Surrender of the Hawks

Vlad and Donny horseback 2

One of the most mind-boggling things about the Trump presidency is the effect it has had on US foreign policy hawks. This is a group that, while not 100% Republican, certainly skews heavily that way. It is also a group that has traditionally been Russophobic in the extreme. Yet even as they watch this president eagerly serve as an obsequious bootlicker for Vladimir Putin, a great many self-described hawks remain firmly in Trump’s camp, in defiance of almost every conceivable explanation save one, which I will get to shortly.

But first, let’s conduct a little recce of this bizarre situation.


Though I don’t condone it, I can at least understand why certain other single issue voters made the Faustian decision to throw in with the Very Stable Genius. A great many evangelical Christians, for example, have said they held their noses and voted for a man who in both person and policy defies just about everything Jesus Christ is supposed to stand for, because they felt he would at least defend their interests. Their rationale does not make a lot of sense, hinging as it does on a pathological hatred for Hillary Clinton that is unsupported by facts, but at least it is a rationale, however flawed. (And, of course, not all evangelicals needed to hold their nose. Many of them were and are in full-throated support of the entire Trump agenda, a phenomenon previously discussed at length in these pages.)

Another such group would be mainstream Republicans desperate to put an archconservative in Merrick Garland’s seat on the Supreme Court at any cost. (And yes, I do mean Merrick Garland’s seat, not Antonin Scalia’s. It damn sure isn’t rightfully Neil Gorsuch’s.)

The plutocracy’s willingness to support Trump is equally understandable, if despicable. A great many members of the 1% are well aware of the trainwreck that is the Cretin from Queens, but clearly are willing to put up with all of it—the payoffs to porn stars, the governance-by-Twitter, the general destruction of presidential norms—for the sake of their pocketbooks. The GOP tax scam that was rammed down American throats in the dead of night last December may have justified their calculus. It’s absolutely amoral, avaricious, and venal, not to mention of questionable logic (requiring one to overlook the long term damage it is likely to do to the American economy, the additional $1.4 trillion in debt, and the deleterious effects of further turbocharging inequality in these United States), but at least I understand the motivation.

However, the same Faustian bargain cannot be said to apply to foreign policy hawks. In each of the aforementioned cases there is an obvious tradeoff: get behind this troglodyte, with all his manifest shortcomings (if that stuff bothers you), in exchange for support for your pet issue. I get it.

But what do foreign policy hawks get out of supporting Trump? Everything the man does in that realm is an absolute disaster for America’s security, global credibility, and influence in the world.

He has shaken the foundations of NATO and alienated our staunchest allies with idiotic “America First” rhetoric while lavishing praise on autocrats from Erodgan to Xi Jingping to Duterte; moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock as close to midnight as they have ever been with his juvenile, genocidally reckless goading of North Korea; served as ISIS’s best possible recruiting sergeant with his volcanic Islamophobia; boasted of non-existent carrier groups, calling into question the Pentagon’s ability to read a map and diluting future threats of force; embarrassingly botched the aftermath of the Niger ambush; pointlessly given away the bargaining chip of a US embassy in Jerusalem in exchange for nothing; jeopardized our best hope for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions by treating Teheran the same way he historically treated Atlantic City contractors; and repeatedly undermined his own staff, from McMaster to Tillerson to Sessions, creating a climate of chaos that makes the world question whether anything said by a representative of the US government won’t later be undercut by its head of state. To name just a few.

In Politico, Susan Glasser writes:

Over the course of the year, I have often heard top foreign officials express their alarm in hair-raising terms rarely used in international diplomacy—let alone about the president of the United States. Seasoned diplomats who have seen Trump up close throw around words like “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous.” In Berlin this spring, I listened to a group of sober policy wonks debate whether Trump was merely a “laughingstock” or something more dangerous. Virtually all of those from whom I’ve heard this kind of ranting are leaders from close allies and partners of the United States.

Simply put, Trump’s criminal negligence of US national security ought to horrify hawkish Republicans more than anyone else. In the assessment of Richard North Patterson, “No foreign enemy could have degraded America’s global standing so completely in so short a time.”

Of course, there are some hawks who would disagree that these were errors, and who enthusiastically back Trump’s national security agenda (to the extent that the ad hoc day-by-day whims of a raging adolescent can accurately be described as any kind of coherent “agenda”). But at the risk of being patronizing, these people cannot be taken seriously. Sure, there are mouthbreathing jingoists who think we ought to “carpet bomb ISIS and take their oil” (let me know how that is possible), or that we can magically stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions merely by bullying them, or that we ought to give our longtime NATO partners the middle finger and go it alone. But none of these are cogent foreign policy positions held by credible thinkers in the field or merit dignifying with serious debate. Even those respectable hawks who support some of Trump’s foreign policy stances—a hardline on Iran, for instance—admit to grave misgivings about his geopolitics at large. No serious military thinker I know believes that taunting Kim Jong Un to the brink of nuclear war will bring about a positive solution to that problem, or that a Lindbergh-rides-again approach to NATO is helpful, for example.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we were to stipulate that this laundry list of national security disasters are in fact all good ideas, there remains one area where Trump’s foreign policy runs absolutely contrary to decades of deeply entrenched conservative orthodoxy. And that’s the place with the furry hats.


For at least seventy years, from 1945 to 2016, no single issue united and inspired American conservatives more than unrelenting enmity toward Russia. (Longer in fact, if you start the clock from the Russian Revolution, suspended only temporarily—and grudgingly—in order to join forces against the Nazis.) Even during that brief period of uncertainty from the fall of the USSR in 1991 to Putin’s assumption of power in 2000, the hawks repeatedly warned that Russia was not to be trusted. Hatred and suspicion towards Moscow are the north star of right wing American politics.

Somehow, however, that same right wing is now totally cool with Donald J. Trump subordinating the interests and security of the United States of America to the interests of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation.

It is impossible to plausibly deny that he is doing so. Aside from a few minor digressions that had no appreciable impact, like the feckless and largely symbolic missile strike on Syria last April, at every turn Trump has taken Russia’s side. From sowing discord within NATO, to changing the Republican platform to support a pro-Russian position on Crimea, to returning two Russian spy houses that the Obama administration took away, to declining (without comment) to renew sanctions against Russia that passed Congress with a resounding 517 to 5 vote, to—the capper of them all, in my humble opinion—personally handing over top secret codeword intel to Sergei Kislyak and Sergey Lavrov, face to face, right there in the Oval Office, Trump has been a strong candidate for Kremlin Employee of the Year. (In that last example, Kislyak and Lavrov themselves looked shocked, as if thinking, “It can’t be this easy.”)

At the center of all this, and most glaring of course, has been Trump’s refusal to acknowledge—let alone take action to punish and prevent—Russian meddling in the American electoral process.

Trump has shown no interest in investigating this matter. None, nada, zero, zilch, bupkes. On the contrary, in fact: he has flagrantly done everything presidentially possible to thwart a proper inquiry into Russian actions, to the point of shameless, almost mind-blowingly overt obstruction of justice. From Flynn to Yates to Comey to Sessions to Mueller, that obstructionism needs no recitation here. (We can just want for the indictment.)

Just last week he ignored the anguished pleas of his Department of Justice and FBI (and he does view them as “his own”) and declassified the outrageous Nunes memo as part of an ongoing smear campaign to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller, while blocking the release of the Democratic rebuttal, hypocritically pleading (of all things) “national security concerns.” The man truly has no shame. Most recently, he took umbrage at Mueller’s damningly detailed indictment of 13 Russian nationals involved in ratfucking the election, and took to his favorite platform, Twitter, to attack his own National Security Adviser, active duty Lieutenant General HR McMaster, for failing to—falsely—stress to our European allies—that Russia played no role in Trump’s victory.

And this dereliction of duty is not only Trump’s. Unlike the fake president, Ryan, McConnell, and other GOP mandarins have been savvy enough to pay lip service to condemning Russian meddling—quelle horreur!—but tellingly have done none more about it than he has, which is nothing. It is within their power to act, of course. They don’t need the POTUS to tell them to set up an independent commission to look into it, a la the 9/11 Commission; they could very easily do so on their own. We’re still waiting.


All this should outrage the hawks, particularly the wanton denigration of the US intelligence community and law enforcement, which the right normally fetishizes. (Denigration is putting it mildly—it’s more like an outright attack that would have made Nixon blanch.) Yet it doesn’t. What happened to the Torquemada-like tenacity that gave us the endless taxpayer-funded Benghazi hearings?

Pardon the tedious repetition, and at the risk of stating the obvious, imagine if Hillary had fired the head of the FBI looking into her collusion with a foreign power, tried to fire the special counsel doing the same, got caught repeatedly lying about contacts with the Russians, attacked the Attorney General and the DOJ for not “protecting” her in such deceit, pressured the heads of the CIA and NSA to publicly exonerate her, and on and on, all the while engaging in policy actions and pronouncements that benefited Moscow. (Not to mention refusing to release her tax returns even as evidence mounted of her shadowy financial entanglements with Russian oligarchs, mobsters, and their associated government contacts.) If Clinton or Obama had engaged in even a fraction of this behavior Fox Nation would be out in the streets with pitchforks and torches—bought from Lowe’s—with the hawks leading the charge.

Of course, not every hawk has been so blind. Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, George Will, and many others have been passionate and outspoken opponents of Trump. So have many retired military officers, and, in their own way, even some active duty brass. (A special shout-out to MG [Ret.] Paul Eaton, for demolishing Trump’s demand for a Red Square style parade in his own honor.) But they are the exception and not the rule.

Consider also this tidbit from Washington Post writers Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Philip Rucker, in their sweeping survey of Trump’s failure to safeguard the US electoral process, about the ways in which the Intelligence Community has had to alter the Presidential Daily Brief to suit the current chief executive: “US officials declined to discuss whether the stream of recent intelligence on Russia has been shared with Trump. Current and former officials said that his daily intelligence update—known as the president’s daily brief, or PDB—is often structured to avoid upsetting him.”

So the most important, high level, top secret briefings in the world have to be bowdlerized to assuage the ego of the monstrous manchild we inexplicably made our leader?

Dear Republicans: Don’t ever preach to me about patriotism and national security again.


Our intelligence chiefs have called Russian interference in the 2016 election an act of war a par with Pearl Harbor or 9/11. And the President of the United States does not care. He certainly isn’t doing anything to investigate it or prevent it from happening again. As Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times: “It’s as if George W. Bush had said after 9/11: ‘No big deal. I am going golfing over the weekend in Florida and blogging about how it’s all the Democrats’ fault—no need to hold a National Security Council meeting.’”

Put very simply, Trump is wantonly refusing to execute the most basic duty of his office: safeguarding the security of these United States. Needless to say, that is an absolutely indefensible, appalling abdication of presidential authority, violation of the oath of office, and arguably an impeachable offense. (Yawn. What isn’t these days?) If that isn’t grounds for his removal, I don’t know what is.

In their WaPo piece, Miller, Jaffe, and Rucker further report that Trump’s aides continue to assert with a straight face that the sum total of their boss’s opposition to the Russiagate inquiry is that “the idea that he’s been put into office by Vladi­mir Putin is pretty insulting.” You get the sense that somebody in the White House has decided that the best defense against charges of collusion is for people to believe that the self-proclaimed Very Stable Genius is a merely a narcissistic simpleton who can’t deal with the fact that he didn’t win the popular vote, a juvenile egomaniac who lacks the capacity or imagination to have done anything as sophisticated as conspire with a hostile foreign power.

While he is certainly a narcissist, a simpleton, and a juvenile egomaniac, none of that lets him off the hook. It also fails to account for all the sucking up he did toward Putin during in the campaign and his continued inability to say a bad word about him ever since. It’s not as if Trump is usually at a loss for a well-timed insult.

Obviously, one reason Trump and the GOP are loath to stop, or even acknowledge, Russian interference is that it benefits them at a time when they are fighting a losing battle against demographic trends. If you’re going to gerrymander, suppress the vote, spread lies about voter fraud, and disenfranchise huge swaths of the electorate, why not take the Kremlin’s help too? Or did you think that was a red line for a party as principled as the GOP? David Frum writes in the Atlantic:

Trump continues to insist that he and his campaign team did not collude with Russia in the 2016 election. We know that they were ready and eager to collude—that’s on the public record. (“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”) The public does not yet know whether the collusion actually occurred, and if so, in what form and to what extent. But in front of our very eyes we can observe that they are leaving the door open to Russian intervention on their behalf in the next election. You might call it collusion in advance—a dereliction of duty as grave as any since President Buchanan looked the other way as Southern state governments pillaged federal arsenals on the eve of the Civil War.

Per above, for some Republicans and other right wingers, this deal with the devil might make Machiavellian sense. (We’ll leave right and wrong out of it.) But for foreign policy hawks animated primarily by Russophobia, colluding with Russia to gain political power does not make a lot of sense when your chief goal is defeating Russia.


It says a lot that the most innocent explanation for Trump’s constant water-carrying for Vladimir Putin is his admiration for the kind of strongman he personally yearns to be.

Let that sink in a moment.

That we the people have put such a person in the Oval Office is jawdropping but as the kids say, I can’t even.

The same may be true of some hawks, even the Russophobes, in the same way that fundamentalist Christians suspiciously share many qualities (anti-modernism, militarism, misogyny, theocracy, and the like) with their own sworn enemy, radical Islamists. Yes, some on the right recognize much that they admire and indeed aspire to in Putin’s Russia: authoritarianism, the illusion of strength, a slavishly complaint state-run media, institutionalized kleptocracy for the benefit of a few, and perhaps above all, a fascist-style racist appeal to the white volk (or more appropriate for Russia, narod). That is especially true of white nationalists, and not coincidentally, of our Insane Clown President himself. He has made that abundantly clear.

But of course, the $64,000 question is whether there is something far more sinister at the heart of Trump’s inexplicable fealty to Russia—which is to say, blackmail. That blackmail might be as salacious (and yet simultaneously as prosaic) as the vaunted pee-pee tape, or as complex as the Trump Organization’s byzantine financial entanglement with the octopus of Russian business interests, organized crime, and Putin’s gangster kleptocracy, which are all pretty much one in the same. The latter is all but undeniable and has already been well-documented; even more damning information is likely to emerge. The former may or may not exist, but in light of the other, does it really even matter? Donald Trump quite plainly is in thrall to the Kremlin for one reason or another. His infantile refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling and take countermeasures only reinforces the very impression he is desperate to avoid—that he is Moscow’s pawn— which leads any thinking person to believe that that is undeniably true. So what’s worse: a President so vain that he won’t admit reality, or one who truly is in the Kremlin’s pocket? It could be that we are saddled with a POTUS who is both.

Indeed, Trump’s kowtowing to Moscow is so shameless, so blatant, and so without even the pretense of camouflage that it beggars fiction. No double agent in a respectable spy novel would ever behave in such an obviously guilty way. And before you Trump defenders howl, “Exactly!,” let’s remember that from condemning Al Franken for sex crimes to attacking Barack Obama for golfing too much, Donald J. Trump has time and time again proven himself to be impervious to both irony and common sense.

Don: Can you at least PRETEND to be outraged? Make a show of it, if only to throw off suspicion! Did you miss that day at KGB Mole School? (Out sick with bone spurs, perhaps.)

Presumably we will someday get to the bottom of Trump’s man-crush on Putin and eagerness to turn the United States into a satellite state of the USSR 2.0, and the fallout from that promises to be epic. (If not, God help the republic.) In the mean time it is all but impossible to deny the gobsmacking destructiveness and criminality of what he is doing.

Yet continue to deny it the hawks do.


As there seems to be no practical benefit to the willingness of hawks to stand by Trump, the phenomenon can really only be ascribed to one thing: blind, pathological tribalism run absolutely amok.

Trump is a Republican (now), and Republicans fancy themselves the hardnosed party of national defense, as opposed to those weak-kneed peaceniks over in Democrat country. (History begs to differ, but never mind.) Even by Republican standards Trump goes above and beyond in talking the talk of simpleminded macho “solutions” to complex foreign policy issues, a kind of jingoism that is appealing to hawks who fail to think critically about what is really being said. Allegiance to their tribe has (er) trumped even their hatred of Russia, resulting in intellectual gymnastics and mind-boggling ideological contortions that would do a yogi proud. But their tortured rationalizations don’t hold a milliliter of water. (Apologies for using the metric system, America Firsters!) They simply identify with a certain brand of tough guy posturing that Trump represents, and cannot accept, or perhaps even see, its hollowness, factual inaccuracy (sometimes called “lies”), and con artistry.

The last possible explanation that can be offered is one that takes this tribalism into account: that in sticking with Trump, warts and all, they maximize the influence of their faction for the future, simply by hurting the ideological opposition. That, for starters, is an incredibly immoral kind of Alice in Wonderland calculation, along the lines of “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” (a fitting analogy in this case). But its real flaw is that it is apt to be completely wrong, considering the amount of damage Trump is doing and that the United States is expected to sustain for the sake of some future partisan advantage. It’s more likely that the hawks’ “brand” will be so permanently discredited by association with this soulless third rate con man that they will have no influence whatsoever going forward.

The hawkish right seems to be in a kind of mass denial about what Trump is doing to America’s security. Whatever the reason for that mysterious malady, these people have forfeited whatever claim they once had as hardnosed pragmatists and critical thinkers. And if Trump proves to be actively complicit in a covert Russian coup d’etat in the United States, they will be guilty of something far worse.

If the Republic survives this monstrously counter-qualified excuse for a commander-in-chief who has almost singlehandedly devalued the global stature of the United States, if we don’t all die in a global nuclear holocaust, or devolve into a tinhorn banana republic-style autocracy (which we already are beginning to resemble in ways that would have been unthinkable even eighteen months ago), what will a post-Trump United States look like? Will we have sacrificed so much credibility and influence that we become a geopolitical afterthought in the shadow of China and others? Will our NATO partners ever trust us again? Will aspiring nuclear powers like Iran ever again engage in non-proliferation negotiations without fear that the US will do an inexplicable about-face? Will potential allies look elsewhere for security partners they deem credible, competent, and honorable?

Some of that damage is already done. Simply in electing Trump (Russian interference notwithstanding), America’s reliability as a geopolitical leader—not to mention our general sanity—is in question in deeply disturbing ways. Of course, we are far from the only country ever to succumb to demagoguery, authoritarianism, and neo-fascism. But this current outbreak does not help our reputation. The only question is how much damage has already been done, how much more will be done before Trump finally goes, and to what extent it can be repaired.

In the wake of this deeply ironic Presidents Day, let us stop and marvel at what a tragic distance we have come from leaders who deserve the name to this reprehensible cretin who serves only his own monstrous ego, and goddam the rest of us.

A Spark Is Lit: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 2)

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This week, the second part of my conversation with author and activist Alix Kates Shulman, one of the most prominent figures in second wave feminism, who has been on the front lines of the fight for equal rights and social justice for more than 50 years.

At a time when the United States has a president* in the White House who brags of sexual assault, and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have put feminism back at the forefront of the national conversation, Alix’s perspective has never been more apropos.

(For Alix’s full bio, see Part 1 of this conversation, “Feminism in the Age of Monsters,” or the bottom of this post.)


THE KING’S NECKTIE: We were talking last time about the importance of “consciousness raising” in the feminist movement. On the one hand, I would say, “If you’re a woman, how can you not be a feminist?” For that matter, how can any human, male or female, not support equality, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. But especially if you’re a woman, how can you not be a feminist? On the other hand, if you’re in this Frantz Fanon colonial mindset where you’ve been indoctrinated to accept your own subjugation…. 

ALIX SHULMAN: At the time that the second wave was spreading, you had to marry or you were an old maid, uncertain of how you’d survive. Husbands were the breadwinners. I’m just talking about the middle class now, because most working class women were always working outside the home, and that includes many people of color, immigrants, people living in poverty. It’s a different set of pressures. But a lot of middle class women felt threatened by feminism in those early days because they worried that they were going to lose their only way of surviving if they embraced women’s liberation. No way they were going to be able to get their husbands to do half the housework. So what were they going to do? Get dumped? I mean, people act in their perceived self-interest.

This was another rallying cry of our movement in the early days of consciousness raising: “Figure out where our interests lie and fight for them.” For women it was a kind of revolutionary statement to claim the right to put our own interests first.

Another principle from one of the earliest consciousness raising groups was, “We take the women’s side in everything.…We ask: is it good for women or bad for women?” This in itself was very shocking. Of course there are so many different categories of women, but in those early days that wasn’t perceived as such an issue. So if a woman sees her self-interest as threatened by feminism, she’s going to oppose it.

Though the backlash was mainly men, there were also women, including many evangelicals, involved in the anti-abortion movement, the anti-gay movement. Remember Anita….what was her name?….

TKN: Anita… (searching) She was the orange juice woman…..I can’t remember now. I guess that’s a good sign! Oh, Anita Bryant!

AS: Right. People like her were very public figures and yet they were arguing against women having public lives.

TKN: You started to allude to distinctions—class distinctions and otherwise—within the feminist movement. Can you talk a little bit about that?

AS: The #MeToo movement that has surfaced so far—or anyway that has gotten a lot of press—has been mostly in industries where there are celebrities. But much worse—because it’s so entrenched and without recourse—is the sexism and sexual harassment and abuse and misconduct toward women who are waitresses, chambermaids, cleaners, health care workers, blue collar workers. Many of these workers get such low pay they lack a financial cushion, especially those with families to support. Who is going to stand up for them? Even where they have a union, the women aren’t necessarily supported in their complaints against union men—as reported in the superb New York Times story on sexual harassment at two Chicago area Ford Motor plants. Recognizing the need, prominent women in the film industry recently founded the Time’s Up movement precisely to create a legal defense fund for victims of sexual harassment in low-paying and low-profile jobs.

TKN: One would hope that it begins where it began, in entertainment and media, for the reasons you cited, and eventually it spreads. I mean, it’s great that Harvey and the rest of them all are being brought down, but you’re telling me there’s no sexual harassment on Wall Street? Come on!

AS: That’s surely going to happen. Another place is in the universities, of course. The professors in charge of your dissertation can ask for anything and frequently do. And how do you refuse when they control your future? That’s another aspect of the sexual harassment law: retaliation. It’s illegal to retaliate against someone who alleges sexual harassment. Yet it happens all the time and is hard to prove.

TKN: And it also goes to the issue of consent. Often the defense is that the relationship was consensual. But when the power structure is such, like a professor and a student, how can there be true consent?

AS: Right. As Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” I tend to be more permissive about consenting adults, although of course it’s complicated.

The military is another place where misogyny and abuse are rampant. We have so much evidence. Every so often there is a scandal involving the terrible sexism in the military: women being raped, mistreated, shunted aside, ridiculed, and retaliated against when they complain. The military is so male dominated, and the power in the military is not democratic in the least.

TKN: By definition. It’s not a democratic institution even when it’s in the service of a democracy, and it can’t be.

AS: I just read that the number of rapes at West Point doubled last year. So I don’t know if the military is going to change. I kind of doubt it.

TKN: Although, I grew up in the military, I was born into it, I was in it myself—

AS: I know.

TKN: ….but I was always in all-male units, I was never in a unit with a woman, so I can’t speak to that. But I’ll say this. The Army desegregated before the rest of American society because it was ordered to. Truman simply ordered the military to desegregate well before the majority of the general public was ready to accept that. And even the racists in the service who didn’t like it still had to salute and comply. “Three bags full, sir!” So the same anti-democratic structure can work to the advantage of social justice.

