whoever you are, wherever you live in this country (or possibly on the planet), whatever you think of him, positive or negative, you already know all of this. You’ve already discussed it with your friends. You’ve certainly wondered what would happen if the mainstream media suddenly stopped attending to Donald Trump — and oh yes, I hadn’t mentioned his name until now, because why bother? You never had a doubt, did you?

My guess on the effect of such a withdrawal of coverage: he’d shrivel up and die. Your guess may be different, but it doesn’t matter because we’re clearly never going to find out. Even the recent presidential decision to take away CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass — doctored video of his behavior and all — after a distinctly abusive press conference (“I’ll tell you what: CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN”), was only the cause for yet another deluge of coverage. None of Acosta’s media compatriots, not even at CNN, decided, for instance, to protest by refusing to cover another White House event until he got that pass back (though CNN is suing the Trump administration). None of them evidently even seriously considered closing the door, shutting the gate, turning their backs on you-know-who. That clearly is the twenty-first-century media version of thinking about the unthinkable.

Honestly, who doesn’t talk about all this in the face of a presidency that’s in your face, all our faces, in a way that no other president, emperor, king, autocrat, dictator, movie star, celebrity, or [feel free to fill in whatever I haven’t thought of here] has ever before been. His every phrase, tweet, complaint, bit of praise, parenthetical comment, angry snit, insult, or even policy decision is reported, discussed, gnawed on, considered, reconsidered, yakked about nonstop, hour after hour after endless hour, reshown in clip after repetitive clip. This is, in short, a unique historical experience of ours and ours alone. How could we not talk about it all the time?

The Media Critic-in-Chief

Oh wait! Oddly enough, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s one place where it’s barely talked about at all, where silence largely reigns, and to my mind that couldn’t be stranger.

Here’s the only catch in the non-stop coverage of Donald J. Trump (2015 to 2018 and beyond): that same mainstream media that can’t get enough of him, that eats up and gnaws on his every odd phrase, gesture, act, or passing thought, is essentially silent on only one thing: the coverage itself. The most obvious subject in the world — not him, but the thing that keeps him going, that keeps the whole ship of state more or less afloat at this point — the unprecedented focus on him just doesn’t seem to be a subject fit for significant coverage, even though it’s a commonplace in our conversations out here in what still passes for the real world. We may regularly roll our eyes, but the mainstream media programmatically never does. Not in public anyway. And as was true from the beginning of the Trump era, from the New York Times and Politico to the Atlantic magazine, media outfits have hired yet more people to cover… well, Donald Trump (and not just from Washington either) and ploughed right on.

But do they cover themselves? Hardly. Media critics inside those mainstream companies have become an ever rarer species. The New York Times, for instance, let go of its “public editor” in May 2017 and left it to perhaps random tweeters to handle how the paper was covering anything. And that’s been typical. Or put another way: there’s really only one media critic left in the mainstream world — and you know just who he is! (A typical tweeted comment of his: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”) And sometimes that criticism couldn’t be more personal. (“Loser,” he recently called White House reporter April Ryan. “What a stupid question that is,” he said to CNN’s Abby Phillip. “What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot, you ask a lot of stupid questions.”) I’m referring, of course, to America’s media-critic-in-chief now in residence in Washington, D.C., when, of course, he isn’t out in the provinces getting a little love from his adoring “base” in those endless rallies for the midterm elections and, of course, the ones for the 2020 campaign, which began long ago.

And naturally enough, the “fake news” reporters can’t cover those rallies enough or discuss them and what he says at them more often. But again, there’s one catch, one lacuna, in all this. They almost never cover Donald J. Trump’s rally of rallies in that same analytical and dissecting fashion. I’m thinking, of course, of the rallies that truly keep him going — and by that I mean his endless set of interactions with… yep, the media. After all, without being eternally in their glowing spotlight, without that endless coverage of everything him, what would he be?

In a sense, those hordes of reporters crowding into his world are his most adoring fans (even if many of them may loathe him personally). They may not literally bathe him in love (as his fans in those stadiums do), but they certainly bathe him in what he loves most, what clearly keeps him up and running: attention.  And from each of those media “rallies” of his, however small, however impromptu, however angry or insulting, no matter the nature of the words exchanged, he clearly comes away feeling clean as a new-born babe (though they perhaps feel dirty as… well, who knows what).

It may not be a love affair, but it certainly is an affair to remember. And despite the fact that his official news conferences may be rare, he manages to meet the press (to use a thoroughly outmoded phrase) constantly and in ways too numerous to mention. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s taken more questions from reporters — even if he’s regularly mangled and shredded them — than all our recent presidents (except that other classic narcissist, Bill Clinton).

The Donald’s Earned Media World

Being the canny self-promoter that he is, Donald Trump knows the value of those exchanges, no matter their nature. He knows that the specifics of what the media may write or say about him matter remarkably little, as long as they cover him in this totalistic fashion, as long as they never stop bathing him in his own ultimate form of glory. They are, as he would be the first to tell you, his “earned media.” In fact, just the other day at his post-election news conference, he had this little exchange with a reporter:

“Q: Mr. President, first off, I personally think it’s very good to have you here because a free press and this type of engagement —

“The President: I do, too. Actually? I do, too.

“Q: Yes. It’s vital to democracy.

“The President: It’s called ‘earned media.’ It’s worth billions. Go ahead.”

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is no fool. He knows that he’s got not just a knack but the knack for accruing “earned media” — that is, unpaid for publicity and advertising. Estimates were that he got a staggering $5.6 billion of it during his 2015-2016 election campaign and, exactly as he implied in that knowing aside, it’s never ended. And yes, it is “vital” to him, if not to “democracy.” Think of him, in fact, as President Earned Media.

Since we are talking about a mutual affair, however, the opposite is also true: Donald Trump is the media’s version of… at the risk of being completely repetitious, earned media. No one’s put it better than former CBS head Leslie Moonves — recently taken down by the #MeToo moment — during the 2016 election campaign. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.” He added, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” And, as we all know, Donald did.

Keep in mind that the media had been thrown into chaos and confusion by the growth of the online world of the Internet, as many news businesses faltered and staff cuts were widespread. How convenient, then, to stumble upon such genuine human clickbait, someone on whom you could focus your attention so relatively cheaply and profitably. So much for covering the world, a distinctly expensive proposition! Talk about bargain basement candidacies and presidencies!

From the moment he descended that escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, Donald Trump became the media equivalent of a freebie — someone viewers and readers just couldn’t help watching, hearing about, reading about. It was like stumbling on a gold mine in the desert. As it turned out, Americans were indeed ready to have the talking heads of CNN (now the president’s eternal punching bag), MSNBC, and Fox News yammer on hour after hour, day after day, about him and only him. It was, in its own way, a genuine miracle for news companies that had found themselves up against the wall and it couldn’t have been more real, or — as, at some level, Donald Trump himself grasped — more fake.

Put it all together and you can understand how a major Trump rally — oops, I mean that post-election news conference of his — actually worked. But first let me take a moment, in truly Trumpian fashion, to thank myself on your behalf. Like you, I watched clips of that news conference. Then I did all of you a favor and actually read the whole 17,000-plus words of it, one hour and 26 minutes worth of his and their words, so you wouldn’t have to.

And believe me, it was quite a performance as the president called on/ignored reporters desperate to get his attention, insulted them, spoke with them, spoke against them, spoke over them (“We are a hot country. This is a hot White House…”), spoke around them, described them (“I come in here as a nice person wanting to answer questions and I have people jumping out of their — their seats, screaming questions at me…”), wandered away from them, wandered away from himself, ignored or didn’t answer their questions, was incoherent for significant stretches of time, or couldn’t even hold onto a thought. And by the way, the reporters there more than matched him (“One, I was tempted to ask you why you like Oprah so much, but I think I’ll go on to the question that…”), blow for blowhard (“Based off of that, how would you say, over the last two years, God plays — what kind of a factor He plays in the day-to-day execution of the Office of the Presidency?…”).

Read the whole thing and you’d have to be struck — even by the less-than-soaring standards of past presidential news conferences — by how little (with a bow to Gertrude Stein) there there actually was there. The president’s incoherence was remarkably well matched by the dreariness of the generally expectable, largely thought-free questions he was asked on a limited set of topics.

As always, though, there were those Trumpian moments that aren’t likely to leave your head soon thereafter. There was, for instance, the exchange in which the president called on PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, a relatively rare black reporter in that room. She began her question this way, “On the campaign trail, you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists. Now people are also saying…”

At that point, the president promptly interrupted to respond: “I don’t know why you’d say that. That’s such a racist question.” (Something he’d then repeat twice more.) The pure chutzpah of that response should have taken anyone’s breath away, but it was also a reminder of the strange sense of freedom Trump feels to say anything in the presence of the media, including mocking or insulting three black female reporters at that news conference.

