Celebrating Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) – posted 2/28/2021

February 28, 2021 Leave a comment

In America, poets remain largely unknown. Most write in obscurity. It is a rare poet who breaks through and develops a mass audience. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on February 22 was one of those rare poets who had a mass, non-academic audience. He was a major force in 20th century American culture.

A poet, a painter, a publisher and a progressive activist, Ferlinghetti lived in San Francisco in the North Beach neighborhood. Probably, most famously, he was a co-founder of City Lights Bookstore which both sold books and had a publishing wing. If Ferlinghetti had a mission it was to democratize literature and make it accessible to all. He wrote:

“From the beginning the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic, and not publishing (that pitfall of the little press) just ‘our gang’. I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment.”

Ferlinghetti regarded poetry as a powerful social force and not one reserved for an intellectual elite. He always supported writers and poets who were outsiders, not part of any mainstream.

Like many, I discovered Ferlinghetti in the late 1960’s. Somehow, I got my hands on a copy of his book Coney Island of the Mind. I remember the lines:

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
If you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun

If you don’t mind a touch of hell

now and then

just when everything is fine…

Coney Island sold over a million copies. Next to Allen Ginsberg’s book, Howl and Other Poems, it has been the most popular book of modern American poetry.

I have been fortunate to get to the Bay Area a few times and I always made a bee-line to City Lights. Opened in 1953, it was the first paperback bookstore. Back in the 1950’s, paperbacks weren’t considered real books. The poet, Tess Taylor described City Lights:

“To enter that bookstore was and is a joy, the kind of thing that will set your mind on fire and your heart thumping.”

I remember the large banner outside the store “Dissent is not un-American”. No one got pestered or kicked out of that store for looking at books. There were chairs and sofas and you could browse for as long as you wanted.

City Lights was a hangout and a mecca for the literary community. Among others, Ferlinghetti played a role in promoting the careers of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. He later inspired a Ferlinghetti Poetry Fellowship at the University of San Francisco which supports emerging poets whose work embodies a concern for social justice and freedom of expression. Ferlinghetti touched and inspired countless young aspiring poets and writers.

Ferlinghetti’s background is not what you might expect. He had an unhappy childhood and he grew up essentially an orphan. His father died before he was born. When he was very young, his mother was committed to a mental hospital. He was raised by an aunt who worked as a governess for a wealthy family in Bronxville, New York. His aunt then disappeared, leaving Lawrence with an unrelated family.

The family took him in as foster parents and raised him. They sent him to a private boy’s school. Lawrence escaped into reading.

After attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he joined the Navy. As a naval officer he commanded a sub chaser in the North Atlantic. He witnessed the Normandy invasion from offshore in the English Channel. He was part of the anti-submarine screen around the beaches. He was later transferred to the Pacific theater. He saw the ruins of Nagasaki seven weeks after the atomic bombing. It turned him into a pacifist and a lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons.

After the war, he got doctorates at Columbia and the Sorbonne on the GI bill. He started to write poetry. He had a journalism degree but he decided journalism in the New York area was impossible. He moved to San Fransisco. He liked the Mediterranean feel of the city.

Once there, he started to listen to the poet Kenneth Rexroth who had a show on KPFA radio. Rexroth had soirees on Friday nights and Ferlinghetti started going. Rexroth was a great poet in his own right and he was also a philosophical anarchist. Rexroth played a big role in Ferlinghetti’s political education.

In 1955 Ferlinghetti met Allen Ginsberg at a reading of Howl. Very enthused, he pushed Ginsberg for permission to publish it. Howl was printed in Britain and shipped to San Francisco where Ferlinghetti displayed it prominently at City Lights. Two undercover cops from the San Francisco police juvenile bureau walked into the store, bought a copy of Howl and then busted Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg for “willfully and lewdly publishing obscene writing”.

Ferlinghetti said:

“I wasn’t worried. I was young and foolish. I figured I’d get a lot of reading done in jail and they wouldn’t keep me in there forever. And anyway it really put the book on the map.”

The ACLU defended Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. They challenged both the arrests and the legal basis for the case against obscenity. After a lengthy trial in municipal court, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg won. The verdict set a precedent, weakening obscenity laws and heralding a new freedom for book publishers.

Ferlinghetti remained an uncompromising voice of integrity. He embodied the (now declining) bohemian spirit of San Fransisco. He never sold out. He always cared that the average person not get screwed over. In 1977, he said:

“You’re supposed to get more conservative the older you get, I seem to be getting just the opposite.”

He was somewhat pessimistic though. Toward the end of his life he told the Guardian that he still hoped for a political revolution but said:

“…the U.S. isn’t ready for a revolution… It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system…a generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”

San Francisco named March 24, 2019, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. It was his 100th birthday. In 1998, San Francisco had named Ferlinghetti the first poet laureate of the city. The city also designated City Lights a historic landmark. During his life, Ferlinghetti wrote 50 volumes of poetry, novels and travel journals.

I like this advice he offered:

“If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.”

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Rush Limbaugh, toxic entertainer – posted 2/21/2021

February 21, 2021 3 comments

I did not plan to say anything about the exit of Rush Limbaugh from our vale of tears based on the saying that if you do not have something good to say, it is better to say nothing at all. There is also the adage not to speak ill of the dead. Still, the praise Rush received upon his passing forced me to reconsider.

Former President George W. Bush described Rush as “an indomitable spirit with a big heart” and said he would be missed. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that flags in Florida will be flown at half-staff in honor of Rush. And then, of course, there was the other former president, Donald Trump. Trump said:

“He is a legend. He really is. There aren’t too many legends around. But he is a legend. And those people who listen to him everyday, it was like a religious experience for a lot of people.”

There is no denying the hold he had on older white conservative men. He had a following of more than 15 million listeners. He was first syndicated on the radio in 1988. For over 30 years, he spewed. He had a formula: stoke bigotry and champion racism, sexism, and homophobia. He was the original “own the libs” guy.

