The Theft of the Presidency: Phase II

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A tedious refrain in these pages, going all the way back to 2017, has been the notion that Trump will challenge the results of the 2020 election and precipitate a constitutional crisis by refusing to leave office.

The details are fungible. I am less concerned about a military coup (though not entirely unconcerned) than I am that he will create some flimsy but sufficiently dangerous quasi-legal pretext to throw the country into chaos in order to retain power. Not much better.

The good news is that this scenario has migrated from the “alarmism” of the far left to a steady drumbeat in the mainstream media, which has belatedly woken the fuck up and started spreading the word. And rightly so: Trump has been so obvious about all this that it would have been journalistic malpractice not to take note.

Raising the alarm about this shameful scheme may be our best defense against it, or at least a first step, but it’s far from a guarantee. Trump has all the levers of federal power at his disposal and you may have noticed that he is not shy about using and abusing them.

This week he took another Coltrane-sized giant step in that direction by publicly raising the idea that the election should be postponed because of the coronavirus. (But schools should open.)

We all knew that suggestion was coming sooner or later: it was at once outrageous, impossible, and utterly predictable.

Trump has no power to do any such thing, of course, and the odds that the people who do have the power—Congress—will agree to the idea are nil. (For the record, the US managed to hold elections during two worlds wars—as Trump himself tweeted, back when that served his purposes—and even during the Civil War.)

Even if the election were postponed, by law his term expires on January 20, 2021 regardless, so it doesn’t really help him, unless he intends to declare himself President-for-Life and doesn’t wish to be bothered with a legitimately elected rival. (Not an idea we can rule out.) In fact, under the provisions of the Constitution, this ploy could wind up with Nancy Pelosi sworn in as President of the United States.

But I guess Donald missed that day of Con Law 101 at Trump University School of Law.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE, FOLKS

Sharp eyed observers quickly dug up the news from just this past April, when Joe Biden predicted that Trump would try this. (It didn’t require Nostradamus.)

“Mark my words, I think he is gonna try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held,” Biden told fellow Democrats at an online fundraiser just four short months ago. For that, he was savagely ridiculed by right wing commentators who assured us that that great respecter of the rule of law Donald J. Trump would NEVER do such a thing!

In the conservative Washington Examiner, Jim Antle had the sarcasm meter turned up to eleven with a headline reading “’He’ll seize power!’ ‘He’ll postpone the election!’ The Trump schemes that never happen.”

Antle was mysteriously quiet yesterday, as was Henry Olsen of the Washington Post, who in April wrote:

[Biden’s accusation] was not only clearly over the line but also unmasks how low the supposedly moderate Biden will go to win…..This rhetoric is both unfounded and harmful to democracy. Trump has not done anything that a hopeful dictator would do, such as restrict press freedom, curtail political activity or arrest political opponents.

One would think that by now allegedly reputable journalists would know better than to defend Trump on the grounds of his self-evident integrity, unless they are part of Team Gaslight themselves.

No matter.

Trump’s tweet about postponement was at once another authoritarian-style temperature taking, to see if he could get away with it (and begin getting MAGA Nation acclimated to the idea), and an attempt to distract from the horrific economic news that broke mere minutes before the Tweet Heard Round the World.

His motivation is self-evident. He’s losing the race, badly, and has a pathological fear of defeat beyond even that of a normal egomaniacal politician….not to mention the fact that the presidency is the only thing standing between him and an orange jumpsuit.

Peter Baker writes in the Times that Trump’s constant blather about “RIGGED ELECTIONS,” a “substantially fraudulent” vote, and “the most corrupt election in the history of our country” are “the kind of language resonant of conspiracy theorists, cranks and defeated candidates, not an incumbent living in the White House. Never before has a sitting president of the United States sought to undermine public faith in the election system the way Mr. Trump has.”

In other words, as Amanda Carpenter writes in The Bulwark, a flailing Trump is “gaslighting the nation” in order to delegitimize the election and lay the groundwork to claim victory regardless, on the grounds of fraud, even if he loses in a landslide.

It ought to go without saying that the damage such behavior does to the integrity of our electoral process is incalculable.

But Trump may well have overstepped. Carpenter’s Bulwark colleague Charlie Sykes notes the rare sight of even Republicans pushing back, including the co-founder of the Federalist Society. He also notes that by stigmatizing mail-in voting, Trump may even be hurting his own chances by discouraging Republicans, and the elderly especially—a key demo for him—from voting at all.

Here Trump is baldly pushing against popular opinion full stop. According the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of American adults said that any voter should be able to vote early or absentee without an excuse. Trump, his family members, and key staff themselves have routinely voted by absentee ballot in the past, and Trump has even said he will do it again this November, not that wanton hypocrisy even gets anyone’s attention anymore.

The shamelessness of this voter suppression couldn’t be plainer, nor what it says about the candidate’s actual appeal in a fair fight. As Sykes writes:

Here is the stark choice: you either want to make it easier for Americans to vote, or you want to make it harder. There is nothing ambiguous or mysterious about Trump’s choice.

GOOD TROUBLE AND BAD

Sykes further makes the point that America got to watch Trump openly trying to monkeywrench the vote even as we mourned a man who devoted his life to voting rights.

With characteristic pettiness, Trump declined to pay his respects to John Lewis while he was lying in state in the US Capitol, though he did find time to praise the late Herman Cain, who died of COVID-19 after going maskless at Trump’s Tulsa rally. Trump was pointedly not welcome among the other ex-Presidents of both parties at Lewis’s subsequent memorial service at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Instead, he tried to lure reporters to the White House for a “surprise event” at precisely the moment Obama was delivering his eulogy.

Obama himself told the New York Times that the idea of “voter suppression and an effort by Mr. Trump to question the election’s legitimacy” are the things that keep him up at night.

For those tricked by Trump’s asinine ploy, here’s what Barack said at the memorial:

Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” the nation’s first Black president said at Lewis’s final memorial service. “George Wallace may be gone but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision.

And if you don’t know, now you know, Mr. President.

THE VIEW FROM COLORADO

Needless to say, a US president refusing to yield power is uncharted territory. So how might this all play out?

At the beginning of July, former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, a Democrat, generated a lot of buzz with a piece in Newsweek that got deep into the weeds with one such terrifying and highly plausible scenario. Notably, it’s one for which Trump has already begun laying the groundwork.

In short:

+ Biden wins the popular vote, taking the swing states of Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania “by decent but not overwhelming margins.” Trump declares the vote rigged, blaming China, and declaring a national security emergency that allows him to invokes emergency powers.

+ Barr’s DOJ begins an investigation of voting in those states, all four of which have Republican majorities in both chambers of their state legislatures. Those legislatures refuse to allow any Electoral College slate to be certified until the investigation is complete, ticking down to the EC deadline of December 14 (the very issue the Supreme Court focused on in Bush v. Gore in 2000).

+ The Democrats take the matter to court, appointing their own slate of electors who support Biden.

+ The case lands in the Supreme Court, which rules that the president’s national security powers “authorize him to investigate potential foreign country intrusion into the national election; and if no Electoral College slate can be certified by any state by December 14, the Electoral College must meet anyway and cast its votes.”

+ The Electoral College meets, and without the electors from those four states, neither candidate has the required majority.

+ The election is thrown into the House of Representatives for a state-by-state vote, one per, determined by the majority of the representatives in that state. There are 26 states with Republican majorities in the House delegation, and 23 states with Democratic majorities. (Pennsylvania has an even split.)

+ On a party line vote, Trump wins the election.

I know how you feel: I didn’t sleep for a week either after I read that.

PICK YOUR POISON

As scary—and as plausible—as Wirth’s scenario is, there are plenty of others that are equally worrying. In Newsweek, Seth Abramson postulated a variation in which Trump succeeds in creating similar chaos—and a mis-election—merely by convincing millions of Americans not to vote at all: a de facto “postponement,” or delegitimization of the vote, by presidential fiat.

The Boston Globe reports that a bipartisan group recently ran a tabletop command post exercise to war game various possibilities. “All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Defense Department official who co-organized the group known as the Transition Integrity Project. She described what they found in bleak terms: “The law is essentially … it’s almost helpless against a president who’s willing to ignore it.”

Among those who participated in that exercise was David Frum, who reported at length on its chilling lessons:

The courts offered only slow, weak, and unreliable remedies. Street protests were difficult to mobilize and often proved counterproductive. Republican elected officials cowered even in the face of the most outrageous Trump acts. Democratic elected officials lacked the tools and clout to make much difference. Many of the games turned on who made the first bold move. Time after time, that first mover was Trump….

In one of our scenarios, the attorney general sent federal marshals backed by the National Guard to seize vote-by-mail ballots, triggering a constitutional catastrophe that delayed the outcome of the count for weeks.

The most persistent and powerful advantage, however, was the overconfidence of the legally minded Biden team that the Trump team would respect some norms and limits on its behavior. That expectation was again and again refuted by experience.

I know that this was just a drill, but even so, how is it possible that the Democratic Party did not learn the lessons of 2000?

The exercise also showed that even if Trump were to be successfully ousted, he would likely set the house on fire on his way out:

(E)ven in the scenarios in which Biden’s team eventually won—that is, secured possession of the White House at noon on Inauguration Day, 2021—Team Trump by then had thoroughly poisoned the political system.

It diverted public resources to Trump personally. It preemptively pardoned Trump associates and family members, and tried to pardon Trump himself from criminal charges including money laundering and tax evasion. It intentionally tried to cause long-term economic damage so as to prevent early economic recovery—and boost Republican chances in the 2022 elections. It destroyed, hid, or privatized public records. It tried to sabotage the census to favor Republican redistricting after 2020. It refused to cooperate with the incoming administration during the transition period, in ways that aggravated both the pandemic response and economic recovery.

And it sowed pervasive mistrust in the integrity of US elections in ways that would polarize and embitter U.S. politics long after 2020….

In the exercises, when the vote went against Trump, his team tried to convince his supporters that they had been robbed—and that they were therefore entitled to take extreme, even violent, actions. In our exercises, however, the game-winning strategy was to goad the other side into violence. This was particularly true for Team Trump, whose supporters already fear violence from anarchists and antifa.

The exercise’s conclusions are already being borne out. Newsweek recently reported that a majority of Trump supporters are already saying they won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Biden administration if mail-in ballots contribute significantly to his victory, which they are almost certain to do.

PUTTING IN THE FIX

Clearly, there are many, many ways in which a contested election represents a set of circumstances tailor-made to Trump’s penchant for malice and Tasmanian Devil-like destructiveness. But the scenario that is beginning to bother me the most is the simplest of all, and leapfrogs over all that.

What if Trump doesn’t have to create this kind of chaos, because he can convincingly claim an outright win?

With the public increasingly hip to his electoral bullshit, Donald will soon realize, if he hasn’t already, that his only path forward is to put up numbers in November that MAKE IT LOOK LIKE HE DID WIN. That is to say: a close call, or even an outright victory, faked or not.

The polls suggest this is not likely. But if Trump and his allies could fix the vote, it would offer him the cleanest path to re-election—and we know that they are not above trying. He is already trying to destroy the US Postal Service to sabotage mail-in voting, along with all the other voter suppression measures that the GOP has been aggressively pursuing for years. From there it is not a big step to hacking the actual numbers….particularly if he has outside help. Which he does.

In an influential piece for the Atlantic some months ago (called “Putin Is Well on His Way to Stealing the Next Election,”) Franklin Foer wrote, “Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.”

Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, the Russians are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork.

(I wrote about this back in June, in a piece called “What They Do Next Is Steal an Election.” )

On the Kremlin’s menu: meddling with voter registration databases; making voter IDs mismatch with the rolls; creating long lines to discourage the impatient; purging voters altogether, and applying even more sophisticated disinformation techniques and “new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics.”

But if they can do all that, why stop there? Why not just actually change the numbers?

This is the thing that even the most adamant Trump foes have been reluctant to address, going back to 2016. But it is a very real threat, one that we ignore at our peril, and might leave us on November 3rd outflanked in our readiness to battle a disputed election and instead faced with an illegitimate—but hard to contest—Trump victory.

The bitterest scenario would be a repeat of 2016, where we ridiculed Trump’s repeated claim that the election would be rigged, and then had to sheepishly make that claim ourselves after he won. (“Won.”) And if such a surprise win defies the polls, even dramatically, Trump will just crow that the polls were wrong again, as they were in 2016.

So maybe we start to move on from the now-obvious cry “Trump will dispute the election!” to outflanking him with concrete measures that defend against him rigging it himself. (In his Newsweek piece, Abramson offers a detailed eight-point plan for doing so.) That effort will require an all-hands-on-deck mobilization of Congress, the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community, the press, and the American people—that is to say, ordinary folks like you and me.

Make no mistake: Trump is absolutely going to refuse to accept a Biden victory in November, and will use every means within his disposal—which are vast—legal and illegal, to dispute it and throw the country into chaos and even civil war if that’s what it takes to hold on to power. The process began long ago. Let’s continue to call it out, delegitimize that, and make it impossible for him to succeed.

Getting out the vote to create a landslide for Biden is the crucial element. But so are efforts to make sure Trump doesn’t find a way to fix the numbers on November 3rd so that he never even has to dispute the results.

He can just say he won.

**************

An Italian police officer holds Trump masks used by two bank robbers in Turin, on July 24.

Photo: Alessandro Di Marco / EPA

 

Trump/Fonda

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This past week it became very obvious that a flailing Donald Trump is trying to save his prospects for re-election with a domestic variation on the time-honored Wag the Dog strategy.

Thomas Friedman writes in the Times:

(I)n a desperate effort to salvage his campaign, Trump turned to the Middle East Dictator’s Official Handbook and found just what he was looking for, the chapter titled, ‘What to Do When Your People Turn Against You?’

Answer: Turn them against each other and then present yourself as the only source of law and order.

Unable to control the pandemic, or to convince the American people that it’s totally cool that 150,000 of us have died, or that countries from Rwanda to Uruguay to Vietnam have handled it far better than we have, Trump has resorted to trying to scare the Dockers off his panicky supporters with a fictional portrait of radical leftists rioting in the streets, a situation only our “law and order” president (you know, the one who’s an as-yet-unindicted co-conspirator in a raft of felonies) can fix.

Is anyone surprised? Only a little. From the very beginning we worried that Trump, faced with the inevitable scandal, would gin up a foreign war to create this kind of distraction. Instead he is doing something arguably worse, in turning armed paramilitary force on US citizens.

As usual, he always finds a way to be even more horrible than we imagined.

PORTLANDIA

Let’s dispense with the obvious part. The idea of anonymous federal agents in full camouflage battle rattle snatching US citizens off the streets and throwing them in unmarked vans to be interrogated in homegrown black sites is about as un-American as it gets.

But that is the whole point. Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic:

(T)he purpose of these troops is not to bring peace to Portland. The purpose is to transmit a message.

Americans should find this tactic familiar, because we’ve seen it before. When the Trump administration cruelly separated children from their families at the southern border, that was, among other things, a performance designed to show the public just how much the president dislikes immigrants from Mexico and Honduras.

The attack on demonstrators in Portland is like that: a performance designed to show just how much Trump dislikes “liberal” Americans, “urban” Americans, “Democrat” Americans. To put it differently (and to echo my colleague Adam Serwer): The chaos in Portland is not an accident. The chaos is the point.

Seen in that light, it all makes perfect sense. For an administration whose goal is simply to give its base a collective hard-on, what could be better than teargassing a liberal mayor? (“They knocked the hell out of him,” Trump bragged to Fox News. “That was the end of him.”)

Get ready for November, everybody!

And the vice-signaling is absolutely working, with that base. Conservative America thrilled to the sound of acting (of course) Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf telling Fox, “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job. We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.” The irony of this stance coming from the alleged party of small government and states’ rights is unmissable, as noted in a savvy comment from Facebook (h/t David Friend and Pedro Henriques da Silva):

To be clear: the official position of the Republican Party is now that the federal government has total authority to come into your town to kidnap, detain, and injure any American citizen with no warrant, no cause, and no accountability and there’s nothing that residents or local and state officials can do about it. It’s literally the opposite of everything they’ve supposedly said were their principles for decades.

Don’t bother fuming over this hypocrisy: it’s long ago become clear that we’re light-years beyond such considerations. Being a hypocrite requires having principles to betray in the first place. Right wing America’s only principle is the advancement of tribal power.

To that end, the Republican politicians and the neo-Confederate media shrieking heads who ordinarily style themselves staunch opponents of federal overreach are somehow all onboard with the invasion of Portland (aka Operation Pinetree Freedom—just a suggestion), hysterically hyping Trump’s image of American Carnage: The Sequel.

(Quick question. Even if I’m a Klan-friendly redhatted mouthbreather, why should I vote—again—for the guy who in his inauguration speech promised to reverse that very carnage, and now proclaims it worse than ever? #MAGA2.0 #KAG #WTF)

As if to further make Applebaum’s point, DHS official and homophobic, climate change-denying, xenophobic right wing nutjob Ken Cuccinelli openly bragged to NPR about what the administration was doing, going on and on about restoring order. (Also, graffiti: a dog whistle if ever there was one, and definitely something that demands heavily armed wannabe-SWAT teams.)

I’d like to pause here for a moment to note that, in an administration that has made non-Senate-confirmed “acting” officials the norm, Cuccinelli doesn’t even rate that. His official title is “Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security.

Somewhere, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is speaking with his lawyer.

ALPHA MALE, BETA TEST, GAMMA RAY 

This is all a deliberate distraction, of course—from the pandemic, from the economy, from Black Lives Matter, and more—and the very fact that we’re talking about it proves that it’s working to some extent. But at the same time it’s a grievous violation of fundamental democratic principles in its own right, indicative of the direction Trump wants to take this country, and how far he will go to try to stay in power.

Anne Applebaum again:

Welcome to the world of performative authoritarianism, a form of politics that reached new heights of sophistication in Russia over the past decade and has now arrived in the United States. Unlike 20th-century authoritarianism, this 21st-century, postmodern influence campaign does not require the creation of a total police state. Nor does it require complete control of information, or mass arrests. It can be carried out, instead, with a few media outlets and a few carefully targeted arrests.

On that front, Portland is also an example of Trump employing yet another authoritarian trick, as Masha Gessen noted after the Lafayette Square debacle: testing the waters to see what he can get away with, in hopes of moving the Overton window hard to the right. In that sense, “performative authoritarianism” is merely the beta stage of the real thing.

Thankfully, there has been decent pushback to the White House’s actions, even as it tries to expand the invasion to Chicago, New York, Detroit, and elsewhere. (All cities with Democratic mayors. Quelle surprise.) Notably, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that he would have local law enforcement arrest federal agents who tried to detain peaceful protestors in the City of Brotherly Love. In an eloquent written statement, Krasner said:

My dad volunteered and served in World War II to fight fascism, like most of my uncles, so we would not have an American president brutalizing and kidnapping Americans for exercising their constitutional rights and trying to make America a better place, which is what patriots do.

Memo to the West Wing: don’t fuck with a city that used to have an operating courtroom and jail inside Veterans Stadium during Eagles games.

It’s also instructive who comprises Trump’s anonymous private army. Since the US military made it clear after the St. John’s Church episode that it’s not game for supporting a coup (we think), Trump has turned to another page from the Dictator’s Playbook and deployed instead a Praetorian Guard consisting (we think) largely of Customs and Border Patrol agents, a group loyal to him rather than the US Constitution.

It’s a deeply worrying, but historically familiar pattern. The Times’s Michelle Goldberg quotes Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century:

Be wary of paramilitaries. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.” In 2017, the idea of unidentified agents in camouflage snatching leftists off the streets without warrants might have seemed like a febrile Resistance fantasy. Now it’s happening.

But much of the mainstream media, as always, has helped Trump along. The Washington Post played right into the White House’s narrative, validating his lies with a front page headline reading, “Facing unrest on American streets, Trump turns Homeland Security powers inward.”

“Facing unrest?” How about facing a Wall of Moms in yellow t-shirts and Naked Athena in no shirt at all?

That headline should have read, “Trump Employs Violence to Distract from his Scandals.”

But here’s the thing about protests in the streets that makes them so powerful: Not only do they tell the authoritarian that he’s unpopular, they tell his allies that he is unpopular.

Mitch McConnell, take note.

THANK YOU MASKED MAN!

