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Down on earth, the ultra wealthy continue to tax evade – posted 7/22/2021

July 22, 2021 Leave a comment

There is deep cynicism about the ultra wealthy evading taxes. People expect it. Still, it was disconcerting to read ProPublica’s story about how the ultra wealthy are still gaming the system to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

I am reminded of an old quote from Eugene V. Debs:

“There is something wrong in this country; the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through.”

The whales, in earlier days known as robber barons, play by their own rules. ProPublica shows that many of our richest citizens have figured ways to pay no or minimal taxes. To name a few, Jeff Bezos paid no federal income taxes in 2007 and 2011; Elon Musk paid no taxes in 2018; and Carl Icahn paid no taxes in 2016 and 2017.

ProPublica obtained tax data on tax returns of thousands of the wealthiest Americans for over fifteen years. The pattern shows that the wealthiest pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the many millions their fortunes grew.

To the extent there is a debate over taxes it is mostly about incremental changes at the top of the tax rate. For individuals the debate is whether the high end rate should jump from 37% to 39.6%. For corporations, the rate may jump from 21% to 28%. The corporate rate was 35% before 2018.

While the income generated by these possible tax increases on the very wealthy would be much needed tax revenue, these discussions miss a bigger picture.

The IRS taxes income rather than assets like stock holdings or property. The value of stocks and property are not defined as taxable income until they are sold. As a result, much wealth escapes any IRS scrutiny. Determining the value of stocks and property would no doubt be extremely contentious but it is doable by some kind of fair and objective criteria.

The phenomena of extreme income inequality is a defining feature of our era. Over the last 16 months since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the combined wealth of 713 U.S. billionaires increased by $1.8 trillion, a gain of almost 60 percent. This increase happened at the same time the net worth of working Americans lagged.

The tax system in America is failing to come to grips with the reality of the economic inequality and the ways the ultra wealthy have maneuvered assets. Because wealth is accumulated outside the narrow realm of income, the IRS ignores it. It is like the IRS misses the boat because it is set up to address a time that no longer exists. It is not allowed to look in the right places.

ProPublica compared how much in taxes the 25 richest Americans paid between 2014-2018 compared to how much Forbes estimated their wealth grew in the same time period. The IRS records show the ultra wealthy paid only a tiny fraction of their wealth increase.

With their fleet of lawyers, the ultra wealthy have devised an array of techniques to get around the tax system. Minimizing salaries and income, holding onto stock in their companies, not paying dividends, deductions, wealth stored in off shore accounts and using loans are all legal ways the ultra wealthy have devised to minimize their tax burden.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse have demanded an investigation by the Senate Finance Committee into the ultra wealthy tax avoidance. In a letter to the Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, they write:

“…tax avoidance by the nation’s wealthiest individuals is profoundly unfair. It leaves the nation unable to pay for critical investments in infrastructure, education and health care. It favors investment income over wages, distorting our nation’s economy and adding to inequality. And it leaves low-income and middle class families paying an unfair tax burden.”

Warren and Whitehouse are also sponsoring an “ultra millionaire tax” to tax the wealthiest 100,000 households. The tax would include a 2% tax on households and trusts between $50 million and $1 billion. It would also feature an additional 1% annual surtax on the net worth of households and trusts over $1 billion.

A wealth tax at least considers a truer picture of the ultra wealthy and their schemes. It creates a mechanism for addressing wealth that has been stowed away in off-limits locations.

Since the ProPublica story broke, much media has focused on the fact that the unauthorized disclosure of confidential government information is illegal. ProPublica has not disclosed how it obtained the tax info. Republicans especially have expressed outrage about illegal violation of billionaires’ privacy. But Democrats barely had a better response. Neither party was outraged that billionaires have cheated the public by paying no or absurdly low taxes.

I am at a loss what harm occurs from the release of tax returns of the ultra wealthy. ProPublica noted that the Scandinavian countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland all regularly make public the tax returns of all citizens.

The IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig testified earlier this year that the government may be failing to collect more than $1 trillion of the taxes it is owed annually. The IRS has been starved of funding for years, crippling their ability to enforce tax law. Audits of the rich have plummeted. Poor people are now more likely to be audited than the ultra wealthy which is a travesty. The weakness of the IRS is not an accident – it has been de-clawed by the lobbyist tools of the super-rich.

When Jeff Bezos and other billionaires shoot themselves into space, maybe it is partly about obscuring the fact they do not pay fair taxes on the earth. For those old enough to remember, it is reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron singing “Whitey on the moon”.

Normalizing tax evasion by the ultra wealthy is pathological. Maybe we are worn down by outrage fatigue but it is only fundamental fairness that those who can afford to pay the most at least pay their fair share.

Categories: Uncategorized

How the COVID-19 pandemic became a public health failure – posted 7/10/2021

July 10, 2021 2 comments

When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is ultimately written, it will be seen as a failure of public health. There is broad agreement among scientists that hundreds of thousands of Americans died unnecessarily. The Lancet estimated 40% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths were avoidable.

Explaining why the deaths did happen is a story that has been inadequately told. It goes far beyond inept and negligent leadership by the Trump Administration. The story is fundamentally about how Trump subordinated public health to his presidential campaign for re-election. Protecting the country from the virus was less important than winning re-election.

Optics meant everything to Trump and his administration’s response to COVID-19 was a model for what not to do in the face of a public health emergency. In their book Nightmare Scenario, Washington Post reporters Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta chronicle the Trump COVID-19 response through the last year of his administration.