AS: Yes.

TKN: It can, but only if the people in power—whether they’re female generals or male generals—say, “This is not going to continue. We’re going to stop it.” They can stop it. I don’t know if they’re going to do that when it comes to sexual harassment or discrimination, let alone assault, but they can.

AS: Yes, right.

TKN: Same with the removal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the lifting of the prohibition on homosexuality. One day you just get an order from above that says, “I don’t care how you feel—I don’t care if you’re homophobic or not—this is how it’s going to be. Deal with it.”

AS: But I wonder if the powers that be in the military will have that attitude towards women. Who knows? So far, they haven’t even enforced the rules they have.

TKN: Right. I mean, it’s a macho institution by its nature: just the numbers of men versus women in the ranks, and the nature of what a military does. But the flag officers, the brass, could stand up and be the leaders they’re supposed to be and set an example for the whole country.

AS: They could. Of course they could.

TKN: They could be the ones to say “It stops here and we’re going to lead the way.” We’ll see if they do.

AS: And if you disobey, you get court martialed. Discharged. Out!

TKN: We’ll see.


AS: I keep hearing that there’s a generational split around the #MeToo movement. Older women grew up understanding that the only way to survive was to go along a bit, as you see in Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. What alternatives did you have? I mean, you can’t make a big fuss or you’re finished. And some of the women of my generation, and maybe the older half of the next generation, were able to survive only by being accommodating. And that should include me, but since I became an ardent feminist it doesn’t.

Young women now have a different experience, and with the #MeToo opening, many just won’t tolerate it. That’s what’s so great; that’s what I love about them. They’re not going to give sexual harassers or abusers a pass or give them a break. They’re going to demand justice. Lovely. Go for it!

TKN: It’s such a huge change. When you go back and look at things like the image of the businessman chasing his secretary around the desk, what used to pass as routine now looks appalling. There’s an enormous swath of older pop culture that now just makes your jaw drop.

AS: I’ve written about the Beats, so radical in some ways but quite as misogynist as the rest of the culture. There’s a movie that a few of the Beats are in, the young Allen Ginsberg and Jack Karouac, made by Robert Frank, the photographer, called Pull My Daisy. If you look at Pull My Daisy now, the plot is how to sneak out of the house and away from the wife. That’s it. The women are demonized. It’’s the same plot in the Dagwood and Blondie comic strips and movies; also in Jiggs and Maggie. The whole point is that the poor guy has this monstrous wife who won’t let him go out with the boys.

TKN: Talking about my daughter, she started watching I Love Lucy, which is fantastic of course, except that as good as it is, most of the plots turn on how ditsy Lucy is, or how she does something dumb, or gets herself in some sort of fix. It reflects its era, of course, but it’s problematic today to show that to a little girl, over and over. And that was just taken as normal! It was a comedy.

And then we started watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I have very fond memories of as well. I actually wrote about this in the very first post in this blog. The first season of that was 1970 and I have to explain to my daughter things about it that are mysterious to her. Like, she’ll say, “How come the camera guys won’t listen to Mary? She’s the boss.” I’m like well… how do I explain it?

AS: That’s how life was. And in many ways still is.

TKN: It’s painful, because you hate to ruin a child’s innocence, but at some point you have to let them in how the world is and prepare them for the injustice they’re going to face. 

AS: But young women today, in this time of reawakened feminism, are not going to accept that. They are not going to take it. It’s wonderful.


TKN: I don’t know if we told you that Ferne and I were at that Dustin Hoffman thing with John Oliver.

AS: No, what was that?

TKN: It was a panel discussion for the 20th anniversary of Wag the Dog, with Hoffman, DeNiro, Barry Levinson, and Jane Rosenthal who produced the film. Oliver was the moderator. It was a normal Q&A for a while, and then Oliver said, “Well, I can’t avoid this issue. The film turns on an incident of sexual abuse by a fictional president, and Dustin, you’ve been accused of such and such back in 1985.” And Dustin was very calm, and sort of had a fairly standard answer ready, but then John Oliver just shook his head and said, “You know, that answer really pisses me off.” Because Dustin really wasn’t owning up to it…..he was just saying, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” And he really emphasized the “if.” And from there it got ugly.

It was pretty extraordinary to watch; you don’t see something that raw in public very often. And finally Oliver moved off it, but then Dustin brought it back up again! Twice! He was like the defendant in court representing himself and just digging a deeper and deeper hole. And John Oliver was like, “Hey, I tried to get off this and get back to talking about the movie, but if you want to get into it, I’ll get into it.”

I love Dustin Hoffman, but it was amazing to watch this man who is so accomplished and so successful and so beloved, and he simply couldn’t stand the fact that this one British comedian didn’t think he was a good guy. And he couldn’t let it go.

I mean, let’s keep in mind that he’s 80 years old, and he’s been a giant movie star his whole adult life, so I’m sure it’s not easy for him to adjust to this sea change in our culture all of a sudden. But he just couldn’t get his head around the problem and how to respond, even to save his own ass.

AS: That’s the thing. It was a different time. But now is now and you have to inform what happened back then with your consciousness of now. And some people have a new consciousness and some people just don’t. They want it to be the old way. That’s what frightens me, because they have power. But we’ll see. I hope that a huge change occurs and that it lasts, but I’m not counting on it.

TKN: Is that based on your experience of having watched the cycle before?

AS: Yes, exactly. The backlash, which is conducted by the people with the power.

TKN: And of course we’re only talking here about the West, and really about America. As you can see the reaction to #MeToo in Europe is different. Asia Argento was run out of Italy. Catherine Deneuve signed this letter that said “What’s wrong with stealing a kiss?” and then she immediately had to back off, but still. And that’s not even talking about the Third World, the Islamic world, or the fundamentalist Christian world.

AS: Now finally women can drive in Saudi Arabia. [laughs] No, gender equality is very far from happening. Even in the best of places—well, I don’t know. Maybe in the Scandinavian countries it’s great. I don’t know.

TKN: Maybe it’s the speartip of it. My hope is that my daughter will grow up in a different world. We’ll never live to see it, of course—

AS: I certainly won’t.


TKN: So what is the breaking point at which this changes permanently?

AS: The struggle for women’s equality has been going on for a couple hundred years and improvements are made and battles won, and then it stops. And sometimes it goes backward, but not all the way back, and then it starts again. And there’s no reason to presume that this pattern isn’t going to continue. I mean not until the entire society changes, not until we have a revolution of true gender and racial equality. Until people are just people. And I don’t see that anywhere near happening. Each generation can take it only so far.

And which of the changes will become permanent with each revitalization of the movement? You just have to wait and see.

Abortion was the sine qua non for the second wave because for liberation women must be able to control their bodies, their reproduction, their sex lives. In the beginning the struggle for abortion rights went through surprisingly quickly. And it’s still the law. But it’s been chipped away so steadily that even if Roe v. Wade doesn’t get overturned—which is a possibility—access to abortion is not nearly as easy as it used to be. I’m saying this to illustrate that even what seems to be permanently changed–by Supreme Court decision!–isn’t necessarily so.

I don’t think we can ever let up our vigilance. I don’t think we can ever relax and say “Well, now we have it. We have equality.” I think that’s maybe what happened in the 1920s after women got the vote. A lot of people thought, okay we’ve got that now. But there are many things that can eat away at the accomplishments of a movement and undermine the gains.

Take the civil rights movement; Black Lives Matter is such an important movement. It’s not that people didn’t know that police brutality was much harsher against people of color; that’s been forever. But the civil rights movement was able to take it only so far before the forces of reaction, the forces in power took over again. Look at school segregation. It was declared unconstitutional, but the schools may now be more segregated than ever. Racism and misogyny are so much stronger than law. So the movements have to rise again and spread. That’s just the way it works.

TKN: I had this conversation with Bill Jersey when we were talking about fundamentalism and evangelicalism. There are these things that are signposts of progress. I don’t think a politician today could get away with saying “We should go back to separate drinking fountains.” I think we’ve cleared that incredibly low bar. And the same with the feminist movement. I think women make 79 cents on the dollar or whatever, maybe it’s worse than that. But I don’t think a politician would say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” They have to pretend. They pay lip service.  

AS: Like they pay lip service to sharing childcare.

TKN: Right. So these are such tiny incremental steps, but they are steps.

AS: But in some ways they’re huge. Whatever steps are taken make a big difference, especially those that are permanent. It’s hard to imagine that some of these aren’t permanent, though I have seen how advances have been stalled or reversed. Like women being sent back to the kitchen after WW II or abortion rights. So you can never take them for granted.

I can’t predict the future. I think that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is not impossible.

TKN: I was going to ask you about that, because my contention is that if Hillary had won and that show aired, people would have said (dismissive) “Eh, more dystopian science fiction.” Now they watch it and they’re like, “That looks like the news.” It’s scary.

AS: I know. Exactly. That’s why we can never stop being vigilant and fighting on every possible front.

All of these #MeToo women who came forward, they came forward as a group really, and quickly became a movement. I mean, they did it one at a time but they had a whole cohort backing them. And it keeps growing. That’s why it‘s happening now. Once that spark is lit, it’s really hard to put out the fire.

Now I don’t know how far this will go. I don’t know if another big wave of feminism will take off. We’ll see. I hope it’s a tsunami. But we’ll have to wait and see because I know the power of backlash. The backlash has already started and it’s going to get stronger and stronger. The media is always a big part of a backlash. We’ll see what the media does. The media still is run by men. And I’m not saying that all men are the enemy—nothing like it. I’m just saying that the backlash is going to be conducted by men who are still in positions of great power in every institution in the United States. But now there’s also the internet and social media, where power is diffuse. So we’ll see.

I’d like to say another thing about our movement. A strong feminist movement springs from a unified vision of equality and liberation and radical transformation, of which the myriad feminist projects—sexual autonomy, anti-racism, workplace justice, healthcare, family, violence, etc.—are contributing beams of light. But during the dark times of backlash, when the movement is relatively weak, it becomes fragmented, and those programs become separated. Separate they are not so threatening to those in power, because they seem to have limited goals, rather than the great goal of changing our entire society at its core. And of course there are certain strands of the movement that are always less threatening —for instance, the movement among corporate women to get women a bigger piece of the pie. But in the feminism I know, the goal is to change the entire pie. Not to get a little piece of it, not to get crumbs, but to transform the very recipe and distribution of pie.


Alix Kates Shulman

Hailed by the The New York Times as “the voice that has for three decades provided a lyrical narrative of the changing position of women in American society,” Alix Shulman exploded on the national scene in 1972 with the publication of her bestselling debut novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. As a coming-of-age tale set in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it feels like it could have been written this morning in its depiction of sexual assault, discrimination, and misogyny. She is the author of fourteen books including the novels Burning Questions, On the Stroll, In Every Woman’s Life…, and Ménage; the memoirs Drinking the Rain, A Good Enough Daughter, and To Love What Is; the children’s books Bosley on the Number Line, Finders Keepers, and Awake or Asleep; and numerous works of non-fiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, and The Guardian, among many others. Currently she is co-editing, with Honor Moore, the Library of America anthology Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991.


Feminism in the Age of Monsters: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 1)


As one of the most prominent figures in “second wave feminism,” Alix Kates Shulman has been on the front lines of the fight for equal rights and social justice for more than 50 years.

Hailed by the (not failing) New York Times as “the voice that has for three decades provided a lyrical narrative of the changing position of women in American society,” Shulman exploded on the national scene in 1972 with the publication of her bestselling debut novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. As a coming-of-age tale set in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it feels like it could have been written this morning in its depiction of sexual assault, discrimination, and misogyny. She is the author of fourteen books including the novels Burning Questions, On the Stroll, In Every Woman’s Life…, and Menáge; the memoirs Drinking the Rain, A Good Enough Daughter, and To Love What Is; the children’s books Bosley on the Number Line, Finders Keepers, and Awake or Asleep; and numerous works of non-fiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, and The Guardian, among many others. Currently she is co-editing the Library of America anthology Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991.

Alix’s perspective has never been more relevant than in the current moment.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thank you for sitting down with me, Alix. Let me start with the broadest possible question. I feel like we’re in a blender as a nation, with everything that’s going on. The country is finally reckoning with endemic sexual harassment and assault in our culture, while we have a man who brazenly boasts of his own history on that count in the White House, at the expense of the most prominent female politician in American history. So what do you make of the present moment?

ALIX SHULMAN: It’s quite ironic that the latest resurgence of feminism was born because of Hillary’s defeat and Trump’s election. But that’s the way it works. When people get very angry they can be very effective, if they’re organized. There’s no way of knowing when a revolutionary moment will occur, or explaining why any revolutionary moment occurred at a given time. It’s a mystery. But I do think that it usually has to do with some event that provokes a sense of, “enough is enough.”

You know the first wave of feminism started in 1848 and ended in 1920 when women got the vote. That’s three generations of constant struggle with its ups and downs. Then nothing much until the 1960s—late ‘67 early ’68 I would say—and suddenly it exploded again as the Women’s Liberation Movement, or radical feminism. That was the time of resistence to the Vietnam War; the nation had been politicized. I think there was probably as much bifurcation among the public then as there is now, maybe even more.

The backlash against feminism set in probably in the mid-70s and on, when the war ended. Is that a coincidence, or was that a reason? It’s complicated, and I’m not a historian.

TKN: In that dormant period between the end of the first wave in 1920 and the rise of the second wave in the ‘60s, you have the Depression, and you have the Second World War, and then you have this sort of Eisenhower era. To what extent was the war a factor—the “Rosie the Riveter” phenomenon of so many women going to work outside the home?

AS: During the Depression, because there was such high unemployment, a family policy was introduced whereby only one person in the family was allowed to work. Guess who that was! But then during the war women had employment opportunities they hadn’t had before. Women got jobs in the factories, and jobs doing many things that the men who had gone off to war had done prior to that. And then when the men came home, the women had to give up their jobs. There was really a deliberate, massive propaganda campaign to get them back to the kitchen. And there was so much discrimination against women. For example, most of the unions would not organize or include women. It was really bad during that period; it’s hard even to describe. Women didn’t like that, but they didn’t have much choice.

My mother was one of those people who was sent back to the kitchen. She had worked for the WPA in the ‘30s—Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration—and when the war started, the WPA ended. She lost her job. But I grew up knowing how happy she was working. She was the only mother in the neighborhood who had a job, and I was so proud of her for it. But it didn’t last.

TKN: So in that period of dormancy, things were happening; it’s just that activism per se wasn’t happening, yes? Rosie the Riveter and all that contributed to what then happened in the ‘60s, it seems to me.

AS: It wasn’t Rosie’s generation that restarted the feminist movement; it was Rosie’s daughters’. After the war, during the ‘50s, people who had been socialists and communists—important movements in this country, especially during the ‘30s—were under attack. As soon as the Hot War ends the Cold War and McCarthyism take over and many people lose their jobs—forever. That is not a time when political organizing is likely to go on. People might be angry but they’re also terrified.

But the ‘60s was a time of tremendous political activity, especially among the young, over the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. So it makes sense that the feminist movement would be reborn at that time. The radicalized young women activists in movement organizations were shocked that their male comrades did not treat them as equals and dismissed their outrage about misogyny as trivial. The women were kept out of leadership positions and expected to go on doing the typing, coffeemaking, and fucking. After certain incidents, they resigned in fury and started meeting separately.

The main weapon of organizing the second wave was something called “consciousness raising” where women would get together in small groups and speak personally about their experience vis-a-vis men and male power. These were not group therapy sessions: these were political meetings trying to understand how they got here and how to mobilize their anger in order to make a movement. Some of that consciousness raising was around issues of bad sex, of abortion and maternity, of violence against women and what is now called rape culture, of education and job discrimination, of what was later named sexual harassment, and of all the manifestations of patriarchy including the patriarchal family. Another topic was the sadness of some of their mothers over their limited lives—a plight Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster The Feminine Mystique described so well. Looking back at what happened to their mothers, the young middle-class activists among them didn’t want to live that restricted a life. It’s rage over injustice that gets any movement going.


TKN: It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that that moment of anger has happened again.

AS: Absolutely. But the question is, will it be sustained? Because it has happened other times. After Anita Hill was so humiliated and mistreated in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, there was a mini-revival of the movement, but it was kind of short lived. In the ‘80s and up to the present there has still been a great deal of second wave activity around core feminist issues, but there wasn’t so much of that unified vision as there had been during the late ‘60s and the ‘70s. There was such a big, well-organized backlash against second wave feminism that the movement splintered. People went on struggling, but a lot of them felt that they were keeping the pilot light lit for the next great moment.

For a number of decades until Trump’s election—or maybe until Beyonce declared herself a feminist, a year or two before the election—that backlash made many young women, who otherwise believed in the goals of the movement, reluctant to use the word “feminist” about themselves. Now, since Trump, everybody is using the word feminist. It’s being used by men respectfully—by editors of journals who never would have given a moment’s thought to feminism except contempt—now they’re jumping on the bandwagon. It’s amazing to me. And also I can’t help finding it a little amusing.

But who cares what word we use? I don’t care. I just find it a symbol of something that’s changed now that the word is being embraced again by everybody. Even Trump recently used it by announcing that he’s not one.

TKN: Is that rejection of the label “feminism” in part an ironic result of feminism’s very success? Those younger women who benefited from everything that you did—they didn’t see a need to be “feminists” because of the very things that feminism had already accomplished for them, without them even realizing it.

AS: Yes, they were born into a different world. Just as I was born into a world where women had the vote and were able to smoke and have skirts as short as they wanted and had a kind of a sexual liberation beginning in the ‘20s, the Jazz Age, and even before that, in the 1910s in Greenwich Village. I would say I took it for granted. I didn’t know a world any different than that.

TKN: So to what do you attribute the fact that all that’s happening now is happening at this particular moment? The Harvey Weinstein story could have broken a year ago, or ten years ago—and similar stories have broken. Why is it having this massive impact now?

AS: Because of Trump! Because Trump was so misogynistic, so blatantly racist, sexist, anti-immigrant—proudly, actually—that he got everybody furious. It wasn’t just some real estate developer: it was the person who defeated Hillary unjustly and became president. So the day after his inauguration, that huge women’s march which took place all over the world announced a new movement. And when you have a movement you can do things. You can do things together that you couldn’t do as an individual.

TKN: So when you were a young woman, did you already implicitly understand the injustice?

AS: Yes. I always knew that it was unjust. I had a brother. My parents treated us equally but the world didn’t. But since there was no word for it—for the idea of injustice based on sex—and it was not acknowledged, I had no language with which to object. There was no movement. So I went about trying to be a little subversive, trying to be a boy, many different tactics. But without a movement those individual gestures mean nothing. In fact, one of the first things that the second wave insisted upon was that there are no individual solutions. The only way to change things for women is to have a mass movement.

TKN: No “separate peace,” right? Everybody has to stick together.

AS: Yes. It’s like separate but equal. We were separate and it was presumed that we were equal because we had our sphere. To have any other goal, to have ambition…..even now, for a woman to have ambition is considered unwomanly, unfeminine. This is what Hillary had to contend with. And that’s after a feminist movement. Before it, you were a freak or you were unacceptable if you let it be known that you had any ambition.

I have a little collection of girls advice books from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. They all tell girls not to show that they’re smart. They say when you’re with a boy just ask questions, know about sports, ask about what’s he’s interested in, don’t show off, don’t let it be known that you’re smart. If you do, you’ll never get married.

TKN: You’ll never be president, for sure.

AS: For sure!


TKN: That issue of ambition and the way that the same traits that are celebrated in boys and men are criticized in girls and women: you couldn’t ask for a plainer example of it than the election. But any time I’ve written or said that I thought misogyny played a huge role—not the only factor, of course, but a big one—I’ve been attacked. “Oh, that’s an oversimplification, it’s reductionist, etc.” But to me, it’s blatant. As close as the election was, if Hillary was the exact same candidate—same strengths and weakness, same CV and same baggage—but had a penis, she would have won in a landslide.  

AS: Yes, absolutely. That’s it from the beginning. The hate campaign against Hillary for decades—ever since Bill first ran for president—was so clearly misogynist.

TKN: We thought we had made great strides—and as you say, we had made some great strides—and then we were starkly reminded of how far we still have to go. You know, we thought we were in a post-racial society when Barack was elected. We found out we weren’t…..

AS: I never thought so!

TKN: And then we thought we were in a post-chauvinist society, and we found out we weren’t. So I’m going to take back what I’ve always said about Trump. He actually has done something good, accidentally: he restarted the feminist movement!

AS: [laughs] That’s why I started by saying it’s ironic.

I think of it is as a kind of consolation prize that we’ve had this awakening. But it may be bigger than that. A consolation prize is a lesser prize. I’m not sure this is lesser. We didn’t get the first female president, but we got this awakening. He’s going to be in there for eight years max. But if this movement takes off, it’s going to be a lot bigger than Trump.

TKN: I ‘m loath to be a pollyanna and say, “Well, he burned it to the ground and now things are going to be better.” We don’t know if they’re going to be better….

AS: We don’t know.

TKN: But they might.

AS: They might. Who knows? The suffragettes fought for three generations before getting the vote. It took a civil war to abolish slavery.

TKN: Speaking of a consolation prize, for Hillary, maybe better than being president is that she’ll go down in history as this martyr and maybe have a second or third act in her life.

AS: Well, let’s hope, yes. But as for going down in history, I myself am very skeptical of that. The first women who did everything don’t go down in history because history is not written by women. It’s written by men. There are a lot of women now who have been able to become feminist historians because of the second wave, but most of them are shunted to women’s studies and nobody listens to them except other women.

When I was in school there was no mention of the first wave of feminism. Zero. Susan B. Anthony and the vote got maybe a paragraph, never even a full chapter. This is half the population of the country. And when Susan B. Anthony was mentioned, it was often with ridicule: this hatchet-faced old maid! She was never honored in any textbook I ever had: elementary school, junior high school, high school, college, graduate school, forget it. So I don’t think that Hillary Clinton will go down in history unless she has another act to come.

Just as Geraldine Ferraro hasn’t. Nobody young knows who she is. Just as Shirley Chisholm hasn’t, outside of African-American and women’s studies. Rosa Parks, yes: she launched a movement. But even the story about Rosa Parks is inaccurate. She was an activist, a member of an organization of activists. But she is known as just a random woman passenger on a bus who decided on her own not to move to the back. No, it was planned.

TKN: I didn’t know that.

AS: Few people know it. And not only that, she wasn’t the first one. There were a few women before her who refused to move to the back of the bus. Note: all women. But the thinking was that the time wasn’t yet ripe to make an issue of it. The time would come. And it came!


TKN: In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, it’s striking how a book that came out in 1972 and is set in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s deals with the exact same issues we’re dealing with today.

AS: It’s amazing how contemporary it feels. Some things have changed, but a lot of things haven’t. Certainly the women’s movement, the second wave, made tremendous strides. When I first came to New York and well until the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, the employment ads in the New York Times and every newspaper in the country were divided into “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female.” We weren’t allowed to apply for a “Help Wanted Male” listing. And the bottom of the pay scale for men was the top of the pay scale of women. All kinds of discrimination against women were perfectly acceptable. So we have made great strides. However, sex segregation in many jobs and pay disparity persist.

There are now things that are illegal that didn’t used to be illegal, like sexual harassment on the job, marital rape, and date rape. There weren’t even names for those offenses. Before the women’s movement, in order to get a rape conviction, in most places you had to have two witnesses. Witnesses!

So many things have changed for the better. I can tell you the name of the woman who went state by state by state getting marital rape and date rape recognized as rape and made illegal.