The radical left-wing uprising that Trump wants his white suburban followers to fear is a figment of his imagination and an insult to the American tradition of lawful protest. As Nick Kristof reports, the only chaos and anarchy in Portland is created by the violent federal agents themselves. Friends of mine who live there report the same thing. That Trump sends goons geared up like Imperial Stormtroopers to fight a battalion of mothers, tie-dyed hippies, and a naked Millennial speaks to the cowardice of a police state and its reactionary followers in general. What kind of self-respecting federal agent needs a nightstick, a gas mask, body armor and flash-bang grenades to face down protestors who look like the parking lot at a Phish show?

(Check out also this immovable, mountain-like kid in a Naval Academy sweatshirt, and watch to the end for his double barreled middle finger salute to the Man.)

Thus far Trump’s more Nixon-than-Nixon ploy is failing, outside of his rabid base who will already believe or do anything he demands, even—gasp!—wear a mask if he says so. The sort of violent street theater being mounted by this administration in Portland is too hamhanded, too obviously un-American, too transparently desperate to fool most of sentient America.

But “sentient” isn’t the part of America Trump is speaking to…..and it doesn’t mean he will stop. In fact, he’s likely to double down.

The fact that the administration’s unconscionable actions are a measure of Trump’s rising desperation only makes him more dangerous, not less. This was a week, after all, where Chris Wallace took Donald apart on national television—on Fox News, no less—while Trump bragged endlessly that he “aced” an exam designed to tell if a person has brain damage.

Meanwhile, in “How Far Can Trump Go Before His Supporters Meekly Object” news, the President of the United States publicly wished an accused sex trafficker well and the media barely batted an eye. (I was surprised the WaPo didn’t report, “Woke Trump Demonstrates Support for Embattled Woman.”) Trump’s bizarre but not uncharacteristic comment demonstrated, at the very least, a repulsive psychopathic sympathy for sexual predators over their victims, and not for the first time. At worst, it was quite possibly a signal to Ghislaine Maxwell to keep mum about his own implication in those crimes in exchange for some Roger Stone-style executive protection.

So much for Republican outrage over Comet Pizza.

But as I say, reasonable Americans long ago gave up cataloging the hypocrisy of the Republican Party and its supporters. The GOP’s claim to any kind of integrity at all is a bitter joke…..and yet every day new examples of its loathsomeness emerge.

So let’s shift gears and remind ourselves of just one such example, a should-be scandal for the ages that is just one of many that the latest shitshow had temporarily obscured. To wit:

While Trump eagerly deploys loyalist paramilitary goons to beat and gas peaceful American citizens on our own streets, he is a lot less willing to confront Vladimir Putin and protect American soldiers abroad from being murdered.

SWEET JANE

As of this writing, it has been a full month since the New York Times first broke the story that Russian intelligence services were paying the Taliban bounties on the lives of US troops, and (as Pete Buttigieg pointed out on Twitter) Donald Trump still has not taken any action, apart from decrying it as a hoax.

Where is the outrage from so-called conservatives (NB: they are nothing of the sort), those self-styled patriots who never tire of telling us what great supporters of our troops they are? If they were eager to spend two years and millions of taxpayer dollars investigating alleged misconduct that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, why are they so willing to completely ignore this infinitely more egregious behavior from the actual sitting President of the United States?

I’ll tell you why. Because they are immoral swine without a shred of human decency among them.

When I was a boy, an Army brat growing up during and after the Vietnam war, there was no more reviled figure in the US military community than Jane Fonda. If you’re too young to remember, the Internet can tell you all about her July 1972 trip to North Vietnam, where she frolicked with PAVN troops, posed on an anti-aircraft gun of the sort used to shoot down the US pilots being held in brutal captivity not far from the site of that photo op, and made radio broadcasts for the Hanoi government lecturing US airmen on their crimes and imploring them to stop flying.

This was not ordinary, all-American protest toward US policy. The best that can be said about her behavior is that it reflected a cringeworthy and appalling naiveté. The worst that can be said was said a lot in the communities where I grew up.

In any event, Jane Fonda quickly became the most hated woman in America, with millions of conservatives very much at the forefront. She apologized, albeit many years later, but nothing she can say or do will redeem her in the eyes of many.

It’s not for me to judge her or dispense or withhold forgiveness—I’ll leave that to those actually served in Vietnam, like my father. But to this day Jane Fonda remains a deeply hated pariah to the American right.

OK.

So where is that conservative outrage over Donald Trump’s far more craven, arguably treasonous subservience to Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation? Right wing America has denied, ignored, and excused his willingness to accept Russian help in the election, his continual water-carrying for Moscow over issues from NATO to Syria to the G-7, his appalling announcement that he takes Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence community, his delivery of top secret intelligence to Lavrov and Kislyak right in the Oval Office, his refusal to harden our electoral system against further Russian interference or even acknowledge its existence, and more. And that bizarre fealty to the a hostile foreign power may well have which reached its apex (or is it its nadir?) with Trump’s inexplicable unwillingness to say boo over the Kremlin’s blood money for American scalps.

When it comes to playing footsie with the enemy, Donald Trump makes Jane Fonda look like Audie Murphy. And yet, from Red America, crickets.

Strike that—not crickets. Applause.

So this is our new normal? Where federal agents can invade an American city over the objections of the local authorities and beat and tear gas and falsely arrest US citizens, while our head of state sits on his hands and timidly allows a murderous foreign dictator to commission the slaughter of American soldiers? Short of blackmail or a Manchurian candidate scenario, can anyone explain that, or why allegedly patriotic, self-identified conservative Americans still want Jane Fonda burned at the stake, but have given Donald Trump not only a pass, but the keys to the kingdom?

I’ll be here waiting, Republicans, when you have an answer for me.

*********** 

Photo: Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond, 1981

“Hammer and Dance”: Prof. Kent Kirshenbaum on the Pandemic (Part 2)

Hammer and Dance pt 2 (v3)

Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum is a Professor of Chemistry at New York University and a co-founder of NYU’s Biomedical Chemistry Institute. His research focuses on molecular pharmacology and bio-organic chemistry, including new technology for detecting specific virus particles. His studies are supported by the National Science Foundation.

In the first part of our interview, Prof. Kirshenbaum discussed the abdication of leadership at the national level regarding the pandemic, why states can’t take up the slack, cooking the numbers, the path to a vaccine, and how the US is screwing itself, among other topics.

For the second part of our conversation, we spoke after he arrived in his hometown of San Francisco following a solo cross-country drive from New York.

WHO’S GOT THE PAIN WHEN THEY DO THE MAMBO?

KENT KIRSHENBAUM: I’ve got some super good news for you, Bob. I’ll get to that in a second. First, there are a couple of things that I just wanted to fill in from your previous questions.

You asked me at the very outset how I would characterize the federal response. So that’s been going through my head, and now that I’ve had the chance to mull it over, the words that came to me were: incoherent, inconsistent, inexplicable, and infuriating.

THE KING’S NECKTIE: But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln….

KK: I also described this hammer and dance thing, which I think is a really powerful visual and it’s gone viral, so to speak. As I told you before, those are the two steps that are really essential to a public health response to pandemic or an infectious disease: the hammer—the initial suppression—and then the dance of trying to keep this R-number, infectivity, below one.

In this country, both aspects have been partial failures. Successful in some places, unsuccessful in others, but as a result, we don’t have control. We didn’t lay down the hammer evenly across the country, and then we just started to dance way too soon and way too vigorously. We should have been doing a waltz instead of the mambo.

TKN: Along those lines, let me ask you a selfish question, New Yorker to New Yorker. New York, I gather, did a pretty good job of containing the virus, of flattening the curve, and the caseload is declining. But what are the chances it’s going to blow back on us from other parts of the country regardless?

KK: Almost certainly it will. There will be re-establishment of infection and it will be a severe problem if our Rt number— the fundamental reproductive number—is above one. If New York can keep that value under that, then we may be able to maintain a reasonable situation even with incoming people from other parts of the country. By the way, New York state’s Rt value has been slightly above 1 since June 9, so I think it’s too soon to celebrate here. New Jersey and Connecticut have been nice examples.

It would be most effective if we could really clamp down on it. Vietnam, for example, has had zero deaths. They have people coming into the country who are infectious, but they identify them immediately, they isolate them, they let it run its course, and two weeks later they’re able to re-join society. We won’t be able to do that, but we need to keep this R-value below one.

And we can. I referred to it before, NPIs: nonpharmaceutical interventions. They work. Tremendously effective. And you can see that in the numbers in New York City, and in every other country around the world that’s kept a lid on this thing. I look at these numbers every day and I think it’s nothing short of miraculous what is going on in New York right now. I don’t actually understand why it’s so effective, but it’s super good news because it tells you everything you need to know. There is no vaccine that’s been widely distributed, there is no really effective therapeutic drug that’s yet widely available, and yet it is possible to contain this thing. It can be done and it’s being done in New York.

It requires leadership, and that’s something we talked about in our previous conversation. You cannot really do this effectively in the absence of strong leadership. It is absolutely essential. And that’s something that all of these governments have in common that have done a good job at the national level: they have effective leadership based on science, and a population that trusts the guidance, which is consistent, and is provided by the government.

TKN: Well, first of all, I think we should consider invading Vietnam again, because I think this time we’d know how to do it right. Meanwhile, it’s very clear that our federal government is absolutely incapable of providing the kind of leadership you describe. Or unwilling, which is even worse.

LIVE WITH IT

TKN: But to the notion of NPIs: a few weeks ago, there was a piece somewhere—in the Washington Post or something—about how a vaccine is not necessarily a magic bullet and we’re going to have to learn to live with this virus and future viruses. Not in a Trumpian way of, “Oh, 140,000 deaths is fine,” but in the sense of managing it and containing it without a vaccine.

And it was a super depressing article in some ways, but I have to tell you, after I read it, I felt so much better. Because up to that point, all my hopes were pinned on this magical vaccine, and after that, I began to think, “Oh, we have to learn to cope, and it’s possible to do that.”

KK: Absolutely. I’m glad that people are out there saying we need to be prepared to cope with this in the absence of a vaccine.

There’s modest expectation that a vaccine will prove to be widely available and effective. I mentioned last time that we probably will be able to begin creating doses maybe early next year. But at this point, I think it’s unlikely that the vaccine will make much of an impact until next fall, which means we have to get through this next fall/winter season relying mostly on NPIs.

TKN: That’s what worries me. 

KK: You should be worried. Everybody should be worried top to bottom. It’s just so depressing that we screwed up the hammer, and we screwed up the dance, and we’re going to screw this up too.

I was horrified by listening to Fauci’s testimony before the Senate, and Rand Paul was trying to shame him, saying, “Why can’t you provide the country with some good news? Why are you such a Debbie Downer?”

My question is: Where’s the good news, Rand? Hundreds of thousands of people are going to die because of irresponsible behavior like his, where he suspected he might be infected and went swimming in the Senate pool anyway. Hundreds of thousands! When I said that to my friend Harold around mid-March, when there were just a few thousand deaths, that number at that point seemed preposterous. Like, how could you possibly think things could get that bad? Now, it’s like, oh okay, if things continue at this pace, and maybe get a little worse with the kind of exponential growth that we’re seeing across the South, then we’re there.

TKN: Listen, I have just a basic grade school level of math skills and I can look at the daily ticker counting. I can see that we’re headed for 200,000 some time in the fall, if not sooner. And that’s just the beginning.

KK: Then you begin hearing people saying, “Well, we’re going to develop immunity and we need to learn to live with this virus.” I hear that a lot and it drives me crazy. It just drives me crazy. This is not a virus that we learn to live with! This is a virus that we learn to die with! Herpes simplex virus: that’s something that you learn to live with. Athlete’s foot: that’s a communicable disease you learn to live with.

TKN: But to be devil’s advocate for a minute, I think they’re using the term not to mean that an individual can live with this illness, but that as a society we can’t eradicate it, and therefore we have to “learn to live with it.”

KK: The reason I object to it so much, Bob, is because I think a lot of people do not use it in that sense. Yes, we do need to adapt, we need to mitigate, we need to contain, we need to control. But I really think a lot of people are using that phrase to mean that the virus is going to do what it’s going to do and we ought to just go about our lives. And that shrugs off the moral responsibility we have to look after the health and welfare of our citizens.

BUCKET BRIGADE

TKN: Well, that gets back to your point about leadership. The reason they feel that way is because it’s been fed to them by the same people who have abdicated leadership. Because our leaders first pretended the virus wasn’t there, tried to wish it away, et cetera, then realized they had failed and could not control it, and then switched to a strategy of saying, “So what? Big deal.” It’s a deliberate spreading of lack of empathy and it’s rife in MAGA Nation.

KK: Yes, it’s an infectious meme, that lack of empathy, coming from the very top.

Along with that is a denigration of expertise, which is another aspect of failure of leadership. When somebody stands up and says, “I’ve devoted my life to this, I’ve fought this kind of thing before, and here’s what we need to do.” Somebody like Fauci, for example. And then the lieutenant governor of Texas says, “I’ve stopped listening to Fauci, I don’t need his advice anymore, because it doesn’t correspond to the kind of life I want to have.” That’s the kind of expression of “We just need to learn to live with this” that I find so objectionable.

If the lieutenant governor of Texas was saying we’re not going to do anything about an outbreak of athlete’s foot that’s running rampant over university gymnasiums across Texas, I’d say fine. Let’s live with it. But with COVID-19? No. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying. How could you have an extended conversation about this and not remind yourself of the toll—the unnecessary toll—this virus has taken on the American population?

TKN: Well, I couldn’t agree more, of course. And you don’t hear a word of sympathy from the top, or condolences, or even just the most basic perfunctory expressions of sympathy, empathy, even if it’s fake. Nothing!

KK: Right. So we need that sympathy, empathy, we need a feeling of trust between the population and our leadership, and we need a coherent strategy from the very top. Trump called himself a wartime president, and you need to provide coherent guidance to all of the armed forces when you’re fighting a war. You don’t tell the Navy, “Do your own thing,” the Air Force, “Do your own thing.” You know, “Everybody go your own way.”

The analogy can be made to an apartment building being on fire, and instead of the mayor allowing the fire department to come and put out the fire, they show up with a whole bunch of buckets of water, some fire extinguishers, and they put them on sale in the lobby and they tell the residents of the apartments, “These are going out to the highest bidder. Imported from China, Ivanka designed them, they’re gold plated, come down and get them if you want, or maybe not. We’re going to allow you to use your sense of personal responsibility to decide what you want to go about doing in each of your apartments, and good luck to all of you.”

TKN: Well, all those things speak to broader ills in our country and in the body politic. This idiotic idea that all government is bad, this frontier rugged individualist myth, all that bullshit—it’s all been exposed for the con that it is, and we’re paying the price.

KK: I love rugged individualism. I’m so proud to be an American. But you can be as rugged as you want with this virus—it does not care. And unfortunately, competent leadership, on its own, is not always effective either. We’ve got a reasonably good governor here in California and it’s getting away from us. This notion of I’m going to tough it out, masks are for sissies—it’s not going to work. This virus doesn’t have a brain, it doesn’t have any kind of nervous system, it’s not a lifeform. It cannot be intimidated! Rugged individualism is not a solution.

And unfortunately, some of these things cannot be delegated to the free market either. It just doesn’t work. It would great if it did, and we can talk about the boundary where private entities are going to be more effective than a governmental capability, but public health is something our government needs to do and it needs to do well.

TKN: Remember that Rose Garden ceremony early on, when they trotted out all the CEOs of Target and Walmart and they were all going to do all this shit? That was the the blind faith in the free market. And none of it came to pass.

KK: How did those people not get called on it? They showed this big placard of how Google was gonna help set up contact tracing and how there was going to be drive-thru testing in Walmart parking lots or something like that. None of that happened. And it goes back to what we were saying before: this is what you do on a reality TV show. You get Central Casting to come out with a bunch of rich white men, which was the cast of characters in that episode, and do a bunch of happy talk. And they didn’t come through, except…..

You know what? I take it back, because I’m betting that they all came through—for their shareholders.

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT

TKN: So that’s one of the big questions I wanted to ask you, which is: what the hell is wrong with us? Why, unique among industrialized countries, have we been unable to do the most basic intervention to get this under control?

KK: Because part of our spirit is, “I have my vision and I am going to enact it.” And that is what has been our source of strength. The Wright brothers. You can’t fly? Screw that. We’re going to fly. We’re going to figure it out, just going to do it. Just creativity, this radical sense of living your dream despite what others might tell you, despite conventional wisdom—that’s our strength. And that’s our weakness, because we like to go our own way.

TKN: You talked a little bit about distribution problems before. Let’s say we have a vaccine and it’s fully tested and successful and so forth. What sort of distribution problems do you foresee?

KK: (long pause)

Oh my gosh.

(Another long pause.)

It’s that’s same rugged individualist, mistrust of government thing again, and that’s going to be a problem with distribution of a vaccine as well.

A lot of people have this notion, like, “Do not vaccinate me. I have my vision about how to maintain my health, and you’re not going to jab me with that stuff ‘cause I don’t trust what it’s going to do to me.” There are huge segments of the population just over the bridge from me in Marin and Sonoma Counties that are hotbeds of anti-vaccination. So that’s going to be a huge impediment to the distribution of vaccine. Just this morning I was talking with some people about early stage drug development for anti-virals to treat COVID-19 and one of them said, “Well, Moderna and Pfizer are coming out with vaccines. Are you going to be fast enough with your treatments? Will they be unnecessary?” And I was like, “They can come out with a wonderful vaccine, but we’re still gonna need pharmaceuticals to treat infected people, because there’s going to be a lot of people who won’t get vaccinated.”

TKN: You’re anticipating all my questions. What is the broader public health impact of a significant number of people being anti-vax?

KK: It’s pretty easy to see because analogies can be made to measles, where people die who shouldn’t because they’re part of communities where there’s a significant number of people who don’t get vaccines. So I do anticipate it.

This is a weakness in our national character that can be exploited, and I believe it has been exploited by foreign actors who are encouraging the anti-vax movement and sowing doubt. And it’s not just about vaccination or public health. Creating doubt in general, even about issues that are demonstrably true or false, is a strategy used by authoritarian regimes. “Nobody really knows. You’re telling me something, but I’m going to believe something else.”

TKN: Well, that is part of Trumpian disinformation, which comes from Russian disinformation. Garry Kasparov talks about it. “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

KK: Unfortunately, that’s really at the heart of this failure of leadership, because our leader does not have the interests of his fellow citizens foremost in mind.

TKN: (laughs) That might be the simplest and easiest concept to grasp: when you’re led by somebody who doesn’t care about you, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’re not taking care of you.

ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING

KK: That’s why in our original conversation I made the analogy to the failure to protect our military in Afghanistan. This is a basic thing that we ask our leaders to do: protect us. That is a central function of government, or at least should be.

TKN: I don’t think there’s any hope that we’ll get that kind of leadership from the current administration. But let’s suppose that we have an “under new management” situation sometime soon. What do you think life in America will look like in the next year or two, under a competent administration, while we try to get this under control?

KK: So 2020 is halfway done, right? Horrible year. We’ve just made it through the easy part. But I think by this time, a year from now, I think we’ll be able to start relaxing a bit.

I’m envious of my colleagues in Europe. I saw this amazing photograph today: in Prague they set up a huge table, a thousand people came for a joint meal, everybody shared food, wine, beer as the sun was going down over one of these famous bridges in the center of the city. I thought, why can’t we be doing that? We’re not going to be doing that for another year.

TKN: I can appreciate the difficult situation of a public health expert or a scientist who’s working with the US government. On the one hand, it’s obvious: we need their expertise. On the other hand, they’re working with an organization that’s not just completely dysfunctional or incompetent but actively malevolent…which is one of the reasons their skillset is needed so desperately. So what is your advice to the Faucis of the world? How does a public health official navigate that dilemma?

KK: I have no idea. I think it’s extremely difficult. I think they’re heroes, and I think it’s disappointing that so many public health officials across the country have been attacked, and even forced to leave their jobs. I don’t know how Fauci can do it. I really don’t. I think it’s an extraordinary thing that he’s being asked to do right now.

TKN: I know it’s an unfair question. It’s the same dilemma that Mattis and McMaster and the rest faced on the foreign policy front—and other experts in every field have face—as they try to babysit our mad king.

KK: Fauci is walking…..I was about to say, he’s walking a tightrope, but he’s walking like a four-dimensional set of tightropes going in all kinds of different directions. Because he’s got to tell the truth, but he’s got to work within an administration that consistently lies and fabricates. He’s got to warn the public, but he cannot create panic. He’s got to accelerate discovery of vaccines and drugs, but he can’t push it too fast because he’s got to make sure that people don’t get harmed. He is walking all these tightropes simultaneously. It’s pretty amazing.

