Archive for December, 2020

Presidential misdeeds and the challenge of accountability – posted 12/26/2020

December 26, 2020 2 comments

The presidency of Donald Trump presents a daunting challenge to anyone who cares about the future of the rule of law. Never has a president so debased his position. Who calls a state Secretary of State and asks him to flip votes? Corruption may be the singular thread that runs through every aspect of this presidency.

Take your pick: pardons for war criminals and venal cronies, using public office for private gain, tax fraud, lying and manufacturing a steady stream of misinformation, putting children in cages, and trying to overturn a democratic election to install yourself as dictator. And that barely scratches the surface. The crimes run deep. The abuse of power has been relentless.

The question emerges: how can the Biden Administration check and constrain this overwhelming pattern of wrongdoing? So many are saying that addressing the Trump Administration’s misconduct would be too divisive and time-consuming. They counsel that the government should look forward rather than back. The concern is that a Biden Administration focused on prosecuting Trump would enrage Trump followers. It could also have a bad look, reducing Biden and making him look like a tinpot dictator himself.

I am struck by the long-term pattern of failure of accountability in American life. Over the last 50 years, the examples are numerous. President Ford’s pardon of Nixon, President George H. W. Bush’s pardons of Reagan officials for the Iran-Contra scandal, and President Obama’s failure to prosecute torturers who defiled the George W. Bush presidency all come to mind.

The thinking has been that accountability was too divisive. The problem though is that the absence of accountability is a license for repetition of the abuse of power. For example, Obama’s unwillingness to pursue those who committed torture greatly increases the likelihood that behavior will recur.

President-elect Biden has nominated Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence. In an Open Letter, torture victims and their advocates have opposed Haines’ nomination because of her troubling record on torture. Whatever her competence, Haines both defended torture and suppressed evidence of it. She supported Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel for CIA Director. Torture is illegal under international law and there is an unmistakeable bad message sent with the Haines’ nomination.

Stepping back to look at the broader sweep of American history, I think the failure of accountability goes back to our country’s origins. The narrative we have told about Native American history is an early example. The savage war fought against Native Americans pushed them back farther and farther west, across the continent. Law had nothing to do with this process although dishonored treaties by the U.S. government happened along the way. It was a “might makes right” history.

How has that been officially acknowledged and where is the accountability? Where is the United States Native American Genocide Memorial Museum? It hasn’t happened. Denial rules.

Similarly with slavery, where is the accountability on a national level? Americans have grown up with a rationalized view of that history and there has been an unwillingness to reconsider how the past events of slavery affect us still. Conventional thinking remains that these events happened long ago and have little bearing on now.

Post-Civil War history disappeared slavery-by-another-name. It is telling that the only memorial for lynching in the United States was created by a private Alabama non-profit law firm, the Equal Justice Initiative. We bury that history and as a result do not take the needed steps required to begin rectification.

I think the same pattern is true with the Vietnam War. Although many know it was a horrible mistake, there has been a collective refusal to admit that war was wrong and criminal. Instead of a self-critical look at our empire and our militarism, we blundered into Iraq where we repeated Vietnam-like mistakes, costing untold lives, American and Iraqi. The empire, recognized around the world, is not recognized by Americans who have been taught a sanitized history.

We are overdue in the United States for taking a hard look at ourselves. While elections may have changed those in power which is some kind of check, they have not promoted self-critical examination. When Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, one reason he provided for the veto was the provision that would require the military to rename bases that were named after figures from the Confederacy.

What better example of the failure of critical thinking than that? Are we still compelled to defend traitors committed to white supremacy who took up arms against the United States? To say that view is backwards does not express how odious it is.

It would be a huge mistake if no efforts are made to acknowledge and reckon with Trump crimes. Not to do so would make it much more likely that, at a later date, we could further devolve into some type of authoritarian state. The damage done by the last four years should not be understated. If Trump had won the election, we would be looking at a fascist consolidation of power. We barely escaped.

I have a couple thoughts on places to begin the accountability process. How the Trump Administration mis-handled the pandemic requires a national commission to study what happened with COVID-19. At the federal level, the commission should study the federal response so that we, as a nation, learn from the experience. We need to be better prepared for next time. Such a commission might be possible as a bi-partisan endeavor.