TKN: What’s her name? Let’s give her credit.

AS: Her name is Laura X. And she did a fabulous job. And I can tell you the name of the woman who invented the term ”sexual harassment.” That term didn’t even appear until the mid-1970s, though the offenses it describes go back to cavemen. Her name is Lin Farley. They were movement activists.

The law makes it very clear what justifies firing people for sexual harassment. And it doesn’t have to be rape. That isn’t to say there aren’t distinctions, of course. I mean rape is a criminal act and you should go to prison for it whereas some of the other things that qualify as sexual harassment, you only get fired for. Like creating a “hostile work environment.” People make distinctions. Nobody is saying not to. But legally, it doesn’t have to be sexual assault in order to be sexual harassment.

It puzzles me why so many people are saying, “Well, that person was fired without a hearing, without due process.” But in fact we have no idea about what went into the firing. And I would be very surprised if most of these companies didn’t have a process in place, because they stand to be sued if they don’t follow procedures. The fact that they don’t make the process public is not surprising. The public doesn’t really have a right to know why any person is fired. If somebody’s fired because she came to the office late three days out of every five, does the public have a right to know that? I don’t think so. That’s an internal process.

Anti-harassment laws have been in place for decades, but when women complained nothing was done. Where those laws were not enforced they might as well not have existed. And not only were they not enforced, but the women’s complaints weren’t believed. So even though many companies had procedures in place, they didn’t use them. Or no one was punished. Now, because of the #MeToo movement, starting with Harvey Weinstein—whose horrors could no longer be hidden, although they had been for many years—now companies don’t want to be tarred that way. And so they are following their protocols as they hadn’t for decades.


TKN: Can you talk a little bit about how feminism has shaped us culturally?

AS: When I was growing up—and this is pre-television—there were no female voices on the radio, except the occasional entertainer. It was just agreed that women’s voices were not pleasant. They were shrill, we were told. So women didn’t get to be on the radio. And there was always some reason like that for everything. You can go into fancy restaurants now and find that all of the waiters are men. How can that be? I won’t go into those restaurants, or if I do, I make a fuss. I ask “Why are there no waitresses?”

TKN: Well, that’s in your book, definitely.

AS: Oh, really? Oh I don’t remember that.

TKN: The character goes up to Lake Placid to work, which—ironically—my mother did too.

AS: Really? She was a waiter there?

TKN: She wasn’t a waitress but she worked up there. Faye Dunaway was a waitress at her hotel. She wasn’t “Faye Dunaway” at the time, not yet—she was just some girl. But that world was something my mom had told me about.

AS: But here now, in the 21st Century, the fancier the restaurant, the less likely they are to have waitresses.

TKN: About the voices, I’m embarrassed to tell you this story. I wanted my daughter—who’s almost seven—to see women’s sports on TV, because if I watch football or something she always asks, annoyed: ”How come it’s all boys?”

AS: She will? She’ll say that?

TKN: Yeah. Her generation of six-year-olds are super politicized. In our neighborhood anyway. 

AS: Oh, great! Good for her. Fabulous.

TKN: So I recorded an NWSL women’s professional soccer game to show her that women can be pro athletes too, and we turned it on and I was shocked that the commentators were women. The play-by-play announcer and the color commentator both. It hadn’t occured to me beforehand; I just assumed they’d be men. And I felt like an asshole that it surprised me, so there’s my own innate sexism right there. But to my daughter it was perfectly natural. She was like, “Yeah, of course they’re women. Who else would it be?”

AS: Of course they are. But that was very hard to achieve. They also said we can’t have women sportswriters because they’d have to go into the male locker room. [laughter]

TKN: It’s a combination of sexism and prudishness. Prudishness is a weapon.

AS: Well penises are weapons. [laughter]

There were also many organizations that wouldn’t hire women because they didn’t have enough women’s rooms! I remember a big complaint by the women in Congress was that they didn’t have adequate women’s rooms.

TKN: Speaking of Congress, you have to look no further than that to see how far we have not come.

AS: Exactly. But that could soon improve. More women than ever before are running for office in 2018. And they need support.

TKN: When Mitch McConnell said “she persisted”—well, he meant it as an indictment, but it’s been turned against him beautifully. He didn’t even realize what he was saying.  

AS: “I told her to shut up and nevertheless she persisted.” My daughter had a little bracelet made for me that says, “Nevertheless she persisted.”

TKN: Now it’s gone into the lexicon and it will always be there and it will be hung around his neck like an albatross, as it should be. And then you have Kamala Harris getting shouted down by her colleagues….

AS: Like Hillary being interrupted and shouted down and stalked during the campaign and the debates. But never mind, let’s not go there. Too painful.


TKN: At the risk of stating the obvious, the election was the perfect embodiment of the plight of women in America. You had the most qualified possible candidate you could ever imagine—a woman, as it happened—losing to the least qualified, most cretinous, in fact actively counter-qualified man imaginable, and one whose maleness was a decisive factor in his win. And it was just the injustice of it—I don’t care what your politics are—that was so appalling.

AS: Appalling.

TKN: And I won’t put it on the Russians either. I have no doubt they did what they did, but sixty some million Americans still voted for that guy…..and millions of them were women! How do you explain that?

AS: Because not all women are feminists. Certainly no feminist ever voted for Trump. But many white women are anti-progressive and anti-feminist. That’s no surprise in a polarized country like ours with its racist and misogynist history.

People have difficulty bucking their community and their situation. A lot of white women are still dependent on their husbands economically, especially women with children. Remember that Trump won in rural areas, where goals like gender and racial equality have made smaller inroads. It’s no accident, I think, that the second wave started in the big cities and university towns, places traditionally open to new ideas.

I don’t think it was stupid to vote for him if you believed that he might actually improve your life.

TKN: But that’s the thing—it was a con.

AS: Yes, of course! And not the first time in our history.

TKN: If it’s true that he’s gonna improve your life, it’s great. Except it isn’t true! It’s never going to be true.

AS: Right.


TKN: It struck me as astonishing that when you wrote A Marriage Agreement in 1969, the concept you proposed was considered so radical—the idea that parents should share equally in childcare. Radical! Revolutionary! Not to take away from your idea in the least, but from the perspective of today, it only seems logical.

AS: It’s hard to imagine what it used to be like when it’s not like that anymore. Although I’m not sure how much it isn’t like that anymore, to tell you the truth. Nowadays at least lip service is paid to the idea of equality in the household, in the marriage, in childcare and housework. But it was laughable—ridicule-able—in 1969 when I wrote that. Sex roles were so clearly delineated. Taking care of children was women’s work and men who did it were considered unmasculine. It was a slur.

At the end of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen I have a chapter in which I quote Dr. Spock, who was the childcare guru of the time. For starters, in his famous book he never uses any pronoun but “he” for babies or children. Then he just assumes childcare is exclusively women’s work. He has a passage in which he says that if the husband doesn’t want to change a diaper, it’s okay. Don’t force him. Maybe he’ll become better with the children after they’re old enough to be friends with him. This was a given of the time.

TKN: And he was progressive!

AS: Well, he was progressive on the war; he was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. I don’t know that he was progressive on women. Nobody was. To be a progressive meant to be a progressive about boy things. Women‘s issues weren’t in the progressive conversation. His book came out in 1946; that was way before there was a revival of the feminist movement. There’s no such thing as being progressive about women absent a movement.


Next week in part two of this conversation, Alix elaborates on anti-feminism among women, generational differences, classism, and the danger of losing hard-fought gains.

Herr Drumpf: A Thought Experiment

Trump as a child


Well, 2018 is off to a rollicking start as the self-proclaimed Very Stable Genius at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (apologies, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) has already managed to do what many thought was unthinkable—that is, behave in a manner even more infantile, destructive, and jawdropping than we previously thought possible. From flaunting his racism with the “shitholes-vs-Norway” comment, to revelations that he paid hush money to a porn star (also: made her watch Shark Week), to shutting down the government over his border wall (or fence, or window, or whatever it is this week) to the capper of them all, revelations that he tried to fire Bob Mueller last June and was prevented only by the White House counsel shooting a Thorazine-tipped dart into his neck, it’s already been a banner year for transgressions both great and small. And it’s still January.

Needless to say, many of these actions would have—individually—been presidency-ending events in any previous administration, but never mind. We are in uncharted waters and here be dragons. We need not even debate the accuracy of Michael Wolff’s salacious instant bestseller, Fire and Fury: Trump’s frantic, frothing-at-the-mouth response lent the book all the credence it could possibly want. Nice job, Don.

Hard as it is to believe, speculation that the Fake President of the United States is not only unfit for the office and a danger to humanity but a functionally illiterate mental defective has become the norm, notwithstanding the hilariously over-the-top evaluation of Rear Adm. (Dr.) Ronny Jackson, MD (which, apparently, is standard procedure with all of Trump’s physicians). Like an active duty US Navy doctor—with a Southern accent, no less—was going to come out on his own initiative and say, “The President is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”

Somehow we’re supposed to feel relieved that the pretender-in-chief was (reportedly) able to pass a cognitive assessment test used to determine if accident victims are brain-damaged, the same way we’re supposed to believe that Trump grew an inch and is in Olympian health despite subsisting almost entirely on Kentucky Fried Chicken and Diet Coke.

I guess we were overdue for a remake of Caligula, but I thought it would be on HBO, not CNN.


Meanwhile, despite the continuing, unconscionable assault by the White House and GOP, the Office of the Special Counsel continues its disciplined, opaque labors, the polar opposite of Trump in every way. On that front, word that Mueller’s team is seeking to interview the fake president himself seemed to throw His Orangeness’s lawyers into a dead panic, exactly as one might expect. Naturally, their preference is for their erratic and undisciplined client to reply in writing. Presumably Trump would do so via Twitter, in all caps.

But now it seems the White House has bowed to the inevitable and agreed to an in person interview. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in that session. Attention Aaron Sorkin: I can see the Broadway play already.

Aaron Blake of the WaPo posed six questions he thinks Mueller’s team will (or ought to) ask. Given Donald Trump’s temperament, allergy to the truth, and everything else we know about the man, I find it impossible to imagine that he can honestly answer any of those six questions in a way that will not incriminate him. (That is, if he is not surrounded by a battalion of lawyers machining his every word.) The operative word, of course, is “honestly”….and again, given all we know about Trump, there is every reason to believe he will lie. But of course, if he does, in light of all the other evidence the Mueller team has amassed—including cooperating witnesses like Mike Flynn and possibly even wiretaps—he will have perjured himself. Ask Bill Clinton how that might pan out. It is indeed a “perjury trap” of sorts, as the cartoonish Roger Stone warned, but if so it’s a trap with an absurdly easy escape route built in: don’t fucking lie.

Mueller’s efforts may eventually bring Trump down; Donald and his people are certainly behaving in a hysterical manner that suggests that they are (correctly) terrified about that, which in itself is suspicious and suggests guilt. (See the antics of Devin Nunes, Sen. Ron Johnson, and Lou Dobbs, just for a start.) But as almost every sentient observer has noted, that downfall will depend not on facts—alternative or otherwise—but on the integrity of the Republican Party.

Hang on—I need to go brush my teeth because that line just made me throw up in my mouth.


While we wait for Bob Mueller to save the republic, it’s worth exploring some of the deeper causes of this crisis, ones that even Trump’s demise—should it come—cannot rid us, much as we’d like to believe it could. To that end, please indulge me in a little thought experiment.

In 1885 Donald J. Trump’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from the town of Kallstadt, in what was then still the independent Kingdom of Bavaria. (His grandson’s dislike of immigrants presumably post-dates that.) The family name is in dispute. Last year John Oliver launched a campaign get everyone to refer to then-Candidate Trump by the Dickensian surname of Drumpf, which some allege was the original name before it got Anglicized into its current, more Runyonesque form.

Apart from entertainment value, the provenance is sort of irrelevant. A Trump by any other name would still stink just as bad.

But it’s interesting to ponder what young Donald’s future might have held had his ancestors not emigrated, and what kind of man he might have grown into had he been born 45 years earlier, at the turn of the century, rather than when he was, at the apex of its horrors, in the bloodiest year in all of recorded history, 1945.

In other words, at the risk of drifting even further into absurdism, what if Donald Trump had grown up in Nazi Germany?


First, a disclaimer.

As I’ve written before, Godwin’s Law is currently in abeyance. (There are many variations, but in essence Godwin’s Law contends that in any argument—especially online—a comparison to Hitler and the Nazis will eventually be made, and as a corollary, the person who first makes it automatically loses.) A bit like the embattled Goldwater Rule, Godwin’s Law is a useful brake on reckless rhetoric and sweeping, half-baked comparisons. But under certain circumstances both of those guidelines can be counter-productive, and even dangerous, by stopping people from acknowledging undeniable realities and urgent threats.

We are surely living in one of those times: an “in case of emergency break glass” situation in which comparisons to Nazism have never been more in order.

Let us imagine a Donald Trump born in Kallstadt in 1900. Bavaria, of course, was the deeply traditional and politically conservative part of Germany from which the Nazi Party sprung. Likely the youngster would have avoided service in the trenches of World War I with a quartet of student deferments and a fifth for mysterious bone spurs. After the war, his family’s fortune might well have insulated him from the privations of the Weimar years: no wheelbarrows full of worthless reichsmarks to buy a loaf of bread for der familie Drumpf! With the rise of the Nazis young Donald surely would have been among those in full-throated cheer of the hateful, divisive rhetoric of Herr Schickelgruber and his brownshirts. One can readily see him happily sieg heil-ing along at a rally right out of Riefenstahl. (Witness the thuggish tenor of Trump’s own campaign rallies.) Even without relocating his birthplace from Queens to Bavaria, it is easy to imagine Trump as part of the pro-Nazi sympathizers in the US led by Lindbergh, whose “America First” motto he has appropriated quite literally and with no discernible irony.

Hell, Trump’s personality profile reads like a eugenics recipe for a Nazi in the appendix to Mein Kampf. By all accounts, as a schoolboy he was a bully who had no real friends and beat up other kids. We see it in his innate playground instinct for the weakest and most vulnerable spots in his victims (think of Lil Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary, or most recently, Sloppy Steve)….his fondness for violence, whether it’s the mob pummeling protesters at his rallies, cops manhandling suspects, or NFL linemen clotheslining running backs….his zeal for demonizing outsiders, especially foreigners and those with different skin tones…..his history of nonchalant anti-Semitism (resistant even to the incursion of Jews within his own family)…..his juvenile adoration of the military (without any sense of obligation to submit himself to its rigors) and arrogant presumption of his own mastery of the art of war (without any education or experience to justify it)…..his reactionary embrace of the simplest, crudest, and most primitive solutions to all problems, lack of empathy or any kind of normal human decency, pathological selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy, casual cruelty about almost everything……

I could go on.

In fact, one can hardly imagine a more perfect candidate to fall eagerly in line with the goose-step. It is criminally easy to picture Donald von Trump as a successful German industrialist circa 1938, with a swastika pin in the lapel of his business suit, enthusiastically supporting the Nuremburg Laws, gleefully applauding Kristallnacht, being photographed with party leaders at important functions, and—given his oft-rumored predilections—even slipping into private clubs to enjoy a little black leather BDSM with the notoriously decadent machers of the NDSAP. (Ick.)

When you look at how eager Trump is to engage in fascist-like behavior in the United States in 2017—whether it’s his relentless attacks on a free press for which he has obvious and longstanding contempt; his vision of the DOJ as his private gestapo with which he has “the absolute right” to do as he pleases; his demands for pledges of personal loyalty from the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA; his repeated insistence that the Attorney General of the United States ought to behave like a Mafia consigliere for the White House; and, of course, his praise for the “very fine people” among the ranks of neo-Nazis—it’s not a stretch to imagine how enthusiastic an old school Nazi he would have been in 1939.

(Richard Cohen of the Post makes the comparison explicitly here.)


It isn’t hard to grasp how Trump became the appalling human being that he is. He was a classic poor little rich boy who got no love from his emotionally icy daddy, who—in a toxic combination of contradictory signals—also drummed into him the notion that he was a “king.” As a result, Donny was inculcated with the ruthless lack of empathy that is on display every goddamned day. We can leave it to the psychiatrists and the philosophers to debate how culpable that leaves him, or any of us, for our failings in adulthood. For all we know (and notwithstanding the Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test), when Trump finally shuffles off this mortal coil and is autopsied, the pathologists will find a Charles Whitman-like tumor the size of a lacrosse ball pressing on his medulla oblongata.

None of which really makes any difference to the damage he is doing from the Oval Office that he unaccountably occupies and the Resolute Desk behind which he unaccountably sits.

Nor is it any surprise that Trump’s taste runs to the authoritarian. The other world leaders he most admires are anti-democratic would-be “strongmen” like Erdogan, Duterte, and of course his the fellow who most makes his heart go pitter-pat, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. His shameless pandering to the most base impulses of xenophobia, jingoism, and nationalism are all out of the Fascism 101 textbook, not to mention the sanctification of some mythical American past by way of fomenting the divisiveness and prejudice that serve him in the present. Writing in the The Washington Post, Michael Gerson puts it well:

Rivals are not only to be defeated; they should be imprisoned. Critics are not to be refuted; they should be fired. Investigations are not to be answered; they should be shut down. Trump’s defenders point to the absence of oppression as proof that these concerns are overblown. But protecting legal and political institutions from executive assault has been the constant vigil of the past year — as it will be for the next three. And we are depending on the strength of those institutions, not the self-restraint of the president, to safeguard democracy.

All these textbook authoritarian impulses are on display in Trump’s flagrant attempts to obstruct and derail the Russiagate investigation, from slandering his own FBI (and he certainly sees it as “his own”), launching spurious smear campaigns against Mueller and his team, and using the machinery of the presidency, his allies in Congress, Fox News, and the entire right wing media to try to undermine and discredit any legitimate investigation. The Washington Post reports: “Trump, appearing frustrated and at times angry, has complained to confidants and aides in recent weeks that he does not understand why he cannot simply give orders to ‘my guys’ at what he sometimes calls the ‘Trump Justice Department,’ two people familiar with the president’s comments said.”

(See New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait here on the GOP’s craven willingness to indulge and exploit Trump’s authoritarian streak. More on that in a bit.)

It goes without saying that Trump plainly does not understand that the president is not above the law, although that’s not really the source of the problem. Like a true sociopath, Trump only cares about what is good for Trump at ANY cost (stiffing hardworking Atlantic City contractors, throwing faithful allies under the proverbial bus, refusing the bolt to door to foreign monkeywrenching in our democracy even after it’s clear that our national security has been significantly breached). It has nothing to do with his (mis)understanding of constitutional law. Sitting the Very Stable Genius down and force-feeding him clips of Schoolhouse Rock and patiently explaining how the US government and rule of law work would not miraculously cause a lightbulb to materialize over his head and him to turn into a paragon of democratic virtue.

Trump is a snake whose only concern is the next mouse he can swallow.


So what is the point of re-stating all this, which is not news to anyone?

One might argue that this whole thought experiment is an unfair form of baroque speculation. It is true, of course, that there is no way for any of us to know who Donald Trump—or anyone—might have grown up to be had circumstances been different. It’s a pointless parlor game of “what if?”, the stuff of butterfly effect armchair philosophy or bad science fiction. And just to be clear, I’m not comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. Hitler at least could give a rousing speech (content notwithstanding). Trump, by contrast, can’t even form a complete sentence these days, communicating primarily by means of crude tweets that read like they came from a sociopathic fifth grader. But that is precisely what his Know-Nothing fans love.

But would anyone seriously argue that it’s more likely that a German-born and raised Donald Trump would have been a profile in courage, a bulwark of democracy during the darkness of the Nazi era? That he would have rejected the racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and general demagoguery of the Third Reich and stood with the White Rose at the risk of his own life?

Maybe he would have. Maybe some act of kindness by some primary schoolteacher could have changed the whole course of Donald Trump’s life. (One could speculate likewise about Adolf Hitler, while we’re abrogating Godwin’s Law.)

So I realize that this thought experiment is both unfair and imprecise. I am sure that Trump’s apologists would consider it a perfect example of liberal “hysteria,” scoffing at the whole notion that we ought to be on guard against incipient fascism in the US. (They were cool with portrayals of Obama as Hitler, though.) Oh no, we are told: it can’t happen here. I offer this thought experiment only to put in perspective the kind of man this pretender to the throne is, how we might consider viewing him, and the stakes of not fighting him with every fiber of our collective being. In the end only God will judge Donald Trump, and only God forgives.

The other and possibly more important purpose of this experiment is to ponder not what it reveals about Donald Trump, but what it says about the rest of us.


Fast forward sixty-five years from the childhood of the bully I described in the previous section…..not the alternative history version who grew up in interwar Germany, but the actual one that grew up in Queens. That bully is now our president. What does that say about us a nation? Even accounting for Russian meddling, sixty some million Americans still saw fit to champion this ignorant cretin to be the leader of the Free World.

Volumes have been written about how the German people descended into madness. It’s become a cliché, but it remains true that at the turn of the 20th century and into the two decades that followed, Germany was arguably the most civilized nation in Europe. It was the land of Goethe, of Beethoven, of Gutenberg, of Wittgenstein. And it was far from the most anti-Semitic country in Europe (ne c’est pas, France?) There were many factors that contributed to that terrible fate—economics, the epochal trauma of the Great War, the stupidly vindictive Treaty of Versailles (see William Shirer for the full account)—but one thing is clear: it was not the result of some genetic abnormality unique to the German people. There was no lacrosse ball-sized tumor pressing on the collective Teutonic brain stem. Buffeted by the aforementioned factors and whipped up by a monstrous demagogue with a bad mustache, they fell prey to the worst impulses of human nature.

Can anyone plausibly say that the American people, subjected to similar conditions, would not go down the same black path? Current events do not provide much credence for that self-flattering view. Indeed, it is all too easy to imagine, for Trump’s rise has shown America at very near our worst.

In a grim assessment, Andrew Sullivan recently wrote:

(B)y far the most important development in all this, the single essential rampart, is how, through all this, Trump has tightened his grip on 35 percent of the country….. And this base support is unshakable. It is not susceptible to reason. No scandal, however great, will dislodge it – because he has invaded his followers’ minds and psyches as profoundly as he has the rest of ours. He is fused with them more deeply now, a single raging id, a force that helps us understand better how civilized countries can descend so quickly into barbarism. In a country led by a swirling void, all sorts of inhibitions slowly slip away. Nativism, racism, nationalism: these are very potent catalysts of human darkness.


Of course it goes well beyond the hoi polloi—the “poorly educated” whom Trump openly loves, and for obvious reasons—and the other damaged sociopaths of Breitbart Nation. This sickness is endemic within the right wing leadership in this country.

Forget Trump’s impulse toward fascism. Let’s talk about that of so-called “mainstream” Republicans, the ones who are keeping in power this man they know to be monstrously unfit and openly dangerous (as Fire and Fury plainly showed—perhaps the greatest public service Wolff’s book performed). The real problem is not that Trump is a Nazi, but that the GOP enables and protects him and allows him to behave in these terribly destructive ways for its own partisan gain. (Exhibit A, Your Honor: the tax heist.)

Incredibly, once-respected members of Congress are doing the fake president’s bidding. Witness the pathetic spectacle of Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) making a nonsensical recommendation that former MI6 officer Christopher Steele be prosecuted for the oppo dossier he compiled for Fusion GPS. Likewise, the GOP majority in Congress has shown suspiciously little enthusiasm (as in zero) for investigating a Russian attack on our sovereignty that the US Intelligence Community has compared to 9/11 in its strategic impact, yet they rush to re-open an ice cold inquiry into the Clinton Foundation? Are you effing kidding me?