TKN: As a layman, if I were to see Anthony Fauci fired, or resign in protest, that would be like a five-alarm fire bell going off. I think that’s true for many people.

KK: Well, we’ve had lots of alarms. Sometimes you just stop hearing them. You’re numb.

TKN: But that one would really freak me out. And I would hope it would cause a massive public outcry that might actually force a reckoning.

THE OL’ GOOD NEWS BAD NEWS ROUTINE

KK: Can I tell you some good news?

TKN: Yeah, give me the good news.

KK: You know it comes with a hook, right?

So I told you that there’s been such incredibly rapid development of vaccine candidates that we can really be quite confident that something will happen in the near future. Probably won’t be able to depend upon it for the upcoming season, but it’s going to start happening.

In fact, I cannot believe how quickly this is going. Since the last time we talked, I found out that large number of doses of vaccine have been created and people are receiving those vaccines. Isn’t that fantastic? Who could have imagined! The fastest we’ve been able to introduce new vaccines previously has been years. We just found out the sequence of this thing within the past few months and now a huge population is already getting vaccinated? That’s UNBELIEVABLY rapid progress.

TKN: Sounds too good to be true. So what’s the hook?

KK: Well, guess what population is getting vaccinated?

The Chinese military.

The vaccine candidate is from CanSino Biologics, a Chinese-Canadian collaboration. And they’re skipping Phase Three evaluation and just going right ahead and vaccinating their soldiers.

TKN: And what is Phase Three? Human testing?

KK: All three phases are human testing. First is for safety, with a very small number of individuals. Phase Two is initial efficacy and safety testing, where you get just an indication and look to see whether or not it’s safe in a slightly larger population. And then Phase Three is where you determine whether or not it really works.

Apparently they did a Phase Two and they saw some antibody response, which was looking favorable, and they’re just inoculating their military. From what I read, they’re refusing to disclose whether immunizations are voluntary or mandatory.

TKN: (laughs) I know the answer to that.

KK: You’ve been in the military—

TKN: Yeah, the American military. I can imagine what the Chinese military is like!

KK: There’s another kind of interesting wrinkle—it’s kind of like a minor detail, so I don’t know, maybe it’s not so interesting, but I also read that Beijing may ask Chinese businessmen who work for companies with significant overseas activities to also get vaccinated, and that will allow them to find out whether or not it’s effective. So they’re going to send Chinese business people abroad to the hot zone. “We’ve immunized you. Please let us know whether or not you get sick.”

TKN: I’m loath to side with the anti-vaxxers, but that all makes me nervous. If there was a Chinese vaccine to come out that had skipped Phase Three and was rushed to the market, I would be nervous.

KK: You should be. Trust in our public health system, trust in our scientific establishment, is crucial. Once it is lost, it is really hard to rebuild. You can ask the Black community in this country about how they feel about the Tuskegee experiments, and even though that was a long, long time ago, it still resonates. It’s an issue we need to deal with, and we need to be honest about it. We have to really walk a tightrope between speeding this thing along as quickly as we can—and as I said, it’s been totally impressive—and at the same time making sure we don’t screw it up and hurt people, which is something we cannot do. Which means we really need to pay attention to what people like Fauci and the guidance that they’re going to be providing.

TKN: That issue of loss of credibility takes us back to the early days of this and the confusion about masks. In the beginning, you’ll recall, we were told, ‘Ah, masks probably actually don’t do any good, or might even make it worse.” And then all of a sudden the authorities did a 180 and said, “No, you should absolutely wear a mask.” And now we have a problem getting people to wear masks—no surprise. Partially that problem is the bullshit we talked about before—the “precious bodily fluids” paranoid style that’s always been with us in America—but part of it also is that there was a mixed message put out at the get-go.

KK: Yeah, well, I didn’t believe it. I went out to a hardware store and got construction N95 masks.

TKN: And that is why you’re a PhD and I am a guy who stands on the street corner wearing a sandwich board.

KK: No, it’s because I’m an American, goddammit. And if somebody tells me “You don’t need a mask,” you know what I’m going to say? I’m going to say, “Fuck you. I’m going to get a mask!” (laughter)

THE FUTURE IS MURDER

TKN: What are the chances that we’re going to continue to see viruses and pandemics like this, and worse, going forward?

KK: It’s certain. As bad as this is, this virus could have been worse. I mean, it’s so much worse than the flu, but a fatality rate of 1%? There are worse infectious diseases out there. MERS, for example; we kind of dodged a bullet with that one, if I recall correctly, because early intervention stopping its spread was crucial. So I really do believe it could have been worse.

When I was in my twenties I read The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, and that had a big effect on my appreciation for public health. But maybe that was not the right title. It should have been called The Coming Plagues because it’s not going to be just one. This is going to happen again. And boy, it would be nice if we were learning our lesson.

TKN:. I’ve heard many people say the same thing: imagine something with a 5% mortality rate, or something that is hitting children, as opposed to seniors—a lot of nightmare scenarios that could be worse. How do we prepare for that eventuality?

KK: Just fund public health. Bill Gates talked about it a few years back, about how this needs to be a topmost priority, both at the national and international levels. There are many imponderables about how to do it best, but there’s a simple answer: Fund public health. And that requires faith in government.

I want to leave you with one last thought. As an American, I’m okay with occasionally being regarded with disdain by some of my foreign colleagues. Sometimes it’s mutual. But I prefer it when that disdain derives because our country is too powerful, and not because I’m being pitied. I’m not going to get used to that anytime soon.

TKN: There’s nothing to say after that.

*********

Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum is a Professor of Chemistry at New York University and a co-founder of NYU’s Biomedical Chemistry Institute, where he conducts research in Molecular Pharmacology and Bio-Organic Chemistry. Current projects include developing synthetic mimics of proteins in order to discover a new family of drug molecules, and establishing a new technology for detecting specific virus particles. His studies are supported by the National Science Foundation. A recipient of a NSF CAREER Award, Kirshenbaum received his PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of California at San Francisco and conducted his post-doctoral training in protein chemistry at Caltech. He is an inveterate bicycle enthusiast, and enjoys studying the interface between chemistry and cuisine. He serves on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Good Food Institute.

 

“Hammer and Dance”: Prof. Kent Kirshenbaum on the Pandemic (Part 1)

Hammer and Dance

Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum is a Professor of Chemistry at New York University and a co-founder of NYU’s Biomedical Chemistry Institute. His research focuses on molecular pharmacology and bio-organic chemistry, including new technology for detecting specific virus particles. His studies are supported by the National Science Foundation.

I spoke to him while he was driving across the Rocky Mountains en route from New York to his hometown of San Francisco.

F IS FOR FLUNK

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Let me start with the big, broad question. What’s your assessment of how the administration has handled this pandemic?

KENT KIRSHENBAUM: Appalling. Disgraceful. A basic abdication of what needed to be done. And not from a lack of knowledge or resources—just a lack of direction.

TKN: I think everybody understands that a pandemic could happen on anyone’s watch, but how much worse do you think it’s been because of that abdication of leadership?

KK: A lot, lot worse. It wasn’t so easy to say this back in March or even April, but now we can look at other countries and see how they responded. Some have vast public health programs and some do not; some have a lot of resources and some have very few. But there are many examples now of countries that have figured it out, and they provide a very strong object lesson for how we can proceed. The fact that we’re not taking those lessons even today is an indication of how bad this abdication has been.

One indication is this: If you say to some of these countries, “Okay, you instituted contact tracing, you instituted this testing program—how did you guys figure out that would work?” And the answer that you often get is, “We learned it from you. We sent our people to the CDC and they taught us what to do.”

So the fact that the CDC is not doing those things in the US right now is not because we don’t have talented people who have really deep understanding of what needs to be done. It’s because there’s been this lack of direction to implement it.

I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m not a physician, I don’t have any particular expertise in infectious disease. I’m a chemist. I think about developing new pharmaceuticals. So I’m saying all these things from a little bit of a remove. It’s not like I have any particular insight into what is going on at the CDC. I’ve never been there. So I’m looking at it from a very distant perspective.

TKN: I understand that. But this administration and the Republican Party in general have been very dismissive of expertise across the board, and denigrated and attacked people who are experts in all areas, but especially science. Now we’re in the midst of a crisis where we desperately need science. So I’m wondering to what extent do you think this failure—this abdication—is the result of that broader war? 

KK: It’s extremely keyed into that. I don’t think it’s right at the heart because I think right at the heart is that nothing happens unless it addresses Trump’s ego. But the dismissiveness of science is important because it allows policy to be set to be whatever they feel like. Data can be rejiggered, experts don’t need to be listened to. The science is not even an afterthought. It’s just cast aside.

The fact that Trump thinks that he knows more about military affairs than the generals, that he doesn’t feel as though he needs to pay attention to any experts, especially not any scientific experts, that he can redraw a weather map at will—it’s all a manifestation of the same thing. And if you had to put at the top of the list the worst thing that could possibly happen to an administration that doesn’t believe in science, I guess this would be it. A pandemic.

Especially because this thing is not over by any means. We have a lot of work to do to make sure that we can deal with what’s heading our way over the next six to nine months, and that needs to be happening immediately. At this point, we can look around and figure out what to do between now and, let’s say, October to be prepared. That’s enough time; it really is. But you just get the feeling that it’s not going to happen.

FRED WILLIAMSON AND FRED ASTAIRE

KK: Bob, have you heard the expression “hammer and dance”?

TKN: No.

KK: This is something that the infectious disease experts and epidemiologists talk about as far as control of a pandemic.

First you do the hammer, which is you lock everybody down and you figure out the main route of transmission, how are people infecting each other, and you prevent that—whatever it takes. If you have to lock people in their homes, if you have to burn currency—which the Chinese did, by the way, out of some concerns that that may be a route of infection—you do it. It’s draconian. And you need to do it as fast as you possibly can. A week’s delay has huge ramifications. And we’ve seen that those places had early shelter-in-place or stay-at-home policies, that made a huge difference.

That’s the hammer. You put your population through as much as they can possibly handle to reduce the number of people who are infected to as small a number as possible. Then, when they can’t take it anymore, you move on to the dance.

With the dance, you loosen things up, but try to keep the fundamental reproductive number, the Rt number, down below one. That’s the metric that describes how many secondary infections a primary infection causes, on average, in a specific area. So an Rt of 1 means one infected person will spread the virus to one other person. An Rt of 2, where one infected person infects two others, is a disaster, because then you’ve got exponential growth. If one person only infects on average, half of another person, then you can expect that overall the numbers will continue to decline week by week, month by month. You’ve got it under control.

So you do the dance, you loosen things up but not too much, pay careful attention through testing to what that Rt number is, and let it hover around one—if you must—and tighten things up again if you need to. And by the way, you can’t get a good handle on Rt if testing is bottle-necked, and Trump is trying to pull funds from CDC for testing. Testing is a problem, because it makes him look bad.

So we’ve screwed this up now twice, Bob. Nationally, we screwed up the hammer, and now we’re screwing up the dance. Yeah, we succeeded—eventually—in getting a lot of people to work from home, stop traveling, numbers came down. But then a bunch of governors thought, “Okay, let’s go back to life as normal. We’re ready.”

Now we’re about to screw things up a third time, because now we’re going to go into fall and then winter and we’re going to get a mix of influenza and COVID-19, and unless we start doing the right stuff it’s going to be an absolute catastrophe. I mean, there’s no sugarcoating it. It’s not guesswork at this point. We’ve got months of experience about whether or not we’re capable of handling things properly in this country, and what the results are if we don’t, and the answer is clear. We are totally incapable of doing the right thing on the national level and hundreds of thousands of people are going to die.

TKN: That is terrifying. So if the leadership isn’t there at national level, how much of the slack can be taken up by the states?

KK: A bit, but nowhere near enough. And there are multiple reasons for that.

Number one, an immediate fast response needs to be coordinated by experts at the federal level. In other words, the CDC. In other words, immediately distributing tests that can be used, immediately providing clear guidance about what can be done.

Two, failure to model good behavior is a huge issue, and I’ve seen that in my drive across the country, different places where people are wearing masks and not. It’s clear that wearing a mask is a crucial part of what we need to do, and we cannot get people like Trump and members of his Cabinet to do that. Pence just now appeared in public in a mask, if I’m not mistaken. I mean, it’s unbelievable.

The third part of the problem is that we really need the federal government to coordinate data collection and dissemination. Different states have these beautiful dashboards. Why doesn’t this exist at the national level? It’s not like there aren’t people at the CDC who understand how to do this. But there’s clearly been an absence of direction…..someone to say, “Yeah, go ahead and put up the website. Load it. Let’s get it out there.”

TKN: In fact it’s been the opposite, right? Those metrics have been suppressed in an attempt to make it look not as bad as it really is.

KK: Absolutely. There’s a lot of talk about data-driven decisions. But if you whip the data into submission and then allow it to drive whatever decisions people have already come to in advance, that’s not data-driven. That’s magical thinking.

And you see it at the state level as well as the federal. You’ve probably heard about this woman down in Florida who was fired for producing numbers regarding positive cases and hospitalizations. The state’s Republican leadership had a plan to open up the economy, and they met with her to say, “We need the numbers to put into this analysis.” They were asking her to cook the numbers, and she refused. So she was fired. They hired an outside vendor who within 24 hours gave them exactly the numbers they needed to justify opening up the economy of Florida.

And we know what happened after that in Florida. There were 9000 positive cases down there yesterday, I believe. I don’t know what the number is today. And that is playing out at the national level as well, in different ways.

NO FLY ZONE

KK: So that’s one role the federal government has, data. The other is restriction.

Why are people getting on planes in places like Arizona or Florida and flying around the country right now? It doesn’t make any sense. Why are carriers like American Airlines saying, “We thought about your health for awhile by blocking out our middle seats, but we’re good now, so we’re going to fly full and refocus on something more important than your health, which is our profits.” I think they got $4 billion in the bailout. Why aren’t they being told that they need to protect the public? So that’s a big part of the reason why I’m in my car right now. I don’t want to be part of that.

We’re only as strong in our responses as our weakest link, and we have some really weak links. I just saw a number this morning, in Arizona they’ve got a 28% positive test rate now. That is soooo bad. Arizona is probably up there with Peru and Brazil and Chile—places where there’s just been a completely incompetent response. A 28% positive test rate?

(NB: Since this interview was conducted, Florida has pulled ahead of Arizona. The Sunshine State has more cases of COVID-19 than Italy, an early epicenter of the virus, and triple the number of China, whose population is 66 times larger. Florida would rank #9 worldwide for COVID cases, were it a sovereign nation.)

So I went on FlightAware and I pulled up the list of flights leaving Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Just between 10:00 am and 11:00 am this morning there were ten flights going to California, to Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore…. You can see them on the map, they’re going everywhere, and each one of those planes has got people onboard who almost certainly are infectious.

TKN: And these planes are full now. It’s not like when you flew a week or two ago. As you say, now they’re selling middle seats.

KK: That’s why I’m driving now.

TKN: This gets back to your point about Trump’s ego. I would think that even if his only motivation is selfish, he would want to take the steps that would genuinely make things better, rather than thinking that he can hide this or wish it away. Why does he not do that?

KK: it’s hard for me to know, but I’ll try to answer that question by citing his failure to act on other issues—like this latest episode with the bounties that the Russians have offered on American soldiers in Afghanistan. My nephew did two tours there, and I’m so glad he’s come back safe and become a father this past week. I can only imagine how you feel, Bob. This isn’t my area, but I have to imagine that there are experts within the intelligence community, within the defense community, who know that this is unacceptable and something needs to be done. And we’ve done nothing. Why? Is it because we don’t know? No. Is it because there are no experts in the intelligence community and in the military to figure out how to respond? No. They just need somebody to pay attention and say, “This is unacceptable. Do something about it.” They can’t operate on their own.

Why doesn’t Trump just do the right thing? Why won’t he provide a competent public health response? I think it’s just uncomfortable for him. It doesn’t make him look good. He said as much when talking about the testing. If we test more, it’s going to make me look bad.

TKN: But that’s a juvenile attitude because it’s not going to work in the long run.

KK: Right. Your daughter is probably well beyond the stage when, if she didn’t want you to see her do something, she would put her hands over her eyes, you know? Like, “You can’t see me!” No, the fact that you’ve got your hands over your eyes doesn’t make any difference, I can still see what you’re doing. She’s probably figured that out.

TKN: Yes, she has. She’s figured that out a while ago.

KK: One or two more things about the lack of a federal response and not being able to compensate for that at the state level.

Even in a red state like Oklahoma, the public health experts have a good understanding of what to do to keep their citizens safe. So when Trump announced that he was going to hold his rally down there, they asked him not to, and he said “Well, we’re going to do it anyway.” And so the public health authorities came in and put markers down on the ground within the arena to indicate proper social distancing….you know, keep this far apart, stand here, stand here. And the Trump campaign people came into that arena and they pulled all that stuff out. They pulled it out! I mean, it just defies any kind of comprehension.

TKN: I don’t know what to say. It’s a death cult.

KK: Yes, exactly.

ON THE ROAD

TKN: It must be weird to drive across the country in the middle of a pandemic.

KK: Well, there’s some good news and bad news.

The good news is that this is a free country, Bob, and you can go wherever the hell you want. There are no National Guard checkpoints preventing anybody from going wherever they want.

The bad news is, it’s a free country and people can go wherever they want. You’re in the middle of Florida or Arizona, in the middle of a hot zone? Jump in your car, go wherever you want.

TKN: And you’ve had the unique experience of both driving and flying across the country in the space of like two weeks, right?

KK: Yeah. This is kind of interesting because we’re all involved now in this kind of mental calculus that takes place almost minute by minute as we go about our daily lives. “Does this person present a threat to me? Can I touch this object? How much time can I go before I wash my hands after touching that object? How much distance should I give to this pedestrian who’s not wearing a mask?” There are no definitive answers to any of these questions, including something really basic like, “Is it dangerous to get on a plane?” I don’t know.

I felt okay about flying from San Francisco to New York, but that was several weeks ago. I got a brand new N95 mask, I wore swim goggles, which was weird for me because it blocked my vision. I like to sit in a window seat, stare out the window the entire ride, which I did, but I could only barely make out Lake Michigan and that was about it.

TKN: Why did you feel like swim goggles were a good idea?

KK: The tissue in the eyes can be a major route of transmission. It’s not just into the lungs. So if you’re incubating your eyes with some kind of aerosol, it potentially could be a major route of transmission. So yeah, swim goggles. I picked that up very early on from a friend who does research in biology….

Oh, right now I’m driving by Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

TKN: Yeah, I know Dugway. I spent a few weeks there in training.  

KK: So you must know all about how not to get contaminated.

(NB: Dugway, in the remote high desert of Utah, was a longtime chemical warfare testing site for the US Army. Although no longer used for that purpose, live chemical munitions remain randomly scattered about the installation, most of which consists of open land.)

TKN: It’s funny. I don’t know what the schedule is now, but back in my day, the final phase of the Ranger course took place there. I was there in the winter and it was miserable, but the interesting part was that we had to carry protective masks—gas masks—while we were training. That’s the only phase of the course where you had to have them, because we never knew when we were going to come across some old unexploded chemical ordinance. I got frostbite there, but I don’t think I got any chemical contamination.

Yeah, Dugway. What a terrible place that is. (laughs)

 KK: (laughs) Yeah. I’m happy to be moving through at like 80 miles an hour.

JUST THE VAX, MA’AM

TKN: Let me ask you about the vaccine, which many people of course are pinning all their hopes on. What you think the odds are of a vaccine, and if so, on what timeline?

KK: I’m really astounded by the response of biomedical researchers in so many different ways. The extent of cooperation, the pace of discovery, the sharing of information—it’s been phenomenal.

At the beginning of this year, before the pandemic hit, I was leading an advanced biochemistry class at NYU. And I said, “Look, there’s this disease in China and I think it might give us some stuff to talk about during the course of the semester.” And it was only a few weeks later that I was able to tell the class, “Well, actually they already have a vaccine candidate and they’ve already begun Phase One trials on it.” So the pace is really extraordinary. All of these things that I thought would take a lot longer are actually going blazingly fast.

What’s going on in laboratories around the country, both in academic labs and in corporate ones, I think is truly impressive and it does make me optimistic. If you had said, “There’s going to be a new respiratory infectious disease, a retrovirus, what do you think would be an optimistic timeframe for vaccine development? I would have said, if we’re really lucky, maybe two to three years. But now Fauci and other people are saying maybe by the beginning of 2021 we could have the vaccine for distribution. It’s unbelievably fast, and a lot of things have to go right for that to happen.