The second initiative would be centered on the family separation policy. Out of thousands of cases where family reunification was achieved, 545 migrant children are still separated and their families cannot be located. Every effort should be made to reunify these families. It was Trump’s zero tolerance policy that led to the separation of thousands of families. This has been government-sponsored child abuse and there is a moral imperative to do everything to try and make this right.

There are other Trump misdeeds that stand out. I suppose there is subjectivity in sorting these but I will hit on some I think are worst. Possibly state prosecutors will look at taxes. No presidential candidate should ever be able to run who has not disclosed the last 5 or 10 years of his or her income taxes.

The politicization of law enforcement and the Department of Justice, abuse of the Hatch Act, and mis-use of the pardon power jump out. Dangling the prospect of a pardon in exchange for non-cooperation with federal investigations is the definition of corruption.

Ignoring presidential crimes is the same as saying the President is above the law, a position essentially argued by Nixon and Trump. That position must be repudiated. Presidents are not kings and it is not a viable option for a Biden Administration determined to reassert the rule of law.

More generally, America has been crippled by the propaganda message of our exceptional goodness. That message has never squared with the facts. Now more than ever, we need honesty and a willingness to look at the dark side. Failure of accountability could lead to the next Trump or Trump-equivalent successfully consolidating fascism.

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Why Representative Dawn Johnson’s apology for anti-semitism was so inadequate – posted 12/20/2020

December 20, 2020 5 comments

I do not personally know school board member and newly elected state representative Dawn Johnson of Laconia. I know she is a Republican. Rep. Johnson shocked New Hampshire when she posted a link to a Daily Stormer article. The Daily Stormer is a leading neo-nazi website.

In the post, the word “Jews” appears above a cartoon image of a man wearing a Jewish skullcap. He is holding a sign announcing a rent increase, next to another man with the head of Georgia Governor Brian Kemp photoshopped onto the body. Above Kemp’s photo is the term ”Riggers”, a clear reference to Kemp’s refusal to block certification of Georgia’s electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden. Below both cartoon figures are the words “Bad News”.

Rep. Johnson tried to post the Daily Stormer link on Facebook. Her effort was blocked because Facebook does not allow links to the Daily Stormer since it is a hate site. Rep. Johnson complained on her Facebook page, “When you try to share truth, FB says NOPE we will not allow it. “

After a big adverse reaction, Rep.Johnson apologized for putting up the post and she deleted the post from her Twitter feed. She claimed she was unaware of the source. One peculiarity about Rep. Johnson’s apology: while she apologized, she never made clear what she specifically apologized for and, to date, that has never been clarified. She said she was unaware of the anti-semitic cartoon that got posted.

Rep. Johnson adamantly expressed opposition to the idea she should resign from the school board and her position as state representative. Very defensively, Rep. Johnson lashed out at others on the school board who had called for her to resign. She called others on the board “a disgrace”.

In considering the affair, I have to begin by wondering why Rep. Johnson was linking to the Daily Stormer website at all. For those who have never been there, it is not a subtle website. It is probably the world’s biggest neo-nazi website. It defies credibility that Rep. Johnson did not know what that was. She had complained that Facebook would not let her post her “truth”.

I suppose it is possible that Johnson was mostly focused on arguing the crackpot Trump theory that the election was rigged, given the word “Riggers” in the cartoon, but how could she ignore the depiction of the Jewish person? It was a classic anti-semitic caricature. Was she not looking at what she was posting?

The Daily Stormer takes its name from the German newspaper Der Sturmer which published from 1923 to the end of World War II. Der Sturmer was a propaganda organ of the German Nazis and it was infamous for its virulent anti-semitism. It was published by Julius Streicher who was later hanged at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Der Sturmer often ran cartoons depicting graphic caricatures of ugly Jews with exaggerated noses.

The paper aimed to dehumanize Jews and It promoted medieval stereotypes of blood libel where Jews were accused of killing Christian children and drinking their blood.

The current Daily Stormer was an early endorser of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President back in 2015. It proclaimed “Heil Trump – the Ultimate Savior”.

Every incident has a context and the incident with Rep. Johnson is no exception. It happened at a time when anti-semitism is on the upswing. The Trump presidency opened Pandora’s box of anti-semitism, racism and misogyny. Anti-semitic incidents in America reached the highest on record in 2019 with more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Just this Hanukkah there was another anti-semitic incident in New Hampshire. At Dartmouth College, someone with a pellet gun shot out seven of the nine lights on a public menorah which stands in a central location on campus.