He recognized, like Trump, that being outrageous was a great attention-grabber and pushed ratings. He considered himself an entertainer, not a journalist.

Back in the 1990’s I had to drive around New Hampshire for my job and I often listened in mid-day out of curiosity. Also, radio in central and western New Hampshire was a wasteland and back then radio music options were extremely limited.

I would describe Rush as a counter-revolutionary against the New Left. My generation of 1960’s-1970’s activists wanted America to face and reckon with its lies. The country was built upon slavery and genocide of Native Americans. The Vietnam War was a crime against humanity that had to be opposed. Instead of empire, we wanted pressing needs like poverty addressed at home.

Rush was the polar opposite. He was about protecting the wealth of the richest people. First and foremost, he was about making a buck for himself, something he was good at. At the time of his death his net worth was $600 million. He was making $85 million annually. He lived in a $26 million mansion in West Palm Beach, Florida.

A fan of conspicuous consumption, Rush did not skimp on his own needs. His mansion was an homage to Versailles. Rush owned a fleet of $450,000 cars, black Mercedes Maybach S model. He also owned a private jet, a Gulfstream G550 worth $56 million. Rush said his goal was to charge ‘confiscatory advertising rates’.

In the Rush world view, the super-wealthy were over-taxed and unfairly maligned. He believed they should be held up as role models. Even though he was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Rush presented himself as the fighting, aggrieved voice of the little man. This man of the people tapped into resentment about loss of status, real or perceived.

His schtick redefined talk radio. His humor sold better than straight-up bile of the Nazi and Klan variety although nastiness was probably his defining quality. It is hard to overstate his role in influencing the rise of the Far Right and a renewed American fascism. The examples of Rush’s toxic ideology are inexhaustible.

In 2012, he called law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” when she testified before Congress that religious employers should be required to provide insurance coverage for contraception. On his TV show in 1994, he said “Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?”, while displaying a picture of Chelsea Clinton who was then 13.

He coined the term “feminazi”. He said “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society”.

In 1990 Rush said “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?” In 2004 he said “I think it’s time to get rid of the whole National Basketball Association. Call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association, and stop calling them teams. Call em gangs”.

Around 2010 Rush was interested in buying an NFL team but players (70% who were black) made clear they would not be willing to play for him. Rush said, “The NFL all-too-often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons”.

In 2013 Rush said “if any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians”. When he got a call from an African-American female caller, he said, “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back”. He called Kamala Harris a “ho”.

Discussing genocide against Native Americans, he responded, “They all have casinos – what’s to complain about?”.

He featured an anti-gay AIDS-update mocking the death of gay men. He used to precede segments about openly gay Congressman Barney Frank with the song “My Boy Lollipop”. After the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Rush called the decision “an assault on American culture” that would lead to incest and polygamy.

He famously accused Michael J. Fox of exaggerating his Parkinson’s symptoms. Ironically, he died from lung cancer after denying for years the danger of smoking. He had said, “I want a medal for smoking cigars!”.

When Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Rush said, “Kurt Cobain was, ladies and gentlemen, a worthless shred of human debris”. Cobain had polysubstance abuse issues in his life.

Rush himself came under criminal investigation for illegally obtaining prescription drugs. He had been going to many different doctors for years to obtain as many prescriptions for Oxycontin and hydrocodone as possible. A former maid for Rush confessed to a tabloid that she had bought thousands of prescription pills on the black market for him.

Rush was criminally charged and agreed to treatment. Prosecutors dropped his case and his criminal record was later expunged. Although he was an opiate addict, he was a strong proponent of locking people up (other than himself) for the most minor drug offenses.

Limbaugh received a level of respectability he did not deserve. Like Trump, he was incapable of empathy. He was pompous, self-inflated, and self-impressed. As he put it about himself, he was “talent on loan from God”.

He paved the way for Trump’s authoritarianism and he previewed the white nationalist and anti-immigrant talking points Trump later adopted. He was anti-science, like Trump, denying climate change and lying about coronavirus, calling it “the common cold”. Until the end, he was a popularizer of conspiracy theories.

Bob Moser in Rolling Stone wrote that what mattered most about Limbaugh was neither whom he helped elect nor whom he offended. Moser wrote:

“It was the effect he had on his fans – on the millions of white conservatives he coddled, flattered, tickled, entertained, disinformed, fear mongered, and pulled into a counterfactual universe that became darker over time.”

Moser says Limbaugh created the conditions for an anti-democratic Republican Party. Unfortunately, as evidenced by January 6, it is not a big leap from dittohead to fascist stormtrooper.

Rush’s passing brings to mind a Mark Twain quote:

“I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”

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The Malign Transformation of the Republican Party – posted 2/15/2021

February 15, 2021 1 comment

I admit that I have never been a Republican. Probably like many on the left, I have seen the Republicans as a party primarily representing the interests of Big Business. As a coalition, the Republican Party has included Christian evangelicals, libertarians. the anti-abortion movement, pro-gun advocates, anti-immigration zealots and the alt-right, including white supremacists.

For a long time, the Party tried to identify as the party of tax cuts and limited government. But that was before Donald Trump. Trump has completely upended traditional political conservatism. In his run in 2020, Trump literally removed the Republican platform. There was no platform – except loyalty to Trump.

The Trump brand of politics is not about any kind of ideological loyalty. It is all about submission to an authoritarian cult leader, someone who incited and mobilized mob violence because he could not accept the results of a fair election.

Encouraging mob violence to overturn an election crosses the political Rubicon. Before this episode, both political parties abided by election results whether they liked them or not. It is telling that Trump never agreed to accept the peaceful transfer of power.

Trump’s brand of politics is not any kind of political conservatism. Conservatism is about minimizing change and conserving traditional institutions. Historically in America, since the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, the Republican Party hid its racism behind the doctrine of state’s rights. The party has promoted voter suppression, gerrymandering and worked feverishly to stack the federal courts with conservative judges but, as noted, it had accepted election results.