But we’re still talking about months at best until it becomes available. So that means we have to do what we can now as far as nonpharmaceutical intervention, NPI. That means public health, that means mask-wearing, that means travel restrictions, all those things. It’s still quite a way to the beginning of 2021, and at the rate that people in this country are dying, it’s going to be continuing tragedy.

TKN: It’s hard to believe that a country that screwed up the hammer and dance in the way you described can get its act together to produce the vaccine that fast.

KK: Well, the good news is that there’s a profit incentive here! So there are individual scientists working at individual companies who’ve done this before very successfully and who are ready to do it again. They are unbelievably motivated, and they are doing everything right. They’re doing a remarkable job.

I have a friend at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, one of the big movers in antibody-based therapeutics, so I’ve got some insight into what that company has been able to do as far as quickly transitioning their technology to respond to COVID-19, which is of course caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The good news is that they have made antibodies against coronaviruses before, they know how to do this, and there’s a phenomenal scientist named George Yancopoulos who’s the chief scientific officer, the guy is brilliant and nobody’s going to get in their way, at least as far as what they can do within the company.

As far as therapeutics, I’m most interested right now in antibody-based therapeutics. We can produce antibodies, manufacture them, and administer them as a therapeutic. And there’s now I think 110 different antibody therapeutic candidates that are in different stages of development, including some that are very far along. Essentially we could have these therapeutics and begin producing them for distribution three to four months from now.

TKN: And by therapeutic, do you mean for treating someone who already has the virus, not a prophylactic?

KK: Yes. Treating somebody who’s already in the hospital. It’s not clear whether or not it would work prophylactically, but these things are going to be so insanely expensive, so probably only certain people will be able to contemplate taking them that way.

TKN: And to what extent is that sort of research domestic to the US and how much is international and requires global cooperation?

KK: It’s all international. Everybody’s doing their part. The Chinese are doing their part. The Australians, the Germans, the US, the University of Oxford—everybody’s coming through in ways that are truly magnificent. The extent of cooperation by individual scientists, not by the federal government, has been amazing. Unfortunately, the federal government, one misstep after another, pulling out of the WHO, trying to strongarm a German company into supporting their vaccine research on the condition that it’s distributed in the United States first. Really stupid things like that.

TKN: Well, that’s why I bring it up, and maybe it’s spurious, but I’ve heard it suggested that all that maneuvering could backfire on the United States and we could be shut out of a vaccine that’s developed overseas because we’ve been so uncooperative. Which would serve us right, but it’s an awful thought.

KK: Yeah, I could, I could easily see that. If you really want look hard for a silver lining, with regard to the failure to control the spread of infection in this country, here’s the silver lining, Bob:

In order to do a good job of testing a vaccine, you need populations who are at risk and who are capable of getting sick. If your public health system has done a good job of tamping down infection, there’s no reservoir of virus in your population, and there’s no way to test whether or not a vaccine is doing anything. So in order to test these vaccines, they’re going to have to go to places like Brazil, India, and you know what, it’s going to be fantastic to test these vaccines here in the US! We’ve got such a massive problem that it should be quite straightforward to run these clinical trials and compare the incidence rate of vaccinated versus unvaccinated individuals.

TKN: We’re number one! We’re number one!

KK: Yeah. And this is not some theoretical kind of thing: this has actually been a huge impediment for vaccine development in the past. They have developed vaccine candidates for viral pathogens, and they were like, “Well, where are we going to test it?” But in the meantime they had actually done a good job of controlling the infection and it became really difficult to do the actual testing of the vaccine. I think that’s happened on more than one occasion. But not a problem for us!

Maybe we’ll be able to make some kind of accommodation with a vaccine developer in Germany, like, “Hey, you can come to the US and test your vaccine, if you don’t mind sharing a few doses with us.”

The international aspect is terrible in terms of how it reflects on the US. Right now I’m looking for a way to go to Italy, and it’s basically impossible, because Americans are banned from entry. The US is on the pariah list. They’re talking about a year before even Canada’s going to open up the border to us.

TKN: As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s a perfect irony to the Muslim ban that started this administration.

KK: A perfect irony. There are plenty of other countries that are being permitted travel to Italy. Some of them make sense: much of Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Japan. Uruguay! Serbia. Rwanda! I would have better chance of getting into Rome as a Rwandan citizen right now than as a US citizen.

***********

In part two of this conversation, to be published later this week, Prof. Kirshenbaum discusses what we can do ahead of a vaccine, the problems we can expect if and when it arrives, the deadly risks of a government that is contemptuous of science, and the future of pandemics.

Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum is a Professor of Chemistry at New York University and a co-founder of NYU’s Biomedical Chemistry Institute, where he conducts research in Molecular Pharmacology and Bio-Organic Chemistry. Current projects include developing synthetic mimics of proteins in order to discover a new family of drug molecules, and establishing a new technology for detecting specific virus particles. His studies are supported by the National Science Foundation. A recipient of a NSF CAREER Award, Kirshenbaum received his PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of California at San Francisco and conducted his post-doctoral training in protein chemistry at Caltech. He is an inveterate bicycle enthusiast, and enjoys studying the interface between chemistry and cuisine. He serves on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Good Food Institute.

 

 

 

The Invention of Whiteness (Revisited)

Invention of Whiteness (Revisited)

In the fall of 2017, I spoke with James Carroll, renowned author of dozens of books including Constantine’s Sword, the definitive history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church; House of War, which won the first PEN-John Kenneth Galbraith Award; and Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World.

We spoke about racism, anti-Semitism, and their interconnections in the age of Trump, which was relatively young at the time. That two-part interview, “The Invention of Whiteness” (October 27, 2017) and “The Disadvantages of Decency” (November 1, 2017), is well worth revisiting in the here and now. A condensed version follows.

NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION

JIM CARROLL: It’s important to have some fuller sense of the history of anti-Semitism and its relationship to white racism, colonialism, and European imperialism, because all of those things are quite related.

There’s no surprise to me in the shocking revelation that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia six weeks ago when white supremacists just instinctively began to chant anti-Semitic assaults against Jewish people, because white supremacy and anti-Semitism are in a way what you might call twins. They come from the same place, and that’s the late medieval perversion that took place in Europe—in Spain, but not only Spain—at the very beginning of the modern era. I wrote a column that was in the New Yorker.com that succinctly makes this argument called “What Trump Doesn’t Understand About Anti-Semitism.”

The key is 1492. Everybody remembers 1492 as the year of Christopher Columbus, and some people even remember that 1492 was the year that Spain expelled the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. But it’s very important to see those two events as not just simultaneous but as totally related to each other. Christopher Columbus was in effect the beginning of European adventurism in what becomes the colonial worlds of Africa and the Americas and even Asia: Europeans heading out in their—as we used to say— caravels, those sweet little boats that the Portuguese sailed the seas on. Remember Henry the Navigator figuring out how to get Portuguese ships down the coast of Africa and around the horn? Those ships and the conquistadors they carried basically began this cultural tradition not just of colonial imperialism but of white supremacy, because Christian Europeans right at that moment were inventing the notion of whiteness….and they did it not first in relationship to people of color but in relationship to Jews.

What I’m talking about is what preceded 1492 in Spain. Beginning in the 1300s the Christian Church aggressively began to press Jews to convert, to accept baptism. It’s a complicated story, and there are reasons why that took place, but the point is that the Church began to aggressively force Jews to undergo baptism. And so in the late 1300s through the 1400s more and more Jews in Spain began to accept baptism. But guess what: you can’t trust a forced conversion, and the Church began to realize that some Jews, maybe most, were pretending to be good Christians as a way of protecting their property or protecting their lives or protecting their children, and they were practicing Judaism in secret. They were having their quiet Shabbat meals on Friday evening even before going to Mass on Sunday morning. And the Church began in a very paranoid fashion to suspect the conversions of Jews. They were called conversos, and conversos were all of a sudden treated as a people apart.

It used to be that if you accepted baptism you became a full member of the community. But no more. Now if you were a Jew who accepted baptism you were suspected of being a liar. You were suspected of being a secret Jew. You were suspected of being a heretic. It hadn’t been heresy to be a Jew, but once you’re baptized and still practicing Judaism, that’s heresy. And the Church in Spain established an institution to investigate the conversion of Jews, and that was called the Inquisition.

Everybody remembers kind of romantically that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were the sponsors of Christopher Columbus. It’s not emphasized so much that Ferdinand and Isabella were the sponsors of the Inquisition. And the great notorious Grand Inquisitor Torquemada was the person who convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to expel Jews from Spain, the reason being the presence of Jews was taken to be a kind of virus that was infecting conversos and inevitably condemning them to this secret life. So the way to get rid of the secret, treasonous Jews who were regarded as a kind of parasite on the kingdom was to expel the Jews who were still in Spain and then to aggressively prosecute the secret Jews who had accepted baptism.

This established a new idea which was blood purity. That is to say, if you were a Jew or if your father was a Jew or if your grandfather was a Jew or if your great grandfather was a Jew, there was something in your blood. You inherited this characteristic that made you suspect. And suddenly the old, religious anti-Judaism— contempt for Jewish religion—was transformed in this period into racial anti-Semitism…. not contempt for Jewish religion but contempt for people who were Jewish or of Jewish descent.

It’s no accident, in fact it’s a powerful synchrony, that this happened just when Europeans looked outside the continent of Europe to the rest of the world and began to arrive with their guns on the coasts of Africa and North and South America, encountering a whole new class of people who were not baptized, who might have just been regarded as quote “pagans” unquote. But the Europeans in this moment of arrival had a new category, a new structure of imagination: blood purity, the notion of biological inferiority. This is the beginning of racism. It’s the invention of whiteness because finally what it all was boiled down to was, “We’re white and they’re not.”

And this anti-Semitism generating racism is what prepared Europeans for their massive acts of genocide against native peoples everywhere they went…..obviously in the Americas, but also in Africa and Asia. And the thing about the Holocaust that is in a way a jolt for the European imagination is that what Europeans had been doing for three centuries elsewhere on the planet they turned around and did in the heart of Europe. So having committed genocide against native peoples in Africa and North America and South America—genocide that included the genocidal activity of slavery—Europeans did the same in the heart of Europe under Hitler. And the point for us is to see the way in which all of this has its roots in something basic to the Christian imagination.

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Obviously, you’ve written at length about this in Constantine’s Sword, which was made into a great documentary by Oren Jacoby, with you as onscreen guide. In our present moment, I think it speaks to something that’s confusing to many people, which is the alliance between racism and anti-Semitism. When you look at Charlottesville, people will often talk about Klansmen as one distinct group and neo-Nazis as another….but what you’re saying is that the two are inextricably connected. Is that correct?

JC: Yes, white supremacy is a claim to biological distinction. “I’m better than you are based on the makeup of my genes and my body. My DNA is superior to your DNA.” It’s a basic notion of pseudo-Darwinian science. It’s not Darwinian science, it’s pseudo- Darwinian. But this is what in the 19th century was used to justify what by then was a quite blatant tradition of racist colonialism. So the notion of eugenics—which is not accidentally a word that includes the word gene in it—is this 19th century pseudo-science that justified the white race’s claim not just to superiority over other races but the right to exploit them and punish them and ultimately to kill them, just as human beings claimed the right to exploit and kill other species. So this is a modern phenomenon.

Now it’s not true that slavery is modern. There have been slaves since recorded history began, only in the old days the slaves were not defined biologically. You became a slave in the Roman Empire if you were unlucky enough to be one of the defeated peoples when the Roman legions swept through Palestine or through Egypt or through Asia Minor, or up into the northern regions of the European continent, what we now call Germany.

When they defeated those tribal peoples they imprisoned them. They enslaved them. They brought them back to Rome and treated them as slaves. Maybe a third of the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus was enslaved. But it wasn’t a racial definition. You could be freed from slavery and assume a kind of full membership in Roman society. As a Roman citizen you had rights. You had a kind of equality. What I’m talking about is a lack of equality for Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe.

And obviously the tradition of white racism in the United States in relationship to African-Americans suggests that even the ending of slavery did not end white supremacy. We only have to look at incarceration rates to see that: the New Jim Crow, so-called. You could also say incarceration of African-Americans is the new slavery. It’s because there’s something deeply flawed in the Western and therefore the American imagination that goes to this notion of one group of people being biologically, intellectually, culturally, inevitably superior to another group of people. And we call that being white.

Being white, of course, is a cultural invention. There’s really no such race as “the white race.” Skin pigmentation is an accident of human makeup. But in Europe in the early modern period, skin pigmentation and origins in Europe, especially the north of Europe, became defined as a kind of a claim to innate superiority. And “the white man’s burden” enabled the white man to, on the one hand, savagely exploit and murder native peoples everywhere, and on the other hand, in a condescending kind of benign colonial practice—when they weren’t savagely murdering them—to quote “treat those people well” unquote. But always understanding them as “those people” and never forgetting that we the whites are by God-given blessing superior.

RINSO WHITE

TKN: To this idea of whiteness as an artificial and fluid construct: my understanding is that in 19th century America, even Italians and Irish people were not considered white.

JC: Sure. I mean once you buy into this eugenics notion that there’s a hierarchy of being, a hierarchy of human superiority, one group of human beings over another, and that it’s biologically defined, there’s an endless process of breaking down the hierarchy. Somebody is always under somebody else. And the most blatant form of the hierarchy has gone to skin color and those physical characteristics that evolved over eons based on how human beings responded or adapted to the climate in the southern and tropical parts of the planet versus the northern parts. Because it was in those northern reaches of the planet that the Industrial Revolution effectively introduced the gun, which was the instrument by which northern peoples imposed themselves on southern peoples.

TKN: It’s almost a joke with Jewish friends of mine—who are mostly Ashkenazi, though not all—who will say with a straight face, “We’re not white.” And we kind of argue about it, laughingly, because they say it as a sort of badge of honor, even if it‘s only half-serious. Like, “Don’t lump us in with those dorky crackers; we’re exotic and oppressed,” and all the cultural street cred that brings. And they have a point, no doubt. I totally acknowledge that they don’t get all the benefits of whiteness that a WASP like me gets, and they suffer under the anti-Semitism in our culture.

But at the same time, to the extent that it’s a serious claim, to me they’re usurping the non-whiteness of truly non-white people and what they endure. When my secular Jewish friends walk down the street they don’t get immediately treated differently because of the way they look. It’s not the same instant categorization you get when you’re Black, which you can’t hide.

JC: The first and most blatant break is between white and Black, but among white people the break continues. I’m Irish. Poor people. There’s a wonderful movie called The Commitments, based on a Roddy Doyle novel, in which one of the characters says the Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Dubliners who live in his part of Dublin are the blacks of Dublin. And he said this as a justification for his love of R&B. So it’s endless. Once you start to accept this division of the human species by hierarchy, it’s endless.

The impulse to make sure that we understand who’s above us and who’s below us leads to northern Europeans condescending and having ethnic stereotypes against southern Europeans. So Italian and Slavic people, Arabs—what Edward Said calls Orientalism—white European condescension and oppression aimed at Arab peoples…. there’s an endless way of making sure that we know who’s above and who’s below. And all of this, of course, becomes blatant and revealed for what it is with Hitler, who idolizes the so-called Aryan race, and regards people who are not Aryan as biologically, socially, culturally, politically inferior, able to be exploited and even killed. So he could not just murder six million Jews but he could also murder millions of Polish people. Why? Because they were Slavic, a category that enabled him to believe that they were lesser human beings.

TKN: The flip side of my friends’ claim to “non-whiteness” is a Sephardic friend of mine—Mizrahi is more precise, I suppose. She’s an architect who grew up in Connecticut, but her parents are first generation immigrants who came here from Palestine and Lebanon. She told me she was in a meeting recently and somebody turned to her and said, “Well as a woman of color, what do you think?” And she was dumbfounded because she never ever thought of herself as a person of color. She thought of herself as a white Jewish girl from Connecticut. But suddenly she was put in that position, which carried with it a certain power, but kind of tokenized at the same time.

JC: Well, all of that shows that these are very fluid categories and they float around and surface when some kind of issue of power comes up. If someone was to assert their power and they can find a way to do it in racial terms or in terms of color, it seems instinctive. Instinctively we’re ready to do it—we meaning “we human beings.”

And this is so deep in us that it has come back explicitly and with great power even in this great liberal democracy of the United States of America. Donald Trump has made all of this so explicit that it’s undeniable now. We’re stunned as a people by the explicit return of white supremacy, even if implicitly it actually never went away. That’s the revelation. But Donald Trump isn’t the crime, he’s the evidence. The crime is white supremacy and he’s the evidence that it never went away, because people in power have insufficiently reckoned with it. And mostly that means what we now call we “white people.”

ACCIDENTAL CARPETBAGGERS AND YANKEE BIGOTS

TKN: As you know, I grew up in the South because of being a military brat, like you, but I’m not a Southerner and I was very aware of not being a Southerner when I lived there. So when I came up north to go to college, in 1981, I expected to find no racism whatsoever. And I was shocked at the amount of racism in the North. I’m not going to say it’s worse in the North, because it certainly isn’t worse, but it’s more insidious, because in the South, no matter how racist you are, you have to deal with “the Other.” But up north there’s incredible segregation that foments a different sort of racism.

I always think of that Randy Newman song “Rednecks” which is an indictment of Northern racism written from the perspective of an unreconstructed Southerner, and it’s right on the money.

JC: I grew up, as you did, as the son of a military man, but I spent a good bit of my childhood in Virginia, in suburban Washington, but in my youth that was still very much the Old South. I grew up in a radically segregated world—radically. The old world of separate schools and separate water fountains and separate benches in the bus stations. And when I moved to Boston, like you, I was astonished at the blatant character of white racism in Boston, where the School Committee was aggressively protecting segregated schools—white schools and black schools—which led to the court-imposed busing crisis in Boston, which was a nightmare to live through, a nightmare especially for African-Americans.

I was a bus monitor, one of a corps of volunteers who—representing the federal judge— rode the buses to report to the judge how the process was going. I saw up close what these black children were subjected to. It made me deeply ashamed, I have to say. Even having said that, I also learned not to exempt myself from the broad indictment of white culture because I have internalized in my DNA an element of so-called “white supremacy” that I have had to reckon with, confront, and work to purge from myself.

TKN: We all have that in us, but many people are unwilling to recognize it. When I talk to Trump supporters—and even just Trump sympathizers, let’s call them—except for that Bannonite / Charlottesville contingent that openly embraces the swastika and the white hood, the worst thing you could say to one of these people is “You’re a racist”….or more politely, “Don’t you think there’s a racial component to your hostility to Barack Obama?” They get so offended. It’s like you insulted their mother.

JC: But that’s personal racism. The racism that is most insidious is systemic racism: the ways in which the structures of our economy, and our politics, are still ordered to protect white supremacy. One of the most blatant manifestations of that is “elite education,” where people of color are still vastly under represented. There are high achieving people of color in elite education, but they continue to be exceptional and they function as a way in which the powers that be in the culture of elite education can salute themselves for not being racist. But that’s the pinnacle of the racist culture in American life. And so a lot of resentment against the so-called elites is right on.

One of the things that’s interesting of course is the white resentment of the “elites” has become so violent and so self-justifying and so nihilistic, while resentment of the elites on the part of African-Americans and other people of color has never led to the embrace of a nihilist like Trump. So that’s instructive, that where whites with a grievance embrace a figure like Trump, the other story in America is that African-Americans and the other people of color have embraced figures like Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, cultural figures like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and more recently Ta-Nehisi Coates. Who speaks the grievances of African-Americans? It’s never been a hateful, fearmongering, deceitful character like Trump. That’s a creation of white grievance and should cause all of us who are associated as whites to ask why is this and where is it coming from.

TKN: Well I can’t remember who said it—it might have been Richard Pryor, and he said it in a joking way but it was really true—if you’re a poor white person you’ve really got no excuse. You’ve got no one to blame for your failures because your people haven’t been kept down over centuries. So if you can’t make it in this culture with all of the advantages of being white, no wonder you’re mad. Now that’s flippant for sure, and there’s all kinds of class and economic factors in play, but it might be a part of the resentment you’re talking about.

The other ironic thing is, as you say, despite the systemic discrimination in our society favoring white people, that’s the very thing that the conservative movement denies. They deny it completely and in fact say it’s the opposite. Which is batshit crazy.

JC: Yeah, and that’s a good example of the totalitarian deceitfulness of the conservative movement: the blatant denial of what’s obviously true.