For those who say Jewish people like me and others are making too big a deal out of Rep. Johnson’s post, I would cite history. Living in the shadow of the Holocaust, the historical experience of anti-semitism informs our present reality which is why it is impossible to ignore the type of crude propaganda posted by Rep. Johnson. Letting it slide is not an option. Failure to respond would encourage more of the same as silence would be acceptance.

For perpetrators of the Holocaust, propaganda was necessary to persuade the German masses that Jews were evil. The historian Raul Hilberg has said propaganda was needed by the Germans “to combat doubts and guilt feelings whenever they arose”.

The job, for the political anti-semite, is to persuade people that the Jewish people they know, their neighbors and acquaintances, are not the real Jews. The real Jews, for anti-semites, are a collection of negative stereotypes, the type of stereotypes exemplified in Rep. Johnson’s cartoon.

I have to admit I was surprised by how vehemently I responded to this story, and it seems that many others had the same reaction. Witness the Laconia demonstration on December 14 and the many calls for Rep. Johnson to resign her positions.

The response of the state GOP to this episode has been weak. While to his credit Governor Chris Sununu criticized Johnson, most of the rest of the GOP remained silent or said she did nothing wrong and opposed any action about her behavior. This betrays a cluelessness about anti-semitism.

While I generally believe in second chances, Rep. Johnson has said nothing of substance about why anti-semitism is hateful and destructive, Without more, she should resign. The public has a right to expect a higher level of public conduct and responsibility from elected legislators and school board members.

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After the storm – posted 12/20/2020

December 20, 2020 1 comment

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Reckoning with authoritarianism – posted 12/13/2020

December 13, 2020 1 comment

When the U.S. Supreme Court did not accept the lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General and 17 other Republican-led states, I am sure many Democrats and independents felt a sense of relief. The many half-baked Trump-inspired lawsuits meant to overturn the popular will were defeated, often in ignominious fashion.

Still, it is hard not to feel seriously uneasy about where this election has left us as a nation. One party had no problem aggressively opposing the result of a fair election and seeking its reversal. The desire for power trumped any concern for democracy. Trump has been attempting to install himself as a dictator. Hardly any Republicans spoke up in opposition to Trump’s attempted coup.

The Republican Party has transformed from a mainstream conservative political party to an extremist neo-fascist party. The party is contemptuous and dismissive of its political opposition. It has become a haven for white supremacists and fanatic anti-immigrant sentiment. It is largely dismissive of conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science. The party is home for all manner of conspiracy theories.

Insisting this presidential election was stolen by fraud is a widely popular view among Republicans. “Stop the steal” is their chant and is on their signs. Trump claims, without evidence, the 2020 election was “rigged”. Departing into unreality, his supporters say he won “in a landslide”. Trump tweeted that he is the victim of the “greatest Election Fraud in the history of the United States”.

Trump has a long history of casting doubt on elections. He did this in 2016 before he won. He said that election was rigged too. Even after he won, he claimed that he lost the popular vote due to fraud.

I would suggest that this is not the behavior of a normal political party in a democracy that accepts results regardless of whether they win or lose. Trump has never committed to a peaceful transfer of power. The Republicans have departed from a democratic framework and are following an authoritarian playbook to achieve power.

Scholars of fascism, Jason Stanley and Ruth Ben-Ghiat, have outlined strategies in the playbook. These strategies have consistently appeared in countries that have degenerated into authoritarianism. They include: the mythic past, propaganda, suppressing and demonizing media, victimhood and polarization through creation of a demonized out group.

The slogan Make America Great Again encapsulates the story of the mythic past. What period is being harkened back to? A glorious American past requires much erasure of atrocities like genocide against Native Americans and slavery. The idea of Make America Great Again is based on the falsehood that we need to restore what we once were. Like all countries, America has a complicated history, with strengths and weaknesses. We do not need a fake mythic past.

Jason Stanley says that fascist movements have been “draining the swamp” for generations. The propaganda about draining the swamp created a convenient cover for corrupt practices. A major priority for Trump has been using his position to maximize profits for his own businesses. The words “public interest” do not exist for Trump. Invariably, he appointed people opposed to the mission of their respective federal agencies. Scandals became normalized while he said he was draining the swamp.