The Trump-dominated Republican Party has now turned against democracy. Trump fabricated a story of election fraud and he got a remarkable degree of buy-in from his base. The buy-in has been so strong that you still see Trump flags flying and “Stop the Steal” signs in rural New Hampshire where I live. I suspect, based on anecdotal evidence, this is going on elsewhere as well.

The January 6 riot at the Capitol needs to be seen as the culmination of a longer-term project. Trump wanted to de-legitimize a voting process he did not have the ability to control. He could not stop the increased turnout of minorities and young people.

The outlines of the Trump project are clear. Make it harder to vote; attack mail-in voting; and try to get the U.S. Postal Service to delay the delivery of ballots. Use a raft of lawsuits to overturn the vote of the people. Arm twist state officials like Brad Raffensberger to find votes to sway the election.

Use demonstrations like the million MAGA marches and State House takeovers as in Michigan to create pro-Trump momentum. Place loyalists at the top level of the Pentagon in an effort to neutralize the military.

January 6 was his last ditch attempt to stop the election from being certified. It was his coup attempt but it failed. The longer-term project was an effort to install Trump as a dictator. Had he been successful it would have been the end of the rule of law, representative democracy and the three branches of government with separation of powers.

If you wondered what most Republicans are now thinking about Trump and his coup attempt, a new poll from the American Enterprise Institute provides disturbing findings. The survey found that nearly three in ten Americans, including 39% of Republicans, agreed that “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires violent actions”.

The survey found major division between Republicans and Democrats on the 2020 presidential election with two out of three Republicans saying President Biden was not legitimately elected while 98% of Democrats and 73% of Independents acknowledged Biden’s win.

At the state level, absolute allegiance to Trump remains a defining quality of the Republican Party. Look at the censure leveled against Liz Cheney, Ben Sasse, Doug Ducey, Cindy McCain and Jeff Flake. They all dared oppose Trump. And also the condemnation directed against Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy for voting for impeachment. It would appear that the anti-Trump forces in the Republican Party are now the outliers.

The majority of Republicans have hitched their wagons to a demagogue who has only shown commitment to his own self-aggrandizement. His M.O. is well-established: call all negative information about his actions fake news or a witch hunt. Always blame a scapegoat like immigrants, Black Lives Matter of Antifa.

I agree with Paul Krugman who claims “the G.O.P. is an authoritarian regime in waiting, not yet one in practice”. Krugman thinks we could become like Poland or Hungary where right-wing, nativist parties were elected and then effectively established one-party rule. Krugman says these parties:

“ maintain the forms of popular elections, but have destroyed the independence of the judiciary, suppressed freedom of the press, institutionalized large-scale corruption, and effectively delegitimized dissent.”

When he was in power, Trump tried to override Congress, denied its subpoenas and generally rejected its oversight. He liked to claim “total power” as President. He personally attacked judges and questioned the constitutional authority of the judiciary.

Still, Trump was only able to get so far. He could work to suppress the vote but he could not cancel the election, outlaw his political opposition or declare himself President-for-Life. He had the Proud Boys, not armed, uniformed stormtroopers.

Those poll results are not encouraging though. Republicans have lost seven of the last eight national popular votes. If they become convinced they cannot win a democratic election, you have to wonder if Trump 2024 or the next Trump-equivalent would opt for some version of fascism. They might see representative democracy as an obstacle to their goals rather than a means to achieve them.

The threat to democracy remains very much alive.

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February 2021 – posted 2/13/2021

February 13, 2021 3 comments

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January 6 and the Sumner Precedent – posted 2/7/2021

February 7, 2021 3 comments

Since the insurrectionist mob attacked Congress on January 6, the most common historical parallel cited has been the War of 1812. In that war, in 1814, British forces overran Washington DC and set fire to many public buildings, including the U.S. Capitol.

While the War of 1812 is most cited, I would mention a different historical precedent. 1856 witnessed the most infamous day in the history of the Senate. On May 22, 1856, Congresssman Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) viciously attacked Senator Charles Sumner (R- Mass) on the floor of the Senate. Brooks beat Sumner so badly he almost died.

I think that the attack on Sen. Sumner has the most historical resonance with our time. A white supremacist could not countenance promotion of equality between the races. The division and polarization reflected in that episode remain consistent with the hate we saw at the Capitol in January.

To place the Sumner beating in context, the central issue facing the United States then was slavery. Kansas was going to be admitted as a state into the United States and there were questions whether slavery would be permitted or prohibited.

Anti-slavery forces had believed the question was settled by the 1820 Missouri Compromise which had established a boundary line above which no people in a state could own slaves. Kansas was above the line.

That compromise was being superseded by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was co-authored by Sen, Stephen Douglas (D-Ill) and Sen. Andrew Butler (D-S.C.). The Act overturned the 1820 Missouri Compromise by mandating popular sovereignty to decide whether a state would allow slavery. The Act was hated by strong abolitionists like Sen. Sumner.

On May 19, 1856, Sen. Sumner delivered a speech in the Senate that lasted five hours over two days. Sumner passionately denounced the effort by Missouri “border ruffians” to force a pro-slavery constitution on Kansas. The speech called “the Crime Against Kansas” speech zeroed in on slavery as an evil and Sumner particularly criticized the law’s co-authors.

He charged Sen. Butler of South Carolina with “taking a mistress…who though ugly to others…is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight…I mean the harlot, Slavery”.

Congressman Brooks, a relative of Sen. Butler, was enraged by Sumner’s speech. On May 22, he sat in the Senate gallery waiting for the session to end. After the Senate adjourned, Brooks walked onto the Senate floor, surprised Sumner and beat him senseless with a gold-topped gutta-percha cane. Brooks hit Sumner thirty times around the head and shoulders, leaving him a bloody mess. Sumner temporarily lost his vision.