And this can only happen again and again and again. It’s hard not to feel that we are all now eternally watching two sets of addicts who simply can’t exist without or get enough of each other.

Toward the end of that news conference, one of the reporters began a question (also focused on white nationalism) this way: “Thank you, sir. And I think we’d all love to have more of these, if you’re willing…”

It tells us so much about our twenty-first-century Trumpian world that anyone in that press corps would wish for more of the same. I have a feeling that somewhere in all of this someone, maybe Bob Mueller, should indict all of them for fraud. In the meantime, the rest of us remain in a world wallpapered with Donald Trump, a world in which the fake news media, which is his truest “base,” just can’t get enough of him.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands,Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2018 Tom Engelhardt

Midterm America: A Blue Wave From Another Universe

By Ben Fountain
Reprinted from TomDispatch.Com

Evil days.

The midterms were bearing down on us like a runaway train with Donald Trump in the driver’s seat and the throttle wide open, the Presidential Special hell-bent for the bottom. “Go Trump Go!” tweeted David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as if the president needed anyone’s encouragement. There had been no slacking after pipe bombs were sent to a number of his critics; nor after two black people were killed in Kentucky by a white man who, minutes before, had tried to enter a predominantly black church; nor after 11 worshippers in Pittsburgh were murdered at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue by a man who’d expressed special loathing for HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement and advocacy organization. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Robert Bowers posted on his Gab account hours before the massacre. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Trump, relentless Trump, went right on raging about “invasions,” left-wing “mobs,” globalists, MS-13, and “caravan after caravan [of] illegal immigrants” invited in by Democrats to murder Americans, vote illegally, and mooch off our health care system. “Hate speech leads to hate crimes,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers told the president in Pittsburgh several days after the murders. The FBI had previously reported a large spike in hate crimes over the previous two years, and the Anti-Defamation League noted a 60% rise in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017. Then there was this, reported in the New York Times on the day before the election: “Advisers to the president said his foes take his campaign rally language too literally; as outrageous as it might seem, it is more entertainment, intended to generate a crowd reaction.” And Trump himself, when asked why he wasn’t campaigning on the strong economy, responded: “Sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”

Not as exciting as, say, hate and xenophobia. And so one was led to wonder: Do countries have souls — with all the moral consequence implied by the concept of soul? If the answer is yes, then it follows that the collective soul can be corrupted and damned just as surely as that of a flesh-and-blood human being. In this election, as in all others, grave matters of policy were at stake, but we sensed something even bigger on the line in 2018 — nothing less than whether the country was past redeeming.

Lower, Smaller, Meaner

“I’m on the ballot,” Trump declared at a rally in Mississippi, and so he was. For the first time in two years, the country would render its verdict on the garish aggressions of his politics, though it bore noting that many members of his party had already voted with their feet. In the preceding months, more than 40 House Republicans had resigned outright or announced that they would not seek reelection, among them the relatively moderate chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee, and, most significantly, House Speaker Paul Ryan. It was an extraordinary exodus by any measure, especially for a party holding both chambers of Congress and the White House — a party possessed, that is, of the kind of power that pols dream of. Yet here were Republicans bailing out in droves.

The usual reasons were given: the desire to spend more time with family, to confront new challenges, and so forth, but the party’s scorched-earth politics of the past 30 years, the ones that had put Donald Trump in the White House, undoubtedly had something to do with it. The hyper-partisanship championed by Newt Gingrich when he was speaker of the House in the mid-1990s, the embrace of fringe elements like the birther crowd and the alt-right, the systematic trashing of longstanding institutions and traditions (like the weaponizing of the filibuster, to name just one) and now the ultimate scorched-earther in the White House: it’s easy to imagine how the more self-aware members of the Republican caucus could see no viable future for themselves in politics.

Ryan, in particular, furnished food for thought. Like John Boehner before him, he couldn’t tame the far-right beast that was the Freedom Caucus and he had Trump to deal with too. How many nights had the Speaker tossed and turned in his bed secretly pining for rational Obama? And then there was the massive contradiction of Ryan’s own politics. Eager for Republicans to get credit for the economic expansion that began in June 2009 and was now in its 100th month, Ryan studiously ignored the fact that — predicting rampant inflation and worse — he’d opposed Obama’s program of fiscal stimulus and easy monetary policy that had produced the longest expansion in the country’s history. But Ryan’s contradiction cut even deeper. As House Speaker, at the very pinnacle of his career as a supply-side disciple and deficit hawk, he had shepherded into law a legislative agenda that was projected to start producing trillion-dollar-a-year deficits by 2020.

Paul Ryan had played out his political string. To proceed further could only monsterize his psyche, twist it into a Jekyll-and-Hyde-style schizophrenia, a form of madness not unknown among twenty-first-century American politicians. With Trump as their leader, Republicans had no place to go but lower, smaller, meaner — and so they went.

Trump praised and reenacted a Montana congressman’s criminal assault on a reporter, and suggested that U.S. troops open fire on any aspiring immigrant so bold as to throw a rock at them. In Georgia, robocalls described Stacey Abrams, a black woman and the Democratic nominee for governor, as a “poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” Congressman Duncan Hunter put out an ad characterizing his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, as a terrorist sympathizer. Ron DeSantis urged Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Andrew Gillum, a black man, as their governor, while in Kansas, a Republican official called congressional candidate Sharice Davids (a Native American and graduate of Cornell Law School) a “radical socialist kickboxing lesbian” who should be “sent back packing to the reservation.”

Antonio Delgado, who is black, a Rhodes scholar, and a Harvard Law School graduate, was repeatedly characterized as “a big-city rapper” in ads supporting his opponent for a congressional seat in New York’s Hudson Valley. Representative Kevin McCarthy, jockeying to replace Paul Ryan as leader of the House Republicans, loudly revived the push to fund Trump’s border wall, and Representative Steve King fantasized at a rally that Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor “will elope to Cuba.” Pro-GOP flyers featuring anti-Semitic caricatures were distributed in opposition to Jewish Democratic candidates in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Washington, and elsewhere.

The loudest hysterics were reserved for the bedraggled, footsore “caravan of invaders” inching its way north through Mexico, several thousand desperate souls bringing, according to Trump, crime and terrorists. On Fox Business, Chris Farrell, a conservative activist, promoted the ongoing right-wing allegation that George Soros, who is Jewish, was paying migrants to come to the U.S. Kris Kobach, GOP candidate for governor of Kansas, declared that Democrats had “open-border psychosis.” Ted Cruz, fighting for his political life in Texas, led chants of “Build that wall!” at his rallies.

The final TV ad for Scott Wagner, the GOP nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, asserted that “a dangerous caravan of illegals careens to the border”; this same Scott Wagner had previously urged his Democratic opponent to wear a catcher’s mask because “I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes.” Trump deployed some 5,600 active-duty troops south “to secure the border,” at a cost projected to be as high as $200 million, and his final campaign ad — deemed so blatantly racist that Facebook and major TV networks, including Fox, refused to air it — featured scary music, images of brown-skinned people, and a cop-killing undocumented immigrant with no known link to the caravan. The ad’s final image urged: “Stop the Caravan. Vote Republican.”

It was crude. It was dumb. It was all basically nuts. The question was: how much of America would buy it?

Record Numbers

The day after the election, Trump appeared before the media to proclaim “very close to a complete victory.” Then he proceeded to riff on the size of his crowds.

It would take days — a week and then some — to measure properly the scale of the electorate’s repudiation of Trump. Despite surgical gerrymandering and voter-suppression measures that strongly favored the GOP, Democrats took control of the House by flipping 43 seats, for a net gain of 40. It was the biggest Democratic gain since the Watergate midterm of 1974, when Democrats picked up 49 seats, and the Democrats’ 9.4 million lead (and counting) in raw votes this year was the largest margin ever by a party in a midterm.

Overall turnout was the highest in 50 years: 116 million, or 49.4% of the voting-eligible population, compared to 83 million in 2014. Democrats won women — who are not only the majority of voters but the most reliable of them — by 19 percentage points. Particularly in the suburbs, where 50% of voters now live, white women with college degrees broke hard for Democrats, but House Democratic candidates also increased their national vote margin among white working-class women by 13 points.

Young voters and minorities (think: the future) turned out in unprecedented numbers and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. The Democrats also won independents by 12%, and voters who had opted for a third-party candidate in 2016 by 13%. Trump’s misogyny, racism, and xenophobia helped elect a new House majority that will be nearly half women, a third people of color, and include more Muslim Americans, Native Americans, and LGBTQ members than ever before.

Republicans increased their razor-thin majority in the Senate by two, but even there evidence of the Trump repudiation was strong. Democrats were defending 26 of the 35 seats in play and, in almost every race, the Democratic candidate outperformed the state’s partisan lean (the average difference between how a state votes and how the overall country votes) while racking up a nationwide total of 50.5 million votes, to the GOP’s 34.5 million.