Early on in January 2020, Trump minimized the virus and said “we have it totally under control”. Abutaleb and Paletta say Trump thought he could will the virus away:

“The key to willing it away was to ensure that his public remarks conveyed no concern, no apprehension. His life, in public and private, was built on a stack of fakes and lies, an amoral brazenness that gave him a decided advantage over his adversaries…He would use the same tactic on this virus, this microbe, this tiny thing no one could see.”

Trump refused to believe the virus would come to America. For months, he repeatedly said the virus was just going to magically disappear.

When it did not disappear, he focused on creating the impression that virus numbers were minimal. Abutaleb and Paletta say Trump saw the U.S. case count like a golf score he wanted to keep low. He did not want infected passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess to disembark in America because it would double his COVID-19 numbers.

Trump actually suggested sending the ill passengers, most of whom were elderly, to Guantanamo Bay. His aides killed the idea because they realized sending elderly sick people to Gitmo was a birdbrain idea.

Trump saw the virus as a messaging problem and he wanted to control the message. In the early months of 2020 the message was: this is going away. He blamed testing for making him look bad. From his perspective, the more testing, the more cases would show up. He told Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “Testing is killing me.” He wanted to slow testing down.

There is no question though that Trump privately knew COVID-19 was deadly. He told Bob Woodward:

“This is deadly stuff. You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”

That, however, was never the public message. He always played the virus down. Trump’s re-election strategy was to keep people working and shopping no matter how many died. He remained afraid of the stock market crashing and a poor economy costing him re-election. In March 2020 he tweeted that we could not let the cure be worse than the problem. This became the mantra for Republicans and right wing media.

Things went especially haywire when Trump started touting miracle cures like hydoxychloroquine, bleach and shooting powerful lights into the body. Selling quack cures like some elixir degraded his station and made him look like a snake oil salesman. He became too easy fodder for late night comedians.

No president was ever more anti-science than Donald Trump. When public health officials like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx tried to inject reality, Trump accused them of negativity. He had contempt for his own COVID-19 Taskforce calling it “that fucking council that Mike (Pence) has”. Trump was fed up with doctors who would not tell him what he wanted to hear. He could never embrace the importance of masks and social distancing.

In the second half of 2020, Trump gave up on any pretense of fighting the virus. Trusting his gut instincts, Trump backbenched Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx in favor of Dr. Scott Atlas, a telegenic figure who appeared on FOX, who promoted discredited theories of herd immunity. Doctors in the infectious disease community were horrified. Trump returned to rallies with tightly packed crowds of people who were largely maskless.

Abutaleb and Paletta say that when Trump came down with COVID-19 he was far more sick than was ever reported to the public. His fever spiked and his blood oxygen fell below 94 percent, once dipping into the 80’s. His doctors worried he would die. Because of his access to experimental medications others could not get, he recovered but he appeared to learn nothing from the experience.

Beating the virus, he doubled down and played macho man. His message was that people should not be afraid of the virus and they should live normal lives.In effect, they should ignore the virus.

Trump’s post-illness performance, when he removed his mask after walking up the White House stairs reflected his anti-science attitude. He hated masks as a sign of weakness and he asked aides who wore masks in his presence to take them off. Appearances were always more important than science to Trump.

As the pandemic evolved, Trump was oblivious to the massive pain, hardship and suffering. He remained unable to show empathy or compassion to COVID-19 victims or their families.

In October 2020, a Trump Administration official said: “What happens when you mix politics and public health? You get politics.” Winning was everything to Trump but his incompetent handling of the pandemic was probably the biggest single reason he lost re-election.

Instead of leading a coordinated federal effort, Trump took no responsibility and downshifted blame to the states. Initially he and Jared Kushner wanted to blame blue state governors but the spike of infections in red and swing states nixed that.

Trump believed the COVID vaccine could save his electoral prospects and he was obsessed with getting the vaccine out before the November election. When that did not happen, he did not step up to counter vaccine hesitancy. You would have thought he would have championed the vaccine and then taken credit. Instead he did nothing to counter the anti-vaxxers which is tragic because COVID deaths are now almost entirely coming from red states with higher unvaccinated populations.

In a little known moment, Trump and the former First Lady got vaccinated in the White House back in January 2021. He did very little to encourage people to get vaccinated and it could have made a difference. More recently, he has railed against school age children getting the COVID-19 vaccine saying falsely that they are not affected by coronavirus.

I am not expecting any accountability for the Trump Administration’s epic failure. There is no law against doing nothing while hundreds of thousands die.Hopefully though, when the next pandemic hits, we will have learned something from this debacle.

Categories: Uncategorized

QAnon and blood libel accusations – posted 7/4/2021

July 4, 2021 1 comment

I pretend to no special expertise about the cult conspiracy theory QAnon. I tried to watch the HBO special about it and I could not get through it. I have marveled at the number of followers swept up by the cult.

The Public Religion Research Institute did a new national survey that found 15% of Americans buying into QAnon. The survey found white evangelicals and Hispanic Protestants were the most susceptible to the QAnon theory. The survey found a strong correlation between consuming right wing media sources and accepting QAnon conspiracy theory.

QAnon’s prominence in Trumpworld is undeniable. Looking at the New York Times video about January 6, QAnon supporters figured prominently. Many carried signs and wore clothing emblazoned with references to Q. Names come to mind like Jacob Chansley(the QAnon shaman), Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert: all have some connection to the Q universe.