A BUG IN THE SYSTEM

JC: The way I think of it is that there’s a bug in the software of Western culture. Just as so many of us are totally ignorant of what the software on which we depend consists of, God forbid there should be a bug in it, and how we should deal with it. It’s that deeply impended in the life we live. There’s a bug in the software of Western culture and it just pops up on our screens without our knowing where it came from, what it means, what it’s doing, how to deal with it. And the swastika is a manifestation of it, and so are other things. The N-word is a manifestation of it. The ways in which women can be blatantly treated as sex objects and reduced to their sexuality, that’s a manifestation of it.

Another way to think about it is that there’s a corrupted gene in our DNA and it’s way deep in our makeup as a people. We have a kind of cancer that hasn’t maybe shown symptoms yet, but every once in a while there’s a mole on our skin. Well, the swastika that that person drew is like a mole on our skin. And if you biopsy it you find out that there’s a vast amount of cancer in the body politic.

What is the meaning of human suffering? And that problem is at the heart of human experience. Christianity offered an answer. Not that suffering could be made meaningful or good in any way, but that when we suffer we don’t suffer alone. The good news is simple and it’s that when you suffer God suffers with you.

And it’s a beautiful story. And that’s why in ancient Rome the people who embraced the story of Jesus were slaves, the lower classes. The amazing thing is not that Jesus was raised from the dead in three days. The amazing thing is that the message of Jesus spread across the Roman Empire in three decades. Before social media, before mass media, before there were easy and potent methods of communication. In the lifetime of people who knew Jesus personally, the Jesus movement took off in Rome itself, a vast distance from this obscure backwater in Palestine where he lived and died as a nobody. How did this nobody from Galilee who was probably illiterate, impoverished, how did his message change the world? It wasn’t because it was demonic or anti-Jewish. It spread because it was something beautiful and powerful, which is why I’m a Christian, why I’m still a Catholic, why I’m spending as much energy as I do trying to help this tradition change and be worthy of its founder, who was a Jew by the way. And if Christians hadn’t forgotten that, the history of the last 2000 years would be very different.

***********

Photo: Beheaded statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Waterfront Park, Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

James Carroll

Novelist, author, and long-time columnist for The Boston GlobeJames Carroll is among the most versatile and accomplished American writers of his generation. He is the author of twelve novels—most recently The Cloister (Nan Talese/Doubleday)—and numerous works of non-fiction including An American Requiem (winner of the National Book Award), House of War (winner of the PEN/Galbraith Award), and the forthcoming The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost its Soul (Random House).

Selected articles by James Carroll in The Atlantic and The New Yorker:

Abolish the Priesthood

Pope Francis Is the Anti-Trump

What Trump Doesn’t Understand About Anti-Semitism

Daniel Berrigan, My Dangerous Friend

The True Nature of John McCain’s Heroism 

Who Am I To Judge?

 

America Against Itself: A Time for Burning (Again)

Ernie

In 1966, the legendary documentary filmmaker Bill Jersey, one of the pioneers of cinema verité, made a film about an all-white Lutheran church in Omaha, Nebraska, whose idealistic pastor was trying to arrange a visitation between his parishioners and those of a local all-black Lutheran church. Yet even that mild idea ignited a firestorm within his congregation. The visit never took place and the pastor was fired.

Jersey’s hour-long documentary A Time for Burning, shot on 16mm black & white film in the fly-on-the-wall style that he shared with other innovators like Fred Wiseman, the Maysles, the NFB, and others, was nominated for an Academy Award. It is a stunning chronicle of that affair and a searing portrait of deeply ingrained racism in America.

The tragic thing is, the events it documents are as topical today as they were 54 years ago.

(You can see the film online here. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently created a new master, which will soon be available for streaming via Lutheran Film Associates.)

Bill Jersey was the right man to make that film. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in Queens, he had been taught that every word of the Bible was the literal truth. After serving in the Navy in World War II and studying painting at Wheaton College and film at USC, he slowly left the church—dramatically so—becoming a champion of progressive and social justice issues in the scores of documentary films he made over the next five decades while based in Berkeley, CA. I was lucky enough to work for Bill in one of my first jobs out of film school, and have had the honor to call him my friend and mentor for more than twenty years. (Aged 93, he is now based in Lambertville, NJ.)

In January 2018 I spoke with him in these pages for a two-part interview about why evangelicals support Trump. (“Jesus Wept: Bill Jersey on the End of Evangelicalism [Part 1]” and “Truth or Consequences: Bill Jersey on the End of Evangelicalism [Part 2].”) This week I spoke with him again about the ongoing, painful relevance of his 1966 masterpiece.

HERE I STAND

TKN: I watched A Time for Burning again last night and it was fascinating. I’ve seen it several times over the past twenty years, but to watch it in this moment was amazing—and sad, because it could not be more timely.

How did the film come to be?

BJ: There was a guy named Robert Lee—not Robert E. Lee—who worked for Lutheran Film Associates, which at the time was part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. He’d seen a film I made for NBC in the early ‘60s called Manhattan Battleground, about a social worker on 111th Street. And he knew I had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian family even though I’d left the church, and he decided that he wanted me to do a film for the Lutherans about racial tension in the church. I said I wouldn’t do a film about the church’s answer to racial tension, but I would do it if I could find a minister who was dealing with it in a situation that had conflict, because otherwise we don’t have a film.

While we were discussing it, a woman at LFA said to me, “Well, who’s going to write the script?” And I said I don’t write scripts. As you know, my way of doing films is to select a person and a situation and pray to God that something will happen. And she said, “Well, how are we going to know what we’re going to get?” And I said, “You don’t.” (laughs) She said, that’s asking a lot of us. And I said, yup, but that’s asking a lot of me too, because I’m taking your money and I better deliver a film that works for you or I’m in real trouble. So it’s potentially lose-lose. But if it works it’s win-win.

And they agreed.

TKN: You gotta hand it to the Lutherans.

BJ: Yeah, and not only were they Lutherans, but they were the conservative Lutherans: the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

TKN: I have some Lutheran background myself.  Obviously, the whole church was founded on protest and defiance of authority.

BJ: Bob Lee is the one who convinced them that it would be good for them to demonstrate how willing they were to show their own flaws. This is what you have to do when you go before Jesus; you have to present yourself in your course.

So we began filming. It was just three of us: me, and Barbara Connell, my co-producer and co-filmmaker, and an assistant cameraman, because we had magazines that had to be loaded! And we found this young Lutheran pastor in Omaha, Nebraska named Bill Youngdahl who was the son of Judge Luther Youngdahl from Minnesota, who was trying to arrange visits between the all-white members of his Augustana Lutheran Church and the all-black members of Hope Lutheran Church—aptly named.

I said to him, “Bill, do you realize that if we do this film, you might end up looking like this…..” And I put my hands out like I was being crucified. And he laughed. But that’s what happened.

TKN: Ernie Chambers’ speech at the beginning of the film is incredible. Every single thing he says could have been said yesterday, or today. It’s a remarkable speech.

(NB: In a key scene right at the beginning of the film, a Black barber named Ernie Chambers calmly cuts a customer’s hair in an Omaha barbershop while eloquently haranguing Rev. Youngdahl, who listens patiently. Let me quote It here:)

ERNIE: The problem exists because white people think they’re better than Black people and want us to allow ourselves to be oppressed.

I can’t solve the problem. You guys pull the strings and close schools. You guys drop the bombs that keep our kids restricted to the ghetto. You guys write up the restrictive covenants that keep us out of housing. So it’s up to you to talk to your brothers and your sisters and persuade them that they have a responsibility. We’ve assumed ours for over 400 years and we’re tired of this kind of stuff. We’re not going to suffer patiently anymore. No more turning the other cheek, no more blessing our enemies, no more praying to those that spitefully use us.

We’re going to show you that we’ve learned the lessons you’ve taught us. We studied your history and you did not take over this country by singing “We Shall Overcome.” You did not gain control of the world like you have it now by dealing fairly with a man and keeping your word. You’re treaty breakers. You’re liars. You’re thieves. You rape entire continents and races of people, then you wonder why these very people don’t have any confidence and trust in you. Your religion means nothing. Your law is a farce and we see it everyday….

As far as we’re concerned, your Jesus is contaminated just like everything else you tried to force upon us. So you can have Him. Here’s what I say: I wish you would follow Jesus like we followed Him, ‘cause if you did that, then we’d be in charge tomorrow.

BJ: What the audience doesn’t know is that Ernie, this barber, has a law degree. He went on to become the longest serving member of the Nebraska State Legislature, for something like 35 years. That was something we kept out of the film for dramatic effect. (laughs)

He was right, of course. Because when Bill Youngdahl went back and proposed this visitation to the beloved Christians in his congregation, they did not like what he was asking them to do. And all he was asking was for them to visit with these black Lutherans in their homes. They weren’t even going to go near the church! But just that was too much for them. So he quit.

TKN: But he was fired, really. Right? He didn’t quit.

BJ: Right. He was asked to leave by the Bishop. They don’t “fire” in the church. They just ask you to leave.

TKN: Like Lucifer was “asked to leave” heaven.

BJ: Yes. But his wife was so tired of the tension in the church that she said, please, let’s just go. The pastor’s wife, not Lucifer’s. (laughs)

I SEEN ALL GOOD PEOPLE TURN THEIR HEADS

TKN: It’s incredible, like you say, to watch that film now—it’s 54 years old, almost as old as me—and the world hasn’t changed at all. Not at its core anyway.

BJ: No, it hasn’t changed. There’s nothing in that film that would not happen now.

TKN: It’s almost more timely now than, say, five years ago, because five years ago I would have said to you, “Well, the difference is now that same racism is subterranean and people are ashamed of it.” But it poked its head up again, since 2016. It’s appalling that bigots have become so emboldened again, but at least now there’s no pretending it’s not there.

BJ: It’s sad but it’s true, but that cop who knelt on George Floyd’s neck and murdered him, to some people represents “law and order.”

TKN: When you watch A Time for Burning in light of what happened in the wake of that murder, what are your thoughts?

BJ: I thought, boy, we really need ministers like Bill Youngdahl, instead of ministers like Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. Billy Graham said in 1988 that fundamentalist Christians have to be careful not to be caught up in the far right. That of course is the problem, because Franklin Graham and all those Christians that are supporting Donald Trump.

TKN: That’s why the stunt that Trump pulled at St. John’s Episcopal Church was so appalling. I’m going to go out there, tear gas these people, hold up this Bible like it’s a clove of garlic warding off a vampire, to appeal to these same folks that you’re talking about.

BJ: That’s right. And hold it upside down!

TKN: You couldn’t have made up anything more egregious! And I think that’s why there was such a backlash, because everybody could see just how shameless that was, even by Donald Trump’s standards. Except for the really Kool-Aid drunks.

BJ: But there’s a lot of Kool-Aid drunks. That’s the thing with the church, and why I ultimately totally disassociated with Christianity, is that they believe that they cannot allow another point of view to even enter their mind. It isn’t a matter of “We just disagree with that.” It’s “We don’t even hear that.” They literally have the capacity to deny the existence of something that is uncomfortable or frightening. Now, denying the existence of danger can sometimes get you through danger. I realize that. But it also can get you in worse trouble, and that’s what’s happening to our country.

That’s why A Time for Burning, to me, should be seen because it calls out the “good white people” for refusing to see what they are doing that is harmful. These were not evil people. These were good people trying to preserve their goodness. And that’s the message that needs to be heard. “Good white people” are refusing to see the harm that they are doing. 

TKN: Well, that’s everything, right? That’s like the Amy Coopers of the world, allegedly good people, people who don’t think of themselves as bad, who think only “bad” people are racist, who can’t recognize in themselves, the sickness that we all have.

BJ: My favorite quote is the lady who says of the black Lutherans: “I want God to bless them just as much as He blesses me. I just can’t be in the same room with them.” (laughs) It’s terrible!

TKN: Exactly. It’s one thing to have a film about neo-Nazis or Klansmen in Charlottesville. Nobody, except in their own circle, disputes their vileness. But, as you say, the bigger problem is the people—like all of us—who don’t see it in ourselves, who go around thinking we’re on the side of the angels, but don’t see our own complicity.

BJ: It’s just what you tell children when they’re going to walk across the street in front of a car: stop, look, and listen. See what’s being done, and listen to the pain, listen to the anger, and hear what’s being said, and do it without reacting negatively. Even though it’s coming out in a way that you don’t like, and especially if you don’t like it ‘cause aimed at you or your group of people, but that’s what we’ve got to learn to do.

That’s why that sequence of Bill Youngdahl listening to Ernie Chambers is so important.  That’s why Bill achieved what he did in that church, to the degree he achieved it, because he really did listen. And he not only listened, he communicated his concern.

TRUTH AND FICTION

BJ: When Bill was fired, that was a bummer for me, because he tells me, “Bill, I’m leaving. I announced it to my church last night.” I was like, “Thanks a fricking lot, bubby—that’s what I need to be there for, to film it while you were announcing that!” So since I didn’t have the key sequence in my movie, what you see is a row of black hats as he talks about the men who wore those black hats, the ones who asked him to leave.

TKN: That was an elegant solution that you came up with.

BJ: Well, you know, if you’re doing documentary and you don’t want to be dishonest, you find a way of telling the truth which was not provided to you the way you wanted it. What is it that I can substitute for what I wish I would have gotten that is authentic?

TKN: But sometimes that can be good. You were forced into a creative solution that might have been more interesting than just the scene. It’s Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions.

BJ: To me, that is what documentary filmmaking is at its best. You are forced into creative solutions. I’m not willing to alter reality…..but I’m willing to introduce myself into reality.

TKN: These days in a situation like that they would just ask Bill to reenact it….and not tell the audience it was a reenactment, either. Documentary ethics don’t exist anymore.

BJ: No, I don’t do reenactments. Never, ever, ever, ever. Never have, never will. I don’t believe in manipulation, but I believe in intervention. I said to Bill Youngdahl, “You gotta go meet Ernie Chambers.” Bill didn’t know him, but was willing to meet him. So is that manipulating people? Yes, but only to the degree to which I think is right for them, and they think is right for them. 

TKN: (laughs) In today’s reality TV climate that doesn’t even begin to count as manipulation!

BJ: I wanted the world to know what it was like to struggle with the organization that ostensibly exists for the purpose by which you are trying to live your life. Bill Youngdahl wanted to live his life like Jesus. And so did the church, theoretically. So they ought to be on the same team, right? Wrong.

TKN: And how did the church receive the finished film?

BJ: Well, I told them that I was willing to give up the film. I told them, this isn’t the film you wanted, it isn’t the film you were paying for, so you don’t have to take it. Because the film had been entirely funded by the church. And this guy at the other end of the table, one of the church council members, says, very adamantly: “This film is going out, and if anyone wants to stop it, it will be over my dead body.” And he’d had a heart attack two weeks before!

TKN: That’s impressive.

BJ: The only guy it made unhappy was the Bishop who had fired Bill Youngdahl. It made him really unhappy.

TKN: But he made his bed. You don’t misportray it. The Bishop fired him, and you show that.

BJ: Yes. Before I started shooting I said to the Bishop, “You know I’m going to edit. And when a filmmaker edits, they change how things appear. So when I finish, I’m going to show it to you and if you think it misrepresents what happened, I’ll change it.” And I did, I showed it to him, and sure enough he didn’t like it. So I said, “But did I misrepresent anything?” And he said, “No, you didn’t misrepresent.”

TKN: And then there are the white people in the movie that are not quite as benighted, who are struggling with it. You can see it. And then they come around. They’re like, “We have to do this. If we’re really followers of Jesus, we have to do this.” And it is so moving.

BJ: The funny thing is, the scene that I messed with the most in terms of altering reality was the barbershop sequence with Ernie and Bill. Bill was wonderful. He was really caring and thoughtful and bright and very intelligent. And everything Ernie said, Bill would either say “Yes, I understand, and that’s right, and it should be that way.” He always had a positive response, he always was affirmative toward what Ernie was saying, but he said, “But Ernie, that doesn’t alter my goal, to try and do something in this situation, and I want your help.”

I took it all out. In the film I just keep Bill silent and let Ernie do all the talking, because that got the capital “t” Truth across better than the literal truth. I took the communication of concern away from Bill in that sequence. The story wouldn’t allow me to soften Ernie’s attack.

Bill would have been within his rights to complain, but he didn’t. He understood why I did that and how it served the film.

TKN: Wow. I don’t know if I would have that kind of humility, or integrity.

BJ: It’s rare. As a matter of fact, as far as I know, the only person who was unhappy with my editing was Ernie Chambers, who thought I was too nice to the mayor. (laughs) He said, “You made that guy look good!” I said, no, I didn’t make that guy look good. He made himself look what he look liked. It was totally authentic.

TKN: Other than that, did you get any pushback from the African-American community?

BJ: No, no, no, no. None. On the contrary. I am never there to expose anybody except that part of them that is authentic to them. If you’re a racist, yes, I will try to show the world your racism. But that’s easy with racists, because they are authentically racist.

STEAL THIS FLAG

BJ: One of the films I did two years after A Time for Burning was called America Against Itself, which we made in 1968. I was in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. Policemen were swinging their batons at me, but fortunately for me they knew that the guy they had to get was the guy with the light, because if I didn’t have my light, I couldn’t film. (laughs)

TKN: Who are you working for then?

BJ: Myself. Actually that’s not true. I was working for myself when I was on the street, but I was there to do a film for the US Information Agency about a delegate from Vermont who had to decide who to vote for. We’d been following him for a while, and then he finally ended up in Chicago. So I sent another cameraman to stay with him in the convention while I went and filmed the riots in the street.

TKN: And who did that guy vote for?

BJ: You know, I don’t know. I don’t really remember the film. (laughs) Very noble film about the democratic process, though.

TKN: They had some timing, didn’t they, the USIA? I don’t know if it’s good timing or bad timing, but they had timing. And of course ‘68 is on everybody’s mind now, and Chicago is on everybody’s mind.

BJ: While I was there in Chicago Abbie Hoffman was there too, burning the flag. And I said, “Abbie, you’re an idiot. That is not your statement. It’s the statement you’re making cause it’s easy. Dumb statements are easy to make. A dumb statement is ‘The flag is evil.’ The flag is not evil. What you should’ve done is wrapped yourself in that flag and said to those cops in Chicago, ‘You are not going to destroy my country, and this flag represents my country, so don’t tear it away from me.’ Instead of burning it.”

TKN: What was his response?

BJ: (laughs) Oh, I dunno. He was a wiseass, He was very bright guy, though. You know he ended up committing suicide, right?

TKN: Yeah. When he was on the lam, he lived for a while in New Hope, PA where my family lived, and where my dad still lives. They didn’t hang out much, though, Abbie and the colonel. (laughs)

But you’re right about the flag. I mean, that’s the quote, usually misattributed to Huey Long, about when fascism comes to America….and Trump literally goes around hugging the flag and holding up a Bible, like he did at St. John’s. The least pious man ever! Like, have some subtlety, guy. Not his strong suit, of course.

There’s a piece in the Washington Post today by Marc Thiessen, the odious right wing commentator, saying that kneeling in protest during the national anthem the way Colin Kaepernick did “disrespects the country.” We don’t even need to dignify that opinion, but you and I are both veterans and Marc Thiessen ain’t, so I don’t need any lectures on patriotism from him. But that’s the reactionary mentality, and it’s still around.

BJ: Yes it is. And of course violence begets violence.

TKN: Yeah, I’m not sure I understand the logic of using police brutality to put down a protest about police brutality.

BJ: But see, that’s it. It’s in the Yippie film, Here’s Yippie, which is the story of the Youth International Party, starring Abbie. It’s a very funny film. And there’s a sequence where the cops are beating the shit out of somebody, and the guy just keeps saying, “Overreaction! Overreaction!” (laughs) That’s all they say. “Overreaction!” They don’t say, “Look how evil this is!” (laughs)

TKN: It’s like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”

GOD BLESS

TKN: Do you know what the politics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are today?

BJ: Funny enough, they were Republicans in 1966, though Republicans in ‘66 were very different than now. But now they are very progressive, pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-immigration, and from what I can tell, anti-Trump.

TKN: And what happened to Bill Youngdahl?

BJ: Bill Youngdahl went to California, of course! What else would somebody do who gets kicked out of his church, right? He went to California and took a church there. Then he went to a church in Oregon and then he died.

And Ernie was in the state legislature for 35 years until they finally said, we’ve got to change the laws so you cannot continue to be a legislator for that long. So they changed the laws and kicked him out. But I understand that he found a way of getting back in.