Yeah, Beto lost. He also came within 2.6 points of knocking off a well-financed, highly disciplined incumbent in a deep-red state and was instrumental in making Texas newly competitive at both the statewide and local levels. In governors’ races, Democrats flipped seven states to the Republicans’ one and achieved a net gain of more than 300 legislative seats.

State ballot measures on politically charged issues also trended blue. Arkansas and Missouri voted to raise their minimum wage. Utah, Nebraska, and Idaho voted to expand Medicaid and, with the election of a Democratic governor, Maine will follow through on last year’s winning referendum to expand Medicaid. Florida voters approved a referendum to restore voting rights to former felons. Arizona defeated a Koch brothers-backed measure to privatize public education by a two to one margin.

Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — states crucial to Trump’s Electoral College success in 2016 — swung dramatically back toward the Democrats in 2018.

Putting Real Issues Front and Center

This thing Trump was selling, this white-nationalist-freak-out-throwback special, played well enough to the base to flip Senate seats in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri, all states Trump won by big margins in 2016, as well as Florida’s closely contested Senate seat. But here’s the real shocker, the development that made this midterm “transformational,” as reported by Stanley Greenberg in the New York Times, based on a Democracy Corpselection night survey: the Democrats’ biggest gains in 2018 came in rural America. Greenberg also relied on an Edison exit poll for CNN that showed the Republican margin in rural areas shrinking by double digits and a Catalist poll indicating a seven-point shrinkage.

“Exciting” the base seems to have come at a cost: a 13-point swing by white working-class women, a 14-point swing by white working-class men, and a 7-point swing among all men. While Trump’s Twitter account was acting like the social media equivalent of a spastic colon, Democrats were pushing a decidedly non-hysterical message focused on health care (coverage for preexisting conditions, preserving Obamacare, and protecting Medicare and Medicaid) and basic economic fairness. As for Trump’s manifest unfitness for office, smart Democrats assumed the president himself would pound home that message.

Yes, there was a blue wave in 2018, and the “centrist” establishment Democrats who have steered the party for the past 30 years are trying to claim it for themselves. Don’t believe them. These establishment centrists — the ideological heirs of the defunct Democratic Leadership Council who now ply their trade at the Third Way think tank in the capital, along with the big-donor class, the top-dollar Washington consultants, and the data mills that comprise the Democratic election industrial complex — stand for something far different than the blue-wave centrists who powered the party in 2018.

For more than 30 years — ever since the rise of the “New Democrats” and the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s — establishment centrists have practiced the top-down politics of neoliberalism, a politics founded on the free-market gospel: deregulation of banking and finance, friendliness toward corporate monopolies, limited support (at best) for labor unions and workers, the endless “liberalization” of global trade, and reflexive antagonism for the social safety net. As all the numbers show, corporate America and the One Percent reaped the lion’s share of neoliberalism’s benefits, while the Democratic Party’s once-traditional constituencies — poor people, and the working and middle classes — fell further and further behind. The party itself — once the dominant force in national politics, and in the majority of states — gradually slid into minority status, culminating in the wipeout of 2016.

2018’s blue-wave centrists are made of different stuff. This year’s energy came from the bottom up, thanks to widespread local activism and grassroots organizing, much of it led by women newly politicized in the wake of 2016. The party’s small-donor base became increasingly powerful, enabling candidates like Beto O’Rourke to run robustly financed campaigns while refusing PAC money and the strings that come with it.

This same small-donor and activist groundswell made Democrats competitive in regions long ago written off by establishment centrists who have long been less focused on the concerns of working people than on cherry-picking just enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency every four years. In 2018, however, we saw Democratic candidates running and winning in deep-red areas while talking up labor unions (Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania), slamming the “rigged system” that neoliberalism produced (Max Rose on New York’s Staten Island), and pushing for common-sense gun control (Lucy McBath in Georgia).

Democrats interested in taking back the Midwest should look to the example of Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, one of Bernie Sanders’s closest allies in the Senate. A strong voice for labor and the middle class and a longtime skeptic of international trade deals, Brown won reelection by seven percentage points in a state otherwise trending Republican. The same was true for Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has prioritized the interests of working people her entire career. She won reelection by 24 points in Minnesota, a state Trump almost won in 2016.

The blue-wave centrists put real issues front and center: housing, wages, access to health care, basic fairness and opportunity for working people. Whatever name you want to put to these issues — centrist, progressive, populist, lunch bucket, kitchen table — these haven’t been the priorities of the establishment centrists of the past 30 years. For a clue, look no farther than the Third Way’s close ties to K Street, the epicenter of corporate lobbying in Washington, and to the investment banking industry.

Trump lost in 2018, but he remains nearly as powerful as ever. He’s a sitting president with a ferociously loyal base, a Senate majority that’s about to get bigger, and a federal judiciary that hews further to the right with each new raft of appointments. In the days since the election he’s shown no moderating tendencies, instead threatening the incoming House Democratic majority with a “warlike posture,” firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, illegally“appointing” a sketchy acting attorney general, further defying the Refugee Act of 1980, banning a CNN reporter from the White House, and defending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the state-sponsored murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump is still Trump, and America is still America. In the days after the election, wildfires raged through northern California, leaving scores dead and many thousands homeless, and in the country’s 307th mass shooting in the first 313 days of 2018, a gunman killed 13 people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California.

Welcome to the struggle for the country’s soul. We haven’t seen anything yet.


Ben Fountain’s Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution has just been published by Ecco/HarperCollins. He is the author of a novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which received the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and a story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which received the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize for Fiction. He lives in Dallas.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2018 Ben Fountain

Trump’s Grand Strategy

Posted by Michael Klare at 8:02am, July 24, 2018 to TomDispatch
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

By Tom Engelhardt

And since Donald Trump has, after his own fashion, smashed the ship of state directly into that same media and changed the landscape of our world of “information,” he’s also made an endless range of journalists and pundits into something new: actors on his planet.  If you don’t believe me, watch Wolf Blitzer “interviewing” — which means mostly ranting to — Senator Rand Paul, who is defending the president, and tell me that we’re not in a new id-ified world of reportage.

In such a world of id-sters, it’s also possible that something important is being missed.  Perhaps the way to think about it (and our president) is in this fashion: if there’s madness to his method (and there is), that doesn’t mean that there isn’t method to his madness.  Read TomDispatch regular Michael Klare today and tell me that isn’t possible.  Klare suggests that, when it comes to global policy in relation to Russia, China, and the European Union, there has always been a distinct Trumpian method to those mad displays of his.   [Tom]

Entering a 1984 World, Trump-Style
Or Implementing the Sino-Russian Blueprint for a Tripolar World Order
By Michael T. Klare

The pundits and politicians generally take it for granted that President Trump lacks a coherent foreign policy. They believe that he acts solely out of spite, caprice, and political opportunism — lashing out at U.S. allies like Germany’s Angela Merkel and England’s Theresa May only to embrace authoritarian rulers like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. His instinctive rancor and impulsiveness seemed on full display during his recent trip to Europe, where he lambasted Merkel, undercut May, and then, in an extraordinary meeting with Putin, dismissed any concerns over Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential election (before half-walking his own comments back).

“Nobody knows when Trump is doing international diplomacy and when he is doing election campaigning in Montana,” commented Danish defense minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen following the summit. “It is difficult to decode what policy the American president is promoting. There is a complete unpredictability in this.”

While that reaction may be typical, it’s a mistake to assume that Trump lacks a coherent foreign-policy blueprint. In fact, an examination of his campaign speeches and his actions since entering the Oval Office — including his appearance with Putin — reflect his adherence to a core strategic concept: the urge to establish a tripolar world order, one that was, curiously enough, first envisioned by Russian and Chinese leaders in 1997 and one that they have relentlessly pursued ever since.

Such a tripolar order — in which Russia, China, and the U.S. would each assume responsibility for maintaining stability within their own respective spheres of influence while cooperating to resolve disputes wherever those spheres overlap — breaks radically with the end-of-the-Cold-War paradigm. During those heady years, the United States was the dominant world power and lorded it over most of the rest of the planet with the aid of its loyal NATO allies.

For Russian and Chinese leaders, such a “unipolar” system was considered anathema.  After all, it granted the United States a hegemonic role in world affairs while denying them what they considered their rightful place as America’s equals. Not surprisingly, destroying such a system and replacing it with a tripolar one has been their strategic objective since the late 1990s — and now an American president has zealously embraced that disruptive project as his own.

The Sino-Russian Master Plan

The joint Russian-Chinese project to undermine the unipolar world system was first set in motion when then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin conferred with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin during a state visit to Moscow in April 1997. Restoring close relations with Russia while building a common front against U.S. global dominance was reportedly the purpose of Jiang’s trip.