Two QAnon supporters died on January 6 at the Capitol. In the melee, Rosanne Boyland, a Georgia woman, died from accidental acute amphetamine intoxication. It had earlier been reported she was trampled by the crowd. Ashli Babbitt, a California woman, was shot and killed by a U.S. Capitol police officer.

Why so many would join QAnon remains a mystery. A friend recently told me that Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro and Tom Hanks were all pedophiles who drink the blood of children. He said it with absolute certainty and he referred me to youtube videos for confirmation. He said that Trump is fighting against a global network of Hollywood celebrities and deep staters populating the federal government.

QAnon rests on the theory that Trump is fighting a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex-trafficking operation. QAnon supporters believe there is a storm coming that will sweep away elites in power and will restore rightful leaders. They also think American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country.

It should go without saying that the idea there is a conspiracy of blood-drinking pedophiles out there utterly defies any notion of credibility. Meryl Streep, a blood-drinking pedophile? Please. You have to ask: how can people believe it and where do such whacked-out, far-fetched ideas come from?

History provides an answer. QAnon is not the first to assert there is a cabal of blood drinkers. Over the last 1,000 years, it is a frequently recurring trope. It has been deployed by Christians against Jews, by Christians against witches, and by Catholics against heretics. Talia Lavin has written:

”…it is a malleable set of accusations that posit that a social out-group is engaged in perverse, ritualistic behaviors that target innocents – and that the out-group and all its enablers must be crushed.”

Most commonly, the accusation of ritual murder took the form of a blood libel against the Jews. The blood libel accusation was that Jews stole the blood of Christian children. The accusation was often made around Passover as Jews were supposed to require Christian blood to make matzo.

In his book, The Accusation, Edward Berenson described some other forms of the blood libel:

“Jews supposedly cleansed themselves of sin by bathing in Christian blood, used it for their weekly Sabbath ceremonies and considered it a cure for various diseases and disabilities, including impotence.”

The blood libel has been anything but harmless. During the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jews in Europe were accused of ritual murder every few years and thousands of Jews were tortured and murdered.

In the late nineteenth century, rhetorical violence against Jews became extreme. In Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Russia, newspapers spread anti-semitic lies that ritual murder of Christian children played an essential role in the Jewish religion. The myth was that Jews were murdering Christian children pursuant to Talmudic law. Allegedly, Jews needed the blood of young Christians to mix with Passover wine as ingredients for matzo.

Pogroms against Jewish communities spread through Russia, Austria-Hungary, and eastern Germany. Anti-semites looted Jewish shops and taverns, ransacked Jewish homes and acted out violently, battering and killing Jews.

QAnon connected up with and follows in this tradition of junk thought. While the QAnon movement is diverse and evolving, you do not see any denunciations of anti-semitism or white supremacy coming out of that movement. Since Twitter banned QAnon after the Capitol attack, one Q influencer named GhostEzra has emerged on Telegram spewing anti-semitic memes.

From my exposure, I would say that Q people see themselves as soldiers fighting a good fight pursuing a quest to punish bad guys. The problem is the underlying irrationality of the QAnon movement. It does not appear to matter how implausible their belief system is. Nor does it matter if there is evidence in support of the theory. This is a movement absolutely contrary to evidence-based science.

QAnon, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, gun confiscation paranoids and believers in Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election have all junked rationality. They all inhabit an anti-intellectual universe where subjective belief is all that matters. Nutty opinions are the norm and clear thinking is a casualty.

On July 3 at a campaign stop in Florida, Trump himself provided a good explanation for how he gets his followers (including QAnon believers) to believe nonsense. He said:

“There’s a word: disinformation. If you say it enough and keep saying it – just keep saying it – and they’ll start to believe you.”

This is no different than what Joseph Goebbels used to say: ”Make the lie big, keep it simple, keep saying it and eventually they will believe it.”

It is hard to know where the QAnon movement is headed or how it will survive predictions that never happen and turn out to be false. QAnon has made inroads into New Age spirituality groups. Some wellness and yoga adherents have embraced QAnon’s conspiratorial world view.

QAnon has shredded families who have to cope in the wake of a family member’s indoctrination. It can be extremely painful as non-believers can be seen as an enemy.

The cult expert Steven Hassan believes QAnon is structured like a psychological warfare operation that is akin to brainwashing and sophisticated manipulation. He stresses that it is average people who are involved who started out seeking information and answers during an uncertain time. The pandemic and its social isolation created more favorable conditions for the growth of QAnon.

Hopefully, QAnon will crash and burn. As an inheritor of the blood libel theory, its danger must not be underestimated.

Categories: Uncategorized

Oregon’s hidden history as a sundown state – posted 6/27/2021

June 27, 2021 Leave a comment

Oregon has a reputation as one of the most progressive, reliably blue states and Portland is generally seen as America’s most hip and edgy city. The motto “Keep Portland Weird” was a wall mural in the city. During the George Floyd protests, former President Trump singled out Portland for his wrath because the city was a home for Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Less well-known is the history of Oregon’s racist past. It is a past that has been hidden. Even many Oregon residents do not know about it. Oregon had a different model than Southern states for how to maintain white supremacy: do not allow black people into the state in the first place.. Oregonians opposed slavery but early settlers did not want to live around any non-white people. It was a white state by design, committed to a sick dream of white racial purity.

When Oregon became a state in 1859, the state constitution forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. Black people could not make a contract or file a lawsuit there. Under the Oregon constitution, blacks were prohibited from voting. The constitution was not corrected until 1926 and racial language was not removed from it until 2002. When the constitution was put to a vote in 1857, 87% of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state.