When other senators approached to help Sumner, they were blocked by two other Congressmen who were Brooks’ accomplices. One of Brooks’s accomplices, Rep. Lawrence Keitt, pulled a pistol and forced the potential help to back off. The beating was so bad Brooks’ cane broke. Finished, Brooks strolled out of the Senate, leaving Sumner unconscious on the floor.

As the historian of abolitionism, Manisha Sinha, has written, Brooks’ assault on Sumner was “not just a matter of personal honor but a deliberate attempt to chastise an abolitionist”. Sinha says that Brooks beat Sumner “the way a slaveholder whipped a slave, or a slave’s ally”.

The House voted to expel Brooks but it lacked the 2/3 vote needed to remove him from office. Brooks resigned from Congress but he ran again in the special election held in August, just several months later. Brooks won re-election. Most Southerners approved of his conduct.

The injuries to Sumner were severe. He was not able to return to the Senate for three years, until 1859. Along with the head trauma, he experienced migraines and chronic pain for the rest of his life. Karma dealt with Brooks. At age 37, he had an unexpected early and painful death from croup a year after beating Sumner.

The caning of Sumner on the Senate floor had a seismic shock effect on the North. With the emotional force of a 9/11, the event had a galvanizing effect on the anti-slavery cause, moving the nation closer to Civil War. Sumner’s caning had also openly exposed the ruthlessness and amorality of the Slave Power.

The Massachusetts Legislature passed resolutions that equated the assault on Sumner with an attack on representative government and free speech.

The insurrectionist mob attack on the U.S. Capitol was also an attack on representative government. The mob wanted their candidate declared president contrary to the certified vote of the people. While falsely claiming the election was rigged and stolen, the mob showed itself willing to junk democracy to obtain their desired result.

Congress is a place where legislators are supposed to speak and listen. It is not a place for anyone to be brandishing weapons. Nothing could be more destructive of civil discourse and demeanor. The experience of Sen. Sumner speaks to that.

Does anyone doubt that if the January 6 mob had gotten their hands on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi or Mike Pence, there would have been murders? The gallows constructed outside the Capitol sent a message. There was a reason Congresspeople and their staffs were hiding, locked in their barricaded offices.

In any workplace, you cannot have people threatening the lives of their co-workers, saying they are going to put bullets in people’s heads. That is unacceptable behavior that should be punished by expulsion from Congress or any legislature. In a workplace, such threats would certainly constitute grounds for firing.

Given the demonization of the Squad by right wing media, those legislators now require 24/7 security. The incitement has unleashed dangerous extremists who make unhinged threats against those perceived to be anti-Trump. Freshman Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich) said in an appearance on MSNBC that he and other members were buying body armor.

Rep. Meijer and Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo) have said some GOP colleagues voted to overturn the election results or against impeaching Trump out of fear that their families’ lives may be put in danger. The question arises: are others too afraid to vote their conscience?

In light of our present stay of polarization, all legislators should have to go through metal detectors, without exception. We have done it at the airport for years and we have reached a point where the need for safety in Congress dictates this common sense measure. Whatever we can do to prevent episodes like what happened to Sen. Sumner, need to happen.

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Down the rabbit hole with three conspiracy theories – posted 1/31/2021

January 31, 2021 Leave a comment

We are living through the golden age of conspiracy theories. Lizard people, satanic pedophiles, false flag school shootings and Jewish space lasers have all had cameo roles. While it is easy to focus on the sheer nuttiness of these ideas, conspiracy theories are doing damage.

They often serve to isolate the cult follower from family and friends. They also serve as a bridge into far-right extremist recruitment.

Although people of all political persuasions can adhere to conspiracy theories, in our era, people on the political right have proven most vulnerable to their allure. Conspiracy theories are intellectually bankrupting the Republican Party. A party of political conservatism has transformed into a cult subservient to an authoritarian leader.

There are many conspiracy theories flourishing now but I will focus on three of the most harmful.

“The 2020 presidential election was stolen”

The theory that Trump won the election is widespread among Republicans in spite of accurate, certified voter counts in all states. Republicans latched onto minority voting in large cities and mail-in voting as central to the alleged voter fraud. The Trump campaign pursued every possible legal challenge, over 60 lawsuits, but they consistently lost in court.

If there was voter fraud, how come the courts found none? As has been pointed out, many of the judges who ruled against Trump were his appointees.

Former President Trump has been the main purveyor of misinformation about the election. He has argued for months that the election was rigged even though his own Attorney General William Barr said there was no fraud.

After the November election, Trump worked tirelessly to promote the false narrative that he won. Think of the Stop the Steal movement and the million MAGA marches. Not to mention Trump’s phone calls to Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger where he pressed Raffensberger to “find 11,780 votes”.

Trump’s lies mobilized his January 6 storm troops. If he said there was fraud, they believed him, regardless of the facts. The attack on the Capitol was a direct result of Trump’s prodding. Since November, Trump and his coterie have been desperately pursuing every avenue they could to overturn a democratic election.

The events of January 6 can only be understood in the context of Trump losing a democratic election. Like other fascist and authoritarian leaders who could not abide a democratic result, Trump opted for a coup. He hoped his storm troops could stop certification of Biden’s win. The U.S. military would have nothing to do with the coup and Trump’s coup attempt failed.

Of all the conspiracy theories now circulating, Trump’s election lies are the worst. The peaceful transfer of power is central to our democratic system. We are not Pinochet’s Chile or some banana republic yet, according to polls, 36% of registered voters think voter fraud occurred to a large enough extent in the presidential race to affect the election outcome.

Those who argue Trump bears little or no responsibility for the storming of the Capitol are living in la-la land. Trump deserves no pass. To quote the writer Loretta Ross, “Premature forgiveness before accountability is dangerous”.

“COVID-19 is fake”

Even though as I write this, there are 456,000 American deaths due to COVID-19, conspiracy theories abound. Alex Jones has said COVID-19 doesn’t exist at all. He has said it is a ploy by governments to rob citizens of their freedom. For a long time, Trump himself minimized the pandemic, falsely saying the end was right around the corner.