“Some are pushing toward a world with one center,” said Yeltsin at the time. “We want the world to be multipolar, to have several focal points. These will form the basis for a new world order.”

This outlook was inscribed in a “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order,” signed by the two leaders on April 23, 1997.  Although phrased in grandiose language (as its title suggests), the declaration remains worth reading as it contains most of the core principles on which Donald Trump’s foreign policy now rests.

At its heart lay a condemnation of global hegemony — the drive by any single nation to dominate world affairs — along with a call for the establishment of a “multipolar” international order. It went on to espouse other key precepts that would now be considered Trumpian, including unqualified respect for state sovereignty, non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states (code for no discussion of their human rights abuses), and the pursuit of mutual economic advantage.

Yeltsin would resign as president in December 1999, while Jiang would complete his term in March 2003. Their successors, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao, would, however, continue to build on that 1997 foundational document, issuing their own blueprint for a tripolar world in 2005.

Following a Kremlin meeting that July, the two would sign an updated “Joint Statement of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation Regarding the International Order of the 21st Century.”  It was even more emphatic in its commitment to a world in which the United States would be obliged to negotiate on equal terms with Moscow and Beijing, stating:

“The international community should thoroughly renounce the mentality of confrontation and alignment, should not pursue the right to monopolize or dominate world affairs, and should not divide countries into a leading camp and a subordinate camp… World affairs should be decided through dialogue and consultation on a multilateral and collective basis.”

The principal aim of such a strategy was, and continues to be, to demolish a U.S.-dominated world order — especially one in which that dominance was ensured by American reliance on its European allies and NATO. The ability to mobilize not only its own power but also Europe’s gave Washington a particularly outsized role in international affairs. If such ties could be crippled or destroyed, its clout would obviously be diminished and so it might someday become just another regional heavyweight.

In those years, Putin was particularly vocal in calling for the dissolution of NATO and its replacement by a European-wide security system that would, of course, include his country. The divisions in Europe “will continue until there is a single security area in Europe,” he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2001. Just as the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded as the Cold War ended, he argued, so Western Europe’s Cold War-era alliance, NATO, should be replaced with a broader security structure.

Donald Trump Climbs on Board

There is no way to know whether Donald Trump was ever aware — no matter how indirectly — of such Sino-Russian goals or planning, but there can be no question that, in his own fashion and for his own reasons, he has absorbed their fundamental principles.  As his recent assaults on NATO and his embrace of the Russian president suggest, he is visibly seeking to create the very tripolar world once envisioned by Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin and zealously promoted by Vladimir Putin ever since he assumed office.

The proof that Trump sought such an international system can be found in his 2016 campaign speeches and interviews. While he repeatedly denounced China for its unfair trade practices and complained about Russia’s nuclear-weapons buildup, he never described those countries as mortal enemies.  They were rivals or competitors with whose leaders he could communicate and, when advantageous, cooperate. On the other hand, he denounced NATO as a drain on America’s prosperity and its ability to maneuver successfully in the world.  Indeed, he saw that alliance as eminently dispensable if its members were unwilling to support his idea of how to promote America’s best interests in a highly competitive world.

“I am proposing a new foreign policy focused on advancing America’s core national interests, promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world,” he declared in a September 2016 speech in Philadelphia. From that speech and other campaign statements, you can get a pretty good idea of his mindset.

First, make the United States — already the world’s most powerful nation — even stronger, especially militarily. Second, protect America’s borders. (“Immigration security,” he explained, “is a vital part of our national security.”) Third, in contrast to the version of globalism previously espoused by the American version of a liberal international order, this country was to pursue only its own interests, narrowly defined. Playing the role of global enforcer for allies, he argued, had impoverished the United States and must be ended. “At some point,” as he put it to New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and David Sanger in March 2016, “we cannot be the policeman of the world.”

As for NATO, he couldn’t have been clearer: it had become irrelevant and its preservation should no longer be an American priority. “Obsolete” was the word he used with Haberman and Sanger. “When NATO was formed many decades ago… there was a different threat, [the Soviet Union,]… which was much bigger… [and] certainly much more powerful than even today’s Russia.” The real threat, he continued, is terrorism, and NATO had no useful role in combating that peril. “I think, probably a new institution maybe would be better for that than using NATO, which was not meant for that.”

All of this, of course, fit to a T what Vladimir Putin has long been calling for, not to speak of the grand scheme articulated by Yeltsin and Jiang in 1997. Indeed, during the second presidential debate, Trump went even further, saying, “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together.”

Though the focus at the moment is purely on President Trump and Russia, let’s not forget China. While frequently lambasting the Chinese in the economic realm, he has nonetheless sought Beijing’s help in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat and other common perils. He speaks often by telephone with President Xi Jinping and insists that they enjoy an amicable relationship. Indeed, to the utter astonishment of many of his Republican allies, he even allowed the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE to regainaccess to essential American technology and computer chips after paying a $1 billion fine, though the firm had been widely accused of violating U.S. sanctions on trade with Iran and North Korea. Such a move was, he claimed, “reflective” of his wish to negotiate a successful trade deal with China “and my personal relationship with President Xi.”

Trump’s World Reflects That Sino-Russian Plan

Although there’s no evidence that Donald Trump ever even knew about the Sino-Russian blueprint for establishing a tripolar global order, everything he’s done as president has had the affect of facilitating that world-altering project. This was stunningly evident at the recent Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, where he repeatedly spoke of his desire to cooperate with Moscow in solving global problems.

“The disagreements between our two countries are well known and President Putin and I discussed them at length today,” he said at the press conference that followed their private conversation. “But if we’re going to solve many of the problems facing our world, then we’re going to have to find ways to cooperate in pursuit of shared interests.” He then went on to propose that officials of the national security councils of the two countries get together to discuss such matters — an extraordinary proposal given the historical mistrust between Washington and Moscow.

And despite the furor his warm embrace of Putin triggered in Washington, Trump doubled down on his strategic concept by inviting the Russian leader to the White House for another round of one-on-one talks this fall. According to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, National Security Advisor John Bolton is already in preparatory talks with the Kremlin for such a meeting.

The big question in all this, of course, is: Why? Why would an American president seek to demolish a global order in which the United States was the dominant player and enjoyed the support of so many loyal and wealthy allies?  Why would he want to replace it with one in which it would be but one of three regional heavyweights?

Undoubtedly, historians will debate this question for decades. The obvious answer, offered by so many pundits, is that he doesn’t actually know what he’s doing, that it’s all thoughtless and impulsive. But there’s another possible answer: that he intuits in the Sino-Russian template a model that the United States could emulate to its benefit.

In the Trumpian mindset, this country had become weak and overextended because of its uncritical adherence to the governing precepts of the liberal international order, which called for the U.S. to assume the task of policing the world while granting its allies economic and trade advantages in return for their loyalty. Such an assessment, whether accurate or not, certainly jibes well with the narrative of victimization that so transfixed his core constituency in rustbelt areas of Middle America. It also suggests that an inherited burden could now be discarded, allowing for the emergence of a less-encumbered, stronger America — much as a stronger Russia has emerged in this century from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and a stronger China from the wreckage of Maoism. This reinvigorated country would still, of course, have to compete with those other two powers, but from a far stronger position, being able to devote all its resources to economic growth and self-protection without the obligation of defending half of the rest of the world.

Listen to Trump’s speeches, read through his interviews, and you’ll find just this proposition lurking behind virtually everything he has to say on foreign policy and national security. “You know… there is going to be a point at which we just can’t do this anymore,” he told Haberman and Sanger in 2016, speaking of America’s commitments to allies. “You know, when we did those deals, we were a rich country… We were a rich country with a very strong military and tremendous capability in so many ways. We’re not anymore.”

The only acceptable response, he made clear, was to jettison such overseas commitments and focus instead on “restoring” the country’s self-defense capabilities through a massive buildup of its combat forces. (The fact that the United States already possesses far more capable weaponry than any of its rivals and outspends them by a significant margin when it comes to the acquisition of additional munitions doesn’t seem to have any impact on Trump’s calculations.)

This outlook would be embedded in his administration’s National Security Strategy, released last December. The greatest threat to American security, it claimed, wasn’t ISIS or al-Qaeda, but Russian and Chinese efforts to bolster their military power and extend their geopolitical reach. But given the administration’s new approach to global affairs, it suggested, there was no reason to believe that the country was headed for an inevitable superpower conflagration. (“Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict. An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict.”)

However ironic it might seem, this is, of course, the gist of the Sino-Russian tripolar model as embraced and embellished by Donald Trump. It envisions a world of constant military and economic contention among three regional power centers, generating crises of various sorts, but not outright war. It assumes that the leaders of those three centers will cooperate on matters affecting them all, such as terrorism, and negotiate as necessary to prevent minor skirmishes from erupting into major battles.