American history, as conventionally taught, leaves this story out. Racial history, to the extent it is taught, is taught around the battle against slavery, which is a Southern story. Abolitionists fought the heroic battle to free the slaves culminating in the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Oregon history is not part of the story.

Before statehood, Oregon Territory stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains. The Oregon territorial legislature first passed a black exclusion law in 1844. The law said that any free black people who remained in the state would be subject to flogging if they did not leave within three years. The floggings were to continue every six months until they left the territory. The penalty was not less than 20 or more than 39 lashes.

Oregonians decided that penalty was too harsh but followed up in 1849 with a new law barring black people who were not living in the area from entering or residing in Oregon territory. In 1851 Jacob Vanderpool, a black man who owned a saloon was reported to the authorities for the crime of being black in Oregon. A U.S. Marshal arrested Vanderpool and after a trial a judge gave him 30 days to leave the territory. Only six days elapsed from the time he was accused to his expulsion.

In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act which granted land to “every white settler” in the Oregon territory. It excluded people of color and abrogated Native American treaty rights. Oregon imposed an annual tax on people of color in 1862. The state also banned interracial marriage in 1866. That ban lasted until 1951.

Oregon resisted federal laws that gave black people rights. Although Oregon initially ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 it rescinded that ratification in 1868. Oregon remained one of six states that did not ratify the Fifteenth Amendment which granted black men the right to vote. Oregon did not ratify the Fifteenth Amendment until 1959 and it did not re-ratify the Fourteenth Amendment until 1973.

Justifying segregation, the Oregon Supreme Court in 1906 allowed whites to racially discriminate against blacks in theaters. The Court confirmed and sanctioned the practice of racial segregation in public places and services.

In 1919, the Realty Board of Portland approved a Code of Ethics which forbade realtors and bankers from selling or giving leases to people of color for properties located in white neighborhoods. Racially restrictive housing covenants became common and remained in force until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968. Redlining still goes on.

In the 1920’s Oregon became a Ku Klux Klan hotbed. It was home to the biggest Klan organization west of the Mississippi River with over 40,000 members in 50 chapters across the state. In 1922, Walter Pierce, a KKK sympathizer, was elected Governor. It is not clear if he was actually a Klan member or just an ally. So few people of color lived in Oregon, the Klan needed to find a new focus and moved to campaign against Catholics.

Because of its acts of violence and its agenda of hatred, the Klan alienated itself from most Oregonians. An event known as the Medford Outrage which included several lynching attempts turned the public against the Klan. By the mid-1920’s the Klan was already in steep decline. Oregonians stopped paying Klan dues, hastening its demise.

By 1940, Oregon had a population of less than 1,800 black residents. World War II brought an expansion of shipbuilding. The Kaiser shipbuilding company built a physically segregated city north of Portland called Vanport. It became the second largest city in Oregon and it was 40% black. Black and white workers were both attracted to jobs in the shipbuilding industry.

Vanport was surrounded on all sides by bodies of water. In the spring of 1948 after a winter of heavy rainfall, a dam broke and the city washed away in less than an hour. Days before the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had deemed the dikes safe and the Housing Authority of Portland had distributed flyers to every house in Vanport telling people the dam would hold. The flood left nearly 17,000 people homeless. Looking back, the flood was an example of early day environmental racism.

The Pacific Northwest and especially Oregon remained a recruiting ground for far right groups who wanted to create an Aryan homeland. In 1988 in Portland Ethiopian student and father Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by three skinheads affiliated with the White Aryan Resistance. More recently in 2017 a white supremacist fatally stabbed two men and injured a third on a light rail train. The white supremacist was harassing two black teenage women.

As of 2019, Oregon’s black population was just over 2%. Portland remains the whitest big city in the United States.These small numbers are not an accident. They reflect policies, practices and ideologies in effect for 180 years. Oregon is probably the only sundown state in America, a state that systematically and methodically kept out blacks. Sundown towns have been extremely common all over America but states not so much.

A sundown town is a jurisdiction that kept blacks or other people of color from living in it and was “all white” on purpose. The sundown reference refers to signs all over America located on the outskirts of town that used to say “N——, Don’t let the Sun Go Down on You in ____”. Much of Oregon remains inhospitable and dangerous for people of color.

I am certainly not saying Oregon is the worst or most racist state. Every state has its own dark history around racism. I also should say that I focused on discrimination against black people but Asian-Americans have their own parallel story of experiencing racist discrimination as do Native Americans.

With the passage of the “divisive concepts” legislation, New Hampshire is moving backwards as far as honestly facing its own racist past. Forbidding teaching about discrimination is an embarrassment. Somebody needs to tell the Republicans in the legislature that it is not the 1950’s any more.

The white conservatives and libertarians behind HB 544 are trying to hide, obscure and deny history. I wondered whether Oregon’s racist history would be too much reality for their tender senses. Intellectual integrity and academic freedom demand the fullest exploration of all of our history not just the parts conservative white men want to hear.

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The Democrats’ Big Mistake – posted 6/20/2021

June 20, 2021 2 comments

For many, Joe Biden’s election win in 2020 represented an enormous relief. Even losing, the Trump cult scared the hell out of people committed to democracy.

Since he became President, Biden has tried his best to restore a sense of normalcy and national unity. In his low-key, grandfatherly way he has worked hard to move on from the madcap absurdities of the Trump era where the world waited on edge daily for the next egomaniacal toxic tweet storm.