Others argued the COVID-19 pandemic was intentionally caused; it was created in a lab in Wuhan; or, it was spread by Bill Gates; or, it was due to the rollout of 5G mobile technology.

Four out of ten Americans believe the death rate of COVID-19 has been “deliberately and greatly exaggerated”. 27% think is is possible the vaccine for COVID-19 will be used to implant tracking chips into Americans.

Who would have thought the common sense, public health measures of masking and social distancing would have proven so controversial.

Anti-vaxxers have been pushing a new narrative that COVID-19 vaccine permanently changes a person’s DNA. Crazy never stops. False information and anti-science attitudes will continue to make it harder to get the pandemic under control.

“A secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global sex-trafficking ring”

I am, of course, referring to QAnon. This far-right cult believes elitist Democrats and Hollywood entertainment moguls control the deep state. QAnon adherents believe there is a person who is a top secret official in the U.S. government who goes by the pseudonym “Q” who posts cryptic online messages about the truth of what is going on in the world

They saw Trump as not just a president but a messiah. They believe Trump has been fighting the pedophile cabal and that Trump has been planning a day of reckoning known as the Storm. In the Storm, thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested.

QAnon has a large online following. In 2018 many QAnon followers started showing up at Trump rallies. Now that Trump has lost it remains unclear how QAnon adherents will respond to failed prophecies.

Supposedly, one in three Republicans believe the QAnon theory that a conspiracy among deep state elites is “mostly true”.

While Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert have garnered the most publicity for their Q beliefs, in 2020 the Republicans fielded dozens of candidates nationally who held these beliefs.

QAnon is a bit reminiscent of the blood libel against the Jews. It is a craziness with some historical precedent.

About conspiracy theories, John Ehrenreich has said:

“Conspiracy theories arise in the context of fear, anxiety, mistrust, uncertainty and feelings of powerlessness…For those who feel that everything is spinning out of control, a narrative that explains their feelings and encloses them within a safe community of believers comes as a soothing relief.”

I would suggest that conspiracy theories are flourishing because of the unprecedented levels of anxiety so many are experiencing. The killer pandemic, massive economic insecurity and climate catastrophe are all background.

That people gravitate to conspiracy theories should not be surprising. Advertisers manipulate us by using selective and misleading information. Oil companies lie about climate change and tobacco companies lie about the dangers of smoking. Financial elites try to obscure their wealth and their exploitation of workers. Conspiracy theories are just a particularly noxious variant on the lying theme. They provide a sometimes compelling narrative with an emotionally supportive if misguided message.

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How the threat of far-right extremism was underestimated – posted 1/24/2021

January 24, 2021 2 comments

When the mob of ardent Trump supporters, QAnon conspiracy theory followers, and far-right extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, there was no denying the shock value of their acts. While some may have seen it coming, most of us were taken by surprise.

With so many millions of dollars spent on national security, the scale of the failure of intelligence is remarkable.How was the threat of far-right extremism so badly missed?

I would submit the reasons are deeply rooted in our societal failure to recognize and acknowledge white supremacy. Hate groups are drenched in the ideology of white supremacy and anti-semitism and there is a history of giving such groups a pass. The overwhelming tendency has been to look at darker-skinned people, especially Islamic terrorists, as the primary national security threat.

During the Trump years, Black Lives Matter and Antifa were wrongly held up as a bigger threat than far-right extremists.

Looking back, the evidence is clear. In 2009, Daryl Johnson, who was then an analyst with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, wrote an internal report entitled “Right-Wing Extremism”. Johnson was no left-winger. He was a conservative and a Republican.

In his report, Johnson pointed out that returning military veterans were being targeted for recruitment by right wing extremists. Johnson predicted a rise in violent attacks by these extremists as they, even then, were armed to the teeth. He predicted a rise in their group membership. Johnson’s report was meant for law enforcement. His predictions turned out to be accurate.

Instead of being seriously considered, right wing news media leaked the report and derided it. They argued that the report was targeting conservatives and the Tea Party as potential terrorists. The American Legion demanded that Homeland Security apologize to veterans. Republicans demanded that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rescind the report.

Under pressure, the Department of Homeland Security caved in. Management at Homeland Security turned on the people who produced the Right Wing Extremism report and Johnson’s unit was disbanded. There was a chilling effect on any investigation of right wing extremism. According to Johnson, morale plummeted at Homeland Security.

I should note that Johnson’s 2009 report followed on the heels of a 2006 FBI report that warned of white supremacist groups infiltrating and recruiting law enforcement personnel. That report mentioned the novel, The Turner Diaries, by William Pierce.White supremacist infiltration of the federal government played a prominent role in the novel and was interpreted as practical guidance within white supremacist circles.

Before the U.S. Capitol riot, Charlottesville was probably the most public demonstration of far-right power. Instead of a repudiation of the neo-nazis and white supremacists who were chanting “Jews will not replace us”, President Trump famously said “there were very fine people on both sides”. It was a shot in the arm for the worst of the far right.

When asked to disavow white supremacy during his debate with Joe Biden, Trump could not do it. We got his comment on the Proud Boys: “stand back and stand by”.

Since the 2009 Homeland Security report, there have been innumerable far-right terrorist attacks. I think of the 2015 Charleston church massacre, the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue attack, the 2019 Poway California synagogue shooting and the 2019 El Paso Walmart mass killing directed at Latinos.

It is a mistake to see these shootings as crazy lone wolf attacks carried out by deranged individuals. All the shooters have been motivated by the white power movement. The lone wolf narrative hides the common thread.

Other episodes show the far right hatred of the federal government: the 2014 Bundy standoff in Nevada and the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

I would say that by now far right extremists in the United States number in the hundreds of thousands. They do not hide any more.