Will this system prove more stable and durable than the crumbling unipolar world order it’s replacing? Who knows? If Russia, China, and the United States were of approximately equal strength, it might indeed theoretically prevent one party from launching a full-scale conflict with another, lest the aggrieved country join the third power, overwhelming the aggressor.

Eerily enough, this reflects the future world as envisioned in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 — a world in which three great-power clusters, Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, contend for global dominance, periodically forming new two-against-one alliances. However, as the United States currently possesses significantly greater military power than Russia and China combined, that equation doesn’t really apply and so, despite the mammoth nuclear arsenals of all three countries, the possibility of a U.S.-initiated war cannot be ruled out. In a system of ever-competing super-states, the risk of crisis and confrontation will always be present, along with the potential for nuclear escalation.

One thing we can be reasonably sure of, however, regarding such a system is that smaller, weaker states, and minority peoples everywhere will be given even shorter shrift than at present when caught in any competitive jousting for influence among the three main competitors (and their proxies). This is the crucial lesson to be drawn from the grim fighting still ongoing in Syria and eastern Ukraine: you are only worth something as long as you do the bidding of your superpower patron.  When your utility is exhausted — or you’re unfortunate enough to be trapped in a zone of contention — your life is worth nothing. No lasting peace is attainable in such an environment and so, just as in Orwell’s 1984, war — or preparing for war — will be a perpetual condition of life.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. His most recent book is The Race for What’s Left. His next book, All Hell Breaking Loose: Climate Change, Global Chaos, and American National Security, will be published in 2019.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Storyand Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.

Copyright 2018 Michael T. Klare

The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link)

I just ran across this Amazon book review I wrote back in 2001, of Katie Hafners’  The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community.

The WELL, started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, was one of the first online virtual communities. For a time in the late 1980s I moderated an Aging conference there. In my early forties I was just beginning to grapple with issues of aging, and the WELL felt like a community, a good place to talk about it with others who were similarly afflicted.

Was it really a community? That’s one of the issues Hafner explores.

Since the advent of social media in recent years, I might be inclined to alter some of the conclusions in my old review regarding community, but then again I might not. The “friend” function in Facebook, for instance, is a sad and pale shadow of the sort of real friendship that often seemed to be the rule in the WELL. Rereading my review today, I was surprised to notice that I’ve forgotten the affection I felt for the WELL, an affection that lingered for many years after my involvement with it.

In any case, dated as it is, here’s my 2001 review:

This is a terrific book. I appreciate that Katie Hafner understands her strength to be narrative. Limiting the focus of her narrative to the lives of a few of the core founders and early pioneers of the WELL allows her to reach the sort of depth I recall experiencing there when I was a “WELL being” for a time in the late eighties.

I mostly hung out in the Parenting conference, because I was the father of teenage children and our family seemed to reel from one crisis to another during those years. The support and love I found there was extraordinary, and I have found it nowhere else since, except within my own dear family.

Hafner succeeds remarkably in capturing the intangible essence of the WELL, the special human warmth that no one could have predicted or planned … and no one has succeeded in duplicating since.

Hafner also deals with the core issue of community, an issue central to the WELL’s success, and possibly central to it’s eventual – what? – transformation. I was about to say, “dissolution,” but an incarnation of some sort of WELL lives on at Salon.com.

The early WELL, the one I knew, was a pioneering online community, before that phrase became today’s buzzword meaning little more than a chat room. The online community was the core of a larger, real-life, flesh-and-blood community, in which people truly lived and loved and became sick and got well, and sometimes died.

Everyone who hungers for community – and that means everyone awake to the grief of modern life – should read this book. Most of us understand true community by its absence. My most vivid and unexpected realization about the meaning of community occurred many years ago, when our children were still little.

We lived for a time in an Eichler suburb in Mountain View, California. Each house on our block was surrounded by a high fence. After some months of living there, we hadn’t met a single neighbor. I was out mowing the lawn one sunny Saturday morning, with no one in sight, and I suddenly understood in a way I never had before that our commercial culture has a vested interest in the destruction of community.

Without community, each of us becomes a consuming atom, each with our own lawnmower, each with our own set of tools, each with our own copy of every trinket. In a true community we would be sharing tools and sharing labor. GNP is maximized by eroding community. Our commercial culture has a vested interest in the destruction of community. And conversely, true community subverts this culture.

It’s because of this paradoxical dynamic that the WELL – to the extent that it *was* a true community – could not retain its character while evolving as a commercial enterprise. This is part of the story.

Read this book. Let it provoke you to examine the role of community in your own life.

The WELL lives on here:  

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 Creative Commons License

Trump and the Russian Mob

The September issue of The New Republic features this cover image:


In the following Democracy Now interview, Craig Unger, author of the New Republic article, talks about his research on Trump and the Russian mob.

Old West theme parks paint a false picture of pioneer California

Reprinted from the August 30, 2017 edition of The Conversation

Editor’s Note: The nostalgia for California’s past is still very much an influence throughout much of the state, and is especially conspicuous in the Gold Country, where many old-timers long to re-open old polluting gold mines, such as the Idaho-Maryland mine here in Grass Valley.

By Amanda Tewes

Old West, as seen through 1967 Orange County eyes. Orange County Archives, CC BY

In 1940, just a year before Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into a world war, Walter and Cordelia Knott began construction on a notable addition to their thriving berry patch and chicken restaurant in the Orange County, California, city of Buena Park. This new venture was an Old West town celebrating both westward expansion and the California Dream – the notion that this Gold Rush state was a land of easy fortune for all. The Knotts’ romanticized Ghost Town – including a saloon, blacksmith’s shop, jail and “Boot Hill” cemetery – became the cornerstone of the amusement park that is today Knott’s Berry Farm.

While Ghost Town is arguably the first of its kind, since 1940 Old West theme parks have proliferated around the United States and the world. They’re more than just destinations for pleasure seekers. Like Hollywood Westerns and dime novels, these theme parks propagate a particular myth of “the West.”

The relationship between history and entertainment is especially complex when these theme parks exist in California – a place that actually experienced “the Wild West.” Visitors can have a hard time differentiating between fantasy landscapes and local history.

In studying California’s Old West theme parks and their version of the state’s past, I’ve conducted oral histories, visited these sites and observed continued nostalgia for these places. What do these imagined spaces reveal about cultural conflicts of politics and regional identity in midcentury California? How do they demonstrate the attraction of a fantasy past that has captivated Californians?

Knott’s original berry stand, Buena Park, California, circa 1926. Orange County ArchivesCC BY

Chicken with a side of ‘pioneer spirit’

The addition of a Ghost Town may seem an odd choice for the Knotts, who were farmers and restaurateurs. But it was a calculated move to entertain guests waiting upwards of three hours in line for their chicken dinner – as well as to tell a particular story about the California Dream.

Walter Knott grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales about traveling across the Mojave Desert to California in a covered wagon, with her young daughter (Walter’s mother) in tow. Knott admired his grandmother’s “pioneering spirit,” which influenced his own decisions to homestead (unsuccessfully) in the desert. For Knott, his grandmother’s account sparked ongoing admiration for independence and adventure, qualities that embody the myth of the West but not necessarily the realities of California’s past.

And it was this personal connection to California’s past that colored Knott’s critique of his present. Looking back over the devastation the Great Depression wrought on California, the farmer – a lifelong proponent of free enterprise – concluded federal interference had prolonged the situation by offering aid and social welfare programs, instead of encouraging struggling residents to work harder.

In the 1930s, Orange County was starting to transition from a land of orange groves and strawberry fields.Orange County Archives, CC BY

This assessment ignores the fact that an agricultural hub like Orange County gained much from New Deal programs. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, for instance, offered farmers price support for their crops, which Orange County growers accepted.

But Knott remained steadfast. In an oral history from 1963, he explained,

“We felt that if [Ghost Town visitors] looked back, they would see the little that the pioneer people had to work with and all the struggles and problems that they had to overcome and that they’d all done it without any government aid.”

This virulent independence shaped Ghost Town and ensured that Knott’s Berry Farm’s memorial to California history was a political statement as much as a place of leisure.

Beyond its political message about the past, Walter Knott wanted Ghost Town “to be an educational feature as well as a place of entertainment.” Indeed, the first edition of the theme park’s printed paper Ghost Town News in October 1941 explained, “…we hope it will prove of real tangible educational advantage and a lasting monument to California.” By 1963, Knott asserted,

“I suppose there’s hundreds of thousands of kids today that know what you mean when you say, ‘pan gold.’ I mean, when they read it in a book they understand it because they’ve gone down and actually done it [at Ghost Town].”

Indeed, the message reached generations of visitors.