Historically, Biden has been a centrist and a bi-partisan institutionalist. He is the mildest of progressives although he has an ambitious agenda. It would appear he thinks public policy achievements will roll back the anti-democratic threat Trump represents.

While I understand Biden’s desire to present Trump as a bizarre aberration and a kind of presidential freak show, I think he and his administration are making a big mistake in underestimating the danger Trump and his movement continue to represent. They have not gone away but are waiting in the wings for 2022 and 2024. Ignoring Trump’s crimes only increases the likelihood of their repetition in the future.

I am sure Democrats worry that continuing to focus on Trump crimes will interfere with the accomplishment of more forward-looking goals. Unfortunately forgetting is not a great strategy for combatting the next rounds of authoritarian comeback which are certain to happen.

The former president refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the election he lost. Such a reaction is common from dictators and autocrats who never want to give up power and try to maintain it at all costs. According to the New York Times, Trump is saying he will be reinstated as President in August even though there is no constitutional provision for reinstatement. The election audits Trump has promoted like in Arizona trigger no mechanism for him to remove Biden.

We continue to learn more about Trump and his inner circle’s ultra-aggressive behavior. In late December 2020, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pushed the Department of Justice to overturn Trump’s election loss. Meadows wanted the then acting-Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to look into election fraud claims in Georgia and New Mexico.

Meadows also wanted Rosen to look into a bonkers conspiracy theory known as Italygate which claims people in Italy had used military technology and satellites to remotely switch votes for Trump to Biden on U.S. voting machines. Meadows’ actions violated a long-standing guideline which forbid White House personnel from contacting the Department of Justice about ongoing investigations.

This came after Trump’s efforts to get Rosen to probe Dominion Voting Systems which Trump falsely claimed had perpetrated widespread voter fraud as well as his effort to directly ask the Supreme Court to invalidate Biden’s win. Trump also had famously asked Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger to “find” 11,780 votes.

Raffensberger and his family received threats of violence for months after the November election. Trump’s claim that the election was rigged prompted a campaign to terrorize election officials nation-wide. Both Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have received death threats. Benson contended with armed protesters outside her home in December.

Many lower level and middle level election workers also have received death threats, harassing phone calls and emails. Among those targeted have been black election workers who have been subjected to vicious racist intimidation by threatening pro-Trump callers, texters and emailers.

After failing at efforts to overturn the election, Trump resorted to his coup attempt on January 6. Spreading false claims that the election was stolen, Trump in December told his supporters to come to a rally that would be “wild”. Trump world, including an assortment of far right activists, urged people to get to the Capitol by 1pm on January 6. Many pro-Trump websites amped up the event touting the start of a civil war.

When the Senate failed to impeach Trump for the second time, Sen. Mitch McConnell excoriated Trump for his actions on January 6 saying:

“There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”

However, McConnell and the Republican Party would ultimately not even accept a bi-partisan January 6 Commission. They want no further investigation. We narrowly avoided a successful coup but so far there has been no reckoning with Trump’s many excesses. Instead of rejecting Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election, two-thirds to three-quarters of Republicans continue to say Biden was illegitimately elected.

Trump and his allies have transformed the Republican Party into an entity that no longer believes in democratic majority governance. They are opposed to the idea that Democrats can win elections fairly. Knowing they will not win popular votes, their strategy has devolved into making it as hard as possible to vote.

Trump’s Big Lie has propelled the Republicans’ massive voter suppression effort. Without federal intervention in support of voting rights, the Republican control of many state legislatures and Governor offices makes it likely their voter suppression will be effective in many states.

More than twice as many Republicans as Democrats – nearly two in five Republicans – said in a January poll that violence could be justified against their opponents.

Sadly, the Democrats’ efforts to respond to this subversion of democracy have been weak. It is almost like they are clueless about what they are up against. Trump makes Richard Nixon look like a choir boy.

Fifty years from now, historians will probably still be uncovering Trump crimes including self-enrichment and emoluments violation, concentration camps and human rights violations against immigrants, unnecessary COVID-19 deaths and the failure of public health, promotion of environmental degradation, violation of election laws and racist voter suppression, sexual harassment and fraud of all varieties. Chauncey DeVega has written:

“It is more likely than not that the true extent of the Trump regime’s crimes are so great and horrible that the Biden Administration and senior members of the Democratic Party have either actively decided or come to a tacit understanding that it is in the best interests of the country to somehow conceal them – or at the very least to let these heinous acts leak out slowly, as to then be lost down the memory well.”

Democracy requires accountability. I support the idea of President Biden and Congress appointing an independent special prosecutor to investigate White House crimes committed during the Trump era. At least during Watergate, Democrats effectively tried to get to the bottom of criminal activity. Organized forgetting does not bode well.

I was disgusted when I heard that Biden’s Department of Justice was continuing to defend Trump in E.Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit against Trump. Carroll had accused Trump of raping her in the dressing room of a Manhattan department store more than two decades ago.Trump denied the allegations. The Department of Justice has argued Trump was acting within the scope of his official duties as president when he denied Carroll’s allegations. The DOJ position is morally and legally wrong and an embarrassment.

Fascist and authoritarian movements have played liberals before. Political adversaries of European fascists in the 1920’s and 1930’s thought they could rein in and control the fascists. They mistakenly underestimated the capability of the fascists to control them, with disastrous consequences.