Trump attacks many journalists, often calling them “enemy of the people”. Last September at a rally in Minnesota he went after MSNBC reporter, Ali Velshi, who was hit in the knee by a rubber bullet while reporting on a Minneapolis protest prompted by the police killing of George Floyd. Trump said, “It was the most beautiful thing. It’s called law and order”.

Velshi responded:

“What law did I break while covering an entirely peaceful (yes, entirely peaceful) march?”

Trump has said, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news…Just remember: what you are seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”.

Trump follows the Joseph Goebbels school and his Big Lie theory. Goebbels said, “ If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. Trump has lived the Goebbels approach and this is true across the board. Whether the subject is climate change or COVID-19, facts that contradict his goals of power and personal profit are denied. No one in American public life has ever had less regard for the truth than Donald Trump.

Somehow even though he is a tycoon living in the lap of luxury with multiple residences he considers himself a victim. In a Georgia rally on December 5 , Trump said, “We’re all victims. Everybody here, all these thousands of people here tonight, they’re all victims, everyone of you”.

Trump continually whines that he, the tycoon, a man of life-long enormous wealth and privilege, is being treated unfairly. That is a strange mantra from the party of personal responsibility.

The sense of aggrieved victimhood is something he sells his followers. They are supposedly the victim of illegal immigrants, advances by women, people of color and LGBTQ communities. Trump has played particularly to the fear immigration will lead to “the browning of America”.

I worry that Americans are not seeing the authoritarian threat posed by this type of politics. Americans historically have a poor track record with early recognition of fascist dangers. In the 1920’s Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader, received an amazingly positive reception in the American press. He was seen as charming and masculine, a kind of celebrity.

In the early 1930’s Hitler too had a surprisingly positive American reception. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and radio priest Charles Coughlin all gave Nazi Germany glowing reviews. It was not until much later that Americans widely recognized the fascist threat.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written that the authoritarian playbook has no chapter on failure. Trump still is not accepting his defeat. Avoiding his own criminal prosecution and maintaining his personality cult are strong motives to stay on as president.

The Texas case shows how far Trump and a wide range of Republicans are willing to go. A pro-Trump state did not like voting results in four battleground states that voted for Biden so apparently Biden votes should not count, And that from the party of state’s rights.

If the election had been closer, it is possible Trump’s anti-democratic efforts might have worked.

Anyone who thinks we are out of the woods as far as the advance of authoritarianism in America is not paying close attention. Whether it is Trump again or another smarter fascist wannabe, this brand of politics is likely to be back in 2024. Nobody in the Republican Party is seriously pushing back against it in a public way.

Americans of our generation do not have personal experience with dictatorship. Our democratic guardrails barely held this time. To advance as a multiracial democracy, Americans must call out and stop all authoritarian demagogues. If we do not reckon with authoritarianism, the American democratic experiment could very well end.

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Deena Cherry Baird April 17,1925 – December 11, 2010

December 8, 2020 4 comments

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Lisa Montgomery should not be executed – posted 12/6/2020

December 6, 2020 Leave a comment

Lisa Montgomery, a federal prisoner, is now slated to be executed on January 12, 2021. She is the only woman on federal death row. She would be the first woman executed by the federal government in 67 years.

Montgomery’s case presents a picture of contrasting narratives. There is the story of the atrocious crime she committed and then there is the story of the horribly abused and traumatized life she lived prior to her crime. How you see this case depends on what facts you choose to look at. In choosing to execute Montgomery, the federal government is ignoring and minimizing both the trauma she experienced and her mental illness.

On December 17, 2004, the authorities arrested Montgomery for the murder by strangulation of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Stinnett was pregnant at the time and Montgomery used a kitchen knife to carve her abdomen and cut out the baby whom she planned to claim as her own. There is no denying the gruesomeness of the crime.

However, Montgomery was psychotic at the time. She had been subjected to a coerced sterilization by her stepbrother whom she had married at her mother’s instigation. After she murdered Stinnett she actually took the baby home and pretended the baby was her child. On October 22, 2007, a jury convicted her and Montgomery received the death sentence.