Perpetuating the myth of rugged individualism

But Knott learned – and taught – the wrong lesson from the past. Certainly 19th-century Anglo pioneers faced financial, physical and psychological challenges in reaching California. But these individuals did actually benefit from the “government aid” Knott scorned.

Federal funds and policies supported land grants in the West, a military to expand territory and fight indigenous peoples and even the development of the railroad that eventually connected California to the rest of the country. Government intervention helped support these Anglo pioneers as much as it did their Depression-era descendants.

What’s left out of this picture? Orange County Archives, CC BY

Despite the fantasy past it represented, the premise of Ghost Town inspired local appreciation. Visitors to Knott’s Berry Farm saw evidence of California’s financial greatness when they panned for gold. Stories about the trials Walter Knott’s own relatives faced crossing the Mojave Desert reinforced the fortitude of those who settled in the Golden State. Indeed, by midcentury many Orange County residents had themselves moved west to California and could well identify with the theme of 19th-century migration.

Ghost Town played on mid-20th-century nostalgia for simpler and more adventurous times in California, especially as the area began to rapidly shed its agricultural past in the years following World War II. The Knotts’ nod to California’s 19th-century history was a welcome distraction from the modernization efforts in Orange County’s backyard.

Richard Nixon pans for gold with Walter Knott in 1959. Orange County Archives, CC BY

The romantic and often whitewashed version of California’s past embodied by Ghost Town played an ongoing role in shaping midcentury cultural and political identity in the region. The Knotts used the living they earned from Ghost Town and their other attractions to support conservative causes locally and nationally. In 1960, Ghost Town and the Old California it represented was the literal backdrop of a Richard Nixon rally during his first presidential run.

Later, fellow conservative and the Knotts’ personal friend Ronald Reagan produced a segment about their attraction on his political radio show. On the July 15, 1978 episode, Reagan said, “Walter Knott’s farm is a classic American success story…And, it still reflects its founder’s deep love and patriotism for his country.” Reagan celebrated the theme park as the pinnacle of free enterprise and the California Dream.

Among California’s Old West theme parks, Ghost Town at Knott’s Berry Farm is not unique in tweaking the state’s 19th-century past to more closely align with a Hollywood Western than the complex racial, cultural and political reality. Today Ghost Town serves millions of domestic and foreign visitors annually and continues to sell a fantasy version of the Golden State’s history. But this fantasy memorializes mid-20th-century conservative values rather than 19th-century California.

With renewed debates about public memory and monuments, it’s more important than ever to examine sites like historical theme parks as places where individuals learn (false) history. These romantic and politicized versions of the Old West can leave visitors longing for a past that never was.


Disclosure statement

Amanda Tewes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

A Strong Opinion: Stop Counter-Protesting

Even if the protesters are the KKK, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

By Rick Gell
Reprinted from Alternet, August 21, 2017

First, My Definition

Counter-protest: an organized response, on the same day, at the same time and in the same place as a previously planned protest.

Now, My Argument

Counter-protests, by their very nature, escalate the risk of violence, and are therefore a less desirable tactic where the ends do not justify the means.

The Issue Is Irrelevant

This has nothing to do with which side one is on, the moral superiority of one view or the vile nature of another. If Planned Parenthood plans a march to support a woman’s right to choose, right-to-lifers should not counter-protest. And if right-to-lifers plan a march to condemn abortion, pro-choice supporters should not counter-protest. Resentment toward crashing an event is human nature and with 365 days, each side has ample time to march and make their counter-argument.

Yes, even if the protesters are the KKK, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Deflate an Opponent, Don’t Inflate Them

The Women’s March attracted 4 million people.

How many extremists with torches were marching Friday night?

How many Nazis, white nationalists and KKK members marched on Saturday?

In a New York Times op-ed piece on August 19, Michael Signer, mayor of Charlottesville, suggested “several thousand alt-right activists and white supremacists came to my city.” He is off by a factor of 4. According to Joe Ruiz of NPR and Sandy Hausman of member station WVTF, 500 protesters were on-site with more than double the number of counter-protesters. Vox reported “hundreds of marchers” and AP “at least 500” for Saturday.

The consensus seems to come in at 500 on Saturday and less than 250 people on Friday night.

The mayor’s error is easy to understand, and I’d bet if Nate Silver or another pollster were to do a random survey and ask Americans whether 100,000, 10,000 or 1,000 right-wing extremists were in attendance in Charlottesville, many would exaggerate attendance due to the blanket TV coverage and violent nature of the event.

The Charlottesville police, according to Doug Stanglin of USA Today, estimated 2,000 to 6,000 marchers would attend before the event, billed by organizers as the biggest gathering of alt-right, white nationalists, KKK and neo-Nazis in decades.

In 1926, 50,000 KKK marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. Adjusted for current population, that would be close to 150,000 people today. A march before commercial air travel that did not include other groups. Today, Unite the Right has the benefit of a well-oiled, online ecosystem and convenient transit to bring supporters together.

And all they could muster were 500 people.

Without counter-protesters, without violence, there would be no blanket cable news coverage. And probably no innocent deaths. Might the headline have read “Unite the Right march fizzles”? What if the Democratic response was “70 years ago, 50,000 KKK marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, and today white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other alt-right groups combined, could barely muster 500 people. And while one Nazi is one too many, these are troubled, fringe people with an ideology America abhors.”

Violence Is More Likely, and Violence Rarely Benefits the Forces of Good

I am not a pacifist, believe revolution can be justified, but the bar is exceedingly high for actions that can cost innocent lives. Counter-protesting is confrontational, counter-productive and a troubling trend, if every protest in America is now going to be a head-to-head stand-off. A near impossible scenario for law enforcement and first responders.

The odds of violent encounters ratchet up, and violence is out of sync with the core ideologies of the clear majority of liberals and the left. Organizers of Unite the Right believe violence is a viable way to solve problems, came armed to the teeth, wanted violence to occur, and got what they wanted.

The Mob Effect

Any psychology student can cite studies about how people act in a mob and it ain’t pretty. People are pumped-up, taunting each other, and more prone to take actions they might not take in less heated circumstances. Counter-protests put two groups, who may hate each other, together face-to-face at a moment of heightened emotions.

It is simply a prescription for violence.

Never Elevate a Lesser Opponent

A counter-protest by its very existence is going to make an event bigger. In Charlottesville, the number of counter-protesters was double the size of the original protesters, greatly increasing the magnitude of the event. Yes, in Boston the counter-protest was so large the nationalist event didn’t even occur, but in Charlottesville opponents met and violence did happen. Incumbent candidates avoid direct engagement with challengers for a reason. Why legitimize a lesser, fringe candidate? Sharing the stage always places the lesser opponent on a more equal plain.

David Duke on TV, again?

Let’s Minimize Antifa

Michael Bray, author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” appeared on “Meet the Press” with Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center to discuss the Antifa group that supports violence as a legitimate response to fascism. Bray was clear: “Fascism cannot be defeated by speech,” arguing speech alone has failed historically.

Richard Cohen, who as legal counsel for the SPLC has won many landmark legal cases against white supremacists, strongly disagreed. Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project, speaking to the New York Times, said, “We’re against violence, just straight up. If you want to protest racists and anti-Semites, it needs to be peacefully and hopefully somewhere away from where those guys are rallying.”

An Antifa supporter in the New York Times said, “You need violence in order to protect non-violence.” Another Antifa supporter punched white supremacist Richard B. Spencer at the inauguration, claiming it was justified to punch a neo-Nazi.

Do we want to see people punching a socialist, transsexual or atheist because it is now okay to punch people at public events because you believe they have extreme views?

If you are with the SPLC, and concerned about the rise of Antifa, then you will recognize that a counter-protest, even if the vast majority of counter-protesters are peaceful, runs the risk of an Antifa action painting the entire group with a violent brush, while providing unnecessary talking points to the real extremists.

The Lizard People

It is estimated over 10 million Americans believe there are lizard people who live underground, eat babies and run the country. In 2017, to believe in the KKK, white nationalism and the Third Reich is comparable. James Alex Fields, who allegedly drove the car into the crowd in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, had a history of violent behavior. Much like the petty criminal who claims a last-minute allegiance to Islam, to ensure blanket media coverage as a “terrorist” when committing a horrific crime, are we feeding extremists’ sense of isolation and core mental illness with direct confrontation and counter-protesting? Should we be sending 1,000 psychiatrists, therapists and spiritual leaders to an alt-right protest instead, to deliver a stronger message about the participants and their state of mind?

When Mathew Heimbach, founder of the Nationalist Front, calls Charlottesville, “The largest nationalist rally in over two decades,” the reality is he can only attract 250 to 500 people in a nation of 325 million, even with free tiki torches. When Heimbach suggests they “achieved all their objectives” and “We asserted ourselves as the voice of white America. We had zero vehicles damaged,” is it ideology, or mental illness?