But you know, he wouldn’t listen, Ernie. I think in order to do what he wanted to do in the world, he couldn’t listen, not even to those who say, “I really do want to change. Help me change.” He won’t do that. He would say, let somebody else do that. My job is to make you uncomfortable. My job is to make you see your flaws.

TKN: That’s his function, right? Bill Youngdahl represents the work that needs to be done on the white side. Ernie represents the righteous wrath on the Black side, of the people who were wronged.

BJ: Yup. I didn’t want a one-dimensional Ernie Chambers representing a one dimensional world. I didn’t want my audience to say, “Oh, that’s the way black people are.” So in the barbershop you hear other Black people—customers and other barbers— arguing with Ernie.

TKN: Right, because Ernie’s position was not the mainstream position, even in his community, at the time. He’s more mainstream now, but that’s because the mainstream caught up with him, not the other way around.

So let’s go to Ernie Chambers one last time and give him the final word, because he predicted what would happen to Rev. Youngdahl:

ERNIE: I think the problem is so bad that we can have no understanding at all.

You talk about justice. It means one thing to you, and we talk about it and it means something else to us. And it will always be that way. And I’d like you to know, I have a terrible feeling against preachers because I think you guys are the ones who are largely responsible for the problem in the first place. And you can accept it or not any way you choose. And for you, this may be an excursion across the line, but if you listen and try to do something, you’ll get kicked out of your church. This is where your people are.

God bless you, brother.

************

Photo: Ernie Chambers and Rev. Bill Youngdahl in A Time for Burning (1966). Credit: Bill Jersey.

You can see Bill Jersey discussing the film in November 2014 in this half hour program about it.

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 and Loyalty & Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob, which both won Emmys; The Glory and the Power, Faces of the Enemy, and Renaissance (a four-part series on the history of the Renaissance), all of which were nominated for Emmys; and the four-part series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, which won a Peabody. His most recent documentaries are Eames: The Architect & The Painter, which also won a Peabody, and American Reds (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.

Coward, Traitor, or Both?

Coward, Traitor, or Both

Every time I think this administration has hit rock bottom, it begins to dig.

So it was with the recent revelation that the Russian government has been paying bounties on the heads of American soldiers to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and criminal gangs associated with them. ($100,000 apiece, by some accounts.)

This is an outrage, of course. But it is nothing next to the outrage that the Trump administration, and almost surely President Donald Trump himself, has known about it since at least February (and by some accounts, over a year ago, in March 2019) and DONE NOTHING ABOUT IT.

As in zero, zilch, nada, nil, ничего, bupkes.

As I tire of writing week after week, that would be a presidency-ending scandal in any previous administration, Republican or Democratic.

The intelligence is highly credible. US servicemembers are known to have been killed during this period, some in especially suspicious green-on-blue attacks by Taliban infiltrators. Following the money a la Deep Throat, US intelligence has forensically tracked the transfer of cash from the Russian security services to Taliban groups. Even if there remained a scintilla of doubt, the evidence is sufficient to confront Russia at the very least.

Instead, during that period, Trump spoke with Vladimir Putin at least six times and did not utter even a peep of protest. On the contrary, he stumped for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of 7 and unilaterally offered an invitation over the objections of the other members. He also impulsively decided to pull US troops out of Germany, where they have been stationed since 1945, an enormous gift to the Kremlin.

What possible reason could Trump have for this headsnappingly horrific behavior?

As usual, he denies that the story is true, calling it a Democratic hoax designed to deny him the re-election that the American people are clamoring (Just look at his sky-high poll numbers)! Meanwhile, out of the other side of is sphincter-like mouth, he insists that he simply wasn’t told about the bounties.

Here’s one tweet:

The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself. If the discredited @nytimes has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!

His minions have also variously claimed that the intel was unconfirmed or at least not solid enough to be actionable.

Guess who else backs up Trump’s claim that the story is false? Vladimir Putin. Which, per the Helsinki Precedent (a great Robert Ludlum book), is usually good enough for Don.

Speaking from my own very modest muddy boots background in military intelligence, here’s a note to aspiring secret agents, spies, and traitors:

You have to at least act like you’re not working for the enemy.

I NEED THOSE BOOTS BACK ON, ‘CAUSE THE SHIT’S GETTING DEEP

Let’s dismantle these bullshit excuses one at a time.

The story’s not true? Its credibility has already been established, per above. Incendiary intel like that doesn’t even rise to the Oval Office level unless the Intelligence Community has a very high degree of confidence that it is correct.

He wasn’t told?

He was certainly told.

John Bolton says he briefed Trump on this bounty scandal A YEAR AGO—yet another thing Johnny has kept under his mustache. Salon reports that “The information was also included in at least one Presidential Daily Brief, according to the AP, CNN and The Times. The AP earlier reported that it was also included in a second Presidential Daily Brief earlier this year and that current national security adviser Robert O’Brien discussed the matter with Trump.”

Even though we know Trump doesn’t read the PDB, sloth and negligence are no excuse.

The intel wasn’t confirmed or actionable? Again, that’s not simply how this works. The intel would not have been in the President’s Daily Brief were it not credible enough to bring to his attention for possible action; that’s what PDB is for. (Two of the best takedowns of this ridiculous line of defense were from retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey and former CIA analyst turned Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who used to write PDBs).

Moreover, as former National Security Adviser and UN Ambassador Susan Rice writes in a scathing New York Times op-ed, “the administration reportedly informed the British government, and the National Security Council convened an interagency meeting in March to discuss the intelligence and its implications.”

Sounds pretty confirmed and actionable to me.

Lastly, before any and all of those six conversations Trump had with Putin, it’s inconceivable that his staff did not arm him with all the pertinent information regarding US-Russian relations. Even if Trump did not yet know that Russia was paying for American scalps, as he offered giftwrapped presents to Moscow like readmission to the G-7 and an American withdrawal from USAREUR, is it plausible that not one of his advisors was sufficiently alarmed by these actions and thought to inform him then????

Of course it’s not plausible.

What’s much more plausible, and indeed likely, is that Trump continued to serve as Putin’s poodle even with full knowledge that the man was ordering US soldiers hunted like dogs.

BELLY UP TO THE JUICE BAR

Needless to say, the Kool-Aid Brigade nevertheless continues to cling to its story like Sanford Clark.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany—while contorted in a yoga pose known as Peroxide Cobra—simultaneously backed up Trump’s claim that he is an incompetent ignoramus while also insisting that he is “the most informed person on Planet Earth” when it comes to threats to US national security. (Pointedly, she did not say that the intel was wrong.)

Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien risibly claimed in an interview with Fox that the president’s senior CIA briefer simply “decided not to share this info” with him. (Then again, O’Brien also told CNN last month that there is no systemic racism in US law enforcement. So that happened.)

The partisan shitbag who serves as DNI, former Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas, best known for chewing the scenery during the impeachment, also insists Trump and Pence were not informed.

But at the end of the day, of course, even the idea that Trump didn’t know or wasn’t told—while beggaring belief—would be damning. What kind of presidency would that be, where the head of state was not told such a thing?

As The Bulwark‘s Jonathan V. Last points out, “(F)or the president to offer ‘No one told me about this big important thing’ as a defense is an advertisement for weakness. It’s an admission that he has no control of his own government.”

And even more obviously, at the very least TRUMP KNOWS NOW!

Susan Rice again:

If Mr. Trump was told about Russian actions, why did he not respond? If he was not told, why not? Are his top advisers utterly incompetent? Are they too scared to deliver bad news to Mr. Trump, particularly about Russia? Is Mr. Trump running a rogue foreign policy utterly divorced from US national interests? If so, why?

Setting aside for a moment the credibility of that claim (that he wasn’t told), whenever the president learned of this deeply troubling intelligence, why did he not publicly condemn any Russian efforts to kill American soldiers and explore options for a swift and significant US response?

Exactement. Have we heard Trump announce to the American people that this will not stand and then watch him get on the red phone and rip Putin a new one?

Nope. Instead, he rails at “leakers”…..another dead giveaway that the story is true.

If only for purposes of optics, one would think Donald Trump would at least feign outrage, bluster (which he’s good at) about the hell he will raise, and PRETEND to give a fuck.

But no. Crickets.

Seriously, people: can we NOW throw this motherfucker out of office????

FINGER LICKIN’ DERELICTION

Is there any obligation more basic for an American president than to safeguard the lives of American citizens who are in harm’s way on behalf of the nation?

It’s hard to imagine much worse. (Maybe letting 130,000 Americans die due to your incompetence and malevolence?) I used to say Trump could wipe his ass with the flag on national TV and his fans would find a way to defend and even applaud it. That is not far off from what he is doing.

Remember the GOP outrage over Benghazi, which even in its worst interpretation doesn’t even approach the outrageousness of this affair, the years of hearings and millions of taxpayers dollars that resulted in no evidence of wrongdoing by Secretary of State Clinton?

I look forward to similar red state outrage now. Ahem.

Tribalism and the knee-jerk appeal of fake machismo notwithstanding, I’ve never understood military people who support or defend this man. At this point, there is no possible way anyone can continue to back him except by wanton, blind defiance of the facts. Or if you’re rooting for Russia.

Even some Republicans have turned. The blazing fast and always incisive Lincoln Project continued its trend of being chief thorn in Trump’s side by releasing a scalding ad featuring Annapolis grad, former SEAL officer turned ER physician Dr. Dan Barkhuff who asks, bluntly: “Mr. Trump, you’re either a coward who can’t stand up to an ex-KGB goon, or you’re complicit. Which is it?”

Good question.

As Nancy Pelosi says, the only consistency in Trump’s foreign “policy” is bootlicking eagerness to please Vladimir Putin. We can set aside inquiring as to the reasons why for another day. The effect is what is so deeply troubling. As Dr. Rice notes, Trump did not even take the mildest of measures, lodging a diplomatic protest. “Now Mr. Putin knows he can kill Americans with impunity.”

Can we finally just face the fact that Trump is either a Russian asset or might as well be?

Even stopping short of that, his unfitness for office has never been on more glaring display. I don’t know about you, but I can think of 52 Republican Senators who ought to have to go door to door to the homes of the Gold Star families of fallen US soldiers killed in Afghanistan and explain why they voted to keep this criminal, fake president in office last February.

ITMF(AGAIN)

Trump is in trouble. Atop the pandemic, the New Depression, the Uprising, and now the latest Russian scandal, will this finally be the end???? Who knows.

Meanwhile, he spends his time defending statues to Confederate generals, lending credence to the Huffington Post’s contention that the presidency he is running for is that of the Confederacy.

As the hashtag goes, #ProtectMarinesNotStatues.

Let’s go back to Dr. Rice one last time:

What must we conclude from all this? At best, our commander in chief is utterly derelict in his duties, presiding over a dangerously dysfunctional national security process that is putting our country and those who wear its uniform at great risk. At worst, the White House is being run by liars and wimps catering to a tyrannical president who is actively advancing our arch adversary’s nefarious interests.

There’s nothing else left to say, except that any American who continues to support and defend this cretinous excuse for a president is complicit in his crimes.

Coward. Murderer. Traitor.

Happy Fourth of July everybody.

***********

Illustration courtesy of Peter Schink, by way of David Carter. Thanks to Jim Bernfield for pointing me to the Lincoln Project’s Dan Barkhuff spot.

 

Youth In Revolt: a Conversation with Faith & Odette Duggan

Odette and Faith togetherAs a middle-aged, middle class white guy, my thoughts on race in America are not exactly in great demand. So I wanted to speak this week with someone whose perspective was far more direct and visceral.

Faith Duggan—a native New Yorker and 19-year-old rising sophomore at Clark University in Massachusetts—is two things I decidedly am not:

Young and Black.

I’ve known Faith and her sister Isabella since birth. For our conversation, Faith was joined by her mother, my friend Odette Duggan, who is field support liaison for the New York City Department of Education, with a background in pluralism, diversity, and education management, and has been one of my wife Ferne’s closest friends since college.

The Duggan family touches on numerous, complex aspects of race in America. Odette was raised by a single mother who came from the Dominican Republic in the early Sixties. Her mother, Diana Cabrera, was a medical technician at Mount Sinai Hospital and worked tirelessly to send her to Nightingale-Bamford School, one of Manhattan’s most elite all-girls private schools, where Odette was one of only three Black students in her class. She graduated in 1983 and went on to USC (which she will tell you is another bastion of whiteness), graduating in 1987, and subsequently earned her masters degree from Hunter College.

Both of Odette’s daughters followed her to Nightingale, where they were the school’s first legacies of color. But the deep-seated white privilege of an Upper East Side private school has barely budged in the intervening years, or even now, as the country is roiled by a reckoning with 400 years of institutionalized racial oppression.

We spoke by Zoom about that legacy, the current Uprising, George Floyd, Amy Cooper, and the complexity of race in the USA. It was an apropos conversation for a week that saw the President of the United States approvingly retweet a video of two of his supporters shouting “White Power!” while riding in a golf cart past anti-racist protestors.

AMYS AND KARENS AND GEORGES

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Let’s just start with something specific, Faith. Where you surprised by the public reaction to George Floyd’s murder?

FAITH: I wasn’t expecting anything different because Eric Garner got killed in 2014, when I was 13 years old, and now six years later I’m 19 and nothing’s really changed. So I wasn’t expecting much. It seems like over the course of history, even when things do change, nothing’s really going to change.

The reaction is bigger because of social media. We’re all stuck inside with covid, everyone is at home and everyone saw it. You have nothing to do but watch the news and stare at your phone, so everyone had time to read the paper and see every article about it, and they’re like, “Oh shit, I’m not immune to this.”

TKN: It’s super ironic that on the same day as George Floyd’s murder there was the Amy Cooper incident. As a New Yorker, what was your reaction to that?

FAITH: I didn’t understand her motives, but just as a human being, I was like, use some common sense. He’s recording you. He’s a birdwatcher, and you’re going to call the police on him for being too black? You’re calling the cops and reporting a crime that did not occur, which is an illegal offense on its own? For me, that was more like an indictment of her as a stupid person rather than as a white person.

ODETTE: I completely disagree. I think that’s a perfect example of ageism. (re Faith) She doesn’t have the depth of knowledge to see the maliciousness and to know that that woman knew full well that even though he was this guy from Harvard, she could still make it sound like he was threatening. Every time I talk to people, I tell them, “I can’t have this conversation about race until you realize that George Floyd and Amy Cooper are married.”

TKN: Right. The whole reason she made that threat, to call the cops, is because she knows how it plays out.

ODETTE: Right. She knows the police come, cuff him, put him face down, and ask questions later. To me, Amy Cooper has to be spoken about when you speak about racism in America.

Most people have been taught that it’s impolite to discuss race, and I think this is one of our big problems. We are not skilled at discussing racism.

In order to solve the problem of racism, humans need to understand that they’ve got implicit bias. And white people, even if you give to good charities and you gave money to send the poor little Black kid to camp, you still have it in you. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. People believe that only bad people are racist, and that actually makes matters worse, because it prevents people from looking inward at themselves. But this country raises you from the beginning with the messages on how to behave when you feel threatened. Look at the science experiments with the black dolls and the white dolls. So that tells you that by two to three years old, children have seen enough—either through their family, in their communities, or in the things they’re reading or watching—to understand what is deemed good and bad according to the rules of society.

TKN: I’ve got a friend who talks about how white children, from birth, are confronted by people of color in subordinate positions, and not so much in positions of power. So they can see society’s pecking order and internalize it before they can even speak or understand it, let alone have to be told or taught.

ODETTE: I remember it happened to James Blake, the professional tennis player, in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. They were looking for a suspect, he had just come out of Grand Central, he was here for the US Open or something, and they had him on the sidewalk, face down, until they realized that he wasn’t a criminal, he was this elite professional tennis player. People were shocked. But I was like, that happens all the time!

TKN: And like Christian Cooper, James Blake is another Harvard man. Maybe these cops all went to Yale.

ODETTE: That’s why so many people got so mad at Obama when he said about Trayvon Martin, “That could have been my son, or me 35 years ago.” White people were appalled. “How could you have said that?” I was like, because it’s a fact. Obama wasn’t trying to say, “Oh, you know, I’m with my brown posse.” No. It was literally just a fact. It could have been him, or his son, or his daughter.

FAITH AND HOPE

FAITH: I think it hit me that this moment, the reaction to George Floyd’s murder, was different when it reached the private schools. That’s where I spent 13 years of my life, in them and surrounded by them and the product of them. So when it hit those schools, and there was…..not change, but momentum and the possibility of change, that’s when I got a little more hopeful. 

There are all these Instagram pages now, BlackatNightingale, BlackatBrearley, and all the other private schools in the city. So having that, and having every single one of my friends know about it from all around the five boroughs, it was kind of like, it might not change the outer world, but it’s going to make some change in my academic community. Because if the same things happened to me that happened to my mom thirty years before at the same school—maybe even worse because there are more kids of color for it to happen to now, and more silence—how am I supposed to expect change, let alone hope for it?

TKN: What kind of things are you talking about?

FAITH: Racist things. Macro and micro aggressions. Nightingale as an institution shutting up kids of color when they don’t want to hear it. Like, “It doesn’t help our agenda, so we’re just going to sideline you. You can be on our calendars, or on our brochures—if you’re dark enough—but you can’t actually make a change within the school.”

Nightingale has specific kids of color that they want to reuse over and over again. Personally,  I was never dark enough. I was too outspoken. I was too this or that…..so I wasn’t good enough for Nightingale to abuse. How is it fair that students of color who have attended the school for ten minutes are asked to escort potential students, or speak on panels for incoming POCs, when I was never asked?

TKN: Odette, having gone through that same school, and now as a parent of one child who’s a graduate and of another who’s still there, what’s your perspective? Have there been any changes, or has it just gotten worse?

ODETTE: I think it’s gotten worse. There was always money when I was there in the Seventies and Eighties, but now those that have money have much more money, and it’s newer money, and it’s more in your face. We didn’t know that the daughter of the head of the World Bank was in my class, because it wasn’t something people talked about. Now everyone kind of wears their resume on their sleeve. And the dynamic of the school appearing to do what is best for kids has kind of gone away with trying to make sure its endowment is continuously fed.

FAITH: The divide was always there between the black and white communities, but now it’s larger, and there are more kids of color and they’re living in the Bronx or in Brooklyn, and not living seven blocks away from the school.

ODETTE: The truth of the matter is they don’t need to have kids of color at that school. The school doesn’t need the money. They just need to look like they’ve checked all the boxes, they don’t have to believe what’s in the boxes, or need to do the actual work towards accomplishing those things, like creating meaningful relationships, empowering the kids to challenge the status quo, and to advance equity for the betterment of all. The school just needs to be able to say like 20% or 30% of our students are of color, and then 80% of our students are on financial aid—some form of financial aid. They have to have that image, so a parent can feel good about spending $55,000 to send their daughter there, and feel good about themselves.

FAITH: Racism has been happening right beneath Nightingale’s nose, and they were told about it every time, but they just don’t care.

ODETTE: Having been associated with Nightingale for over 35 years, I know that the school is vengeful. I don’t trust them. I’ve seen what they’ve done. I spoke out and they took my post away as head of the Parents of Daughters of Color, which I’d been for five years.

TKN: How did that happen?

ODETTE: Faith had gotten into the NYU STEM program, but she would have to miss a couple softball practices and maybe a couple of games. And I was told she couldn’t do it and stay on the team. So I wrote to the head of the school and the head of the upper school and asked, “Are we so serious about sports now—especially softball—that we force young adults to choose between their futures and being an athlete?”

Then I was contacted by the head the athletic department, who was brand new, who told me that Faith was in fact going to have to choose. I said, “Are you kidding? Are we an athletic school? This team has never won, since she was in fifth grade.” And that’s not even the point. The point is, this program is offering her something of value, and it comes with SAT prep worth $7000 that I can’t afford to give her.

FAITH: There were a couple other people on the softball team and the lacrosse team who were also juggling other things, or musical theater or whatever, and they would have missed the same amount of practices and games, which was roughly five. And they all got excused. I was the only one who didn’t.

ODETTE: So I had a meeting the next day with the head of school, and he said, “The head of athletics told us that you threatened her and hung up on her.” I was like, are you kidding me? I went to this school. I was the head of the alumni board for five years. I was on your board of directors. But this person who’s been in the building for three months, you believe her? So we’re speaking and I’m telling him what I’m feeling, and he says, “Please watch your tone.” And I said, “Excuse me, have you not heard this tone before? This is frustration. This is anger. This is sadness. This is a lot of things, but it’s not disrespectful.” 