Americans have a generally poor record of responding to crimes by rich and powerful people. We have been far more zealous about attacking blue collar crime. A real reckoning demands a full public accounting of Trump crimes. Without that, the Democrats are placing themselves and everyone else at serious future risk.

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Anti-Semitism must be taken more seriously and opposed more vigorously – posted 6/13/2021

June 13, 2021 Leave a comment

In New York City’s Time Square, a group of men punched, kicked and pepper-sprayed a 29 year old Jewish man who was wearing a yarmulke. The group was shouting anti-semitic words.

In New York City’s Upper West Side, a Jewish man headed to Trader Joe’s to buy food for the Sabbath. A group of teens followed him saying, “Yarmulke. I want to take that yarmulke. I want to hit him in his head and take that yarmulke.That Jewish baby-killer.”

In Brooklyn, a different group of males harassed Orthodox Jews getting ready for Sabbath. The group shouted “Free Palestine – kill all the Jews”. The group banged on locked synagogue doors and when they could not get in they broke off the mirror on a nearby parked car. A little later, the group chased people perceived as Jews with a baseball bat and put a 17 year old in a chokehold.

In Skokie Illinois, someone shattered a window in a synagogue.

In Arizona, police are investigating someone spray-painting a swastika and an anti-Semitic slur on the door of a Tucson synagogue. This was the second synagogue in the city vandalized recently.

In Los Angeles, pro-Palestinian demonstrators attacked Jewish diners at a sushi restaurant.

All these episodes happened in the wake of May’s military conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. During that fighting in May, the Anti-Defamation League tracked a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States including assaults, vandalism, harassment and hate speech. On Twitter, there were more than 17,000 tweets using variations of the phrase “Hitler was right” between May 7-14.

It would appear that Jews are being blamed worldwide for the violence in Gaza. As in the U.S., Jews in Europe have also seen an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. Anti-Semites use human rights abuses by the Israeli state against Palestinians as cover for hatred of Jews everywhere.

As a Jewish American, I am not responsible for the actions of the Israeli state. Just for the record, I am a progressive and an anti-fascist. I oppose racism, sexism and class oppression. I support LGBTQ rights. I have opposed the Netanyahu government and the occupation but in this instance, I do not think a person’s position on Israel and the Palestinians is the issue.

In the American Jewish community, there are a wide range of views about Israel but that is an entirely separate matter from anti-Semitism in the United States.

I am among those progressives who were jolted by Charlottesville in 2017. The sight of neo-nazis with their tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” was bracing and a wake-up call. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting reinforced my feelings.

Progressives, along with all others on the political spectrum, have under-estimated the anti-Semitic threat and I think that comes out of a weak historical understanding of both anti-Semitism and fascism.

Anti-Semitic hatred is uniquely deep-seated. It has been justifiably called the longest hatred. Think crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the blood libel and the Holocaust. The body count is enormous but there is a tendency to downplay the danger because of the relative economic success of American Jews. The myth that all Jews are rich figures prominently in the anti-Semitic playbook.

The truth has some complexity. While American Jews as a whole represent the highest earning religious group in the U.S., more than half of American Jews earn less than $99,000 per year with 31 percent earning less than $49,000 per year. Contrary to the stereotype, many Jews do not have much money.

The stereotype that Jews are rich and greedy has a long historical background. Going back to the Middle Ages, Jews had restrictions placed on their economic activity and they were sometimes prohibited from owning land. Ruling classes set up Jews in intermediate positions between those with real power and those without. It was convenient for ruling classes to place Jews in positions where they could be a focus for popular anger that might otherwise be directed at the ruling class.

For over 1500 years, the Church helped generate a popular culture of hatred toward Jews. Anti-Jewish legislation adopted by the Church became the law of the land throughout Christian Europe. Jewish-Christian marriages were forbidden, except in the case of conversion by the Jewish party. Jewish property rights were narrowed. Jews were barred from practicing law and Jews were prevented from testifying against a Christian. In some countries, Jews were forcibly baptized or expelled.

The character Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes to mind. As an unscrupulous money-lender, Shylock depicted the stereotype of Jewish greed. Jews like the Rothschilds or George Soros are still imagined to control the world’s financial systems. Cartoons of grotesque fat Jewish bankers running the planet are epidemic. Conspiracy theories live off half-baked ideas and images.

In her podcast, the comedian Sarah Silverman has directly confronted the anti-Semitic mythology that connects Jews and money. She says:

“The conceit that Jews are rich is why the Holocaust happened. That was the idea they were pushing that got people on board with Nazism.”

I think there is truth in Silverman’s perspective. The Nazis played on the thousand year hatred that had religious and economic roots. Scapegoating was central to their project. Progressives who write off anti-Semitism in the hierarchy of racisms are missing why it remains dangerous. Nazis did not ultimately care whether a Jewish person was rich or not. Rich Jews ended up on the trains to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Dachau and Treblinka too.

Interestingly, Sarah Silverman is from New Hampshire. She lived in Bedford. She described on her podcast how growing up she was used to hearing the phrase “Jew them down”. In high school when she was doing comedy she tells how she was performing, getting laughs and she did a quick turn to serious. She spit out, “Jew is not a verb. It is me, your friend”. After that, she said among her friends she never again heard Jew used as a verb.

Jew-hatred is like other racial hatred or hatred of gay people. It is profoundly irrational. Progressives who do not integrate an understanding of anti-Semitism along with other racism have a superficial grasp of the forms of oppression. They are also not listening closely to the neo-nazis and white supremacists.