Fighting Smartly

My opposition to counter-protesting is not meant to ignore or diminish the threat. The extreme alt-right online-world is real. According to the SPLC, there are 276 militias operating in the United States today. And according to U.S. government reports of 85 violent extremist incidents resulting in death since 911, far right-wing extremists were responsible for 62 and radical Islamist extremists 23.

And reporting from the likes of Vice News, once again eating the lunch of mainstream news, with powerful embedded coverage by Elle Reeve of Vice News Tonight, is essential. But even Josh Tyrangiel, executive producer of Vice News Tonight, twice in one interview with Charlie Rose, cautioned against glamorization saying, “I am very aware of the double-edged sword there. We do not want to glamorize them, we do not want to draw more attention to them, but obviously we are in an urgent moment.”

I hear the counter-arguments. We must fight them at every turn. Donald Trump’s true nature has now been revealed. Corporations are fleeing the administration. Confederate statues are being torn down across America. Racists are losing their jobs. A secretive, online movement is exposed and a national conversation continues.

But Heather Heyer and two police officers are dead, bad actors feel emboldened and there is a better way. An event advertised as the Woodstock of the alt-right could barely attract 500 people. Those people are on the fringe, are deeply troubled and are in need of mental health services. Let members speak at their rally. Then organize a Unite the Country march a week later, with 100,000 peaceful attendees.

Let’s recognize how far we’ve come, be tactical, avoid violence and an arms race of counter-protesting, while acknowledging how far we still must go.

Are We Doomed? Let’s Have a Talk

We’re not all ready to have the same conversation, but perhaps that’s a good place to start

      Reprinted from CommonDreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

 

A placard warning against the dangers of climate change used in the March on Washington stands by an overflowing garbage can on Saturday, January 21, 2017. (Photo by Epics/Getty Images)

 

My most recent essay, in which I discussed a highly publicized controversy over the efficacy of plans for a comprehensive transition to an all-renewable energy future, garnered some strong responses. “If you are right,” one Facebook commenter opined, “we are doomed. Fortunately you are not right.” (The commenter didn’t explain why.) What had I said to provoke an expectation of cataclysmic oblivion? Simply that there is probably no technically and financially feasible energy pathway to enable those of us in highly industrialized countries to maintain current levels of energy usage very far into the future.

My piece happened to be published right around the same time New York Magazine released a controversial article, titled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” in which author David Wallace Wells portrayed a dire future if the most pessimistic climate change models turn to reality. “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” wrote Wells. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.” Wells’s article drew rebukes from—of all people—climate scientists, who pointed out a few factual errors, but also insisted that scaring the public just doesn’t help. “Importantly, fear does not motivate,” responded Michael Mann with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles, “and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.”

“We humans have overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for our species…”It’s true: apocalyptic warnings don’t move most people. Or, rather, they move most people away from the source of discomfort, so they simply tune out. But it’s also true that people feel a sense of deep, unacknowledged unease when they are fed “solutions” that they instinctively know are false or insufficient.

Others came to Wells’s defense. Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist and founder of the climate action group The Climate Mobilization, which advocates for starting a “World War II-scale” emergency mobilization to convert from fossil fuels, writes, “it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. . . . [I]t’s the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings—not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.”

So: Are we doomed if we can’t maintain current and growing energy levels? And are we doomed anyway due to now-inevitable impacts of climate change?

First, the good news. With regard to energy, we should keep in mind the fact that today’s Americans use roughly twice as much per capita as their great-grandparents did in 1925. While people in that era enjoyed less mobility and fewer options for entertainment and communication than we do today, they nevertheless managed to survive and even thrive. And we now have the ability to provide many services (such as lighting) far more efficiently, so it should be possible to reduce per-capita energy usage dramatically while still maintaining a lifestyle that would be considered more than satisfactory by members of previous generations and by people in many parts of the world today. And reducing energy usage would make a whole raft of problems—climate change, resource depletion, the challenge of transitioning to renewable energy sources—much easier to solve.

The main good news with regard to climate change that I can point to (as I did in  this essay posted in June) is that economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves are consistent only with lower-emissions climate change scenarios. As BP and other credible sources for coal, oil, and natural gas reserves figures show, and as more and more researchers are pointing out, the worst-case climate scenarios associated with “business as usual” levels of carbon emissions are in fact unrealistic.

Now, the bad news. While we could live perfectly well with less energy, that’s not what the managers of our economy want. They want growth. Our entire economy is structured to require constant, compounded growth of GDP, and for all practical purposes raising the GDP means using more energy. While fringe economists and environmentalists have for years been proposing ways to back away from our growth addiction (for example, by using alternative economic indices such as Gross National Happiness), none of these proposals has been put into widespread effect. As things now stand, if growth falters the economy crashes.

There’s bad climate news as well: even with current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, we’re seeing unacceptable and worsening impacts—raging fires, soaring heat levels, and melting icecaps. And there are hints that self-reinforcing feedbacks maybe kicking in: an example is the release of large amounts of methane from thawing tundra and oceanic hydrates, which could lead to a short-term but steep spike in warming.  Also, no one is sure if current metrics of climate sensitivity (used to estimate the response of the global climate system to a given level of forcing) are accurate, or whether the climate is actually more sensitive than we have assumed. There’s some worrisome evidence the latter is case.

But let’s step back a bit. If we’re interested in signs of impending global crisis, there’s no need to stop with just these two global challenges. The world is losing 25 billion tons of topsoil a year due to current industrial agricultural practices; if we don’t deal with that issue, civilization still crash even if we do manage to ace our energy and climate test. Humanity is also over-using fresh water: ancient aquifers are depleting, while other water sources are being polluted. If we don’t deal with our water crisis, we still crash. Species are going extinct at a thousand times the pre-industrial rate; if we don’t deal with the biodiversity dilemma, we still crash. Then there are social and economic problems that could cause nations to crumble even if we manage to protect the environment; this threat category includes the menaces of over-reliance on debt and increasing economic inequality.

If we attack each of these problems piecemeal with technological fixes (for example, with desalination technology to solve the water crisis or geo-engineering to stabilize the climate) we may still crash because our techno-fixes are likely to have unintended consequences, as all technological interventions do. Anyway, the likelihood of successfully identifying and deploying all the needed fixes in time is vanishingly small.

Many problems are converging at once because society is a complex system, and the challenges we have been discussing are aspects of a systemic crisis. A useful way to frame an integrated understanding of the 21st century survival challenge is this: we humans have overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for our species. We’ve been able to do this due to a temporary subsidy of cheap, bountiful energy from fossil fuels, which enabled us to stretch nature’s limits and to support a far larger overall population than would otherwise be possible. But now we are starting to see supply constraints for those fuels, just as the side effects of burning enormous amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas are also coming into view. Meanwhile, using cheap energy to expand resource-extractive and waste-generating economic processes is leading to biodiversity loss; the depletion of soil, water, and minerals; and environmental pollution of many kinds. Just decarbonizing energy, while necessary, doesn’t adequately deal with systemic overshoot. Only a reduction of population and overall resource consumption, along with a rapid reduction in our reliance on fossil fuels and a redesign of industrial systems, can do that.

Economic inequality is a systemic problem too. As we’ve grown our economy, those who were in position to invest in industrial expansion or to loan money to others have reaped the majority of the rewards, while those who got by through selling their time and labor (or whose common cultural heritage was simply appropriated by industrialists) have fallen behind. There’s no technological fix for inequality; dealing with it will require redesigning our economic system and redistributing wealth. Those in wealthy nations would, on average, have to adjust their living standards downward.

Now, can we do all of this without a crash? Probably not. Indeed, many economists would regard the medicine (population reduction, a decline in per-capita energy use, and economic redistribution) as worse than whatever aspects of the disease they are willing to acknowledge. Environmentalists and human rights advocates would disagree. Which is to say, there’s really no way out. Whether we stick with business as usual, or attempt a dramatic multi-pronged intervention, our current “normal” way of life is toast.

Accepting that a crash is more or less inevitable is a big step, psychologically speaking. I call this toxic knowledge: one cannot “un-know” that the current world system hangs by a thread, and this understanding can lead to depression. In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually. Some willfully ignore their own mortality for as long as possible; others grasp at a belief in the afterlife. Still others seek to create meaning and purpose by making a positive difference in the lives of those around them with whatever time they have. Such efforts don’t alter the inevitability of death; however, contributing to one’s community appears to enhance well-being in many ways beyond that of merely prolonging life.

In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually.

But is a crash the same as doom?

Not necessarily. Our best hope at this point would seem to be a controlled crash that enables partial recovery at a lower level of population and resource use, and that therefore doesn’t lead to complete and utter oblivion (human extinction or close to it). Among those who understand the systemic nature of our problems, the controlled crash option is the subject of what may be the most interesting and important conversation that’s taking place on the planet just now. But only informed people who have gotten over denial and self-delusion are part of it.