Here is Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker May 2016, when Trump still looked like he was gonna get stomped on Election Day:

He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn’t so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis. The radical progressives decided that there was no difference between the democratic left and the totalitarian right and that an explosion of institutions was exactly the most thrilling thing imaginable.

The Republican Party’s willingness to abandon principle, integrity, and even the pretense of adherence to basic principles of democracy has shocked even those of us who long ago grew accustomed to shameful behavior from the erstwhile party of Lincoln (and Nixon, and Reagan, and Hoover). We have reached a point where no American citizen can remain a member of the Republican Party in its present form and still make any credible claim to genuine patriotism. The GOP is no longer even a political party in the conventional sense. Noam Chomsky memorably described it as having turned into a radical insurgency, but that was two years ago. It can no longer correctly be called “insurgency” when it holds all the reins of power.


If we survive the Trump era—and I don’t mean that figuratively—there will come a time when we will all have to answer for our actions or inactions therein. Did we do nothing more than wring our hands and gnash our teeth and complain about the craven complicity of the GOP leadership? Or did we stand up and force the issue? What will we say when our grandchildren ask, “What did you do to try to stop Trump, Grandma and Grandpa?”

Mock if you wish. I contend that this question is not hyperbole or alarmism. If you will tolerate one last violation of Godwin’s Law, lots of people in the Fatherland and elsewhere in Europe weren’t worried about that threat either, until it was too late.

The good news is, we’re not talking about the majority of Americans whom we must fight. As I have written many times in these pages, Trump’s troglodyte base is no more than 30% of the country. And Trump’s own human hand grenade style of “governance” has put once-solid GOP Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada (among others) in play in 2018, just as it cost McConnell a seat in Alabama last month and dealt the GOP a severe blow in Virginia in November. If, after all our gnashing of teeth, we can’t get it together enough to organize and out-vote these bastards, we deserve to be ruled by this insane clown president and his despicable followers. (Actively anti-democratic GOP efforts to suppress and rig the vote are a separate issue.)

To judge from the history of mankind, the impulse for authoritarianism (fascism, to call a shovel a shovel) is very resilient in human nature. Like hope, it seems to spring eternal, resurfacing every time we kid ourselves into thinking it has been permanently vanquished. Perhaps we should find a way to keep it alive in a lab somewhere, like smallpox, just so we can inoculate ourselves periodically as necessary.

Someone get on that please.

In keeping with the Teutonic theme of this essay, let us end with a few lines from Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Brecht of course lived through the rise of the Nazis before fleeing in 1933, soon after Hitler became chancellor. (Popularly elected, I hasten to remind.) The play is a very direct allegory about his rise, in which the Nazis are portrayed as a Chicago gangsters in the 1920s; Brecht wrote it (reportedly in just three weeks) from self-exile in Finland. It’s one of his lesser known works, rarely staged until recently, but much performed by theater companies all over the West in the past two years. It ends with the fall of Ui, the Hitler figure, but this warning:

Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the beast that bore him is in heat again.

Pretty smart guy, old Bert.


#MichaelWollf, #FireandFury, #RichardCohen, #AndrewSullivan, #AdamGopnik, #NoamChomsky, #AaronBlake, #JohnOliver, #BenjPasek, #JustinPaul, #MichaelGerson, #SinclairLewis, #JonathanChait, #AaronSorkin, #BertoltBrecht

Behind the Blue Wall: Pete Nicks and “The Force”

PeteNicks cropped

If there is one city in the United States that embodies the current crisis in American law enforcement—and in particular, the outrage over the epidemic of racially-based, often lethal police brutality against people of color—it is Oakland, California.

It is the place from which the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was spawned in 1966 in response to the repeated police killings of young African-American citizens….a city whose police department has been under federal oversight for 13 years due to systemic abuses, longer than any other in the country….and one that five years ago saw two police chiefs resign in three days, then last year lost three more chiefs in the space of eight.

At this moment in the history of American policing—amid Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and Colin Kaepernick vs. Trump Nation, to name just a few in a grim parade of flashpoints—there is no more fraught place than Oakland, CA.

For two years, Emmy-winning Bay Area filmmaker Pete Nicks, producer Linda Davis, and editor/soundman Lawrence Lerew embedded themselves with the Oakland Police Department to document this story from the inside. The result was THE FORCE, a gut-wrenching feature documentary that won Nicks the Documentary Directing Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically by Kino Lorber. It has its nationwide broadcast premiere tonight (January 22nd) on PBS’s Independent Lens series.

Operating in a lean, unobtrusive style that has drawn favorable comparisons to the great cinema vérité pioneer Fred Wiseman, Nicks (who was also the film’s cinematographer) immerses the audience in intense environments that would otherwise be opaque to most of the public. THE FORCE is the second in a trilogy of gripping observational films that began with Nicks’s debut, the critically acclaimed feature doc THE WAITING ROOM (2012), set in Oakland’s Highland Hospital. The trilogy explores the interconnected narratives of health care, criminal justice, and education, using Oakland to tell a broader story of America at large. The third film will focus on one of the city’s public schools.

Nicks received his BA from Howard University and his MA from UC Berkeley. Off his Sundance triumph, he was recently attached to direct the narrative feature THE FENCE for Fox Searchlight, and is developing a personal narrative exploring the so-called “war on drugs.” Nicks’s work at once offers us fly-on-the wall entrée to some of the most cloistered realms of our society without delivering easy, pat answers to complex questions or forcing an agenda on the audience. Of such thought-provoking, challenging stuff is a healthy, informed, and engaged democracy made.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thanks for sitting down with me, Pete. Can you start by talking about how you got this kind of access to the OPD?

PETE NICKS: Well, The Waiting Room opened up the possibility of a trilogy, because we saw all these really fascinating intersections. In the hospital we’d meet all these cops, and a lot of the nurses dated teachers, and a lot of the teachers dated cops, and a lot of the cops dated nurses….so there was this really interesting lens onto a community through the perspective of public institutions that are often at the center of very divisive and caustic national conversations. Public institutions that are made up of (smiling) human beings….

It started with health care, and our goal there was to unpack that issue through the perspective of these people on the front lines of this public hospital and try to reframe how people engage the issue in human terms.

When we finished that film and were thinking about what’s next, obviously the relationship between the police and the community was resonating. Things were happening, and race was entering our discourse in a new way, and the police became sort of the face of that as a mechanism aligned with racism, or aspects of racism or bias that were driving injustice in our country and had been doing so for generations. So it was an intriguing challenge. How do you enter that institution and tell their story at this moment when people have a lot of very complicated views of the police…..or views of that aren’t very complicated at all, in other words, that they’re just straight up evil or corrupt full stop. So that was our challenge, to take this next step in what we wanted to be a trilogy.

And I say “we”—I collaborated on this with my producer Linda Davis and my editor Lawrence Lerew, who I had done The Waiting Room with. And then Jon Else came onboard to be the executive producer, and Jon actually was the one who pushed me towards examining the OPD. You know, he’s the guy, the legend, who’s been on the front lines of the civil rights movement and films about it from the beginning. So we took the challenge.

(NB: Legendary Bay Area documentary director and cinematographer Jon Else is head of the UC Berkeley graduate program in documentary film. A 1988 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow, Else’s social justice bonafides stretch back to his undergraduate days as a Freedom Rider, producer on Eyes on the Prize, and his Oscar-nominated 1980 documentary about Robert Oppenheimer, The Day After Trinity, among many other achievements and accolades.)

So then we began the process of trying to get access to the department, which was the first trick, and that took about a year. Then we found ourselves beginning filming right at a volatile moment, which was when the grand jury in St. Louis chose not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, which touched off weeks of protest. That’s actually when we began our film.

TKN: That was some fortuitous timing, to say the least. But especially in the wake of that volatile situation, how did you manage to convince the OPD that this would be in their best interest, or the community’s best interest?

PN: The Waiting Room really resonated with people in terms of how we were able to reframe what had become a very divisive dialogue around access to health care. So when we approached the city they had heard of the film, and had a sense of what sort of storyteller our team was and what kind of sensibility we bring, that it’s an observational approach. Our pitch was that we’re not going to promise you anything other than that we’re going to tell your story as we see it. Our process is to embed for multiple years so we can get to as deep an authenticity as possible, understanding that storytellers always carry bias with them and bring that bias into their telling.

We told that we were coming in with no judgments, and I felt for me that was true. And the only way I was really able to do that was because I hadn’t had some of the visceral, violent personal experiences that a lot of black people have had. I grew up in the black church, and I went to Howard, but I’m mixed race, I can navigate, I can live my life in ways where I’m not necessarily being profiled, or thrown on the hood of a car, or having epithets thrown at me. At the same time I understand the narratives and the stories of people who have, so I’m very uniquely positioned to both go in with an open mind toward the police, but also an understanding of the damage that has been done to our communities—particularly of color—and how those stories have been carried from generation to generation.

So the intent of the film was to try to reframe how each side saw each other. I intuitively felt that the police—the institution of the police, but also the individuals within the police—probably didn’t have a firm understanding of those narratives and the impact that those narratives had had, and likewise that the community didn’t really understand what it’s like to be a cop and what they’re facing on a day to day basis. People on both sides often perceive the other through two-dimensional narratives, and we wanted to try to upend that. I thought that was a pretty good starting point.


TKN: Did you have any kind of structure in mind going in? Because the structure of the film is pretty bold.

PN: Initially we wanted to film in the dispatch center to replicate the device that we discovered in The Waiting Room, which was the waiting room as a fulcrum or a nexus, a place where you could discover so much about the diversity of the community, and about how the institution operated, about the challenges that the institution was facing. So we felt that the dispatch center would be a fascinating stage to understand how the police operated and the nature of the struggles that they face every day.

We had to shift focus once the protests started. From the point forward it slowly became clear that we were documenting two years in the life of a department attempting to reform, at this very specific moment in time, when these protests were erupting, and trust had degraded to almost nothing, and accountability was being demanded. What does it look like inside a department to navigate that? It was a department trying to respond to those calls for change, but also trying to keep the city safe at the same time, and we were asking how those two goals related to each other.

TKN: And in the movie, it seems that the department is doing a very good job—or an admirable job, anyway—of tackling that challenge and making real reforms, especially in light of its history. Is that how it felt on the ground?

PN: Initially we got the sense of what the challenges were. They’re underfunded, as many public institutions are. We got a sense of the dynamic nature of what departments face, not just in terms of crime but in terms of the consequences of poverty. And that’s a sort of underlying theme in all my work: what are the consequences of poverty in communities, in terms of access to health care, criminal justice, and education? And it was surprising the openness that we were received with.

But this was a department that was actively being forced to reform. A federal monitor was overseeing it. It wasn’t like the department woke up one morning and said, (cheery) “Let’s change!” People were putting pressure on it in a lot of ways. John Burris and Jim Chanin were the two civil rights attorneys locally that have really pushed this oversight of the department through legal action. And also the people. Oakland is an incredibly activist city, and has been all the way back to the Black Panthers. Very specific kind of DNA to it.

But we were surprised. They were actually making some progress, they were open, and we assumed it was because they felt that allowing us access would allow that story to be told. And that’s what you see at the beginning of the film: a lot of these changes taking root and making a difference and changing the culture, and leading to statistical improvements in certain areas, whether it was racial profiling, or officer-involved shootings, etc.


TKN: Considering where the film ends up, to what do you attribute that success—that limited success—that they had? Was it Chief Whent, was it the pressure from outside, was it a combination of things? Because just statistically, things got better, or at least they appeared to be getting better in the portrait that you painted.

PN: It’s an incredibly complex idea that we’re asking the audience to grapple with, and that we’re asking critics to grapple with, and I think a lot of the critique of the film kind of missed the mark. Critique kind of needs to understand the intent. What was the intent of the author and was that intent realized? And our intent was to ask the audience to go into a very complex environment at a moment when we’re all asking ourselves, “Which side are we on?” Where activists are asking—demanding—that we choose a side, where cops don’t have a choice but to choose the side that they’re on.

SPOILER ALERT: key plot points are given away below.

(While Pete and his team were filming THE FORCE, the Oakland Police Department was rocked by a massive sex scandal arising from an officer’s illicit relationship with an underage prostitute. The scandal ultimately forced the resignation of Chief Sean Whent for his part in allegedly covering it up, as well as a raft of other stunning setbacks for the department.)

PN: We’re asking the audience to try to hold multiple, conflicting truths simultaneously, and one of the most profound truths that the audience is left with—and some audiences aren’t willing to accept it—is that this was a department that made tremendous progress and is arguably one of the most progressive departments….but on the other hand, was also a department that suffered from a moral failure of profound proportions. It leaves you with a very troubling feeling of “Can change ever take root?”

I think there are different types of change, and I think the type of failure that you see at the end of this movie is more akin to what we’re seeing now in Hollywood, or that we saw in the Catholic church: a sort of human, moral failure that has a Shakespearean quality and speaks to the constant cycle of reform and failure that the human race has been engaging in forever.

TKN: I certainly had that reaction. At that point in the film, as a viewer and as a filmmaker, my heart went out to you, because it’s such a huge shift. Editorially it’s a huge shift, in terms of content it’s huge, what it says about what’s going on in the OPD….all of it. For the viewer—for me anyway—by then I’m so invested in the success of this department, and sympathetic to what they’re trying to do despite their problems, and then this thing comes seemingly out of left field and just changes everything. I presume you were cutting as you went along, as you were shooting?

PN: Yeah. But even that process kind of got upended when the scandal happened. We actually were about to head off to the Sundance edit lab when the scandal was breaking out and we had to call them and say we can’t make it, because shit’s going down (laughs).

We had to recut the entire film after the scandal broke out. Originally we were much more examining the presence of implicit bias, the presence of racism, not just in the human heart but institutionally, how that had taken root and what was being done to change that. Ironically, that kind of got pushed aside.

The OPD had this researcher from Stanford, Jennifer Eberhardt, who is a MacArthur “Genius” grantee who had been working with them, and studying all their body-worn camera footage, and done a lot of work on implicit bias. So we had scenes of her, scenes in the academy…..all that material got pushed aside in the interest of sparing the audience a four-hour film. Maybe it will be in a sequel, I don’t know. But that made it very difficult for some audiences—and for some critics—to understand, “What is the takeaway?” Are we doomed, or are we hopeful? And I actually think there is quite a lot of hope, given some of the successes that they did have. The fact that the scandal happened amid that success is a paradox that I’m still trying to understand.


TKN: There’s that powerful scene with the community organizers where one woman says, “There are no good cops.” She’s arguing that it’s not just the system that’s fucked up; all these cops are bad. And then there’s pushback immediately from other activists in the room. But the extent of that scandal lends her argument credence, not necessarily in terms of a blanket indictment of all cops, but in terms of the illness of that particular organization.

PN: Yeah, it’s not unlike the illness that affects a community that has few resources when you talk about crime, or about gun violence, or any of these things. That’s what’s so ironic. Some of the activists are what we call abolitionists: they’re advocating that we abolish the police. But that’s really an idea that’s rooted in the notion of finding new models for community safety, which is fundamentally what we’re trying to.

But we’re disconnected now from—whatever you want to call it—the “original sin.” We just celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday and this notion of “the arc of justice” and where we’ve been, not just going back to the civil rights movement but going back to the days of sharecropping and slavery. We’re so disconnected now from those origins. How do you reconcile that with the responsibility that a cop has, or that we have as a society, for restitution, or the notion of affirmative action? The young men and women who are committing crimes are also the victims of generational, institutional injustice that has left them with fewer options. So they then make these decisions that lead them to interactions with the police, some of which result in justified use of force and some of which result in unjustified use of force. But how do we distinguish between the two? Or is every shooting a modern day lynching? And there are a significant number of people who see it in very stark black and white terms, that these actions are never justified.

The film also was trying to sort through that. After a police shooting the community would come and protest, and they’d have their narrative and the police would have their narrative, and those narratives were in conflict with each other. So what does the “neutral observer” take away from that? That moment can only be understood in the context of the history that came before it. Some of the officers understand that history and some of the officers have no idea.

TKN: You see the department trying to inculcate the officers and the recruits with a sense of that history.

PN: Right, and that conversation is ongoing, and it’s also changed dramatically. You know, I was born in ‘68, and the conversation around race in the ‘80s, when I was growing up, was radically different than it is today. I think it’s summed up by this clash recently between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West.

TKN: And then there’s that incredible scene where the students in the academy are shown a video of a fatal shooting by a police officer and they debate it, and the question of what constitutes lethal force. “Do you really need to shoot somebody 25 times?” To me it was fascinating to watch these recruits talk about that, because it’s one thing for a veteran police officer to say, “You don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know what that guy’s got in his hand when he comes at me.” But these recruits haven’t been in the field yet and they’re already bringing that attitude to that encounter. So where does that attitude come from? Do they get it from the movies or what?

PN: They get it from a lot of different places, And what’s really interesting is that the officer in that scene advocating for the use of force—advocating for what to a lot of people is extreme, undue use of force—is a guy who grew up in a poor community. We couldn’t include it in the film for a whole variety of reasons, but I think two of his brothers were killed by gun violence, and he became a cop because he wanted to make a difference. He’s a young guy who grew up surrounded by violence. So what may seem like a lot of force to some, to him the bar is different. And he’s a person of color. So I think we need to recognize that officers are coming to this job with all kinds of different experiences and things aren’t always what they seem.

And that’s really my frustration with all of it is that a lot of time these narratives get flattened out, all the nuance gets taken out of it, because people are trying to win an argument, or make a point. Not that the shooting in that video is justified, but it’s important to understand in greater depth who these officers are. A lot of the things that are happening are at the hands of officers of color. Freddie Gray. In Oakland, the whole thing that led to federal oversight was the Riders case, which was these officers violating the civil rights of people in the community. And those were largely officers of color. So part of that is trying to get people thinking differently about who are these officers are and what experiences they’re bringing to the job and how that’s impacting their actions.

TKN: You can definitely see tribalism at play in the film—not just racially but the tribe of police versus the tribe of civilians. When Chief Whent talks about the “blue wall of silence,” yeah, I get it. Same as in the military. It’s this closing of the ranks and this feeling of, “We do a dangerous, thankless job, you don’t know what it’s like, and then you come in here outraged and complain that we’re doing it wrong? Fuck you.”

PN: And that circles around to what I believe is one of the film’s sharper points, which is why you need accountability and oversight. You have to have mechanisms in place that the public trusts. I think right now that’s what the legal system is struggling with, because there’s a case, Graham v. Connor, that is the legal precedent that gives officers a very wide spectrum of opportunity to use force. Basically, all you have to do is say, “I felt my life was threatened.”

TKN: It’s like “stand your ground” for cops.

PN: It really is. I believe there’s more of a problem with the culture within police unions that the culture within police departments, actually. Because I think there’s a lot of cops and a lot of commanders—when you talk to them individually—who are reform-minded. Maybe they’re bullshitting and pulling the greatest wool over our eyes in history, but just from having gotten to know these officers and commanders over the years, I think there’s a genuine interest in reform. But the structures and mechanisms are designed to protect police regardless. You saw this play out in New York City with Mayor DeBlasio and the reaction that the union had.

TKN: I think it’s Chief Whent who says, very near the beginning of the, film, that this is a country that was founded on mistrust of the government, and to many people, the police are the most visible, everyday manifestation of the government. Which connects to Captain Armstrong telling a bunch of students in the police academy that one bad cop can destroy a department, can destroy a city, can destroy a country.

PN: I think we can change behaviors. But right now we’re much more focused on legal mechanism and accountability, and that’s when we get into civilian oversight, and federal oversight. These are mechanisms that can be brought to these complex institutions to give the public a greater degree of confidence that when something goes awry, or somebody’s rights are violated, or somebody’s life is taken, there can be some justice brought to that situation. There’s just no sense that historically that happened, or that in today’s landscape that is happening.


TKN: In the film we learn that Oakland’s police department has been under federal oversight for thirteen years—longer than any other city in America—and that one of the solutions being contemplated is putting the department under the control of this sort of civilian commission you’re talking about. At the risk of betraying my ignorance of law enforcement, I was shocked to learn that city police departments aren’t already under that kind of control as a general rule. That seems like a natural fix for such a troubled organization.  

PN: Well, it’s complicated. It wasn’t a huge secret that Chief Whent was frustrated with the reform mechanism. And I think that feeling was shared by others: that it was going on too long, and the overseers are being paid quite a bit, and it’s costing the taxpayers money. There was an Our Brand Is Crisis kind of thing there, where the mechanisms were seen as taking advantage. And if you look at the data, and the changes that were taking place, there was quite a bit of change, so the question was at what point do you remove that oversight, having been in place for so long. But then you see what happened with the scandal, and you think, “Oh, of course they weren’t out from under federal oversight. They’re still damaged.”

Is it possible that it would have happened regardless? (shrugs) You could have a really tight ship over there, but the question was, why didn’t the chief bring that scandal to light earlier? Why didn’t he prosecute it in a more aggressive way? And ironically, it’s because they were so close to coming our from under federal oversight that they wanted to sweep it under the rug. They delayed and they obfuscated. If Chief Whent had come right out and shined a light on it, maybe he would have been fired anyway. Maybe it was a no-win situation.

The scandal was a complex story that had all kinds of angles and ins and outs, and we didn’t get into all of it in the film. It involved an officer who committed suicide, the one that was having the relationship with the girl; his wife had also committed suicide, some people thought that he had also murdered her….it was a rich story. But a duality was really in play there. There were a lot of positive things happening in the department, but there were a lot of underlying unresolved issues—not just moral failures, but the racial piece, and how we talk about race, and implicit bias. Those are not things that just police officers struggle with. It’s in all our institutions.

I call it the slow bullet. You look at teachers, doctors, nurses, and how they treat people of color, how they treat poor people of color, how they treat poor white people even. It affects people’s lives in profound, profound ways.

My mom was the only black guidance counselor in the inner city schools in Boston. She was a guidance counselor for many years, and she would tell me that a lot of these kids who were failing out—the Irish kid and the Italian kid—the guidance counselors would advocate for them. They’d say, “All right, you’re not going to Harvard, but maybe we can get you to graduate, maybe you can go to a state college.” They’d support them. But the black and Hispanic kids wouldn’t even graduate. The counselors wouldn’t talk them—they didn’t know how to talk to them, they didn’t have that shared cultural language. They saw them as hopeless.

And so for those kids, it was the slow bullet. Those kids never began a trajectory that would end positively for them. So that reality manifests across the spectrum in our public institutions with communities that have very few resources, and that’s a profound problem in our society and it has to be addressed.

TKN: Right. At the risk of stating the obvious, when you don’t feed the hierarchy of people who can help those kids, you perpetuate that cycle. Those kids don’t go to college, they don’t become guidance counselors themselves and help the next generation of kids, and the inequality continues.

PN: Yeah, the cycle continues and we still have the achievement gap, and we still have 80% of robberies in a city like Oakland being committed by African-Americans, and that continues the perception of who black people are—not just among cops but among the general populace. So that speaks to the underlying themes of our trilogy. The third film, presumably, is going to look at education, and that one is arguably more contentious than anything we’ve done.


TKN: Given the extent to which the rise of Trump turned on his exploitation of racism in America, do you feel like people view the film any differently since the election?

PN: It’s hard to know. I think the election has created a more divisive environment in terms of how we speak to each other.