TKN: That’s the “angry black woman” allegation, right? You’re telling me that the head of a fancy all-girls private school has never had to deal with an irate parent?

ODETTE: Yeah. That was in February or March of last year. Then around June I got a note from the head of school saying “We’re going in a different direction” with the Parents of Daughters of Color and it’s going to be run by Ms. So-and-So, a member of their staff. Who’s not married. Doesn’t have a child. This staff person is going to be running the Parents of Daughters of Color? Okay.

I just found it interesting that they had someone who’s been associated with the school for 35 years, an alum and an active parent, but they chose to believe the white woman who’s been associated with the school for just three months. You don’t think that’s a black/white issue?

Look, I love my school. I was a Nightingale girl. I was there for 11 years, 2nd grade to 12th grade. Whatever happened to me there made me the person that I am, and I’m very happy with who I am. So when I challenge Nightingale, it’s not because I think my girls will benefit, because they’ve already been injured and hurt. But I want the kids coming after them to have a better experience.

TKN: Did you understand that when you were going there, or did you develop that later?

ODETTE: No. It was an adulthood realization. You don’t think about that when you’re there, because you’re a teenager. I was thinking about my friends, boys….I was barely even thinking about school. I was lucky that I was able to develop my personality in a way that kind of protected me from long term injury. But not everybody figured out early on what they needed to do in order to survive. Some people take longer to figure that out.

I don’t dislike my school. I just want them to do better. I want them to allow children who look like me—brown, Black, Asian—to succeed. If you’re going to allow them at the table, feed them. Let’s use George Floyd: get your knee off their neck. Don’t invite them in and then shut them down so that they come out of there not whole and with a psychosis, because they’re not as rich as their fellow students, or they don’t go to the country or they vacation at home, or spend their vacation working. They shouldn’t feel guilty that they have to work.

You have to understand the amount of hours I’ve given to that school. I was the president of the alumni board for six years. I was on the board of directors. I’ve been the reunion chair every year we have a reunion. It would be different if I didn’t want to be part of the solution and I was just bitching. But I want the school to be better because I went there and my name is associated with it. There’s no joy in knowing that your school is under indictment and everyone hates it. I want my girls to be happy to say they went there, and not just whisper it under their breath.

WHITEWASHED

TKN: I know you’ve been on distance learning lately, Faith, but what’s the feeling at Clark? Is it similar or different?

FAITH: It’s different because Nightingale was so much smaller. But since Clark is so much bigger, people of color stick with each other. We’re maybe a hundred or two hundred people out of 2000, so you don’t mix with the white students a lot. So I have an Asian friend who was adopted by two white parents, so she’s also kind of a little whitewashed. And then I have a Latino friend who also went to a prep school in LA, who’s also a bit whitewashed. And then I have my friend who actually went to Brearley in the city and we graduated the same year and she’s Black and she’s not as whitewashed as I am. So that’s nice.

But it’s so different when you’re light-skinned and no one can really tell that you’re a person of color and you’ve been whitewashed. You don’t listen to the same kind of music, you don’t dress the same, you don’t talk the same, you don’t have the same life experiences…..It’s harder to connect.

TKN: Give me your textbook definition of “whitewashed.”

FAITH: It’s when you’ve been in an all-white world. It can be whitewashed or code switching, depending on your experience. If I had a more “black” experience that was separate from Nightingale, I would just codeswitch between the two. However, since I don’t have that, I’m just whitewashed.

ODETTE: But then she had experiences that were majority minority. Like I got her into that STEM program and it didn’t work out because she wasn’t seen as black enough and was too academically privileged.

FAITH: Right. So I got into the program, because I fit all the requirements, but when it got to the third section of the program, which would have been writing your college applications, they’re like, “We’re going to ask you to leave because you don’t need our resources.” And so the people of color that I could have built relationships with were kind of pulled away from me. I was there for four weeks and then they were like, “You can go now, you’re not Black enough for this program, basically.”

Then I went to the Schomburg Center’s Junior Scholars program, which was a group for all Black kids, and we were learning about Black history in the first half of junior year, and in the second half we did art-based projects. There was theater, there was writing, there was poetry, and I was in the comic book section and I loved it.

But when I went back for senior year, and it was another year of Trump and everyone was kind of hardened until it was like, if you don’t look like me, if you’re not dark enough, you don’t fit in here. And I got berated every day for passing because I didn’t have the same experiences. And I’m like, “You’re right. We don’t have the same experiences. However, I do experience different types of racism and colorism because I’m not Black enough and I’m not white enough. I’m just in the middle. In this binary world you get to be one or the other.”

A CHANGE IS GONNA COME (MAYBE)

TKN: So, I don’t want to sound stupid, but do you think there is any chance there will be substantive change as a result of this post-George Floyd Uprising?

FAITH: I feel like maybe there will be change, but maybe the change will be slow and tiring and painful. It’s not going to be a quick change where (snaps fingers), “Okay, we’re done.” No. We have to systematically uproot our current system. We have to rip everything out of our institutions, we have to change our mentality that Black is bad, Black is dark, Black is evil. We have to change our DNA.

ODETTE: The sad truth of it is that until it hurts white America’s pocketbook, change is going to be ridiculously slow. Cause “I got mine.” Right? People who fled the pandemic are moving their kids from schools in Manhattan to schools in the Hamptons. “I’m not really worried about the pandemic. I’m just going to move somewhere else.“ So it’s gotta be an economic thing.

It’s good that we’re beginning to deal with it on the police front, but the one thing that white America still hasn’t done is realize that they have been trained to be racist, to have an implicit bias. Do you have any Black friends? Most of white America does not.

I remember visiting my friend in Choteau, Montana and I swear, I gave this old woman a cardiac arrest. (laughs) It was clear she’d only seen Black people on the boob tube. We were going into the IGA, and it took her like at least a minute to try to close her mouth. I’m sure she wanted to touch me or something. But the look on her face!

And that’s most of America. Most of America doesn’t have a good friend that’s Black. Their children might go to school with brown people, but they’re not having them over to dinner. They’re not finding common ground. So it’s easy to just believe the bullshit, because they have no other point of reference.

And that goes to the point of educational curricula. If all we teach is slavery, that’s all people relate to. If you look at these “Black@whatever independent school” Instagram feeds, a lot of them have stories of white students saying to their Black classmates, “You’re brown, you can be my slave.” That’s a common thing in elementary school. They’ve heard about Miss Jane Pittman, they’ve heard about slavery, and they realize if you’re brown, you must be a slave. I know we need to teach the history of slavery, but that can’t be all we teach.

FAITH: Here’s one from the class of 2009. (reading Instagram post) “In third grade, a student from the grade below me grabbed my unbelted tunic belt and said, ‘Giddy up slave. You’re black. That makes you my slave.’”

ODETTE: When I was a kid, I had to call my friend’s house under a different name because they knew “Odette” was Black. So I had to call Scott’s house and say I was “Mary.” And in his yearbook he wrote, “Thanks Mary.”

When I started Nightingale, we lived in Washington Heights, 157th Street and Riverside Drive. When I was in sixth grade we moved into our apartment on 93rd Street between Second and Third, and there was nothing north of there—it was just empty lots. That’s where we went sledding, before they built all those high rises. It scared people. My friends had to beg their families, “Can I go over to Odette’s? She lives on 93rd Street.” (gasp!) “Oh my God.” But they grew out of it later, because all the parties were at my house.

But then there were parties I wasn’t invited to, and the part that hurt was that my friends wouldn’t tell me. Like, we’re not close enough for you to just say, “My parents are dicks, they won’t let me invite you, I’m so sorry?” You just thought I wouldn’t find out? But when you ran away from boarding school, where did you stay? Odette’s house. So you trust me enough to keep you covered so your parents don’t hear when you run away from school, but you can’t invite me to your party?

There was only one other Black student in my class most of my time there and what was happening in her household was very different than mine. Her experience and her culture were African-American; mine was Dominican. We were a traditional Latina household where we had dinner between eight and nine, the TV always was on with the Spanish soap operas, we weren’t eating collard greens, we were eating rice and beans and plantains. We had totally different experiences. I was raised with my own prejudices. So I had to deprogram myself. I do a lot of work to try to keep my mind open. But I had to practice that. That was a skill I had to build up.

It’s something I tell everyone: Being able to talk about race is a skill. And if you don’t work at it, you don’t build up that skill.

TKN: I mean, it’s interesting that you’re talking about asking white people to do the least they could possibly do, which is to admit, “Yeah, there’s a problem.” And it is hard to get them—us—to do even that. I got angry pushback last week from people I know who argued that there is no systemic racism, just a few bad apples on some police forces—the standard dodge. If white folks can’t even accept that there’s a problem, then we’ve really got a problem.

ODETTE: That’s the bare minimum. So if they can’t do that, then somehow Black people have to be able to hit them economically. And I don’t think we’re united enough—I know we’re not united enough—to do that. The systemic racism is so deep that it’s hard to convince people of color, “Don’t buy from that place. Buy it from the place who’s owned by a Black man or Black woman.” But we don’t have that communication system, because of the varied experience people of color have.

TRUMP AS CORRECTIVE

(My wife, Ferne Pearlstein, who became friends with Odette when they were in their twenties, joined the conversation.)

FERNE: I have a question about what you were saying earlier about the perfect storm. It pains me even to suggest it, but do you think we could have gotten here, to this point where there’s at least the potential for real change, if there had been no Trump? Did our country have to sink this low before we could begin to fix things?

FAITH: I think we needed the polar opposite of Obama to get here. Because if not, we would have just been skimming the surface. (sarcastic) “We had a Black president! There might be racism in the South, but not here in the North. We’re liberals, we’re Democrats!”

People use this excuse of “How could we be a racist country? We had a Black president!” And I’m like, “OK, then having Trump shows we are racist.”

ODETTE: I feel like it was coming anyway. When I worked for the Girl Scouts, we were doing all this market research on how to reach out to underrepresented populations, and the media started catching on to the projections that by 2030 America is going to be “majority minority.” The value of the Latino dollar and African-American dollar, how much buying power they were going to have. Because again, it’s about money, and once the whites are outnumbered, their fear of what they’re losing, I think we were doomed to have some kind of clash. If it wasn’t Trump, it would have been something else. But he’s helped us along.

TKN: The question is interesting: “Would we have gotten here if it wasn’t for Trump?” The fact that we got him is the answer to the question. The reality of a Black president scared so many white people, that the pendulum went swinging the other way. It was inevitable that Trump, or somebody like him, was coming.

ODETTE: An over-correction. Not that Trump is a “correction” to anything, but yeah. White people were mad. They felt threatened. “What? Majority minority?” Then you got this Black guy in the office. “What the hell?!”

TKN: To me, the birtherism is the classic part. Because they were desperate for a reason why Obama couldn’t really be president. And they ended up with the most ridiculous reason. That was the depths of their desperation. 

ODETTE: That goes back to how bad our education system is. Because if you’re not educating your kids, they can’t push back at their parents to change their thinking. It doesn’t necessarily help African-Americans, though, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that I have a PhD or this or that, because they’re just going to shoot me at the site of my brownness. But if you can at least educate white people so they’re not just being fed a bunch of Fox News lies, they’d be able to discern what is truth and what is fiction, and perhaps the match wouldn’t have lit so quickly.

TKN: But that’s exactly what the Republicans don’t want. They want to keep white people divided from people of color. As a force for dividing people, in America, race is stronger than class, and economic interests, for sure.

ODETTE: It is. Because you can just lead them by the nose.

********

Photos courtesy of Odette Duggan. Odette in 2nd grade, 1973; Faith in kindergarten, 2006.

The Fourth Horseman: Coup D’état by Chaos

The Fourth Horseman

This morning Alexa woke me up and informed me that it was time for another blog about Trump stealing the election.

I know I’ve become a broken record on that. (Kids: It’s an expression. Look it up.)

But events continue to conspire to make the likelihood of that attempted robbery higher and higher. For that matter, it’s already in motion. Increasingly we can even see the specifics of how it will unfold.

America is currently roiled by a trio of crises: a historic pandemic on a scale not seen in a hundred years, an economic depression not seen in more than ninety, and now an uprising in the streets over police brutality and systemic racism tied to the poisonous legacy of slavery, our country’s original sin. (We also had an impeachment in this calendar year, which is all but forgotten.)

But the really scary part is that a fourth horseman of the apocalypse may be yet to arrive, one that will make all this look like a church picnic, in the form of a constitutional crisis—if not violence in the streets—over Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert the coming presidential election and remain in office regardless of the results. If so, that will be one of the most dangerous and consequential episodes in all of American history.

I can hear those hoofbeats galloping toward us even now.

CLANG CLANG CLANG WENT THE TROLLEY

The peaceful transition of power is the very hallmark of our representative democracy, one that even our worst presidents have always respected without question.

In 2016 Trump was the first presidential candidate in 227 years to whom it was necessary to ask if he would accept the will of the people on Election Day. That in itself was deeply disturbing. His answer—“I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”—was characteristically evasive and shit-stirring. It proved to be a harbinger of his entire presidency.

Since then, his vocal efforts to question and undermine the integrity of our elections have become routine, though no less terrifying. (Ironic, since his own election was probably the most compromised in US history. But that kind of projection is part and parcel of neo-fascism.)

His hints that he might dispute the results in 2020, or to defy or override the 22nd Amendment, or engage in other president-for-life brand maneuvers have become alarmingly frequent. Most recently, John Bolton revealed in his new book I’m a Spineless Piece of Shit (that was the working title, wasn’t it?) that Trump bragged to Xi Jinping that the American people are clamoring to change the US Constitution so he can serve more than two terms.

He might be right, if he meant two terms in prison.

The unthinkable of course—now very much thinkable—is that it might come down to tanks in the streets, a measure of how far we have fallen in just four years. Even during Watergate that was never a real concern.

In the wake of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, and in particular the St. John’s Church debacle, the chorus of retired generals and admirals pushing back against Trump’s outrageous threat to deploy the active duty US troops against the American people reassured many that the armed forces would not support any sort of coup d’état. By the transitive property, many also felt reassured that the military would actively move to eject him from office if he tried to hang on to power illegally.

But neither scenario is a sure thing. More to the point, Trump and the GOP are likely to use an approach that outflanks the whole question altogether.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, my surmise, as person steeped in US military culture, is that the Pentagon would likely follow a variation of the thought experiment known as the trolley problem…..which is not especially reassuring.

The good news is that the US military is so opposed to even the appearance of interfering in domestic politics that it is not likely to participate in anything that overturns a legal election.

The bad news is that, for the same reason, it is very likely to stand by and not intervene if there is no clear-cut winner and its involvement would give the impression of taking sides. That is especially true if one of the parties is the incumbent who convincingly insists that he has won, even if that impression is fake.

In other words, by not taking sides, the military will have taken a side. In that sense, inertia is very much Trump’s friend.

THE SOFT COUP

To that end, Trump doesn’t need to steal the election outright; all he has to do is create enough chaos and confusion that the outcome is in doubt.

And by “in doubt” I don’t even mean seriously in doubt. I mean just enough doubt—a frog hair’s worth, or whatever colorful phrase you desire—that he can plausibly claim victory and create a crisis. And we can be sure that if he does so, his followers—a minority of the electorate but still some sixty million Americans—will go along with a vengeance, precipitating a national nightmare and the real risk of civil war, or a de facto coup d’état, which ain’t better.

He and the GOP have been working on that for more than three years now.

The Republican Party has long been engaged in a despicably un-American campaign of voter suppression and subversion of democracy, from extreme gerrymandering, to the lie of voter fraud and the push for voter ID, to three card monte with polling locations, to mass disenfranchisement via the criminal justice system, and other abominations. That effort, while unconscionable and outrageous, has become almost blasé, which is itself grim, and the pandemic has only allowed the Republicans to accelerate it.

But Trump is taking it to a new and terrifying low with his current preparation of the electoral battlefield.

As Bill Kristol tweeted:

You look at the polls and think “he can’t win.” But Trump’s path to victory doesn’t depend on persuading Americans. It depends on voter suppression, mass disinformation, foreign interference, and unabashed use of executive branch power to shape events, and perceptions, this fall.

In the New York Times, Maggie Haberman, Nick Corasanti, and Linda Qui write:

Having yet to find an effective formula for undercutting Mr. Biden or to lure him into the kinds of culture war fights that the president prefers, Mr. Trump is training more of his fire on the political process in a way that appears intended to give him the option of raising doubts about the legitimacy of the outcome.

This effort to undermine public confidence in the election is precisely what the Kremlin seeks to do—yet another way in which Trump continues to serve as Putin’s stooge and advance the Russian agenda.

In his usual quiet-part-out-loud manner, Trump has said repeatedly that mail-in voting is the biggest risk to his re-election. Accordingly, he has invested great energy in shrieking that it is a scam, claims echoed by his hateful Richelieu, Bill Barr.

The WaPo reports:

“Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history — unless this stupidity is ended,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. In a separate tweet, he claimed that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”

It goes without saying there is no evidence of any such thing, as election officials across the country have testified. (Both Trump and Barr have voted by mail in the past.)

Back to Haberman, Corasanti, and Qui (whom, you will be forgiven for thinking, are neither a law firm nor a folk rock trio):

Promoting baseless questions about election fraud is nothing new for Mr. Trump. He has hopscotched from saying that President Barack Obama was elected with the help of dead voters to suggesting that undocumented immigrants were voting en masse to claiming that out-of-state voters were bused into New Hampshire in 2016.

He has inaccurately claimed that “anybody in California that’s breathing gets a ballot,” including people that aren’t citizens, illegals.” State officials will mail ballots to active registered voters only.

He wrongly claimed that Nevada and Michigan had “illegally” sent absentee ballots to voters, and threatened to withhold federal funding should they not rescind the policy, though he did not have the authority to do so.

Mr. Trump has made five dozen false claims about mail balloting since April, as officials in various states began contemplating the need for expanded use of the option amid the pandemic. About a third of the president’s falsehoods were general warnings about widespread fraud in mail-in voting. Another 11 were specific claims about held-up mail carriers, stolen and forged ballots and dead people voting….

The president has directly accused Democrats five times of “rigging” the election through mail-in voting, and has claimed four times that Republicans are at a disadvantage when mail-in ballots are used or are not sent mail-in ballots at all.

The focus on attacking voting-by-mail is not accidental. Even as Trump recognizes the threat that it poses to his re-election, it is also the most readily available means by which he and the GOP can create the aforementioned fog that will enable them to nullify the election and retain power.

SEND UP THE COUNT

The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner recently had a sobering article predicting that we will not know who won the White House on Election Night, and that “a close race between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in a pivotal state could take days, even weeks, to resolve.”

Those are the very conditions Trump would criminally exploit.

Presidential elections are almost always called before counting is complete. Many news outlets, including The Washington Post, follow the predictions of the Associated Press, the wire service with a long track record of combining reported results with exit polling data to announce state-by-state results.

The surge in mail balloting this year has complicated those calls. In Georgia, the AP incorrectly declared runoffs in two Democratic House primaries where late returns of absentee ballots shifted the results.

After voters in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada went to the polls this month, some races hung in the balance for days as election officials waded through thousands of absentee ballots. On Tuesday, a similar scenario is expected to play out in Kentucky and New York, where officials have already announced that some results will not be available for as long as a week.

Gardner reports that last April Wisconsin processed a record number of absentee ballots—nearly 1.1 million. Pennsylvania had 1.5 million mail-in ballots, compared with 84,000 in its 2016 primary. Nevada, jumped from about 25,000 to 483,788. Ohio officials expect a full quarter of their electorate to vote by mail. Kentucky voters requested nearly a million absentee ballots as of last week, roughly twenty times the usual number, while New York saw roughly ten times the number from four years ago. Many of those states also saw long lines at the polls, counting delays, and malfunctioning voting machines.

Even worse, some states are stuck in an outdated paradigm in which the laws don’t allow the counting of mail-in votes to begin until the polls have closed on Election Day. With the crush of absentee ballots, Pennsylvania recently took ten days to count its primary votes. Two other swing states, Michigan and Wisconsin, have similar prohibitions. (And lest we forget, those three states are the ones who delivered Trump the presidency in 2016 by a razor-thin margin of around 90,000 votes.)

Jesus, this country is a mess. We can’t fight a virus, we can’t run a functioning election, and we have a game show host as our president. Backward Fourth World countries like Fredonia, Parador, Tijata, and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick are looking at us with pity.