Trump has empowered the far right. Particularly in the last two months since the election, Trump’s narrative of a rigged election fueled an apocalyptic mindset. Trump kept saying we are losing our country. His supporters on social media talked of civil war. This false narrative unleashed the dogs. Rage and paranoia stoked Trump’’s hardcore supporters. They came to believe Trump’s big lie that an election he lost was stolen.

It is hard to ignore the role of social media in feeding the stolen election frenzy on the far right. This combined with high levels of fear among those on the right that their guns were threatened.

The U.S. Capitol riot was not the only recent occupation of a capitol building. In 2020 two other state capitol buildings in Michigan and Idaho were breached and overrun.

I am not alone in thinking the far right recruitment of police and military is a genuine problem. When black people are profiled and viciously murdered by police which is an all-to-common event, it needs to be asked if those police are white supremacists. Police need to be vetted and rejected for their position as public safety officers if racism is compromising job performance.

I would guess some low percentage of white officers do hold neo-fascist, white supremacist views and they may sympathize with the white power movement. That is probably also true of some active-duty military. To address it, we must recognize the problem exists.

Conservative news media and Republicans have simply been in denial about the existence of the white power movement. For years they have covered for it. If we allow the denial to continue, it is reasonable to assume we will see more serious efforts to undermine our democracy.

However imperfectly, America is moving in the direction of becoming a more authentic multi-racial democracy. Far right extremists remain absolutely opposed to that goal. They want an Aryan Nation. They talk about extermination of people of color and Jews. It is not a witch hunt to recognize a sickness which is trying to kill our democracy. We got to January 6, in part, because we have swept the whole matter of far-right extremism under the carpet.

It would be a mistake to see the Capitol riot as an end to the story. It is not.

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The execution of Lisa Montgomery was an act of moral depravity – posted 1/17/2021

January 17, 2021 2 comments

At 1:31am, in the dark of night on January 13, the federal government executed Lisa Montgomery. She was the first woman executed by the federal government in almost 70 years and only the third woman executed by the Feds since 1900.

For a short time in the week before January 13 it had appeared that Montgomery might escape execution. The federal court in Indiana issued a stay so a court could determine Montgomery’s competency. The federal court judge wrote:

“Ms. Montgomery’s mental status is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution.”

However, after a flurry of appeals in which the stay was vacated and reinstated, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled to allow the execution to proceed, with Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Breyer dissenting. The Court never explored the matter of Montgomery’s competency.

One hour and fifteen minutes after the Supreme Court ruled, Lisa Montgomery was dead by lethal injection. There was a clemency petition before President Trump but Trump did not have the decency to respond to the petition. He did not bother to deny it or even acknowledge it.

The Trump Administration has been in a big hurry to carry out executions before January 20 when the Biden administration begins. Biden has indicated he would reinstate the moratorium on the death penalty.

Government lawyers have been working 24/7 to conduct as many executions of federal prisoners as possible. Since last July, the federal government has executed Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy, Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Corey Johnson, Dustin Higgs and Montgomery.

Before this thirteen person killing spree, it has been seventeen years since any federal prisoners were put to death. In an effort to put this in historical perspective after Dustin Higgs’ execution, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

“…the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.”

In court filings before her execution, Montgomery’s lawyers reported she was having auditory hallucinations of her abusive mother’s voice. She believed God was speaking to her through connect-the-dot puzzles.

Montgomery had diagnoses of bipolar disorder, complex PTSD, dissociative disorder, psychosis and traumatic brain injury. She suffered from permanent brain injury and possibly had fetal alcohol syndrome. As an adult, she often dissociated from reality because of the trauma she had experienced. As her lawyer said, her awful crime was the culmination of a lifetime of violence, rape, untreated mental illness and societal failure to stop sexual abuse.

Montgomery’s mental condition had worsened since October. Prison officials had moved her to a suicide cell. Bright lights were never turned off.

She was not allowed to have any of her personal belongings in her cell – no books, legal papers, photos of her children or even her wedding band. Male guards watched her 24 hours a day, including when she used the toilet. The prison authorities took her clothing away and gave her a rubber smock to wear that had velcro snaps. The garment is called a suicide smock.

Montgomery’s lawyers reported that when she was moved to the federal prison in Terra Haute, Indiana, shortly before her death, she had completely lost touch with reality.

The U.S. Supreme Court is on record that no legitimate government purpose is served by the execution of someone who is not competent at the time of their execution. In the 2002 case of Ford v Wainwright, the Court addressed a case where there was no suggestion the defendant was incompetent at the time of his offense or at trial but he later deteriorated mentally.

The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited the State from inflicting the death penalty where the claimant was insane.

The Court felt that use of the death penalty in this circumstance did not enhance deterrence. It also had questionable retributive value and it offended humanity. Justice Marshall argued that any procedure that precluded the defendant from presenting material relevant to his sanity was inadequate.

The failure of the Court to even consider the matter of Montgomery’s competence is both horrifying and merciless. With so much questioning about the death penalty, the Court’s current majority is both backward and behind evolving standards of human decency.

The allegedly pro-life justices had no seeming difficulty imposing the death penalty on an utterly broken woman. I am reminded of the George Carlin routine about pro-lifers: they only care about life before you are born. After you are born, you are on your own.

Trump’s failure to consider clemency for Montgomery fits with his law and order posturing. His concern is his tough guy image. With few exceptions, he pardons white collar criminals, not anyone from a poverty background. The poet Kenneth Patchen once wrote, “Law and order embrace on hate’s border.” That fits Trump’s compassion-free notion of law and order.

Only six countries executed more people than America last year: China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Somalia and North Korea. There is a relationship between capital punishment and authoritarian regimes. With less respect for human rights, such regimes kill more. Trump’s execution spree reflects his authoritarianism. When it comes to the death penalty, look at the company you keep.

After Lisa Montgomery was executed, her lawyer Kelley Henry said,

“The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight…This failed government adds itself to a long list of people and institutions who failed Lisa. We should recognize Lisa Montgomery’s execution for what it was: the vicious, unlawful and unnecessary exercise of authoritarian power.”