One of the things that really moved me, but was also incredibly frustrating, was that individually I’d had profound and meaningful conversations with people on all sides of this issue: activists, cops, cops who hate activists, cops who are supportive of activists, community members who are supportive of cops, community members who hate the cops. I’ve had very meaningful conversations in small settings. It’s when you get into larger settings that things fall apart. I mean, there’s no way that you can carry the nuance of some of those exchanges into larger settings. You get that pack mentality. You see that on social media for sure.

A protest is another perfect example. You’re not going to see any nuanced interactions among people shouting at each other on the protest line (laughs). That makes a great Facebook video, but those two people who are shouting are also capable of having a meaningful conversation away from the glare of the lights and the crowds.

I think we have to find some way of allowing those conversations to happen and for experiences and stories to be shared. That’s the only way we’re going to make any progress. We tend to work harder at trying to understand people that we know something about. So the father who voted for Trump and the daughter who voted for Sanders, they can have different values, and they may be in conflict, and I’m sure some families have been broken over this thing. But I’m sure many more families try to understand each other, you know? They know each other, they love each other, they’ve grown up with each other.

Americans are diverse. We have different values, we’ve had different experiences, that’s what makes the country great. But particularly now, with the framing of race and power in this country, it has led to—whatever you want to call it—the Ta-Nehisi Coates era. There’s a new challenge to the status quo that has evolved beyond Martin Luther King’s call that I think we are now grappling with…..and a lot of people who voted for Trump, they’re just not hearing it. And vice versa. Some people don’t understand how anybody who voted for Trump could possibly be a good person. So that’s where we’re at and that’s why we need to tell stories.

More than anything, this film sparks really intense conversation and dialogue, and that was our intent. But it leaves you with some very complicated feelings. At the end of the day it makes you realize how far we have to go….not just with our institutions, but with our values.

What does it mean to be an American? We’re having that conversation right now. We have a president who seems to scoff at fundamental values of human decency. We have questions about how men treat women, how the powerful treat the powerless…..not that women are powerless, but in some situations they do feel powerless. The girl at the center of the OPD scandal who got involved with this cop, if you unpack her story, it’s tragic. Her power has been stripped away from her for a variety of reasons that are not her fault. She’s made choices the same way that women trying to make it in Hollywood make choices. But we have to understand that these choices are not made in a vaccum. There are power dynamics, and that speaks to the title of the film, “the force.” There are people who abuse their positions of power and that’s why we have a press, that’s why we have checks and balances so that we can hold the powerful accountable when they violate those basic tenets. And that is a really fundamental piece of our democracy. If we start losing that, and the trust starts crumbling, it’s deeply troubling.

That’s why this conversation around the relationship between the police and the communities that they serve is really important, because the police represent the democracy, they’re the most visible form of the government. So we gotta get a handle on it. And that’s part of the reason we made the film.




Independent Lens / “The Force”




Truth or Consequences: Bill Jersey on the End of Evangelicalism (Part 2)

BJ diptych part 2

This week, the second part of my interview with two-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Bill Jersey on the subject of religion and race in the age of a certain presidential charlatan.

At 91 years of age and with more 60 years of filmmaking experience, Bill Jersey has been strongly identified with a deeply humanistic, politically progressive brand of social justice-documentary. But he was raised in—as he calls it—a “Bible-believing” fundamentalist Christian family, giving him a unique frame of reference on the bizarre state of affairs in which America now finds itself. (See end of post for Bill’s full bio.)

Last week Bill pondered the mystery of Christian conservative support for Trump. Given the gobsmacking hypocrisy inherent in that phenomenon, the upshot—as many have written—seems clear. Actual theology is no longer the defining charactertistic of what we call “evangelicalism”; political partisanship is. In other words, the values (cough cough) associated with Trump—racism, misogyny, jingoism, xenophobia, avarice, and an absolute disregard for morality, truth, and integrity gussied up as hardnosed utilitarianism—are not antithetical to American evangelicalism, or even uncomfortable baggage to be awkwardly explained away, but rather, have become its very heart.

Writing in the New York Times (“America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism”), the progressive evangelical author Amy Sullivan smartly reverses the usual question, provocatively asking not how these religious people can square their faith with Trumpism—and indeed, the guns, greed, and racism of reactionary politics in general—but whether the right wing has fundamentally changed what “evangelicalism” itself means:

Journalists and scholars have spent decades examining the influence of conservative religion on American politics, but we largely missed the impact conservative politics was having on religion itself…..We kept asking how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity. But that was never the issue. Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.

….While one-quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “evangelical,” less than half of that group actually holds traditional evangelical beliefs. For others, “evangelical” effectively functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning.

Neal Gabler recently made a similar point on (“Why the Trump Era Won’t Pass Without Serious Damage to America”), as did Peter Beinart in the Atlantic (“Breaking Faith”). Bill Jersey has lived it firsthand.

In the second half of our interview, Bill explains how reading the Bible actually led him away from the church, how his family reacted, the tragically renewed relevance of A Time for Burning, and why religious belief gets a free pass when we assess our politicians.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: When you underwent this sort of gradual change to moving away from fundamentalism, how did your family react?

BILL JERSEY: (Long pause) Well my mother said, “I don’t approve but you’ll always be my baby.” Pretty good. (laughs)

My father never really understood my shift. I never talked with him, I never could. When he died I cried because that’s what you have to do when a parent dies, but in point of fact I never had any kind of meaningful relationship with him. He was an athlete, he was very good; I was terrible. He was a strict believer, a dedicated believer; I was struggling. I was an artist. I think he thought I was an interesting curiosity. He would take my artwork to the bank where he worked and I would trudge along with it.

And it was partly my mother’s fault. She told me, “I said to your father that if he ever touched my child I would leave him.” Well that’s not helpful for a father/son relationship. Now she meant hit, but she said touch.

TKN: Oh, he misinterpreted that?

BJ: No, no, no. I think…..I don’t know what he thought, but I know she used the word “touch” and I know she meant the word “hit.“ So she probably said hit, but it was just interesting that it came out touch.

There’s a picture of him and me standing next to one another and we both have pocket handkerchiefs and polka dot ties, both looking very dapper, but we’re not touching one another. That’s the other thing: he loved clothes and I didn’t give a shit about what I wore. (laughs) He loved sports, and that was funny because he would watch hockey when we finally got a television set, but we couldn’t watch the news because the news was too violent. How about them apples? (laughs) 

TKN: What about your sister?

BJ: Well, both of my sisters were real Christians, and I will say that when my sister was dying of cancer—and it took about two years for her to die—she was always content because she knew she was going to see Jesus. My father got lymphosarcoma when he was 45. He lived until he was 57. He outlived two of his doctors. He lived long because Jesus kept him alive. He believed that he was not gonna die until Jesus wanted to take him. And I believe that belief kept him alive, I really do. I believe in the power of belief, for good or for bad. Therefore be careful what you believe because it’s going to affect what you do.

TKN: But as we discussed last time, by the time you finished A Time for Burning in 1966 had you drifted away from the faith?

(NB: A Time for Burning follows a Lutheran minister in Omaha, Nebraska in 1965, fighting to integrate his all-white church over the objections of many of his parishioners.)

BJ: Well, it’s an interesting question. Had I drifted away from the faith? I still have the faith. I still have the faith that there is a truth that Jesus taught that would change the world if I could really embrace it, which I can’t, or if the church would really embrace it. But we don’t. We don’t because the world is too much with us. The world is too appealing. There is an invasion of things that debilitate any kind of commitment to a really fundamental truth. It’s really tough to hang on to, really tough, but I still have the beliefI wouldn’t call it Christian because to me “Christianity” has become such a disgustingly abused and misused and misappropriated term that I would never call myself a Christian—but I would say that I have a very abiding and sustaining and supporting and enabling belief that derives probably as much as anything from the teachings of Jesus. That’s true.

TKN: So it’s more correct to say the church drifted away from the faith?

BJ: Oh God, did it ever. I’m not sure it was ever connected.


BJ: I have no human heroes. What I do have is a belief in the human capacity to be heroic. I’ll never forget, a critic from the Philadelphia Inquirer came up to New York to interview me about one of my films that had gotten an Emmy. And he said, “Jersey, how come all of your films have flawed heroes?” And I said, “Because that’s the only kind I know.“

That’s my view of Jesus. That’s the whole gospel message really, that you need to to do some changing in your life. That’s really fundamentally what it’s about. Look at yourself. Get the log out of your own eye. Don’t throw stones at a prostitute, think about your own prostitution, you know? The Jesus I know was a very wise, gentle, caring, and tough dude. And I try to be those things. And sometimes I go too far in the one direction with the gentle, sometimes I go too far in the one direction with the tough. What Christianity taught me is that it is not just what you say or what you do but it’s who you are that matters. That’s what God is concerned with: He is concerned with who you are. You can say the right things, but that’s not enough.

What did Jesus preach? “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Bible is full of really good stuff like that. It really is. The problem is, the Bible is also full of pure unadulterated bull. Once again it’s a matter of filtering, and filtering is what ideologues never want to do. They want to filter as in “leave out what’s inconvenient for them, but they don’t want to filter as in “leave in.“ So I did get a lot—not from my church, but from the Bible.

And that was the fortunate part of fundamentalism. Back when I was a boy, fundamentalists did not focus on politics as most modern churches do today. They focused on the Bible as the word of God. So that’s what we did in our church. I remember I got a dime in a contest when I was 10 years old because of the Bible verses I remembered in Sunday school. In 1935 a dime was pretty good! And those verses keep coming up, and I keep appreciating them coming up, and it’s not because they came from the Bible, it was because something in me says, “That’s a truth that needs to be remembered and acted on.” I had a funny, quirky feeling—I was never conscious of this, I’ve never said this before—but I have a funny feeling that it was the words of Jesus that actually liberated me from the tyranny of his followers. I think that could be true. Because his followers would say things, and I would say, “But didn’t Jesus also say such-and-such?” I’m constantly quoting the Bible to people.

I think it takes too much faith to believe there is no god. So I can’t go there. That’s too much like work. I worked at faith and that was too much like work, so I prefer to be an agnostic. I said to my mother once, “You know, mom, it doesn’t matter whether Jesus really exists or really said these things, these Bible verses really empower me.” And she snapped at me and said, “Don’t say that!” So people need to believe a real Jesus exists.

TKN: It’s fascinating that you say that actually listening to what Jesus said caused you to see the hypocrisy and how it had been distorted.

BJ: Well, I never said it that way but I’m wondering if that wasn’t true.

TKN: It’s ironic because they said, “Believe this,” and you believed it, and it led you away from the church.

BJ: Yeah well, Jesus didn’t do a lot of gathering people into the synagogues of his day either! (laughs)

TKN: Right. It’s like that Woody Guthrie song, “Jesus Christ”, that says if Jesus came back now and preached what he preached in Galilee, they’d kill him all over again.

BJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, when somebody says, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” holy cow—you’re not gonna become president! (laughs)


BJ: There’s a Biblical verse that I get up every morning with, though I don’t believe it literally for even two seconds: “This is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Now, I don’t do that easily. It’s like that comedian said in the documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. That’s me too. Or like we sang in the Navy, (singing) “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning.” That’s still me. But once I get up it’s, “Thank you, Jesus.” That’s what we say in my tradition when something good happens, we say, “Thank you, Jesus.”

TKN: That’s almost like a Buddhist sentiment, to say, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice in it.“

BJ: If I’m anything I’m a Buddhist. Thich Nhat Hanh did a wonderful thing for me. I did a little interview with him, and I said to him “I need for you to concretize some of, your philosophy.” I’m not big on philosophical constructs. He said, “All right.”

He picked up an apple and said, ”What do you see?” Well, me being a brilliant graduate of Wheaton College and the University of Southern California with a masters degree in cinema, I knew exactly, and I said, “I see an apple.” And he said, “I see the sun and the rain and the Earth nourishing the seeds which grow into a tree, which blossoms into a beautiful flower, which becomes the apple.” I have never looked at apple the same way since.

TKN: While we’re talking about A Time for Burning, it’s had a kind of renaissance. The film is 52 years old, and it’s as topical as it ever was—sadly. So what is it about that film that is resonating in the present day?

BJ: I think one thing is that I was able to convince to people that it was OK for them to be who they really were. And having a brilliant editor, Barbara Connell. In this film we have essential aspects of the human condition—the nature of faith, the nature of belief, the nature of fear—that always will resonate. The issue of race will never go away it, and it’s tragically relevant today.

AT&T bought a copy of the film. And I said, “What do you want a copy of a film about a church struggling over its religious faith?” And they said, “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about how difficult it is to introduce a behavioral shift in a situation where that behavior is entrenched.”

TKN: That was very savvy of them.

BJ: Very savvy of them. They got it. “Guys, we’ve always done it this way.” That’s not an argument anymore; that doesn’t fly, bubala. I don’t know how they used it, but they bought a print.

Maybe ten years ago I took the film back to Omaha and showed it to high school kids there, about 200 of them. They had never experienced anything like what was in A Time for Burning, not literally. So they had a discussion about it, and they talked about race and back forth. And a young Nigerian girl about 16 years old looked at it, and said, “No, no , no. What this film is really about is how hard it is to change when you believe something so deeply.” When you see people in such a certain way, so clearly, and you really believe that you know what those people are like, it’s hard to change that. So she empathized with the difficulty of this particular Lutheran congregation in trying to see African-Americans differently than they were used to seeing them. And I thought, ”Holy crap, you’re a 16 year old black chick from Nigeria and you’re recognizing that? You’re able to understand and empathize with the white people wrestling with their bigotry?” Wow.

TKN: So despite how bad things are at the moment, do you see any progress—culturally and socially—in terms of race from ‘65 to the present?

BJ: I feel there’s been a regression. But remember, more people voted for Hillary than voted for Donald. Sorry Donald! But I am an eternal optimist only because I think that’s the best way to function in the world. Not because I honestly and always think things will inevitably get better. I’m not that kind of progressive.

I do think that if Hillary had been elected these people would have only gotten worse. The assholes would have felt justified in their hatred and they would have gotten worse, and it would have been more covert and therefore scarier in some ways. I mean look at what they said when Obama got elected: they said our goal is to get him out. That was their main goal! Now, with Trump, they’re emboldened, which is bad, but to have them working beneath the radar would have maybe been more dangerous. 

TKN: Yes, Trump’s election lifted the lid off of that sewer. At least it exposed the scumbags to the light of day.

BJ: That’s what I think. If we’re lucky it’ll be like a fever breaking.

TKN: I do think there has been forward progress in some areas, however slight or limited. Nobody today would be taken seriously as a politician if they said we should have segregation, that we should have separate drinking fountains, for example. At least I hope not. After Trump, I’m not so sure. But I think we have cleared that incredibly low bar. 

BJ: That’s right. 

TKN: But I think the illusion we had when Obama won was, “Oh, racism is over now. We’re in a post-racial society.” But first the rise of the Tea Party in backlash to Obama, and now Trump’s election even more so, have exposed this group of deadenders who are clinging to that 1965—or 1955, or 1865—mindset. They are still with us.

BJ: How could any African-American, how could any person of any color, how could any person at all, look at Trump’s election and say this man wants to make America great? No, this man wants to make America white, folks! Would you just please look? Forget about words, forget about ideology, forget about sermons, just look at the damned picture! 

TKN: But that’s exactly what you were saying before. It’s undeniable. But like the Nigerian girl said, when you’re so entrenched in a belief or a way of viewing something, you can’t see the facts.

BJ: See the problem is, if you believe a thing to be true, then it is true in its consequences. It’s not true, but it’s true in its consequences. One of the characters in the barbershop in A Time for Burning said that. And that’s what it is. People believed that Trump was gonna make America great and therefore the consequence was he got elected. Now, do they still believe he’s making America great? I know he’s a great liar and he’s very good at it, and he’s very consistent and that’s important. You got to continue to lie. Machiavelli said it best. 

TKN: So did Roy Cohn, Trump’s great mentor. 

BJ: And so did Roy Cohn. Yeah. And what’s so tragic in our country is that the Republican Party is not taking a stand against Trump. They’re riding his coattails, thinking either they have to do it, or that it benefits them. 30% of Americans support Trump and 70% don’t. So whose coattails are you riding and why? I don’t know.


TKN: So how does the church—to be sort of broad about it, but especially evangelicals who have completely betrayed all those things you just said in embracing a figure like Trump—how do they come back from that? Or is this a breaking point for evangelicalism?

BJ: If what evangelicals believe Jesus taught is not what Jesus taught, I don’t know how you get out of it. “If you believe a thing to be true, it’ll be true in its consequences.” For instance, I think Donald Trump believes is that he is wiser than anybody else. He may not, but I think he believes that. So even if he tells a lie, he’s done it for a good reason. The consequence of that is not that he fulfills something for himself, but that collectively a group begins to embody that in their behavior. He says he is gonna “make America great again.” Well, maybe that was a mistake to believe that. So if it was a mistake to believe that, what in fact is he about? And if you’ve got an answer to that, man, I want to hear it.

Beliefs are obviously so much more powerful than facts. But to me that’s what you have to do if you’re going to be the best possible human—I won’t even say good, but the best possible human you can be—given all the garbage that you grew up in, all the bull you laid on yourself. The only way to do that is if you’re willing to begin again. As Rilke said, “If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced him, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner.” Every day I say that to myself.

TKN: But here’s the question. Are any of those people—or a significant number of those people—gonna get to a point where they say, “Oh shit, we got suckered.” Or do they double down? Because right now there’s a lot of evidence that they’re doubling down.

BJ: Oh yes. I think the believers will double down. It’s the only choice they have. Are you kidding? To admit that their assertively held belief is a lie? Oh, that’s asking a lot. They built their whole lives around that.

These mega churches, their whole life is that. My whole life was built around five times of going to church a week. Three times on Sunday—Sunday school, morning worship, evening worship—Tuesday youth group, and Friday prayer meeting. Five times a week I went and heard exactly the same thing.

TKN: But you’re the hope, Bill, because you broke out of it! You saw through it.

BJ: I was helped to break out of it and that’s why I believe strongly in continuing to make films and being involved with crazy people like you doing blogs because I think that’s all we can do. Lighting a candle is better than cursing the darkness. And lighting enough candles brings so much light that those people can’t hide anymore, and that’s my hope. And also I’m not responsible for the fricking world, thank you Jesus. I’m only responsible for me. So I’m just gonna spend my life trying to light little candles.

That’s the kind of risk I think we have to take. We have to take the risk of exposing the tragedy that is the political mood today. We have to take the risk. You have to do what you’re doing, and I’m glad you’re doing it. That one guy a couple of weeks ago, Jim Carroll, he was terrific. He was just great.

TKN: Yeah, he’s amazing. I talked to him yesterday and I told him I was gonna interview you today which is a continuation of that exact topic. You guys are of a piece.


TKN: So this raises another question I wanted to talk about, which is all related. In America, religion and politics are intertwined, despite this charade that they’re not. We’re the only Western democracy I know where politicians are required to profess their faith. It’s not a law, of course, but it’s a norm, which is even more insidious.

An atheist is not gonna get elected President of the United States—not right now in 2017 anyway. Whereas in other countries it’s the other way around for politicians: you have to keep your religious beliefs private, and they can actually hurt you at the ballot box. Tony Blair is a born again Christian, but in Britain he had to keep that quiet.  

BJ: I didn’t know that.

TKN: That’s how quiet he kept it! But here in the US, religion is simultaneously tied up in our politics and yet off limits for criticism. Remember when Mitt Romney was running, you couldn’t talk about him being a Mormon or the problems with the Mormon Church. A few pundits did and they got slapped down. A person’s faith is considered off limits for scrutiny in terms of how they will lead and what political actions might result from the religious beliefs they subscribe to.

BJ: Well, look at Kennedy and his Catholicism. That was a big one to overcome.

TKN: Right. The resistance to Kennedy was part and parcel of this same litmus test, which used to be “Protestants only,” but he broke it open just a little bit to include Catholics too. We don’t talk about a candidate’s choice of faith as a qualification or a disqualification—as long as they’re a Christian, which is an unspoken prerequisite.

But here’s the question. Why are a candidate’s religious beliefs off limits? Because it you’re Mitt Romney and you subscribe to a faith that believes black people are inferior, that’s germane to you running for president.

BJ: Yes. To you functioning as the leader of all Americans.

TKN: And it doesn’t even have to be that extreme. Sam Harris, the atheist neuroscientist and writer, has this great line about George W Bush. Bush used to say that he regularly talks with God, and everybody thought that was great. But if Bush had said, “I regularly talk with God through my hair dryer,” we’d have locked him up. And Harris’s comment was, “I fail to see how the addition of the hair dryer makes that statement any less ridiculous.

BJ: (laughs) That’s a very good statement.

TKN: Well, Harris is a smart guy. But the point is, should we not hold our leaders accountable for their beliefs and the implications of those beliefs—the consequences, as you put it—whether they’re religious or not?

BJ: Yeah, well, there’s no question in my mind that we should, because it’s their beliefs that will define their behavior. Surprise surprise—hello operator! Of course we should hold them responsible. And it’s not about religion, it’s about belief systems that will alter behaviors and will influence people. It has nothing to do with religion, except in its origin, but not in its execution.

TKN: So this is what we were saying before. You were able to recognize the irrationality. But so many people don’t. I mean, why do people stay in a completely irrational belief system?

BJ: Oh they would say that we don’t understand, we don’t know why God allows these things. Why does God allow earthquakes? Well, we don’t know that. And God created us for free will; that’s why people are terrible, not because God was a bad designer of human beings.

TKN: I’ve always contended that there’s some comfort in this idea of a god, even a malevolent god.

BJ: I don’t know about that, but yes, it is comforting. That’s why I say if you take care of the universe, the universe will take care of you. And there’s a sense in which I think that is true. I’m amazed at the good things that have happened to me in my life, inexplicably.

TKN: It’s karma, right?

BJ: Well, I don’t know, but I do think it’s something, I really do. I don’t even care to label it, but there’s something about paying attention to what’s possible instead of paying attention to what doesn’t work.

TKN: Yeah. Well, I don’t believe in justice in the sense that there is justice in the world….

BJ: No.

TKN: But I do believe that what goes around comes around and good behavior is its own reward.

BJ: Yeah.

TKN: So that might be naïve, but that’s a better way to live than being like Donald Trump.

BJ: We’ll see. I think that’s it. And the thing is, what we don’t know is our capacity to infect others through our ideas. It’s not a matter of convincing others. I’m not big on convincing. My films are never logical arguments. I’m not interested in logical arguments in the first place I think that for a believer logic bears no relation.

TKN: Clearly.

BJ: But I do believe that that truth can be infectious. My only hope is that I may infect somebody. My nicest example to date is Henry Hampton, who wrote me a note when Eyes on the Prize got its first big award. He said, “Bill, I just wanted you to know that it was your film A Time for Burning that got me to believe that I could do honest films.” Who knew? 

TKN: Who knew?

BJ: And that’s not why I did it, but that’s what happens. And that’s my only hope, is that we can infect one another with confidence. We can make a difference, and we can take actions that make a difference. And they make a difference not because we set out to make a difference, but because we set out to be authentic in our response to the world as we see it.

TKN: Cut. That’s the perfect ending.