The white power movement sees the Jews as an all-powerful force in the background, controlling events and using other minorities and immigrants as pawns in their game. They do not see the Jews as white. They see the Jews as the puppet masters, pursuing white genocide and replacement of white people by minorities.

In acknowledging anti-Semitism, I would recognize that in America the history of oppression against African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinx people has been far worse. That is undisputed but it does not minimize Jew-hatred.

America has a strong First Amendment tradition of religious tolerance. Compared to Europe, anti-Semites have had less success here. Still, Jews need allies who will stand with them and oppose anti-Semitism. Passive or indifferent bystanders do not stop perpetrators. Recent experience provides evidence that a threat remains. As with other racism, anti-Semitism must be vigorously opposed.

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Almost summer – posted 6/12/2021

June 12, 2021 1 comment

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Race-norming and the deeper picture of racism in the NFL – posted 6/6/2021

June 6, 2021 5 comments

Since the 2013 settlement of the NFL concussion lawsuit, there continue to be legal skirmishes about compensation. Two black players, Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport, sued after they were refused a payout under the compensation scheme for brain injuries. The players accused the NFL of racial bias in its administration of settlement funds through a practice called race-norming.

In its use of race-norming, the NFL compared a player’s cognitive test scores with the supposed norm for his demographic group. Under the methodology, black players were assumed to possess a lower level of cognitive function than the average white player. In order to qualify for compensation, the average black player had to demonstrate a greater level of cognitive decline than their white teammates. They needed to score lower to qualify.

To quote NFL safety Eric Reid:

“Race-norming equals blacks are dumber than whites so the brain injuries they suffered didn’t effect them as traumatically because they were dumb to begin with.”

The NFL defended its practice saying that race-norming was used to forestall bias in aptitude tests but then it announced it would stop using the race-based formula.

Judge Anita Brody, the federal court judge overseeing the concussion settlement, threw out the lawsuit filed by Henry and Davenport but she asked for a report about the use of a race-based formula to measure cognitive impairment and to determine eligibility for compensation.

So far, 2000 NFL retirees have filed dementia claims and there have been fewer than 600 awards. The vast majority of NFL retirees are black. Awards have averaged $516,000 for the 371 former players diagnosed with early stage dementia and $715,000 for the 207 players diagnosed with moderate dementia.

Even if not badly intentioned, the NFL’s practice of race-norming reeks of eugenics and our past societal history of scientific racism. While it is little remembered now, racists justified the enslavement of black people by spreading bogus “scientific” theories of black inferiority. Dr. Katherine Possin, a neuropsychology professor and researcher, responded to the race-norming controversy:

“One danger to the continued use of race norms is it perpetuates a false idea that there are genetic differences in intelligence that fall along race lines and that’s simply not true.”

The plaintiff Kevin Henry, now 52, who had his case dismissed by Judge Brody has described how life is different for him now:

“I had more friends. I was more social. I could carry on a conversation without repeating where I was in the conversation. I could find my way around the city better. I could drive without having accidents. Those kind of things have all changed. I am more of a reclusive person now.”

Henry sustained multiple concussions as a defensive lineman playing eight seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. An NFL-approved clinician has diagnosed Henry with mild to moderate dementia but his claim was denied. Henry delineated how he felt watching the NFL’s PR portraying itself as a social justice ally:

“They come out with all these slogans like ‘We care’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. And I’m sitting there, like, you’re lying. You’re lying out of your teeth. It’s so painful to sit there and watch, knowing that you know something totally different.”

I think the race-norming highlights how little progress the NFL has made in seriously addressing its institutional racism. The NFL owners sit atop a massive mountain of cash but their lawyers aggressively fight the claims of black retirees. Denying claims of black players is a money-saving scheme.

It must not be forgotten that the NFL worked for years to hide and minimize the danger of concussions.

To present an overview: of the 32 NFL teams, there are no black owners. Two people of color, Shahid Rafiq Khan, a Pakistani-born American who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kim Pegula, a woman of South Korean descent who co-owns the Buffalo Bills, own NFL teams.

There are three black head coaches and two black general managers in the league. Players of color make up 73% of the NFL but there is a lack of diversity among higher-ups in management and in coaching staffs. There is an acute underrepresentation of African Americans in leadership positions.

This has happened in spite of the Rooney rule established in 2003 which was intended to address racial inequities at the head coaching level. The reality is that the Rooney rule has largely failed. As Jemele Hill has written, NFL owners who are almost all white men have not been willing to let African Americans call plays – either on the field or from the sidelines. Hill wrote:

“This is no different from when franchises presumed that black players weren’t smart enough to play quarterback and lacked leadership skills to command men.”

The NFL owners are representative of the broader American ruling class. They mostly pay lip service to Black Lives Matter. They fund some good social justice endeavors but they maintain the rich white male club just like most Fortune 500 companies do. They guard the 1 percent level money and power and they have a financial set-up they want to maintain. There is an exclusivity to their upper class network that is impervious to change.

I know that many may not be sympathetic to the NFL players but consider this: the average NFL player’s career lasts only 2.5 years. Many suffer brutal neurological and orthopedic injuries. The money is very good but typically very short-lived. About 80 percent of NFL players go bankrupt or suffer financial hardship within two years of leaving the game.

It was wrong when NFL owners blackballed Colin Kaepernick because he had the courage to speak up about unconscionable police brutality. But racism in the NFL cuts far deeper than what happened to Kaepernick. Racism is baked into the NFL. Uprooting it will require much more than slick PR.