This discussion started in the 1970s, though I wasn’t part of it then; I joined a couple of decades later. There is no formal membership; the conversation takes place through and among a patchwork of small organizations and scattered individuals. They don’t all know each other and there is no secret handshake. Some have publicly adopted the stance that a global crash is inevitable; most soft-pedal that message on their organizational websites but are privately plenty worried. During the course of the conversation so far, two (not mutually exclusive) strategies have emerged.

The first strategy envisions convincing the managers and power holders of the world to invest in a no-regrets insurance plan. Some systems thinkers who understand our linked global crises are offering to come up with a back-pocket checklist for policy makers, for moments when financial or environmental crisis hits: how, under such circumstances, might the managerial elite be able to prevent, say, a stock market crash from triggering food, energy, and social crises as well? A set of back-up plans wouldn’t require detailed knowledge of when or how crisis will erupt. It wouldn’t even require much of a systemic understanding of global overshoot. It would simply require willingness on the part of societal power holders to agree that there are real or potential threats to global order, and to accept the offer of help. At the moment, those pursuing this strategy are working mostly covertly, for reasons that are not hard to discern.

The second strategy consists of working within communities to build more societal resilience from the ground up. It is easier to get traction with friends and neighbors than with global power holders, and it’s within communities that political decisions are made closest to where the impact is felt. My own organization, Post Carbon Institute, has chosen to pursue this strategy via a series of books, the Community Resilience Guides;  the “Think Resilience” video series; and our forthcoming compendium, The Community Resilience Reader.  Rob Hopkins, who originated the Transition Towns movement, has been perhaps the most public, eloquent, and upbeat proponent of the local resilience strategy, but there are countless others scattered across the globe.

Somehow, the work of resilience building (whether top-down or bottom-up) must focus not just on maintaining supplies of food, water, energy, and other basic necessities, but also on sustaining social cohesion—a culture of understanding, tolerance, and inquiry—during times of great stress. While it’s true that people tend to pull together in remarkable ways during wars and natural disasters, sustained hard times can lead to scapegoating and worse.

Most people are not party to the conversation, not aware that it is happening, and unaware even that such a conversation is warranted. Among those who are worried about the state of the world, most are content to pursue or support efforts to keep crises from occurring by working via political parties, religious organizations, or non-profit advocacy orgs on issues such as climate change, food security, and economic inequality. There is also a small but rapidly growing segment of society that feels disempowered as the era of economic growth wanes, and that views society’s power holders as evil and corrupt. These dispossessed—whether followers of ISIS or Infowars—would prefer to “shake things up,” even to the point of bringing society to destruction, rather than suffer the continuation of the status quo. Unfortunately, this last group may have the easiest path of all.

By comparison, the number of those involved in the conversation is exceedingly small, countable probably in the hundreds of thousands, certainly not millions. Can we succeed? It depends on how one defines “success”—as the ability to maintain, for a little longer, an inherently unsustainable global industrial system? Or as the practical reduction in likely suffering on the part of the survivors of the eventual crash? A related query one often hears after environmental lectures is, Are we doing enough? If “Enough” means “enough to avert a system crash,” then the answer is no: it’s unlikely that anyone can deliver that outcome now. The question should be, What can we do—not to save a way of life that is unsalvageable, but to make a difference to the people and other species in harm’s way?

This is not a conversation about the long-term trajectory of human cultural evolution, though that’s an interesting subject for speculation. Assuming there are survivors, what will human society look like following the crises ensuing from climate change and the end of fossil fuels and capitalism? David Fleming’s book, Surviving the Future, and John Michael Greer’s, The Ecotechnic Future, both  offer useful thoughts in this regard. My own view is that it’s hard for us to envision what comes next because our imaginations are bounded by the reality we have known. What awaits will likely be as far removed from from modern industrial urban life as Iron-Age agrarian empires were from hunting-and-gathering bands. We are approaching one of history’s great discontinuities. The best we can do under the circumstances is to get our priorities and values straight (protect the vulnerable, preserve the best of what we have collectively achieved, and live a life that’s worthy) and put one foot in front of the other.

The conversation I’m pointing to here is about fairly short-term actions. And it doesn’t lend itself to building a big movement. For that, you need villains to blame and promises of revived national or tribal glory. For those engaged in the conversation, there’s only hard work and the satisfaction of honestly facing our predicament with an attitude of curiosity, engagement, and compassion. For us, threats of doom or promises of utopia are distractions or cop-outs.

Only those drawn to the conversation by temperament and education are likely to take it up. Advertising may not work. But having a few more hands on deck, and a few more resources to work with, can only help.

Steve Frisch on Trump, Our National Embarrassment: “This Too Will Pass”

By Steve Frisch

The following impromptu “essay” was written by Steve Frisch in the form of a comment to his Facebook friends, and reprinted here with his permission, in honor of July 4th, 2017.

“I think the first step in celebrating America this weekend is recognizing that as much of a national embarrassment as Trump is … this too will pass.

“Yeah, I am embarrassed by having a President, apparently selected by my peers, who brags about grabbing pussy, bullies his opponents and staff, has been implicated by numerous women including his ex-wife in sexual assault, bought a beauty pageant so he could walk in on young women half naked, has been sued by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination, hob nobs with the New York mafia, has been fined for breaking casino gambling rules, has been sued for intimidating tenants in his buildings, was fined $750,000 for breaking anti-trust rules, has bankrupted 4 businesses while saying America needs to be run like one of his businesses, hired undocumented workers while saying we should build a wall, has stiffed literally hundreds of contractors on millions of dollars worth of goods and services delivered to him, and uses the money to buy his own books so he can say they are bestsellers and print fake covers of Time magazine to say how great he is. Oh and did I miss that he has a gold plated shitter?

“It says a lot that that paragraph is so long yet contains a mere fraction of his gauche behavior.

“But lets get real, he is 71 years old, and a friend of mine says we are just a funeral away from perfection.

“I know, I know, I spend a lot of time expressing how disgusted I am with Trump. But I spend a hell of a lot more time working hard to try to counter the idiocy that seems to have descended on our nation and eventually WE will win.

“To all my friends doing all those good things out there to make America a better place for everyone I salute you and love you today.

“Trump and his mind set do not represent this nation. You represent this nation.

“We are a nation that values freedom and individualism, expression and speech, privacy and free will, hard work and the benefits it brings.

“It may take time, and be a fight, and be too slow coming for ‘the other,’ but we value equality, ensconced it in our founding documents, rededicated in blood in the 14th amendment, fought for at Seneca Falls, the lunch counter, in farm fields, at Stonewall, and in court every goddamn day.

“More important, we are a nation and a people who look forward. We are less concerned with our European, or Asian, or African past and their social conventions and traditions than we are the future and making the future count. There is a fundamental American belief in progress and a better future.

“We are bold, brash, assertive, direct, rough hewn, and at times self indulgent and chauvinistic, but at the end of the day we value goodness, honesty, sacrifice and achievement. We still weep and revel in the accomplishment of others. We root for the little guy, followed the Cubs through a 106 year drought, and when every other option is exhausted as Churchill said, we end up doing the right thing. In the end by and large, we are good.

“So celebrate the 4th of July because we are here…and no one or any authoritarian blow hard can take that away.

“Once civic responsibility was a bedrock American value, and compared to many societies it still is…but if we have one challenge in the next few years it will be re-engaging to advance goodness. Our actions to advance democratic governance matter…it is the societies where people give up, hide, protect themselves putting their peers at risk, that democracy dies. We have a responsibility to defend all of those values articulated above every single day. Whether through involvement in an organization, on policy, through charity, in church, or at the indivisible meeting, we uphold democratic values every day and fight for our freedom.

“This too will pass and the next America will be defined by what you do today.”


Steve_Frisch

Steve Frisch is President of Sierra Business Council and one of its founding members. Over the last 20 years Sierra Business Council has leveraged more than $100 million of investment in the Sierra Nevada and its communities through community and public-private partnerships.  Sierra Business Council also manages the Sierra Small Business Development Center focusing on advancing sustainable business practices and linking new and expanding businesses to climate mitigation and adaptation funding. Steve manages SBC’s staff and programmatic development.

Prior to joining the Sierra Business Council, Steve owned and operated a small business in Truckee. Steve serves on the board of the California Stewardship Network, the Large Landscape Practitioners Network, the National Geographic Geo-tourism Council, Capital Public Radio, and Leadership For Jobs and a New Economy.  Steve is also a former Fulbright Exchange Program Fellow, sharing information and knowledge gained in the Sierra Nevada in China and Mongolia.  Steve is a graduate of San Francisco State University with a B.A. in Political Science.

 

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