That is an accurate summary. On matters of life and death, you might have expected careful consideration, not mindless vengeance. Everyone associated with Montgomery’s execution should be ashamed.

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Some questions about the Capitol Riot – posted 1/10/2021

January 10, 2021 2 comments

Like millions, I was glued to the TV watching the events of January 6 unfold. Information remains limited and questions abound about the riot at the Capitol and what happened. While much more information will no doubt be emerging, I wanted to address some questions that stand out.

Was the riot spontaneous?

The evidence clearly shows it was not spontaneous. President Trump tweeted on December 19: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild”. ProPublica reported that his supporters took up the name “Wild Protest”. Other pro-Trumpers under the name Stop the Steal railed that the election was stolen. On December 23 online, they promised an occupation of the Capitol.

For a period of time prior to January 6, extreme right wing websites discussed Operation Occupy the Capitol and the question of violent protest if the Senate made Joe Biden’s victory official. On December 12, a poster on the website MyMilitia.com explicitly urged violence if the Senate certified Biden’s win. The poster wrote:

“If this does not change, then I advocate Revolution and adherence to the rules of war. I say, take the hill or die trying.”

On January 7, the Washington D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said there was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol. That is hard to understand since this assault was planned in public view. Rioters did what they said they would do.

Trump had told his followers to be in Washington on January 6 and his followers obeyed the command. Anyone who bothered to look at extremist Trump message boards could have seen the handwriting on the wall.

Arieh Kovler, a political consultant in the U.K. accurately predicted these events on Twitter on December 21. He wrote: “On January 6, armed Trumpist militias will be rallying in D.C. at Trump’s orders. It is highly likely that they’ll try to storm the Capitol after it certifies Joe Biden’s win. I don’t think this has sunk in yet”.

The rioters appeared to have knowledge of the tunnels of Congress and the location of key Congressional offices. They had radios and two-way communication with earpieces. There were police officers from across the U.S. among the rioters. A number of rioters came armed for battle with a background in military training. Pipe bombs were planted outside the DNC and the RNC. There was some degree of planning and coordination.

Should the Capitol riot be considered a protest, a demonstration or domestic terrorism?

This went far beyond a protest or demonstration. It was a violent assault on the seat of government meant to overturn a free and fair election. That classifies as a seditious coup. As such, I think domestic terrorism is the most accurate characterization.

Back in December, Arieh Kovler had wondered if the way the protest might swing the election in Trump’s favor was by “forcing Congress to certify him as the winner at gunpoint”.

Ransacking the Capitol, smashing press equipment, trashing Congressional offices and stealing government laptops all put this beyond mere protest. You had violent people swinging lead pipes at police and pepper-spraying them. The rioters built a noose and gallows outside the Capitol. They chanted “Hang Mike Pence”. Some rioters carried flex cuffs used by police. It is unclear if they intended to capture or execute Congresspeople or Vice-President Pence if they had intercepted them.

Five people died in the riot, including police officer Brian Sicknick. Chief Contee has reported 56 officers were injured after being beaten or tazed repeatedly.

How and why did law enforcement fail so epically?

The Capitol police are supposed to protect Congress. You have to ask: how did the police let this happen? There was an intelligence failure and a substantive response breakdown. Mike German, a former FBI agent, wrote:

“You don’t get to ransack the Capitol for hours, then calmly walk away unless law enforcement and its command share your views. What we saw yesterday was tacit approval of the rioters. Full stop.”

The delay in sending in the National Guard, especially after it was requested by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, raises the question of whether this was an inside job. We knew the threat of far right violence had been de-prioritized by Trump. Was the response failure a result of a coordinated plan by Trump and his allies? It needs to be asked and answered.

There is a sick, racist law enforcement culture that needs to be addressed. While many police did their jobs bravely, others were taking selfies with rioters. Black Capitol police reported that they were repeatedly subjected to racist taunts and use of the n-word by the mob which was overwhelmingly white and male.

Did Antifa play any role in the Capitol riot?

With our own eyes, we saw the huge crowd of Trump supporters descend on the Capitol. They carried Trump flags, Confederate flags, Nazi swastika flags, and they wore clothing that identified themselves as Trump supporters. Proud Boys chanted “F— Antifa”. Later on January 6, Trump himself posted a video that expressed “love” for his supporters and he said they were “very special”.

Yet, somehow, after things went south, right wing commentators concocted a story that pro-Trump rioters were actually Antifa in disguise. Please. This was a 100% Trump-incited riot. The Proud Boys, neo-nazis wearing shirts that said Camp Auschwitz staff and 6MWE (which stands for six million weren’t enough), white supremacists, Q’Anon supporters and other Trump supporters all seemed very proud of themselves.

The idea of Antifa involvement is a fantasy, akin to the Trump fantasy of a stolen election.

Is the fascist threat over?

The Capitol riot has echoes of the plot hatched by the Michigan militia against Governor Gretchen Whitmer. It is also reminiscent of the Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel famous in far right circles that prominently features an attack on the U.S. Capitol. The plot is about how a small number of white power fanatics overthrow the federal government and start a race war.

The failure of Trump’s coup attempt does not mean the domestic terrorist threat is over. That threat has been consistently underestimated for four years. The Capitol riot provides compelling evidence of that proposition. If the threat of right wing extremism is to be reduced if not eliminated, perpetrators of the riot must pay a price. That is at least a first step.

The rioters seem to believe the law does not apply to them. I would suggest that this sense of entitlement is rooted in hundreds of years of white supremacy. The fascist threat is certainly not over. It has barely been recognized.

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A self-critical look at the Democrats – posted 1/3/2021

January 3, 2021 Leave a comment

Any honest assessment of the 2020 election must consider the poor performance of Democrats down ballot. There was an expectation that Democrats would pick up as many as five Senate seats along with increasing their House majority. There was also an expectation Democrats could flip state legislatures. That all failed to materialize.