Efforts to address these issues have been hampered by—you guessed it—Trump’s own attacks on the very concept of voting by mail, and the slavish hatred of it that his acolytes have predictably adopted. There have even been reports of Trump supporters burning the absentee ballot applications that were mailed to them by state officials.

By all means, burn them, idiots….and don’t show up to vote in November either.

In other words, it is more likely than not that we can expect a protracted legal battle much like Florida in 2000, a situation that presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says “is going to automatically create mayhem about a ‘rigged’ election.”

Of note, Republicans approached that episode like it was a prison knife fight, while Democrats politely cleared their throats and wrung their hands. The Florida recount and its attendant legal fight lasted 35 days before the Supreme Court (gulp) settled it.

One guess how Trump will behave during that interim, and how the Court’s conservative majority is apt to rule.

IF YOU SEE MY REFLECTION IN THE SNOW-COVERED HILLS

Election law experts like Professor Richard L. Hasen of UC Irvine worry that Trump will declare victory in key states on November 3rd before absentee ballots are counted.

Anyone here think Trump would calmly relinquish Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes if the absentee count comes in three weeks later and reverses the Electoral College tally? After he has spent months propagandizing millions of Americans that those absentee ballots are fraudulent in the first place?

One of the huge advantages Bush had in 2000 and that fiasco was that he claimed the mantle of victor and president-elect from the start, forcing Gore into the position where he had to challenge the results. As the incumbent, it will be even easier for Trump to do the exact same thing, regardless of the numbers. It’s impossible to overstate how huge an advantage that is. (See Leon Nayfakh’s great podcast on the subject.)

It could be even uglier than that. Some weeks ago Franklin Foer had a juggernaut of a piece in The Atlantic detailing how Russia can ratfuck the election on Trump’s behalf with chillingly simple measures. I’ve quoted this passage before but I’m going to do it again because it ought to scare the pants off all of us (at least all of us who aren’t rooting for the Klan guys in “Watchmen”):

On Election Night, the Russians could place a page on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website that falsely showed Trump with a sizable lead. Government officials would be forced to declare it a hoax. Imagine how Twitter demagogues, the president among them, would exploit the ensuing confusion….

Given the fragility of American democracy, even the tiniest interference, or hint of interference, could undermine faith in the tally of the vote.

Sure, by conventional metrics Biden may be headed for a landslide. Let’s hope so: it may be our best bet to avoid the nightmare scenario of a contested election and all the tumult, damage to the republic, and potential violence that entails.

How much of an obvious victory would Biden require to pre-empt an attempt by Trump to steal it? I don’t think a big enough margin exists. Trump is so shameless that no matter how badly he is beaten, he will still claim victory (or at least that the vote was “rigged” and therefore nullified), the same way that he habitually tells his followers that up is down, 2 + 2 = 5, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

As Brian Klaas wrote in the Washington Post several weeks ago, in a piece called “We Need to Prepare for the Possibility of Trump Rejecting Election Results”:

In 2016, when he narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote by a historic margin, he claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally. That is a lie. But it raised an obvious question:

If Trump claimed that an election he won was rigged, what will he do with an election he loses?

For what it’s worth (which is less than nothing), Trump himself has said this time that he will accept the results of the vote, telling Fox News: “Certainly if I don’t win, I don’t win. I mean, you know, go on and do other things,”

Whew, that’s a relief. Because Donald Trump would never say one thing and then turn around and do a 180.

More to the point, it gives him his usual wiggle room, because he will simply say that he did win, no matter what. Unlike 2016, when he openly announced he might question the result, the false veneer of fair play inherent in his bluff assurance that he will accept the tally this time actually worries me more.

PAGING ALICE COOPER

So here’s the nightmare.

During this presidency, Trump has infuriatingly gotten the benefit of the doubt on every imaginable legal front: hiding his tax returns, felony campaign finance violations, the Muslim ban, firing the FBI director, playing footsy with the Kremlin, reallocating defense dollars to build his beaded border curtain, kidnapping and caging children in concentration camps, defying subpoenas, dodging removal by impeachment, the ongoing slow motion Saturday Night Massacre of the Inspectors General, last week’s removal of Geoff Berman, and on and on.

Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, none of these things individually or even collectively were enough to set off the “in case of autocracy, break glass” alarm. (Until St. John’s and the idea of ordering US soldiers to murder peaceful American protestors.)

Sowing sufficient doubt to create an electoral fog in which he somehow can abscond with a second term would be the ne plus ultra in this parade of crimes.

The GOP knows Trump would be a dead man walking in a fair election. It has also known for some time now that it is in a losing demographic battle in general. It would love an excuse to keep control of the presidency, no matter how shamelessly fraudulent or destructive to the republic that effort is.

Please don’t suggest to me that there is an atom of integrity left in the leadership of the Grand Old Party that would prevent it from participating in this travesty. That boat sailed sometime around the time Michael Jordan decided he preferred baseball. If Trump is able to engineer a constitutional crisis that results in his retention of the White House, even if it is flamingly corrupt, even if it provokes a constitutional crisis that does terrible damage to this country, Mitch McConnell & Company will be all in. Is that even a question?

If the decision ends up in the hands of the US Supreme Court again, as it did in 2000, we can expect a similar 5-4 partisan decision awarding the win to Trump. And then, in addition to all the other horrors a second Trump term will entail, the credibility of the SCOTUS will lie bleeding on the floor with a stake through its heart.

But that will be the least of our problems.

FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO

So what can we do?

We have to raise public awareness now, and put this scenario out there so people are prepared for it and Trump won’t be able to pull a fast one this November. Of course that won’t deter him from trying, but it will make it harder to get away with.

It is somewhat cheering that Biden himself has been raising the alarm, but that won’t be enough.

We have to make it clear what Trump and the GOP are trying to do and expose the perfidy so it won’t come as a surprise in November.

We have to insist on changes that minimize the chances of confusion and criminality, we have to come out in force, and we have to demand the vigorous exercise of the kind of democratic mechanisms we flatter ourselves to believe we live under.

And if the worst comes to pass, we have to be prepared to fight in a way that we did not fight when electoral irregularities emerged in 2000, or in 2016. We have to refuse to be robbed.

Let us prepare for this shit show now, because it is coming as sure as the armageddon that the Book Revelation foretells.

Can I get an amen?

***********

Illustration: Rose of God Fandom

Previous King’s Necktie posts on this goddam subject (newest to oldest):

“What They Do Next Is Steal an Election” – June 5, 2020

Will We Go Into the Darkness? – November 25, 2019

Knives to a Gunfight – September 19, 2019

The Fiasco to Come – September 4, 2019

Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)? – July 23, 2018

Who Says the Next Election Will Be OK? (or How We Lost a War We Didn’t Know We Were In) – September 27, 2017

The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup – July 12, 2017

 

 

Mask (and Non-Mask) as Totem

2097784-clayton_moore_2

It is not news that the mask has become a political totem at a time when our head of state has, through both malevolence and incompetence, led us into a public health catastrophe that has cost 120,000 American lives and counting, with no end in sight, and now wants us to believe it’s not his fault, the crisis is past, and everything is hunky dory.

Disregarding the grave advice of every reputable public health expert, and following the lead of their grotesque leader, the refusal of Trump’s supporters to wear masks is very much a banner of partisan allegiance. It is also a batshit crazy denial of objective reality, the kind of irrational devotion to the Dear Leader—even at the cost of one’s own physical well-being—normally found only in death cults.

To that end, the politicization of the mask-wearing become the perfect symbol of the madness in the time of Trump.

And what rationale do the denizens MAGA Nation offer for this decision?

For some, it’s mere denial and wishful thinking.

For others, it is a public demonstration of belief in the Trumpian claim that the virus is a hoax. (But you need to sign this waiver saying that your family won’t sue in case it kills you.)

For still others it’s an obstinate, self-destructive act of libertarianism, a defiant cutting-off-of-one’s-nose-to-spite-one’s-face by way of proving that the government can’t tell me what to do, dammit.

All three lines of argument are indefensible, but it’s the last one that is most disgusting.

Behold this statement from the proverbial Florida man, Max Parsell, whom the Washington Post reports “hasn’t been wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic and doesn’t intend to start,” on the grounds that it is “a matter of principle.”

“Making individual decisions is the American way,” Parsell, a 29-year-old lineman for a power company, said as he picked up his lunch at a barbecue joint at a rural crossroads south of Jacksonville. “I’ll social distance from you if you want, but I don’t want the government telling me I have to wear a mask.”

That’s like saying “It’s a violation of my rights that I have to be sober when I drive.”

To review, for those who failed civics in high school: There are lots of things that we as a society say you must do (have car insurance) or not do (chug a bottle of Jaegermeister before getting behind the wheel).

Like those things, it ought to go without saying that not wearing a mask is not merely a matter of your own personal liberty, Max: it affects the health and of everyone around you, and potentially puts their very lives at risk. In case you care.

But allegiance to Trump means you don’t have to give a shit about your fellow man if it inconveniences you, and if the facts of scientific reality say otherwise, well, what are facts anyway? Only what the Dear Leader says they are.

In the New York Times, Jennifer Senior writes:

Three years ago, a friend of mine shrewdly pointed out that Trump’s election would be like one long national Milgram experiment, the famous psychological study from the 1960s that revealed just how susceptible people are to authority, how depressingly willing they are to obey even the most horrifying commands.

Can nanny state paternalism go too far? Of course. So can Friedmanesque libertarianism, which is often just a cover for might-makes-right plutocracy. As a people, we are capable of making common sense decisions about where to draw the line, a line that shifts with time and circumstance and is every malleable.

At least we ought to be.

FISH ARE JUMPING AND THE COTTON IS HIGH

The politicization of mask-wearing has become an even more urgent matter as summer comes upon us and the country begins to open up—unwisely, in some places and cases.

We’re entering a scary new phase. Like many, I’m seeing it firsthand, in my case, as I’ve begun to travel outside of New York City, where I’ve spent the last hundred days.

People are tired of sheltering in place. I get that. So, because they’re antsy, because it’s summer, and yada yada yada, they’ve decided that the pandemic is over.

Hey, I understand it. I’m ready to get out and about too. But because I’m not two years old, I know that there are lots of things in life that I want but can’t have.

The anti-mask mindset is an infantile one that fails to understand the distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from,” in Erich Fromm’s formulation. Masha Gessen explains it well in The New Yorker:

Negative freedom is the freedom from constraint, the sort of freedom that teen-agers demand when they want you to stop telling them what to do. This is also the sort of freedom Americans most often mean when we talk about freedom: individual liberty.

Positive freedom is the freedom not from others but with others; one might call it social and political freedom…..

(Isaiah Berlin, the twentieth-century British thinker) was not arguing that one concept of freedom is better than the other. A student of Russia, he was keenly aware that tyrannies can be built on ideologies of a greater good, and that extreme oppression can be propped up with rhetoric of freedom. But seeing freedom as merely the absence of coercion, he thought, was insufficient. His argument was that the two concepts of freedom have to coexist, even if sometimes they collide.

But this is America in a nutshell, much of it focused exclusively on I me me mine. Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” is alive and well here, as is the myth of rugged individualism, or at least the dangerous exaggeration thereof. It is the same philistine mentality that gave us Trump in the first place, and is now killing us by the tens of thousands.

Near the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about how the interdependent nature of the required response to this crisis makes the case for community, as opposed to Darwinian every-man-for-himselfism. It’s deeply disappointing—though not surprising—to see the way that selfishness and a lack of empathy have worked against that.

But empathy is not exactly the signature commodity in the Age of Trump.

Given how anxious people are to put covid-19 behind us, what’s especially infuriating, and ironic, is that we actually have it within our power to contain and control the virus to a large degree. According to a computer simulation led by De Kai, a computer scientist with joint appointments at UC Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, as reported by Vanity Fair:

If 80% of a closed population were to don a mask, covid-19 infection rates would statistically drop to approximately one twelfth the number of infections—compared to a live-virus population in which no one wore masks.

In other words, we could beat this thing right now and resume some semblance of normalcy if we all behaved like responsible, mature adults.

How pathetic that we cannot.

THANK YOU MASKED MAN

There was no better demonstration of this Know Nothing mentality than Trump’s rally in Tulsa last Saturday night. Everything about it screamed nihilistic defiance of reason, public safety, and simple human decency, from the date (keyed to Juneteenth, the better to spit in the face of African-American community), to the petri dish nature of a densely packed indoor rally in a state where covid-19 cases are spiking, to the choice of a city that saw one of the worst homicidal massacres of black people in American history, and in close proximity to where that atrocity took place.

Very on brand, though, you have to give Trump that.

Ironically, Trump’s rally in Tulsa has made millions of Americans learn about the 1921 Greenwood massacre. He’s already taken credit for making Juneteenth famous…..stand by for him to take credit for this.

As it turned out, “densely packed” turned out not to be a very accurate prediction: Trump only drew 6200 fans to an arena that seats 19,000. (Billie Eilish sold it out last October. Can she be president please? Al Franken informs us of other acts that drew bigger crowds to that same arena in 2019, including Sha Na Na, The Pips—sans Gladys Knight, Loverboy, John Tesh, and the West Virginia touring company of “La Traviata.”)

Even accounting for hacking by K-pop fans  (I love it), that was a dismal showing….. especially after Trump’s team bragged about receiving a million ticket requests—and no amount of spin from the Sean Spicer School of Crowd Estimation could hide that. Trump and Pence even had to cancel a planned outdoor address to the overflow crowd that didn’t materialize.

The New York Times reports:

President Trump and several staff members stood backstage and gazed at the empty Bank of Oklahoma Center in horror. The president, who had been warned aboard Air Force One that the crowds at the arena were smaller than expected, was stunned, and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium, according to four people familiar with what took place.

Whether that low turnout was the result of his diminishing popularity, or of fears of covid, really doesn’t matter. Either way, it was a welcome sign that his gaslighting on the matter of the pandemic is not living up to Trump’s usual Orwellian standards.

The rally itself was like watching pro wrestling, with Trump as face and heel rolled into one. He’s more extreme than ever, but you can also see him actively working these days, like an over-the-hill entertainer, trying to recapture—and outdo—the outrageousness that came so naturally to him in 2016.

Since Trump lives in Bizarro World where everything he says is the opposite of the truth, here’s what he said in Tulsa about the coronavirus, as reported by the Washington Post:

“We—I—have done a phenomenal job,” he said about the federal government’s response to the pandemic. “I saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Res ipsa loquitur.

In another lowlight, Trump admitted—boasted, in fact—that he wanted coronavirus testing slowed to improve the numbers. Some have suggested that this is tantamount to confessing to a crime against humanity. Others, no less bitingly, have pointed out that it’s like saying “I haven’t gained a pound since I stopped weighing myself.”

His pathology was on particularly full display in the insane ten minutes he spent defending his widely-ridiculed performance at the US Military Academy commencement, in the process only reminding everyone of it. The performance ended with the crowd wildly cheering Trump’s ability to drink a glass of water with one hand.

Impressive indeed.

RAT, MEET CORNER

If one of the intentions of the Tulsa rally (aside from just giving Donald an erection after three months of quarantine) was to reassure the GOP leadership that his carnival barker powers are undiminished amid plummeting poll numbers and general chaos, it failed miserably, which ought to make Moscow Mitch & Co. nervous.

Here’s Greg Sargent, also writing in the Washington Post:

This rally was meant to “reset” a much larger story line: It was supposed to reinforce and embody the notion that Trump has defeated the coronavirus, that the country is roaring back to greatness and that Trump is soaring to reelection on the wings of those triumphs.

Trump has long operated from the premise that he can win reelection by creating the illusion that he has mastered (control of events)…. The Tulsa rally was supposed to be a big part of this manufactured illusion. Remember, it was justified by Pence’s false claim that the curve has been flattened in Oklahoma…..

Don’t look now, but President Trump may finally be realizing, with creeping dread, that there may be limits to his magical lying and reality-bending powers. He may be grasping that his capacity to mesmerize his supporters into disbelieving what their own eyes and ears are telling them is not absolute after all…

The wee hours photo of a defeated Trump returning from Tulsa (taken by Patrick Semansky of AP), walking from Marine One to the White House with the body language of a whipped dog, said it all. He looked like a dazed college boy making the Walk of Shame back to the dorm after a vigorous buggering by the boys at Theta Delt.

But if history is any guide, Don won’t stay depressed for long; his default setting Is rage, and that is sure to resume prominence shortly, probably before this ink is dry. If the embarrassing turnout in Tulsa will worry the GOP, it will certainly infuriate Trump and set his course going forward. The real danger, then, is how this humiliation will drive him to even more dangerous measures to save his sorry ass.

Jennifer Senior again:

(I)t’s precisely because Trump feels overwhelmed and outmatched that I fear we’ve reached a far scarier juncture: he seems to be attempting, however clumsily, to transition from president to autocrat, using any means necessary to mow down those who threaten his re-election.

Senior details a few of the ways this cornered rat is already lashing out:

For over three years, (Trump has) been dismembering the body politic, institution by institution, norm by norm. What has largely spared us from total evisceration were honorable civil servants and appointees. Trump has torn through almost all of them and replaced them with loyalists. He now has a clear runway. What we have left is an army of pliant flunkies and toadies at the agencies, combined with the always-enabling Mitch McConnell and an increasingly emboldened attorney general, William Barr.

Barr then tried to replace Geoffrey S. Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, with a Trump loyalist who had zero prosecutorial experience—at a time when Berman was actively investigating Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and a Turkish bank that Trump suggested to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he’d try to protect. (Berman stepped down, but Trump did not get the appointee he desired.)

That was all on Friday and Saturday. Just Friday and Saturday.

Whatever it is that the SDNY is close to uncovering (there are lots of candidates, per above), it must be something Trump REALLY doesn’t want to come out. (Berman, I will remind you, is not some “Obama holdover” as Fox would have it, but an appointee of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s own AG at the time.)

But if you will indulge me in a brief tangent, one other aspect of the Berman goatscrew that was fascinating was the scuzzy way the administration handled it.

First Barr told the press that Berman was stepping down, a report that took Berman himself by surprise; he reported that he learned of it when he saw the press release. When Berman boldly announced he would not leave his post unless properly removed, Barr then informed him—via message, not face to face or even with the courtesy of a phone call—that the president was indeed firing him. But then Trump, with his usual cowardice, claimed he “wasn’t involved” and that it was all Barr’s doing. Only then, no doubt when his handlers awkwardly explained the law to him, did he agree to fire Berman overtly.

For a guy whose tagline used to be “You’re fired,” Trump sure is a wuss about doing it for real.

Mr. Berman could have continued to fight, as the actual rules regarding who could properly remove him remain fuzzy, but he had already made his point and secured a partial retreat by Barr—at least for now—on his successor.

But the legal issue of who has the authority to fire Berman is not really the point. Regardless of the answer, it’s blatantly obvious that Trump is trying to squash an investigation that will implicate him and his cronies. That is the very definition of corruption, and in any normal time that in and of itself might be a presidency-ending scandal.

Instead, we have just taken another step on the road to full-blown authoritarianism.

HALF MAST

More from Senior:

What else this past week? Trump’s handpicked head of the US Agency for Global Media —an ally of Steve Bannon, by the way—purged the heads of Radio Free Europe and its three siblings, in what seemed like an unnerving bid to make his own version of state-run TV. Then Trump tweeted out a video he knew had been doctored by a meme-generating supporter, a supposed scare segment from CNN about a racist baby. (Twitter first stamped a “manipulated media” warning on it, then disappeared it entirely.)

That was all on Wednesday and Thursday. Just Wednesday and Thursday.

In April and May, he got rid of five inspectors general. He has replaced intelligence community veterans with partisan loyalists who’ve raised questions about the validity of the Russia probe. He’s threatened to use the military to quell civic unrest. He used pepper balls and smoke canisters on protesters for a campaign photo op.

But the true stuff of my nightmares—and the ultimate authoritarian ambush—would be a move by Trump to suppress the vote by a means I haven’t yet imagined. (Voting is left up to the states.) He’s already thrown his weight behind fund-raising efforts to aggressively “monitor” polling places, supposedly to weed out fraud, an almost nonexistent threat.

Jennifer and I share that same nightmare.

So as I go out and about in my summer travels amid a newly re-opening America—proudly wearing a mask—I see a lot of American flags flying at half mast, more than not, in fact. I know that this in tribute to the more than 120,000 of our countrymen who have been killed by covid-19, and our so-called leadership’s failure to act on it.

It’s a moving gesture.

But more and more as I look at those flags, I fear that they are lowered in mourning for something else, and this is for the American Idea itself.

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Photo: Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger. (Hi yo, Silver!)