Illustration credits:left, Albrecht Altdorfer, circa 1515; right: Getty Images

Transcription: Sherry Alwell /


Bill Jersey – Biography

Bill Jersey has been producing groundbreaking documentaries for over 60 years. Since establishing his reputation in the 1960s as one of the pioneers of the cinema verité movement, he has produced films for all of the major networks including a long association with PBS stations such as WNET New York, KCET Los Angeles, KQED San Francisco, and WGBH Boston, among others. Jersey’s body of work includes the award-winning documentaries A Time for Burning and Super Chief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren, which were both nominated for Oscars; Children of Violence (about a Chicano family) and Loyalty & Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob, which both won Emmys; The Glory and the Power (about religious fundamentalism); Faces of the Enemy (on the uses of wartime propaganda); and Renaissance (a four-part series on the history of the Renaissance), all of which were nominated for Emmys; and The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a four-part series on the Jim Crow era, which won a Peabody. Among this other films are: Fighting Ministers; Crime & Punishment in America; Learning to Fly; Naked to the Bone, Stopwatch, and The Next Big Thing? (all three with Michael Schwarz); The Making of “Amadeus”; Everyday Heroes; Evolution: What About God?; Ending Aids: The Search for a Vaccine; America at a Crossroads: Campus Battleground; and Hunting the Hidden Dimension (for “Nova”). His most recent documentaries are Eames: The Architect & The Painter (about Charles and Ray Eames), which also won a Peabody, and American Reds (a history of the American Communist Party, with Richard Wormser).

A graduate of Wheaton College (with a B.A. in Art) and the University of Southern California (with an M.A. in Cinema), Jersey has been the head of Quest Productions for over fifty years. In 2000 he was awarded the Gold Medal for his body of work from the National Arts Club in New York City. After many years in Berkeley, CA, he and his wife and partner Shirley Kessler are now based in Lambertville, NJ. Jersey is also an accomplished landscape painter whose works have been shown widely in galleries across the US. He is represented by the Lambertville Artists Gallery.


Other relevant articles on this topic:

God’s Plan for Mike Pence (The Atlantic)

After ‘Choosing Donald Trump,’ Is the Evangelical Church in Crisis? (NPR)

Why Evangelicals Are Again Backing a Republican Despite Allegations of Sexual Misconduct (Boston Globe)

Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore? (The New Yorker)

A Top Church of England Bishop Scolds U.S. Evangelicals for ‘Uncritical’ Support of Trump (The Washington Post)

Frank Schaeffer Explodes at the GOP


Jesus Wept: Bill Jersey on the End of Evangelicalism (Part 1)

BJ IV diptych

In continuation of the conversation about religion, race, and Trump that I began some weeks ago with the great Catholic thinker and writer James Carroll (The Invention of Whiteness and The Disadvantages of Decency), I recently sat down with the legendary documentary filmmaker Bill Jersey, whose perspective on the issue is both rare and highly personal.

One of the pioneers of the cinema verité movement and a winner of the Peabody, Dupont-Columbia, and two Emmy Awards among many others, Jersey is one of the most accomplished documentarians of the modern era. At 91 years of age, Bill’s other honors include two Oscar nominations, including one for A Time for Burning (pictured above), his searing 1966 study of a Lutheran church in Omaha, Nebraska wrenched over racial integration, which has found a disturbing new relevance in the Trump era.

Over the course of his long career, Jersey has been strongly identified with that sort of deeply humanistic, Berkeley-based brand of social justice-oriented filmmaking. But Bill was raised in—as he calls it—a “Bible-believing” fundamentalist Christian family, giving him a unique frame of reference on that community, especially in our current, perilous, logic-defying times. (See end of post for Bill’s full bio.)


Contrary to popular myth, religion has always been part of American politics, from the arrival of the Pilgrims through Father Coughlin and all the way into the present day. It is undeniable, however, that this confluence became supercharged with the emergence of the Orwellian-named Moral Majority in the 1980s. Christian conservatives have been a force to be reckoned with in US politics ever since (in case you’ve been in a coma).

But in 2015 and early 2016 there was good reason to wonder if—and why—devout Christians, who in the past had made a ferocious point about the “character” of American politicians (especially Democratic ones) would support Donald Trump. A less likely champion of Christian faith would be hard for a novelist to invent: a thrice married, brazenly philandering greedhead with no discernible religious background, experience, or interest, not to mention his appallingly un-Jesus-like attitudes toward money, Jews, people of color, sexual activity, honest business practices, human decency, and other ostensible hallmarks of the faith. Hypocrisy is an art form within organized religion, but Trump put even those limits to the test.

Accordingly, it took some time for many evangelicals to swear allegiance to Trump—roughly the same amount of time it took for him to secure the Republican nomination. But they eventually flocked to him with a fervor that was astonishing to see, becoming his most reliably loyal and unwavering demographic. Indeed, during the election Trump did far better with that group than many legitimately religious predecessors in Republican politics, including both Bushes and Mitt Romney, to say nothing of Democrats who were devout, lifelong believers like Jimmy Carter, or regular churchgoers like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the zeal for Trump among Christian conservatives (not coincidentally, a group heavily—though by no means exclusively—concentrated in the South) and their almost superhuman ability to rationalize his obvious disconnect with their ostensible faith, suggested that there were other factors in play, such as no-likee-the-blacks. Since taking office that support has not appreciably waned, Trump’s daily tantrums and outrages and what Bob Mueller proves be damned.

So how to make sense of Christian support for Donald “Grab-em-by the-pussy”, “Fine people among the Nazis,” “Putin is a Great Man” Trump?

There is no one better to ask than Bill Jersey.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: Let’s start with—

BILL JERSEY: In the beginning. God, that’s always a good start.

TKN: You come to all of this with one of the most interesting backgrounds of anyone I know. You were born in Queens, is that correct?

BJ:  I used to say I was born in Yankee Stadium because I didn’t want my kid friends to think I was born in Mother’s Hospital. (laughs) You know, I don’t even know where I was born. Yeah, Jamaica, Queens is sort of where I’m always saying I was born. I think I was.

TKN: What was the church you were raised in? What was the religious tradition?

BJ: Oh, it was a fundamentalist church. And if you said, “What denomination?” they were offended because we were non-denominational. The denominations were all those who distorted the faith, you see. And incidentally, it’s probably true.

TKN: And what were the core beliefs that you were raised in?

BJ: “Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it.” It was real, real, real simple.

TKN: But who determines what Jesus said? I mean, the Bible is open to interpretation.

BJ: (mock outrage) No it’s not! What do you mean? God gave the Bible to man and told him what to write down. Now, of course, we know that wasn’t what happened at all. In fact, the King James translation was done by an English agnostic, I think. Wasn’t even a Christian. We had a sense of humor about it, though. I’ll never forget at Houghton College—a good Christian school, I mean really good Christian school—we used to say, “If the King James version was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us.”

TKN: Right, that’s the old joke. “If English was good enough for Jesus.” But there was no drinking, no smoking, no dancing….?

BJ: Oh God no. And no swearing. You never said “geez” because that was Jesus. You never said “darn” ‘cause that meant “damn.” Oh no no.

TKN: And did you go to public schools?

BJ: Yeah, oh yeah. Went to public schools because we couldn’t afford anything other than that.

TKN: But did that challenge your religious beliefs?

BJ: No, no, no. I realized we’re of God and “they’re” of the world and you don’t expect them to behave well. You don’t expect them to do anything.

TKN: Did the things that you were taught conflict with the church?

BJ: I’m sure in terms of evolution they did, but I don’t even remember it.

I went to a high school reunion when I was 50 and I said to my classmates—who all seemed to be very old, I was kind if surprised how old they were—I said to my classmates, “So what kind of guy was I? I must have been really obnoxious.” They said, no, you were full of fun. I said, but I never did anything! They said, yeah, we never understood why you wouldn’t go anyplace with us, but you were a fun guy. So I perceived myself as being a major downer in their lives, ‘cause I’m sure I was obliged to convert them, but maybe I didn’t. Maybe that was beginning, that I just didn’t do it.

I know I did find ways of connecting. I bought a little Kodak Brownie camera. Do you remember the little box camera? And I would go to dances and I would take pictures and I would sell them pictures of themselves. So that got me a little money, and got me to be a part of dances that I wasn’t allowed to go to.

TKN: So when did your discomfort with fundamentalism begin?

BJ: I was always uncomfortable with it. I was uncomfortable at being told that if I didn’t save you, you were going to hell. That made me responsible for you going to hell. Now that’s a pisser, man. That is a burden you don’t easily dismiss. So I carried that weight. I would go into New York City with my packet of biblical tracts explaining how you needed to be saved, and I would pass them out dutifully, but somehow when I did it, I just wasn’t sure I was better than the guy I was giving the tract to, or that what it was saying was better than what he might have said if I had asked him. So there always that lingering doubt.

Fortunately, I did meet some really wonderful Christians, in spite of their churches but because of their real faith. Because instead of listening to what their fundamentalist preacher said, they listened to what Jesus said. Jesus actually said a lot of good things. But the Christians I know for the most part don’t seem to remember any of them.

TKN: When you’re talking about handing out tracts in New York, how old were you?

BJ: I was a teenager. Fifteen, sixteen.

TKN: And you’d spent your whole life up to that point in the fundamentalist community?

BJ: Yeah. Even in the Navy, when I was 18, I had a wonderful Jewish friend and he said to me, “Jersey, we’re going out to see some strippers. Why don’t you join us?” I said, “I can’t do that!” I couldn’t do it.

TKN: Now where is this?

BJ: This is on the USS Arkansas, BB33, the oldest battleship in the fleet in 1945. The ship was in the Pacific. By the time I got onboard the war was over, so we were now collecting the still-living or wounded Marines.

TKN: And through this whole period you were still maintaining the faith you were raised in?

BJ: Yeah, I was still maintaining my allegiance to—but discomfort with—my fundamentalist Christianity.

TKN: So what caused the break?

BJ: (long pause) I don’t know. I think it evolved, you know? I don’t know, maybe some people have catastrophic moments or moments of great radical realization. But for me it evolved slowly.

TKN: So not a Damascus experience?

BJ: No, no, no. Paul and I had different experiences with life. (laughs) How do you know all this stuff?

TKN: I had a conventional religious upbringing. Not fundamentalist, but sort of garden variety Protestantism.

BJ: Yeah. So it evolved. And there were people along the way who helped. I was still a Christian at Wheaton College and Houghton College after the Navy, but the shift there was not so much a “denial of” Christianity, but “no need for involvement with.”

So my painting teachers at Wheaton and Houghton were the saints of the world. They were three beautiful people. Two at Houghton College, Amy and Willard Ortlip. They were just the most loving, caring human beings, and boy that was what I needed. And then at Wheaton College, Karl Steele—I wish I knew if he had kids, I would tell them how wonderful their father was. He asked me if I knew how to use a drill. I said, “Use a drill? For a painter? And he said, “Everything you know how to do makes you less dependent on other people.” Now is that Christianity? I don’t know what it is, man, but that’s good advice. (laughs)

The silliness about sexuality, of course, was a great opportunity for me. I’ll never forget at Wheaton I got up and I was gonna sing a song on amateur night, right? So I decided to wear a dress. Now, nobody did that. Not only did I wear a dress but as I sang I scratched my side so I pulled up the dress. And I sang “I Must Go Where the Wild Goose Goes.” And it just brought the house down. So we laughed. And I do remember at Houghton I was in the infirmary, I got a cold I guess, and a young woman came in, absolutely dissolved in tears, she was just desperate. And I asked the nurse, “What happened to her? It must have been awful.” And the nurse said the girl had been kissed and she was afraid she was pregnant. That was the level of sexual sophistication.

TKN: It must have been quite a shock to go from that into the Sixties.

BJ: Well, it was and it wasn’t, because remember, for me in the early Sixties it was still us and “them”—meaning non-believers. And what “they” did which never shocked me, ‘cause that’s what “they” do.

When I made A Time for Burning I was still a good Christian church member and that’s how I got the job from the Lutherans. That’s how I got into the church, how I got the church people to let me film them, because I could sing their songs and quote their Bible.

TKN: I didn’t realize that. I thought you had long before become an agnostic. (NB: A Time for Burning follows a Lutheran minister in Omaha, Nebraska in 1965, fighting to integrate his all-white church over the objections of many of his parishioners.)

BJ: No, no. I got the job because I was a Christian. But as I said, I think my agnosticism existed very early because I just found it hard to believe that all of those nice people in Africa would go to hell just because they hadn’t been told about Jesus. Some of that fundamentalist stuff just didn’t make any sense to me. How would you possibly believe that? That I was responsible for saving every soul I touch? What kind of crap is that? And also all my feelings were terrible, you know, about sex and everything, they were so awful. Seemed it should be awful. But A Time for Burning was a big shift.

TKN: The film itself?

BJ: No. I fell in love with somebody else’s wife on that film. She was my sound lady. And my editor. She was brilliant.

TKN: And she was married?

BJ: Yeah.

TKN: And were you married?

BJ: And I was married. We were both married, yeah. That was 1965.

I have to say in all honesty falling in love with her probably really liberated me. She was Jewish and she was smart and she was loving and she really helped me see the world. I don’t know if my current wife wants this to be said, but this was fifty years ago, and anyhow I don’t care, when you’re 91 you don’t give a damn what anybody thinks about you. (laughs)

And the other, more important thing that changed me was being willing to look for truth outside of my comfort zone.

The church that I was a member of—and technically still am, the United Church of Christ—had a brochure or a column in their magazine called ”Preaching from Unexpected Pulpits.” And it has nothing to do with God or religion but everything to do with your humanity. So “preaching from unexpected pulpits” allowed me to be sensitive to the possibility that truth exists almost everywhere in almost everybody at almost every time. But you have to have a good filter, because people who think they have the truth—I wouldn’t say inevitably but I’ll say with reasonable likelihood—usually don’t. That’s what I’ve found with people in general, and that’s what liberates me from the tyranny of any ideology.

But where I came from is part of who I am. I’ll never forget being on Long island doing a shoot and my filmmaker friends came out to help and they met my family. One friend of mine said to me, in shock, “You didn’t come from them, did you?” And you know what? I did. But whatever your background is, you take that and you use the opportunities it opens up for you. My background opened the door for me to do A Time for Burning. I did a film at Bob Jones University called The Glory and the Power which was another great opportunity. I got hired by Nova to do a film called What About God? All of these terrific opportunities came because of my fundamentalist upbringing.


TKN: Much has been written about the bizarre devotion to Donald Trump among the vast majority of American evangelicals. But a year into the Trump junta, when this devotion has become taken for granted, it’s easy to forget that it was hardly a foregone conclusion when Trump first entered the Republican primaries.

BJ: Fundamentalist ideologues supporting Trump just drove me up the wall. I don’t think Christian fundamentalists in general connect with their brains too often, but that one really drove me nuts. I don’t want to send this to my sister because I don’t want her to be hurt, but I would love to know if she still thinks that Donald Trump represents the best interests of the evangelicals.

And I make a distinction between fundamentalists and evangelicals. The evangelicals are out trying to save the world, but most of them are not quite literalists. The fundamentalists take the Bible literally. They believe that if God said it, I believe it, and that settles it. That’s what I grew up learning. That really simplifies the struggles of life! (laughs)

And that’s what’s nice about Donald Trump. You’re either wonderful or you’re terrible and it’s not complicated, it’s real simple, you’re thumbs up or you’re thumbs down.

Though it depends on the day. I mean, he likes that Philippine president Duterte now, right? He’ll hate him tomorrow—I hope—but today he likes him, and he wears a shirt that looks like his, and he identifies with him. If he goes to meet with Putin, he’ll like Putin and identify with him. He’s a chameleon. Whatever color you are, if he thinks he can get something from you, he’ll change his colors to accommodate you, and wear your shirt, and smile, and shake your hand, or whatever.

TKN: So this is what I came to ask you, which is the question you just asked: how do you possibly explain an evangelical or fundamentalist or any kind of a religious person’s support for this character who embodies the exact opposite of what their faith professes?

BJ: The exact opposite. Yes. Everything. Having dumped one wife then dumped another wife, and being proud of the pussy that he could acquire because of who he was….

They don’t see it. That is the answer. The answer is that you wear certain kinds of glasses to protect yourself from ultraviolet rays. These evangelicals wear intellectual glasses that protect them from things they don’t want to hear and they don’t want to know.

The fundamentalist churches today, I don’t know what they found in Donald Trump. They certainly couldn’t have thought he believed in Jesus, they certainly couldn’t have thought he was a good teacher of the Bible. You know what I think it is? I think it was simply the defeat of Hilary Clinton, that evil woman, as they saw her. Women should not behave the way Hilary Clinton behaved, if you’re a Christian woman.

As my sister said, “You don’t criticize a man of Gawd.” And you don’t criticize the man who is gonna get rid of this woman who does not behave like a woman should behave, who allows her husband to get away with all sorts of things she shouldn’t have. A good Christian would have left Bill Clinton when she found out about the affair. A good Christian woman wouldn’t try to be President of the United States; she’d be happy to be Secretary of State or Ambassador to Uzbekistan or somewhere, but not President. I think was it was just that Trump was gonna stop the evil.

And that’s what you’ll find in these mega-churches. What they mainly what they sell is stopping the evil in yourself. That’s why you come. You stop the evil in yourself. Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it. You don’t have to get complicated. Simplify your view of the world and the blood of Jesus washes you away from all sin so you’re clean.

The part of it that I don’t get is that Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s.” I didn’t hear Jesus say, “Go convert the politicians, go run the country.” No: let the politicians run the country. That’s not your job. Your job is to run your life, run your community, witness to the potential faith of Jesus in your life.

I would ask the fundamentalists, “How does that faith alter the way you behave in the world?” Does really believing in Donald Trump make you a happier, more satisfied, more caring person? Make America great again? What a wonderful slogan. It’s too bad he doesn’t believe it.


TKN: I would characterize the fundamentalists’ view of Hillary as sheer misogyny, plain and simple. And it’s not limited to fundamentalists. Lots of “mainstream” Republicans had a view that was just as toxic and irrational.

BJ: I remember one film that I did with Sam Keen, we were filming a fundamentalist Christian meeting somewhere and I went up to a woman and I said, “You know, we appreciate you appearing in the film but we need for you to sign a release.” And she said, “Oh, I can’t sign a release.” And I thought, “Oh no.” And she said, “You’ll have to give it to my husband. He’ll sign for me.”

Another time the wife of Dr. Bob Jones, fundamentalist extraordinaire in North Carolina, said to me on camera, (affects Southern accent): “I believe my husband should make decisions for our family because that’s what the Lord wants.” And later I went into her kitchen and on the refrigerator was a sign that said “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” And I said to myself, “Lady, you got it all right. You says one thing and you does another.” That’s how women survive in the fundamentalist church.

TKN: Right. Because here’s what occurs to me. In A Time for Burning, those religious folks had an animus toward black people….

BJ: Well no, you don’t understand them. The woman said very clearly, “I want God to bless them as much as he blesses me.” Did you hear her say that? That’s not animus. Then she said, “But I just can’t sit in the same room with them.”

TKN: There you have it. This is what I’m saying. It’s like what you said about Hilary. And it’s profoundly depressing.

BJ: But they think they’re protecting themselves against something that would harm them. 

TKN: Right. A woman. Or an African-American.

BJ: Exactly. 

TKN: That’s the depressing part. Because the core belief that they’re trying to protect is itself retrograde—and that’s being generous—or just plain wrong.

BJ: They’re not trying to protect a belief, they’re trying to protect themselves and their world. When Hitler said the Jews are fucking up our lives, he didn’t want Germany to be hurt by those Jews, who incidentally had done the best work of course in science and technology and everything else. 

Once in the Fifties, I heard my father say, “You know, the darkies are really nice people.” To him that was a compliment. He thought “the darkies” were nice people, and calling them “darkies,” well, they were dark so what’s wrong with that? Well, there was something wrong with that, but he didn’t get it.

TKN: So for a person like yourself who came from that world, when you hear something that’s a lie—like, “The Jews are gonna do us harm, we have to stop them,” or “This woman is gonna do us harm, we have to stop her,” or “We can’t let these black people in our church”—how are you able to see through that bullshit?

BJ: I don’t see through it. But I recognize it and put it in films and hope that other people will recognize it, and that if enough people recognize it, fewer people will engage with it. That’s my only hope.

People ask me, how did you get those Christians in A Time for Burning to say that they didn’t want black people in their church? It was because they believed—and it was true—that I wasn’t trying to hang them. I was trying to understand them and let them say who they really were. That’s why I got access at Bob Jones University and places like that. Because I genuinely would like to know what they had to say.

I think you know one of my many lectures is that I’m not interested in the small “t” truth— that’s the facts—I’m interested in the big “T” truth. Being able to see beyond what things appear to be: that’s what I find in religion that is hopeful, but unfortunately the hope doesn’t emerge very often because it’s buried by the fundamentalism.

TKN: Maybe you should make a film about that now, and use your credibility of your background to try to get those present day fundamentalist folks to talk, the way you got those folks in Omaha to talk in 1965.

BJ: I should. Because people always say to me, “What did you intend to do with this film, or with such-and-such?” The only thing I ever intend to do with my paintings, my films, my talks, and even when I just get with my conversations with people on the street, is to try and make them understand that I can hear them, and I just hope they will hear me. That’s all I ask.


This interview was conducted before the special Senate election in Alabama last month, but the impact of that stunning spectacle—an accused child molester running with the full-throated endorsement of the President of the United States, and of local churchgoers, and the blind-eye support of the RNC—continues to resonate.

As Laurie Goodstein wrote in the New York Times, many Moore voters not only were undeterred by the deluge of credible allegations and evidence against him, but stated that they would vote for him not even if the charges were true. Hypocrisy was the obvious word that leapt to mind, and in world record levels. But even the usual GOP rationalization—that it was crucial to have a hardline right wing Republican in that Senate seat, even if he was a serial sexual predator with a special fondness for underage girls—was a degree of Machiavellianism rarely admitted to by anyone in American politics. As Goodstein reported:

“I don’t know how much these women are getting paid, but I can only believe they’re getting a healthy sum,” said Pastor Earl Wise, a Moore supporter from Millbrook, AL. Wise said he would support Moore even if the allegations were true and the candidate was proved to have sexually molested teenage girls and women. “There ought to be a statute of limitations on this stuff,” Wise said. “How these gals came up with this, I don’t know. They must have had some sweet dreams somewhere down the line.

“Plus,” he added, “there are some 14-year-olds, who, the way they look, could pass for 20.”

When self-described Christians are willing to ignore pedophilia for the sake of suppressing marriage equality, or reproductive choice, or any other of a host of right wing wedge issues (not to mention separation of church and state or the general rule of law), it is fair to ask if religious faith can still be considered the driving force in their cause…..or at the very least, if that religious faith bears any resemblance to what Jesus of Nazareth taught.


TKN: Let’s talk a little bit about Roy Moore, speaking of evangelicals. This guy is a hardcore…..I don’t know what the correct term is, in his case. Fundamentalist?

BJ: Oh no, no. He believes he’s a Christian. Oh absolutely.

TKN: I think he’s a perfect example of the distortion of Christianity.

BJ: He is a perfect example.

TKN: Evangelicals in Alabama reportedly are more willing to vote for him now, not less, after the allegations.

BJ: That one’s tricky, but I know why. Because when the devil is opposed to one of your people, even though you might not like those people, you have to go support them. The devil is at work trying to get rid of him.

TKN: Well, I understand his supporters who say, “I believe him and not the women.” I don’t agree with them, but I understand that’s their position. The ones that boggle my mind are the ones who say, “It might be true that he’s a pedophile—I just don’t care.”