It is impossible to understand this horrific crime without understanding the circumstances of Montgomery’s life. Montgomery’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, drank throughout her pregnancy and Lisa was born with organic brain damage. Her father deserted the family and failed to be much of a parental presence.

What followed is a long history of extreme abuse and neglect. Shaughnessy was cruel and violent to Lisa and her sisters. Lisa survived child abuse, domestic violence, incest, multiple rapes and child sex trafficking.

As a little girl, Lisa’s mother beat her and her sisters with brooms, belts, cords and hangers. She taped Lisa’s mouth shut with duct tape when she did not want to hear Lisa speaking. Her mother killed the family dog in front of Lisa and her sisters to punish them. She smashed the dog’s head in with a shovel until it died.

Lisa’s older sister, Diane, who was four years older than Lisa, has written about their mother. When Diane was a small child, her mother would force her to strip naked and lock her out of the house. She ordered Diane to wait outside in the freezing cold. When Diane was eight, one of her mother’s male friends began raping her. Social workers removed Diane but for reasons that make no sense, left Lisa there.

In this period, the mother married a man named Jack Kleiner. He punched, kicked and choked his children, including Lisa. He started sexually molesting Lisa around age 11. He raped her regularly for years. He told Lisa he would kill her whole family if she told anyone.

When Lisa turned 15, her mother started to invite men to the house to have sex with Lisa in exchange for money and services. Her mother told her she had to “pay” for her room and the new indoor plumbing by submitting to the sexual torture of gang rape. The men raped her orally, vaginally and anally one after the other.

No one intervened to help Lisa during her many years of being brutally abused even though many knew what was happening to her. School administrators, teachers, police, social services, judges and family members did nothing. She had told her cousin, Donald Kidwell, a police officer, about the gang rapes that her mother instigated. She cried and shook while describing the abuse. Kidwell now says:

“I live with regret for not speaking up about what happened to Lisa. I wonder if I had if all this could have been prevented.”

Lisa has been diagnosed with multiple mental and neurological disorders including bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy. The sexual torture caused a dissociative disorder and complex PTSD. Despite a regimen of anti-psychotic medications, Lisa still panics and often breaks out in hives if she is in a room alone with a man.

Dr. Katharine Porterfield, an expert on torture and trauma, testified that the impact of Lisa’s sexual abuse was “massive” and that her disorder was one of the most severe cases of dissociation she had ever seen.

In spite of this history, prosecutors dismissed the evidence of Montgomery’s sexual exploitation and torture as the “abuse excuse”. They faulted her mothering skills and, overlooking her obvious poverty, told the jury she lived in a “filthy home”. Her own lawyers failed to explain to the jury why repeated rape, torture and child sexual trafficking mattered.

Montgomery has accepted full responsibility for her crime and does express remorse.

Really the only thing at Issue in this case is the imposition of the death penalty as opposed to life in prison.

How do you decide the culpability of someone who was psychotic and was victimized for years? What about the fact the state never protected Montgomery against rape and unspeakable cruelty? Or the fact that as a young person she never received any care for her mental illness.

To impose the death penalty under these circumstances is not justice – it is ignorant and cruel. It ignores too much.

Forty current and former prosecutors have weighed in and have asked President Trump to grant Lisa Montgomery clemency. A coalition of United Nations human rights experts has also requested clemency for Montgomery saying she received inadequate legal assistance and pointing out that her abuse history and mental health were not adequately considered during her trial.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration appears to be in some kind of a race to execute federal prisoners before the end of Trump’s term in January. Montgomery is one of five federal prisoners Trump and Attorney General William Barr plan to kill before January 20. The Trump Administration has already executed eight people in the last five months.

The Trump Administration has expanded the allowed methods to carry out execution of federal prisoners. In addition to lethal injection, they are bringing back death by firing squad, electrocution and poison gas. Prior to this year, the federal government had not executed anyone since 2003. The last time there was an execution during a lame-duck presidency was 1889 during the outgoing administration of Grover Cleveland.

Sadly, as exemplified by the Lisa Montgomery case, we have departed from the idea that executions should be reserved for “the worst of the worst”. At a time when pardons are much discussed, I have seen little comment on the President’s clemency power under the Constitution. He has that power. As Lisa’s sister Diane has said, sparing her sister’s life “can break the chain of evil actions”.

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