Some moderate Democrats have blamed more progressive Democrats, citing bad messaging around “defund the police” and advocacy of democratic socialism. For example, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D- Va) publicly blamed progressive Democrats for the loss of House seats. She somehow forgot the critical role progressives played in mobilizing the Democratic vote.

As someone sympathetic to the progressive wing, I would take issue with Rep. Spanberger. Other than opposing Trump, Democrats generally failed to present a strong economic message in 2020. As a result, many voters gave Trump and the Republicans the edge on the economy.

That should be shocking to Democrats. How could it be that Republicans, the party of the 1%, were more trusted on the economy? And truthfully, the Democratic Party has precious little, in a self-critical way, to say about it.

To appreciate the magnitude of the Democratic failure, the full economic picture must be outlined. Even before the pandemic, income inequality had dramatically increased. The households in the top fifth of earners brought in 52% of all U.S. income, more than the lower four-fifths combined, according to Census Bureau data.

Three men, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett own as much as the bottom half of Americans.

From 1989 to 2016, wealth inequality grew so much that the top 10% of families ranked by household wealth (with at least $1.2 million in net worth) owned 77% of the wealth pie. The bottom half of families ranked by household wealth (with $97,000 or less in net wealth) own only 1% of the pie.

Since the pandemic, according to Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies, 657 billionaires have seen their combined wealth go up a trillion dollars since mid-March. But the money these billionaires are making is not being reflected in the pay or protection of the workers who are making these services possible.

Millions have lost jobs and health insurance. Food and housing insecurity have soared. Many thousands face eviction or foreclosure.

In the face of this economic catastrophe, where is the Democratic Party, the party that going back to FDR, was supposed to be dedicated to economic justice and the working class? That party is almost nowhere to be seen.

Thomas Frank, the author of “The People, No”, has the acutest analysis of how the Democrats have failed to step up. Frank argues that it is the Democrats who should be the populist party. He defends the populist tradition and shows how Democrats need to run against plutocracy, elites, and economic inequality.

Too many Democrats are enamored with the idea of being the party of rich suburbanites and the professional-managerial class. They seem to think “the best and brightest” should rule, a world run by preppies. They look to corporate money and Wall Street for support.

I do not find it surprising that many working people supported Trump again. Often it was because of concerns about jobs and wages, bad trade deals, and bringing jobs back to America. Trump is a con man, a racist and a fraud but those concerns are legitimate. Too many Democrats are condescending and elitist in their attitudes toward working people including those who supported Trump.

Of the 74 million people who voted for Trump, almost a third came from households making under $50,000. While there is a hardcore of vicious white supremacists, it would be a serious mistake to assume some of those 74 million voters could not be won back. After all, many Trump voters previously supported Obama. Tons of people have contradictory politics. They should not be ceded to the Republicans. The Democrats need an attractive economic message highlighting good-paying jobs for all workers.

Democrats could begin by putting up more of a fight around pandemic relief. I liked what Rep. Ro Khanna had to say when he opposed the bloated military budget specified in the National Defense Authorization Act. Rep. Khanna said:

“We’re spending money on the modernization of nuclear weapons. And we can’t find money to get food to people who need it? We can’t find money to get more rental assistance for folks who are going to face evictions? We can’t find money to get $2,000 into the pockets of Americans? The priorities are wrong, and so I’m not going to vote to override his veto.”

Chuck Collins has suggested an emergency pandemic wealth tax on billionaires. People who have gotten a tremendous windfall from the pandemic should be helping communities in desperate need. How about a pandemic billlionaire tax funding universal health care during the pandemic?

The pandemic has exposed the underlying contradictions of capitalism. Has the need for Medicare for All ever been clearer? How many millions have lost health insurance in the last year and how many millions lacked insurance even before that? The other ideas promoted by the progressive wing of the Democrats like $15 an hour minimum wage, student loan debt forgiveness, and Green New Deal have the potential to be widely popular.

The Democrats are always afraid of their own shadows. That is not something you can say about the Republicans. Republicans are unafraid to stand behind utterly wacky ideas, including the overthrow of democracy. Democrats could use a backbone.

Republicans will always sling mud, shout about socialism and rely on the Fox News echo chamber. That has become an automatic no matter what Democrat is running. The Democrats need a strong, unafraid message that speaks to the widespread economic fear and insecurity. The pandemic has inflicted long-term damage on millions of workers and Democrats must speak to that need.

In addition to being the party of economic justice, Democrats also need to be the party of racial justice. They should stand in opposition to Trump’s racist appeals against Black Lives Matter and against immigration. Trump has used racism as a divide-and-conquer weapon to destroy working class unity.

While Joe Biden won the presidency and I think progressives should support him and give his presidency every chance to succeed, it was the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 that shows the way forward for Democrats in 2022 and 2024. Bernie’s campaign did not take corporate money and it relied on small donors. That is the right model for Democrats to emulate.

Democrats need to support the labor movement and make it easier for workers to organize. So few American workers are in unions now and that has tremendously weakened the political power of working people. Democrats have had a bad history of making promises to labor that they do not keep. I would cite Obama’s failure to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, an idea he ran on in 2008, which would have made it easier and faster to unionize.

Democrats must also oppose Pentagon militarism, runaway spending defense budgets, and further global interventionism. Too often Democrats passively go along with the most militarist Republicans being afraid to be identified as doves. Instead of empire, our priority should be the well-being of the American people.

The Democrats have many outstanding leaders. Along with Ro Khanna, I would mention Pramila Jayapal, Katie Porter, Stacey Abrams, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Past results do not justify a continuation of relying on party centrists who lack any vision.

Thomas Frank has asked:

“For whom does America exist? The billionaires? Its celebrities? Its tech companies? Are we the people just a laboring, sweating instrument for the bonanza payday of our betters?”

If Democrats return to FDR populism, they can retake the majority and move America forward in its best tradition.

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