BJ: Oh I didn’t hear that.

TKN: There’s quite a few. They’re the people in your example just now of sticking by whomever is fighting on the side of the Lord, as they see it, even if they’re doing terrible things. But when those things they’re doing are so awful, it’s impossible—to me—to accept that they are in fact on the side of this ostensible Lord. By definition.

BJ: Well, what they say is, “Remember, we’re all sinners. We’re all sinners.” So Moore has particular sins that I don’t have, I don’t agree with them, but he’s still our guy. As my mother used to say, “I don’t agree with you, Billy, but you’re my baby.” They say, “I don’t agree with you, Moore, but you’re a Christian.” So that’s what it is.

Embodied in your one question are three questions. Why do they support him in the first place? Because he claims to be a Christian and you have to support your brothers. The man of God has to be supported whether he’s doing bad stuff or not. The second question is why do they support him if they acknowledge that he’s done these terrible things? Even McConnell said he believes the women. But of course I wouldn’t believe anything McConnell says….

TKN: Well, he’s just being pragmatic in that he doesn’t want to lose that Senate seat…..which he may not lose, right? Moore might still win the same way Trump won. But that forgiveness you’re talking about—that idea of “Oh, we’re all sinners”—I don’t see that extended to others. I don’t see it extended to Hilary. I don’t see it extended to Barack.    

BJ: No, you’re right, it isn’t extended to them. See, that’s the more interesting question.

TKN: Well, it seems to me like a kind of tribalism or even beyond tribalism.

BJ: Yeah well it’s the most primitive tribalism. I mean these Muslim radicals who go around killing people, and not just Muslim radicals, anti-abortionists like the one in one of my films who said that doctors who perform abortions are baby killers and they should be killed. “Baby killers.” 

TKN: I mean you can begin to understand his mentality if you really think about it, but it’s based on a false premise. True, if you kill this one doctor who’s “murdering” a million babies that could be justified by a utilitarian argument. It’s the “murdering a million babies” part that’s not true and therefore that argument falls apart.

BJ: Even if it was true, there’s nothing in the Bible that supports killing another human being. 

TKN: So as somebody raised in that same kind of religious community, how did you have a clear vision when so many others didn’t?

BJ: Well I didn’t. (laughs) All I had was what Ingmar Bergman called “through a glass darkly.” It’s the notion that all you have is an uncomfortable awareness that there’s something wrong with what is being pressed upon you. Now, you can do two things with that. Either you can find ways of denying it, and I know people who do that, or when somebody says, “There is an alternative,” then you can scratch away at that smoky mirror and see what you can see. And you’ll begin to see it.


Next week, part two of this conversation, in which Bill explains how reading the Bible actually led him away from the church, how his family reacted, the tragically renewed relevance of A Time for Burning, and why religious belief gets a free pass when we assess our politicians.

Photo credits:

Left, portrait of BJ: Lucy Hilmer

Right, still from A Time for Burning: Bill Jersey

Transcription: Sherry Alwell /


Bill Jersey – Biography

Bill Jersey has been producing groundbreaking documentaries for over 60 years. Since establishing his reputation in the 1960s as one of the pioneers of the cinema verité movement, he has produced films for all of the major networks including a long association with PBS stations such as WNET New York, KCET Los Angeles, KQED San Francisco, and WGBH Boston, among others. Jersey’s body of work includes the award-winning documentaries A Time for Burning and Super Chief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren, which were both nominated for Oscars; Children of Violence (about a Chicano family) and Loyalty & Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob, which both won Emmys; The Glory and the Power (about religious fundamentalism); Faces of the Enemy (on the uses of wartime propaganda); and Renaissance (a four-part series on the history of the Renaissance), all of which were nominated for Emmys; and The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a four-part series on the Jim Crow era, which won a Peabody. Among this other films are: Fighting Ministers; Crime & Punishment in America; Learning to Fly; Naked to the Bone, Stopwatch, and The Next Big Thing? (all three with Michael Schwarz); The Making of “Amadeus”; Everyday Heroes; Evolution: What About God?; Ending Aids: The Search for a Vaccine; America at a Crossroads: Campus Battleground; and Hunting the Hidden Dimension (for “Nova”). His most recent documentaries are Eames: The Architect & The Painter (about Charles and Ray Eames), which also won a Peabody, and American Reds (a history of the American Communist Party, with Richard Wormser).

A graduate of Wheaton College (with a B.A. in Art) and the University of Southern California (with an M.A. in Cinema), Jersey has been the head of Quest Productions for over fifty years. In 2000 he was awarded the Gold Medal for his body of work from the National Arts Club in New York City. After many years in Berkeley, CA, he and his wife and partner Shirley Kessler are now based in Lambertville, NJ. Jersey is also an accomplished landscape painter whose works have been shown widely in galleries across the US. He is represented by the Lambertville Artists Gallery.


Other relevant articles on this topic:

God’s Plan for Mike Pence (The Atlantic)

After ‘Choosing Donald Trump,’ Is the Evangelical Church in Crisis? (NPR)

Why Evangelicals Are Again Backing a Republican Despite Allegations of Sexual Misconduct (Boston Globe)

Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore? (The New Yorker)

A Top Church of England Bishop Scolds U.S. Evangelicals for ‘Uncritical’ Support of Trump (The Washington Post)

Frank Schaeffer Explodes at the GOP




Return on Investment: Kemala Karmen on Public Education

Kemala Karmen

Some months ago, I posted an interview with educator Matt Bardin about the crucial role of education—specifically literacy—in maintaining a functioning democracy (“Literacy vs. Tyranny: A Conversation with Matt Bardin”). By way of further discussion, public education advocate Kemala Karmen kindly agreed to sit down with me to carry on that conversation.

The parent of two New York City public school students, a founding member of NYC Opt Out, and a steering committee member of New York State Allies for Public Education, Karmen has long been active in organizing other parents in advocating for developmentally appropriate, child-centered education policies. She co-founded the design-thinking consultancy NYCpublic and is one half of the film production/social media messaging company Shoot4Education. S4E recently created an online short film series, “8 Powerful Voices in Defense of Public Education,” for the nonprofit advocacy group Network for Public Education.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thanks for speaking with me, Kemala. Can we begin by just talking about the state of American public education in broad strokes?

KEMALA KARMEN: Well, our public education systems in general are always running towards this question of “What’s the fix, what’s the fix, what’s the fix?” There are some fixes that we know of that work, including just reducing class size. If you look at other countries, they’re investing in the teaching force and the further professionalization of teachers. On the other hand, here we’ve come up with fixes like Teach for America and so-called “personal learning” software programs that kids just plug into on tablets. These actually encourage de-professionalization because they make the person in the front of the classroom kind of interchangeable. There is obviously a political benefit to that: busting the union; that’s why there’s such a push for it. There’s money that can be made off of tech, whereas it’s expensive to reduce class size, it’s expensive to really pay teachers what they’re worth, it’s expensive to educate them in a way that they should be educated for teaching well. If we’re talking about what really needs to happen, it’s some really big changes, not band-aids. And that’s the sort of investment we seem reluctant to make in our schools.

TKN: You would think that by now people would understand that the return on that investment is massive and the penalty for not making the investment is crushing. So why is there a disconnect?

KK: This is an area where, unfortunately, I think the left and the right have been equally blind. You can’t just blame the right. We wouldn’t be where we are today with things like excessive testing and school choice run amok and whatever else if Democrats hadn’t also been complicit.

I was at a really interesting meeting the other night with this guy named Charles Johnson who is a preacher from Texas and runs an organization called Pastors for Texas Children. He points out that there are these small rural communities in Texas—maybe even not so small—where it’s recognized that the school is the center of civic life. And so they actually are coming together to protect their schools, no matter their political stripe, because they see their civic life eroding and they understand that is something that needs to be protected.

TKN: That’s eminently sensible to me. So why is it taking root there and not everywhere?

KK: Well, that’s what he asked me. He said, “You liberals in New York are a bigger problem than we are in Texas.”

TKN: Because nobody’s doing that sort of thinking?

KK: Well, it’s this blindness about privatization of schools. We have these organizations like DFER, Democrats for Education Reform, all these billionaires who are putatively liberal but are really neo-liberal. It wasn’t until very recently that the NAACP, for example, came out with a moratorium on charter schools. And they’ve caught hell for that.

I don’t want to give the impression that public schools are all OK. They’re not. They certainly can improve. But our efforts should be going into improving our schools rather than creating a parallel system because separate is never equal.

TKN: So talking about allegedly progressive wealthy people—whether it’s in New York or elsewhere—I don’t want to generalize, but is there disinterest in public education because of this apartheid, where they can put their kids in private schools and make sure they’re well-educated and therefore they don’t have much skin in the game?

KK: I think that’s probably a big part of it. If you look at most of the people who style themselves as education reformers, their kids do not go to public school. They’re advocating for the kinds of schools that they wouldn’t send their own children to. And that’s not to say that everybody who’s on my “side” sends their kids to public school. Some don’t. But it’s not because they don’t believe in the mission of the public school. They want public schools to look like the schools that they choose to send their children to.

I think on the wealthy “reformer” side they fundamentally believe that there is something wrong with people as they are and that we need to have “character education” to inculcate middle class values. They don’t respect what people are bringing to the table as is, and believe we need to create a culture of compliance.

TKN: So you’re saying that within the charter school movement, or within the conservative approach to education in general, there’s an ideological component to what they want to do? Is that fair to say?

KK: I think there are many components to it. I know some think these privatization people are just in it for the money, or they’re just in it for the power, or whatever. But I think a lot of people in the charter movement honestly believe that they are doing something to help. I just don’t agree that it is going to help all that much, and that the pitfalls outweigh any benefits.

I do think some people are in it for the money. There are for-profit charter schools—not in New York, but even in New York, where the law is that charter schools have to be not-for-profit, you can have a building that the charter school leases from another entity that also belongs to the school’s owners, so the school is technically not-for-profit but in reality somebody’s making money. There are investment laws that encourage investment in charter schools. If you invest in a charter school, it’s possible to get certain types of visas. So while there are definitely good folks in that movement, there are other things at work too.

TKN: Well on the right, there’s a fetish for privatization across the board, not just in education but in everything.

KK: Right.

TKN: I remember when Barack Obama first came to the White House and he and Michelle decided to put their kids in private schools: you would think that would have been a bigger sticking point or source of outrage to the right, given that they were outraged about everything he did, even the littlest, most trivial things, like taking his jacket off in the Oval Office. But compared to everything else the right attacked him for, I don’t remember it being that big a deal. It almost felt like even people who hated Barack Obama understood that, if they were in his situation, they would not have subjected their children to a DC public school, not even on principle. I’m just surprised that more people who hated him didn’t bring that up.

And of course we’ve had many education secretaries send their children to private school. Which is a kind of damning symbolism.

KK: Arne Duncan did not. His kids went to public schools in Virginia. But it was in a well-to-do suburb, so those schools were probably funded better than many public schools in the country. And they didn’t implement the Common Core in the way that he espoused for the rest of the country. His successor, John King, ran a no-excuses charter chain but sent his own kids to a private Montessori school.

TKN: Not that we’re saying the Secretary of Education should send his or her kids to the worst public schools out of solidarity. The idea is that all public schools should be that good.

KK: Right. And of course, Betsy DeVos’s kids went to private Christian schools.

TKN: No surprise there.

KK: I agreed with what Matt Bardin said when you interviewed him, that people get turned off by school, by learning, by intellectual endeavor, if they don’t feel there’s a place in it for them. One way to do that is to make you feel stupid and hold you back. Another way is to have pedagogy that is very constrained by a goal that is outside of the child and the child’s community and context. And again, a lot of the big-marquee education philanthropists who are supportive of high-stakes standardized testing or “no excuse” education, which features very harsh discipline, those same people send their children to schools that don’t use a lot of tech. They send their children to schools that have lots of project-based, hands-on learning where the children find authority in themselves; it’s not imposed on them. I’m very lucky to have been able to send my children to schools like that within the public system. So there are schools like that that exist in the public system. But rather than replicate those schools, they’re pursuing a different model.

For instance, SUNY—which is the charter authorizer in New York state—just passed a policy that will allow certain charter schools to circumvent the normal pathway to teacher certification. And I would certainly argue, having spoken to many families whose children go to charter schools, that the reason why certain charters have trouble staffing their schools is not because there’s some general teacher shortage but because their teachers aren’t treated well. When you have a method that is about subduing the child, it puts a lot of pressure on the children, but it also puts a lot of pressure on the teacher. If you’re at loggerheads at your job all day, you’re not going to last long.


TKN: I’m afraid to ask about Betsy DeVos, but I do want to know….Is there anything you want to say about her?

KK: Well, she’s just another example of Trump appointing people to his Cabinet who want to destroy the very thing they’re put in charge of. Ironically, there’s an article debunking the claim that she’s never set foot in a public school. Apparently she actually did volunteer at a public school in Michigan, but what she did there was persuade children to enroll in a Christian school instead. She’s dangerous.

TKN: You know Betsy’s brother is Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, who is the flip side of privatization of education, the privatization of war. Two areas that arguably have no business being privatized. Probably the first two functions of the state that you don’t want to be private are everything that their family is about.

KK: Absolutely. I recently made a series of eight short films with my film partner Michael Elliot, and one of them features Linda Lyon, the woman who is the president-elect of the Arizona School Board Association. She’s a retired Air Force colonel, and she says, “I saw privatization when I was in the military. It didn’t work there and it sure as heck doesn’t work for schools.”

TKN: I always imagine that if we were starting our country right now and somebody said, “Hey, the cornerstone of what we’re doing should be free public education for everybody,” there’d be a riot. It’d be like healthcare. I think the reaction would be: “What are you, crazy? We’re not gonna do that! We’re not gonna be some nanny state!” And maybe that’s why public education in America is in the state it is.

KK: The other day a friend of mine said, “The same people who understand why it’s not OK to privatize water, why it’s not OK to privatize prisons, why it’s not ok to privatize the military, for some reason those people still think it’s OK to privatize schools.” Why is that? Why is education so different that people would suspend a belief that they don’t suspend for other things?

In New York, Cuomo is a big problem. Cuomo is really in bed with the charter school lobby, and there are lots of donations from there. He appeared at (founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools) Eva Moskowitz’s big rally that she had in Albany, one that’s projected to have cost over $700,000. Meanwhile, my children go to a school that is crumbling, and has roaches and mice running across the floor during class time, and they’re spending $700,000 on a political rally!

Cuomo came out really hard in 2014 on two issues. One was teacher evaluations, in which he said student testing should count for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation. The other thing that he did was encourage legislation—which passed—that New York City has to either provide space for charter schools in existing school buildings or it needs to pay their rent in whatever non-NYC Department of Ed spaces they find. So this is a way in which every child in a New York City public school is affected. Even if your school isn’t a site of a co-location, the budget of available money is partially used in that way. I think it’s outrageous.

Of course, that’s only one of many things that are outrageous. For example, the state of New York controls the criteria for who gets into New York City’s competitive and increasingly racially isolated specialized high schools. It decides how many charters can be sited here. New York City has no control over it. There are very few charter schools elsewhere in the state, they’re mostly in New York City, and yet a legislator on Long Island is going to decide what happens here. Because it’s state law.


TKN: Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved in these issues and became—for lack of a better term—educated about them?

KK: Well, I grew up in Metarie, Louisiana–

TKN: David Duke’s hometown.

KK: Right. And my family were outliers where I grew up. We were the only people that looked like us. My parents were the only people—or almost the only people—who voted like we did. We were just very different. And when I was in 4th grade, racially-based busing started. My next-door neighbor was a teacher at the school and she laid down in the driveway of the school to stop the buses from arriving. The buses couldn’t come in.

I had experienced a lot of racism in my school and in my neighborhood and I was looking forward to busing because I thought then I wouldn’t be the only brown kid. Unfortunately it wasn’t really an answer to my prayers because I found out I’m also not a black kid.

But when I got to middle school I was bused from my largely white neighborhood to a black neighborhood. And that again was sort of eye-opening. I didn’t know it at that moment but later I would find out that my middle school and what would later be my high school were built the same year: one with air conditioning and one without. I’ll let you guess which one was which. And this is Louisiana, remember. It’s HOT. The air conditioned building was in a white neighborhood, and the one without air conditioning was in the black neighborhood.

Anyway, my dad became the PTA president—or vice president, I can’t remember which one now—and he was active in the ACLU, which was not very popular. So I come from a family where you don’t just sit back; you take some action.

The high school I eventually went to was the largest all-girl school in the South, 4000 girls. It was a public school, and the reason it was a single-sex school is that when the local school system got a racial desegregation order, they segregated the sexes.

TKN: So when they were ordered to desegregate by race, they segregated by sex?

KK: Yes. So you can draw your own conclusions why that might have been. Anyway, my father was involved with the ACLU, as I said, and they were bringing a lawsuit to challenge this segregation by sex, specifically through Title IX. The ACLU was making the argument that the girls weren’t offered the same courses that the boys were. I was asked to be a plaintiff and begged off. I was in 8th grade. It’s something that I have regretted my whole life. I just didn’t want any attention on me. I already felt out of place. I was embarrassed, I was scared. But now I feel like I missed the opportunity to be part of that. I’m happy to say that by the time my younger sister went to that high school there were boys enrolled there, but I went through with no boys.

So I do have a family background of activism, but I wasn’t particularly focused on education until I had a child. I date my involvement to a couple of things:

My oldest is 16, and when she was in kindergarten they wanted to expand standardized testing in New York City to begin in kindergarten. (At that time testing began in the 3rd grade.) So I signed a petition against it at my school, and the parent organizing the petition drive told me that there was going to be City Council testimony on this issue, so please, if you signed this petition and you can make it, come down to City Hall. I’d never been to City Hall for testimony before, so I went. And I listened as councilperson after councilperson seemed to agree that in fact it was ridiculous to give kindergartners standardized tests. And yet at the end of the day, because of mayoral control, what the City Council says makes no difference.

TKN: Why did they even have the council meetings if they had no power?

KK: It’s a good question, a very good question. The Department of Education is just not bound by what the City Council does. The mayor has sole control of the schools so he doesn’t have to listen to the City Council.

And I never felt so disenfranchised. I’m a person of color, but I have had material advantage, I’m well educated, blah blah blah. So I de facto have had a certain amount of entitlement. That’s what I’m used to: that if I say something, there’s a channel for it. Maybe the end result won’t be what I want, but there is some place for my voice. And I realized that, as a public school parent in New York City, there is no place for your voice. There is nothing. The closest thing is that each district has a community education council but their power is extremely limited. They can only vote on zoning, which given real estate in New York is a big thing, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

So this was just like a big light bulb for me, this disenfranchisement. And around the same time I was going to the Red Hook swimming pool and that was another place where I was like, “Wow, I have never been treated like this in my life, where there’s some infraction and everybody gets whistled out of the pool. And they’re doing this because it’s poor people who swim at this pool.” So it was just a real wake-up call to where my entitlement ended! (laughs)

TKN: To step back for a minute: which mayor was it who decided that testing was going to begin in kindergarten?

KK: That was Bloomberg. Though in the end they didn’t do it.

TKN: Do you know why he decided that over the objections of the City Council? I’m not asking you to speculate about his mindset but….

KK: Well, Bloomberg was a very big proponent of the type of education reform that believes tech can solve everything. If our schools aren’t working we need to close them. We need to get rid of teachers. The problem is teachers. He’s a textbook education reformer in that mold, the business model of education.

TKN: He’s a businessman.

KK: He’s a businessman. Exactly. So he would like to treat schools that same way. And the damage he did is still happening, because unfortunately the DeBlasio administration has not dismantled a lot of things that were put in place then.


TKN: Would you talk a little about Shoot4Education?

KK: Sure. Shoot4Education was the brainchild of my filmmaking partner Michael Elliot. At the time I was in a now-defunct grassroots organization—that’s the curse of grassroots organizations, there’s no money to sustain them so people get burned out. Anyway, that organization was called ParentVoicesNY, formed in response to there being no official channel for parents’ voices. Michael is a commercial film editor and wasn’t part of the group, but his children went to school with parents who were in it, and he came to us and he said, “I want to make a film with you guys.” This was when DeBlasio was running for his first term as mayor or maybe had just been elected. The point of the film was to encourage him to pick a schools chancellor who was progressive on education, and was going to disrupt—to use their own word—the sort of the trajectory that Bloomberg had had us on for the past 12 years. And so I met Michael, and we got to talking and once he knew that I had a film background, and I gave him feedback on cuts, he was like, “I’m gonna get you back into film.” And I said, “Ahhh…. (laughs)

TKN: (laughs) Big favor he did you! “Thanks Michael!”

KK: He said, “You’re a filmmaker, you should be making films.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, it’s so much hassle and I don’t think I have the drive for it.” He said, “No. You’ve got to be making films again.” (laughs)

I had also co-founded a little not-for-profit with my friend and colleague Liz Rosenberg called NYCpublic. We used design-thinking protocols and progressive education practices to help groups of people ideate around thorny problems. Originally it was for public schools, but we also worked for the public library, for the public advocate’s office, trying to connect public institutions to the actual voices of their constituents. We had one project where we were working with a school district that had a grant to change their middle school enrollment system and had hired us to do the community engagement piece of that work. We said, “You know what? This is all about children and yet there are no children here, it’s just adults talking about children.” By the time children are in middle school they have voices! Many of them have voices even younger than that, but by middle school they’re definitely thoughtful about their situation. So we thought, “How can we bring children into this room?” And we realized the answer was to make a little film that brought the children into the conversation. And so I worked with Michael on making that film, and once I was back into interviewing and shooting and whatever, I was hooked again.

So we have this wonderful symbiotic relationship. Before I started to partner with him, Michael had been trying to pitch this idea of making a series of films that highlighted some of our pro-public education ideas. He said, “They”—meaning the ‘education reform’ side—“have got all the money, but we’ve got the people. We just we need to figure out how to get our message in front of more people and we need professional video, we need production value in what we do in really trying to sell this.”

So we made this series of short films funded by the Network for Public Education. It was a totally new adventure for me, as I’d pretty much worked only in documentary until then, and this is something kind of in between documentary and advertising. So it’s real people, but it’s a pointed message. It’s not an off-the-cuff interview. I’ve never been involved in that before, so that was both crazy-making abut also kind of fun. We released the first one in September, and we’ll be releasing them one at a time through the spring. That first short film was about Diane Ravitch, the founder of the Network for Public Education. Our goal with it was 100,000 views. We’ve actually had 850,000 views with a reach into almost two million Facebook feeds. Our newest video, 2 School Districts, 1 Ugly Truth, was just posted online last week and has already got over a million Facebook views.

TKN: That’s amazing.

KK: It is amazing. But I think the message resonates with people.

You asked me about Betsy DeVos before. We were a little savvy about the hatred of Betsy DeVos. She’s supposed to be the most hated Cabinet member, and so her name is in the title of that first film, as a little bit of clickbait. I don’t know if that’s what got people to watch or what got people to watch, but we’re hoping that it’s both that and just building our relationships with all these different grassroots groups. So now we’re starting to work with the subjects of the other spots who don’t have necessarily the national reach that Diane Ravitch has, but we’re hoping they’ll leverage their own existing audiences and build word of mouth for them.

TKN: Right, that’s the definition of grassroots. It would be a mixed blessing if Betsy resigns because she won’t be there to help you fundraise. Her marketing muscle will disappear!

KK: (laughs) That’s right.

TKN: Thank you for speaking with me, Kemala, it’s been a pleasure and I wish you all the best with your work.

KK: Thanks, Bob.


Click below to watch the first two short films in the new S4E/NPE series “8 Powerful Voices in Defense of Public Education.”

Why Are Betsy DeVos and Bill Gates Afraid of This Grandmother?, featuring Diane Ravitch of the Network for Public Education.

2 School Districts, 1 Ugly Truth, featuring John Kuhn, Superintendent, Mineral Wells Independent School District, TX, about the shocking inequity between public schools in rich and poor communities, using one district in Texas as an example.

Additional links:


Photo: T. Karmen-Chan

Transcription: Sherry Alwell /



Somewhere, PT Barnum Is Laughing

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Crimes usually happen in the wee hours, and what happened around 2 a.m. last Saturday night in the US Senate certainly qualifies. It was arguably the darkest day we have experienced since November 8, 2016 (and given the parade of horrors over the past thirteen months, the competition for that title is fierce). But there is no need for CSI, Colombo, or any other sleuths to determine the culprit, as the perpetrators committed the crime gleefully and proudly.

Both in its content and in the unconscionable way it was rammed through Congress, the Republican tax bill represents one of the worst examples of political corruption in modern American history. It is accurately described as corrupt in that its intent was sinister—to rob the Republic for the benefit of the very few, by means of paying back political donors—and its passage utterly dishonest.

When I first wrote about this issue back in October (“The Return of Voodoo Economics”), I refused to call the bill “tax reform,” as it is anything but, except in the way that dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was “urban renewal.” At the time I argued for the more accurate term “tax cut.” Now I am loath even to call it that, as it fails to capture the scope and awfulness of what just happened. “Tax scam “ or “tax heist” strike me as closer to the mark.

In that previous post, I detailed the shamelessness of this bill, and the ways in which is delivers massive economic benefits to the rich while actively hurting the poor and the middle and working classes. Many others have outlined those facts in much more—and much more—damning detail. The facts are not in doubt, and have been so thoroughly reported that they barely require mention any more. Still, it is stomach-turning to watch Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), as old school and mainstream a Republican as they come, claim with a straight face that “we don’t have the money” to feed hungry children, then turn around and vote for a deficit-busting trillion-dollar giveaway to those who need it least. Suffice it to say that a bill that kills the alternative minimum tax—one of the few means of policing tax dodging by them that has—but no longer lets a public schoolteacher deduct the cost of school supplies she buys out of pocket for her students is a savage indictment of any country that dares to call itself a democracy.


Central to this issue is the aforementioned deficit, which the best non-partisan assessments predict will balloon by an additional $1.4 trillion over the next decade thanks to this bill, passed by a Republican majority that for decades has howled in self-righteous outrage over the lethal dangers of deficits. Of course, that was when Democrats were in power. Now the GOP is back to Dick Cheney’s infamous pre-Iraq War refrain ”Deficits don’t matter.” The hypocrisy is beyond staggering.

The GOP’s sole defense of this arithmetically-challenged bill is the specious claim that tax cuts will pay for themselves through massive economic growth. That is, essentially, supply side economics, which—per my earlier essay—has long ago been discredited as the worst scam on the economic menu, the province of fools and grifters. It is magical thinking that has never worked even once, yet reliably rises from the dead every decade due to its obvious appeal to the rich and powerful. As Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Washington Post:

“(The question is whether these GOP leaders) misunderstand the advice they get, choose to cherry-pick what they are given or simply don’t want to fess up that they’ve abandoned fiscal sanity in search of a political win and to soothe donors. The most generous interpretation is that they are operating with unsupportable optimism that these cuts will do something no other tax cuts have ever done– pay for themselves.

The faux deficit hawks who voted for the bill may have convinced themselves of something that just isn’t so. Now, however, there is no excuse. It’s clear what the economists they rely upon actually believe. Lawmakers should redesign the bill in conference to make it truly tax-neutral — if they still adhere to their anti-debt beliefs. If not, they should have the nerve to admit that they are ladling a ton of new debt on the backs of future generations.”

I am less generous than Jenn. If these Republican leaders—who are professional politicians well educated in all these matters of tax policy, economics, and history—truly do believe this bullshit it is only because they have rationalized it through the worst kind of self-brainwashing. Either way, they are perpetrating an unforgivable scam on the American people for which we will all pay, for generations…..and not merely financially, but in the reduced power, influence, and flexibility on the world stage of a diminished United States, to say nothing of what it reveals about the kind of nation we are, as opposed to the kind we profess to be.

The long term economic impact of the bill is yet unknown, which is a big part of the problem. This legislation, which by its very nature will have a tectonic impact on the entire American (and indeed global) economy, was rushed through Congress without even the pretense of expert analysis or testimony, public hearings, or even cursory staffing. Regardless of ideology that is criminally reckless governance (and I use the term “governance” loosely). What vetting did occur—by groups like the Tax Policy Center and the Joint Committee on Taxation—was scathing, and therefore subjected to an active disinformation campaign by the GOP, the same people who had once championed those very groups. Democrats in the Senate ridiculed a bill handed to them mere hours before the vote with indecipherable handwritten changes scrawled in the margins, and were denied a request for time even to read it. For a Republican Party that screamed bloody murder over how Obamacare was allegedly “jammed down our throats” after ten months of microscopic scrutiny and public debate, it was the height of hypocrisy.

Man, am I getting tired of writing that every week.

I’d say that the GOP should be forced to watch Schoolhouse Rock for a refresher on how bills are supposed to become law, but that clever and entertaining civics lesson is too good for them. It’s true that the House and Senate versions of the bill still need to be reconciled, and that might still prove a showstopper. But as others have noted, the same irresistible forces that improbably pushed this heist through both houses will again be in play in that reconciliation process, which will surely succeed. Needless to say, if the roles had been reversed the GOP would never have stopped yelling and stamping its feet over the other side “abusing” its power, complete with dire warnings of how we are slipping into dictatorship. They are less concerned about that now, I notice.

The enema-like passage of this bill thus stands with the obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court as the most egregious examples in recent memory of government in bad faith. I guess that is just how the Republican Party rules now.

There were so many other astonishingly evil things larded onto this bill that they cannot be enumerated here, though a short list includes a deathblow to the ACA’s individual mandate, the assertion of fetal personhood, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the partisan punishment of the blue states out of sheer spite, and perhaps most disgusting, the fostering of further political involvement and campaign donations by churches and religious groups while allowing them to keep their non-profit tax-exempt status. In that sense, the bill is many ways a grab bag of right wing obsessions.

Of special note, however, is its wholly uncalled for evisceration of the inheritance tax (and no, I won’t call it the “estate tax,” which is already conceding linguistic victory to the right, let alone their preferred histrionic term “death tax”). Notwithstanding the emotional issues surrounding it, it is important to emphasize that this is a tax on inheritance. It’s not a tax you pay on money you leave to your heirs; it’s a tax your heirs pay on money they receive, and no more a matter of double taxation than any other transactional tax. When you take in income—whether through wages, dividends, gifts, casino winnings, or inheritance, it’s taxed. Why should a billionaire’s kid pay no tax on money daddy leaves him and a ditch digger pay through the nose on money he earns by the sweat of his brow?

Only someone with a surname like Trump would take issue with that, or so one would think.


This Robin Hood-in-reverse bill was so jawdroppingly bad in so many ways—brutally unjust, shamelessly un-researched, sloppily written, and rammed through Congress like the NYPD questioning Abner Louima—that I frankly did not expect it to pass. Call me naïve, but I wasn’t convinced something that shameless could survive public scrutiny. (Then again, we made Donald Trump president, so nothing should surprise us any more). More to the point, I thought it contained too many provisions that were ostensibly anathema even to the GOP, per above. There were a handful of Republican senators (fewer congressmen) who I simply could not imagine voting for such an obvious crime against the American people. But as it turns out, the marginal courage some of these senators showed in stopping the equally rancid attempt to rush through a repeal of Obamacare gave me a false sense of confidence, causing me to vastly underestimate the partisanship and venality of those individuals.

Every one of the handful of Republican senators who have shown some backbone is standing up to Trump thus far all rolled over and showed their true colors in voting for this monstrosity: McCain, Flake, Collins, Murkowski, Sasse, Graham. Only Bob Corker showed any courage and stuck to his principles (whether one agrees with them or not). So I don’t want to hear any more about the heroism of any of these weasels. I suppose we were foolish ever to think these men and women would stand up for what is right; they are, after all, Republicans in the first place. But among his many atrocities, Trump has distorted our image of reality such that we began to view these orthodox Republican politicians as heroes of some sort, or at least sane and decent human beings. Last Saturday night ought to disabuse us of that delusion.

So John McCain, please in future spare us your sanctimonious speeches about returning to “regular order,” lest we are forced to conclude that—much as it pains me to say it—Donald Trump was right. You are no hero.


Naturally, Trump himself claims that he won’t personally benefit from this highway robbery of the American people, and in fact will suffer. (“Believe me.”) Not surprisingly, it’s a blatant lie. Trump stands to profit handsomely from almost every major provision of the bill, from carried interest to private jets, with his main business—commercial real estate—singled out for especially generous treatment even by the plutocrat-friendly standards of the rest of the legislation. His children are estimated to receive $600 million just from the change to the inheritance tax alone. As more than one observer has noted, the bill seems almost curiously tailor-made to benefit one specific family profile in particular. Of course, because he won’t release his tax returns, we don’t fully know how much Trump will profit. (But Bob Mueller does.)

In many ways then, what happened in the dark of night last Saturday was the culmination of what the entire Trump campaign and presidency have been about, but not because Trump led it. What a laugh: Trump doesn’t even know what’s in the bill. A functional illiterate, he knows—at best—that it is an enormous Christmas present to the obscenely rich like him and his despicable clan, and that’s all he needs to know. So for once I am not laying the blame for this latest American tragedy at the feet of Donald John Trump, or focusing my anger and loathing on him, cancer on the American experiment though he is. In this case, he is but a bit player. The rot goes much, much deeper and wider.

The tax bill is the doing of the mainstream GOP and has been in the works long before Trump thought a good sequel to “The Apprentice” would be to become leader of the Free World. Trump is ancillary to it, a means to an end, a mere supporting player. The Republican Party’s entire willingness to put Trump atop its ticket, to excuse and even abet his numerous unconscionable and disqualifying actions on the campaign trail and in office, to give him blindly loyal support to the point of ignoring what might prove to be the worst scandal in American history (and to actively obstruct investigations thereof), can be attributed to one thing and one thing alone: its overwhelming imperative to lower taxes for the rich, come hell or high water. In that sense, the entire Trump campaign and presidency have been nothing but a prelude and prerequisite for what happened in the Senate last weekend.

As former GOP staffer-turned-sentient human being Mike Lofgren says, cutting taxes for the rich is the only thing the Republican Party really cares about. Even though other matters may get the headlines—guns, abortion, gay rights, Andres Serrano, defunding Big Bird, Islamophobia, hating on the NFL, and on and on—everything else the GOP does is just rube bait to advance its one true agenda. Yes, all that reactionary stuff is appealing to the right-wing mindset. But at the end of the day, for the 1% who are the Republicans’ most important demographic, it is mostly just about their fucking wallets.

And on Saturday night those folks achieved their goal.

Behind the partisan façade, McConnell, Ryan and the rest of the GOP mandarins have no love for Donald Trump. Many of them no doubt actively despise him, for a variety of personal and professional reasons. But they are in bed with him for one simple and blindingly obvious reason: because he enables them to advance their loathsome platform. Until he stops serving that purpose, don’t look for the GOP to turn on Donald.

In all fairness, the Republican leadership did not choose Trump as its preferred path in the 2016 campaign, and many of them actively tried to avoid it—not on principle (just kidding!), but purely for reasons of pragmatism and strategy. But once the Trump phenomenon was forced upon them, they made their Faustian bargain, and now are full-blown accomplices who will have to answer for it.

Until now, however, the idea of Trump as cover for the GOP agenda hasn’t really worked out as the party leaders had hoped. On the contrary, Trump’s human suicide vest style of governing has actually damaged and hindered the Republican legislative slate, the attempted repeal of the ACA being the prime example. (But now of course they’ve found a way to undermine Obamacare—if not fully destroy it—without repeal, thanks to the elimination of its linchpin, the individual mandate.)

But with the tax heist, Trump’s con man hold on close to 40% of the electorate and his idiot savant talent for distraction and for waging war on the media have provided the perfect covering fire for the GOP to achieve their decades-long dream of pillaging working- and middle class America in order to further enrich the wealthiest fraction of the uppermost 1% and their corporate cousins. That they were able to do so under the pretense of populism, of “draining the swamp,” and of fighting for the interests of “ordinary” working Americans against the interest of “elites” is an Orwellian achievement for the ages.

Then again, like the man said, you can’t con someone who doesn’t want to be conned. The credulousness of millions of average Americans in failing to subject the GOP plan to real scrutiny, and in falling for this blatant scam, makes them partially culpable in their own fleecing.

As we used to say on the playground: “Suckas…”


The cowardice, dishonesty, and hypocrisy of Republican politicians is one thing. But I remain astounded that such a large segment of Republican voters are fine with this travesty, even enthused about it, and willing to defend the GOP plan in the face of all the empirical evidence about how badly it will hurt so-called “regular folks” like themselves. Once again, we see the shocking power of tribalism and the blindness—or more correctly, mental illness—it induces. Shame on me for not having learned the depths of American gullibility in November 2016. But over the past twelve months that tribalism has reached the point of mass psychosis in the United States.

Recall that Trump came to power on the promise that he was a champion of the “forgotten” men and women of blue collar America. This of course is textbook Fascism 101. Volumes have already been written about the patent absurdity of a Manhattanite mock billionaire born with a silver spoon in mouth—this evil “Richie Rich” cartoon come to life—positioning himself as a working class hero, or of anyone buying into that outlandish charade, but never mind.

Even if one accepts the myth that white working class anxiety and alienation—rather than racism, misogyny, xenophobia, demagoguery, and the impulse for authoritarianism, not to mention collusion with a foreign power—were at the heart of the last election, why on Earth would working people choose Donald J. Trump of all people as their standard-bearer and the alleged solution? See the title of this essay.

No Trump supporter or other Republican can objectively look at the GOP tax scam and conclude that it is anything but a shameless giveaway to the very richest among us at crushing cost to the rest of the country and its future. To contend otherwise is Jonestown-level self-delusion. So why do rank-and-file GOP voters march happily along behind Trump, McConnell, and Ryan to self-inflicted doom while their putative champions gleefully profit? It’s a sort of masochism—or willful ignorance—that is hard to fathom.

Trump of course also famously promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, and repeatedly railed against Goldman Sachs in particular as the exemplar of Wall Street rapaciousness that was poisoning politics and trampling on the so-called little guy. Then—in case you missed it—he filled his Cabinet and inner circle with a rogues’ gallery of professional political hacks like Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pompeo, and Mitch McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao (Trump is especially cool with nepotism), along with multimillionaires and billionaires including Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos and multiple Goldman Sachs vets (among them, Mnuchin, Cohn, Dina Powell, deputy Treasury Secretary James Donovan, and even Bannon, the faux populist bombthrower himself). When hypocrisy of that sort fails even to budge the proverbial needle with Trump supporters, it’s fair to wonder if they are—hmmm, what is the technical term? Ah, yes—fucking stupid. (See also: golf.)

And so, with its willful blindness, tribalism run amok, and insatiable Kool-Aid-guzzling, the “regular folks” of Trump Nation bear a large share of the blame for the fact that the Republican Party was able to get away with this tax bill atrocity, one that promises to crush those very people more than anyone else. It is indeed hard to get one’s head around, but in the words of Sam Harris, “A puppet is free as long as it loves its strings.”


It is ironic that the Republican Party inexplicably thinks this bill was essential to its survival, as if there was a massive groundswell of public demand to be robbed at gunpoint. (Trump supporters were docile at being taken to the cleaners, but they didn’t initiate the idea or actively demand it.) Why is the GOP so convinced that passing this bill is a winner for them?

The conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party was desperate for a legislative victory—on something, anything—before the end of the year to avoid a massive voter mutiny after promising so much and delivering almost nothing: not even, most embarrassingly, their long-vowed repeal of Obamacare, even with uncontested control of both Congress and the White House.

But this is a circular argument. Even if that is true, why choose as your Hail Mary a tax bill that promises to eviscerate Main Street on behalf of Wall Street……the exact opposite of what you said you’d do during the campaign? I’m not questioning the GOP’s avarice, merely its tactical sense in choosing this hill to die on. Ironically, the exact opposite might ultimately prove true. Given how awful this “achievement” is, it is not at all clear that the GOP won’t in fact pay a hefty price at the polls in 2018—if enough Republican voters wake the fuck up—precisely because it rammed this bill through. (“Foisted it” on us, as Larry David would say.)

Then again, maybe not. Facts no longer matter, evidently, so the GOP might well get away with this crime, especially if the bill’s long-term destructiveness is sufficiently slow to reveal itself, frog-in-boiling-water-style, and the electorate doesn’t really feel the pain for some years to come, even as the damage is undeniably unfolding.

That leaves us with only one logical conclusion about the urgency the GOP felt toward this bill. It’s not about notching a legislative victory at all. Of course not! Do you really think a party and a president who, if it served their purposes, would angrily deny that the Earth is round, would bat an eye at playing off their failure to pass any landmark legislation? Don’t make me laugh.

No. The reason the GOP went all in on the tax bill despite all the attendant risks is because THIS IS WHAT ITS MASTERS DEMANDED.

In the end, it is not the voters the GOP is fears: it is their wealthy donors, corporate interests, and other dark money that is the lifeblood of the Republican Party. With the GOP in control of both houses of Congress and the White House (and increasingly the judiciary and most state governments as well), the powerful interests who are the financial backbone of the Republican Party will stand for nothing less than their pound of flesh. These forces made it very clear that this sort of massive payoff is EXACTLY the reason that they have backed the GOP lo these many years. If McConnell and Ryan had failed to deliver, then they would have truly been in mortal danger—a far more pressing threat than being voted out in the upcoming midterms. The GOP leadership doesn’t fear voters in Indiana or Georgia or Nebraska or anywhere else. They fear the 1%, who are the guys with the checkbooks.

And so here we are.

The fact that the GOP was willing to overlook that danger—to dismiss widespread public opposition, and the possibility that this could backfire terribly on them—speaks to the degree of their venality and the extent to which they are beholden to their loan shark benefactors in the top tax bracket. And now that they’ve managed to jam this scam down the throats of the American people, the Republicans will likely be emboldened to reach for more. Paul Ryan has already indicated that on the strength of this bill’s passage the GOP will try to capitalize on this momentum to gut welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid. Because somewhere in America there is a poor, hungry, ill child they haven’t yet kicked in the stomach.

Trump himself is a different matter, of course: for that infantile psychopath notching a win was indeed all that mattered. So it will be ironic if the lone achievement he (barely) mustered—or more accurately, had delivered to him on a platter—proves in the long run to be a historically reviled and infamously despicable low water mark in American political history.

So the question then becomes, will this bill indeed prove to be a boon to the GOP (apart from placating its plutocratic overlords), or will it be its undoing? Will it inject enough extraneous short term stimulus into the economy and take long enough to manifest its destructiveness that the GOP will escape the 2018 midterms (and maybe even the 2020 presidential election) unharmed? Or will this go down as the worst self-inflicted and possibly lethal wound in 21st century legislative politics?

Stay tuned. Either way, I am confident the GOP will find a way to blame Hillary.


One ray of light in all this is that the GOP’s midnight ripoff came less than 24 hours after the week’s other big news, Michael Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI and the revelation that he is cooperating with the Mueller inquiry. The significance of those events has been well documented elsewhere. Let us hope they mark, if not the beginning of the end, at least the end of the beginning (with apologies to Mr. Churchill). At the very least, if I were Jared, Don Jr, or even Don Sr, I would certainly be shitting my drawers.

That said, two pieces last week offered grim and pessimistic assessments on that front, one by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate (“Is It Too Late for Robert Mueller to Save Us?”) the other by Peter Beinart in the Atlantic ( “The Odds of Impeachment Are Dropping”). Both reminded us that impeachment is a political process, not a legal one (and the same would be true for the circumstances that would force a Trump resignation, or his removal under the 25th Amendment). Both also suggested that Republican fealty to Trump has already shown itself to be so craven, and the Republican electorate now so accustomed to bleating “fake news” at any facts that inconveniently conflict with its worldview, that nothing Bob Mueller ultimately produces—not even a proverbial smoking gun—will cause them to man up, acknowledge the truth, and do the right thing.

I suspect they are right. The refusal of even the best Republican senators (it’s a sliding scale) to vote against the GOP tax scam does not bode well for them to do jackshit about Russiagate, even if Mueller turns up with a video of Trump spit-shining Vladimir Putin’s wingtips.

So in the famous words of Stevie Bannon’s hero V.I. Lenin, and to stick with the Russian theme: Shto delat? What is to be done? (Read the original 1902 pamphlet; the 1983 film adaptation starring Steven Seagal and Kelly LeBrock really botched it.) What can be done when the victims of a crime refuse to recognize what has happened to them….when—on the contrary—they eagerly cheer and support their oppressors and angrily denigrate those who would try to stop (or even just point out) the crime?

Not much. We have already seen that an appeal to reason, facts, and objective reality no longer has any sway with a certain segment of the American electorate.

But as we have also seen—most pointedly in Virginia a month ago—that we can leapfrog over that Know-Nothing demographic. The hardcore Republican base comprises at most some 40% of the electorate. The remaining sane 60% of us can simply overwhelm them numerically—if we get out and organize and register and campaign and vote. McConnell, Ryan, Trump, and the rest are banking on the ignorance, short term memory loss, and tribalism of the voting public to enable them to get way with the Great Train Robbery of December 2, 2017. Let’s prove them wrong, make them lose that gamble, and punish them at the ballot box next year.

If we are unable to harness our outrage, if we merely sputter and spin our wheels and do nothing more than vent to each other on Facebook (and as my weekly hyperventilations suggest, I count myself as very much at risk of that temptation), if in the face of this absolute monstrosity and threat to the Union we can’t get our act together sufficiently to vote these fuckers out of office, then we deserve to be ruled by them.

Needless to say, that possibility is why the Republican Party has, for decades now, engaged in a systematic, blatantly anti-democratic effort to suppress the vote, including gerrymandering, propagation of the canard of voter fraud, distortion of the census, and other horrors for which Trump—again—serves as a bespoke, Hades-sent frontman. That, too, is a flank on which we must fight them.

Likewise, if incontrovertible evidence were presented that implicated Trump in a scandal that makes Watergate look like shoplifting and still McConnell, Ryan & Company do nothing but shrug, I have to believe that we will get out in the streets and DEMAND that justice be done….and by “we” I mean a significant segment of the still sane Americans who believe in non-alternative facts, and in the Constitution, and in the rule of law. I’m talking about millions of Americans marching on Washington as they did on January 21, 2017….except this time it will be not in protest but in outright revolution.

Make no mistake, Trump Nation: if you cheat us in Congress we will come for you at the ballot box, and if you cheat us there, we will come for you in the streets.

Photo: The Federalist



The Read Thru

TRT (sm, bw)

This week on The King’s Necktie, something a little different: a short film about the times in which we live. Starring Jamison Stern and Dave Schoonover, cinematography by Justin Schein, color and titles by Mitchell Johnson, produced by Ferne Pearlstein, Jamison Stern, and me.

Click here to watch.