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Why the January 6 Commission Matters – posted 5/30/2021

May 30, 2021 Leave a comment

By a vote of 54-35, Senate Republicans defeated the bill to establish a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. Normally, 54-35 would be a decisive win but under Senate filibuster rules, advocates needed 60 votes so the bipartisan commission failed.

You do not have to look too hard to figure why the Republicans do not want the truth to come out. They are afraid of the truth and what it will show about their complicity. To me this is very similar to their opposition to critical race theory. They do not want to critically re-examine the racial history of the United States. It is better to sweep it under the rug.

The questions a January 6 commission could investigate are straightforward and would be helpful to prevent future insurrectionary events. These questions occurred to me:

  • Who financed January 6 and who planned it?
  • Was the Capitol attack planned by Trump and his inner circle? How much was January 6 an inside job?
  • What was Trump doing before and during the riot?
  • What role did members of Congress or congressional staff play in the insurrection? Did any Congresspeople help plan it or coordinate with others before, during, or after the event?
  • What role, if any, did prominent figures like Michael Flynn or Roger Stone play in these events?
  • Why did security at the Capitol fail so badly? Why did the National Guard show up hours after it was needed?
  • Was physical harm intended against members of Congress, senators, or the Vice-President? Was the gallows set up outside the Capitol symbolic only or were hangings seriously contemplated?
  • What weapons did the insurrectionists bring to the Capitol?
  • How were the two bombs found connected to the insurrection?
  • Did insurrectionists actually believe they could disrupt or prevent Biden’s certification as president?
  • How coordinated were the actions of far right extremists like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Boogaloo Bois?
  • How much were extremist elements within the military and law enforcement involved in the insurrection, did they have any special role and were they coordinated?
  • What is the narrative the January 6 insurrectionists are telling to explain these events?
  • Was the January 6 insurrection a dress rehearsal for any future event? Is it part of a fascist radicalization process?
  • Why were so many Republicans opposed to even a bi-partisan investigation? Was it simply fear of adverse consequences in the 2022 mid-term elections?
  • What steps need to be taken to prevent any future January 6-type events?

When Republicans pretend there is nothing to be learned, you can only shake your head. There are so many questions that deserve real answers. I think many Democrats do not get the urgency and gravity of the situation and many Republicans do not want Trump to be held accountable for the effort to subvert democracy.

Forgetting January 6 serves a political and a propaganda agenda. That agenda is about burying the truth and denying obvious facts. All politicians lie but what sets Trump apart was the absolute lack of any intellectual integrity. Facts that conflict with his goals of power and profit are simply denied.

Trump is squarely within the tradition of fascist and authoritarian leaders who rely on disinformation and propaganda to instill loyalty and to motivate followers to carry out his agenda. Remember in 2018 when Trump said:

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

The historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written:

“At its core, propaganda is a set of communication strategies designed to sow confusion and uncertainty, discourage critical thinking and persuade people that reality is what the leader says it is.”

Republicans have manufactured a mythology about January 6. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll about January 6 found that 73 percent of Republicans pin “some” or “a great deal” of responsibility on “left wing protesters trying to make Trump look bad”. This is even though we all saw who was there with all the Trump flags and Trump paraphernalia. Were our eyes lying?

Other polls have consistently shown that two-thirds of Republicans believe Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. That Big Lie then feeds the Republican voter suppression efforts.

We are at a bad place when we as a nation lack a common baseline of facts. Fascism thrives on disappearing knowledge that conflicts with its ideology. The total fantasy of a stolen election can only harm our democracy. There is no credible proof of voter fraud in 2020 but millions seem to be buying in.

Without a serious investigation of January 6, Republicans will be even more empowered to allow political violence in the future.

Democrats seem to lack the toughness to deal with these very unpleasant realities and some like Joe Manchin seem genuinely surprised by Republican recalcitrance. Ignoring bad things will not make them go away. It is better to have a Select House Committee investigate, than nothing. Such a committee would still have subpoena power. It could address the many questions raised.

I would suggest it is a mistake to look at January 6 as an isolated event, separate and apart from earlier history. It should be seen as a step in the process of fascist radicalization by a significant part of the Republican electorate. By no means is the January 6 insurrection finished.

Growing up as a Jewish young person, I believed that the struggle against fascism was something that you read about or observed happening in other countries. Never did I think I would be living it here in America. How surprising life can be.

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Criminalizing protest as a symptom of fascist decay – posted 5/23/2021

May 23, 2021 1 comment

It has now been almost four years since neo-Nazi James Fields plowed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville during the infamous “Unite the Right” demonstration. Fields severely hurt over 30 people and killed 32 year old Heather Heyer. Fields was later convicted of first degree murder, malicious wounding and hit and run. He pled guilty to 29 federal hate crime charges to avoid the death penalty.

While the act of driving a vehicle into a crowd of people is deranged, the truth is that since the George Floyd protests, dozens of drivers have maliciously rammed into crowds of protesters marching in roadways. USA Today reported cars have hit demonstrators 104 times since the Floyd protests began. There have been two fatalities, one in Seattle and another in Bakersfield, California.

Instead of recognizing the criminality of such cold-blooded, vicious behavior, Republican legislators around the country responded with laws providing immunity for drivers who kill or injure protesters. It is like they are offering permission and a seal of approval to assault protesters with their cars. They are making it easier for that to happen.

The ACLU calls these bills “hit and kill” bills. In April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that grants civil immunity to people who decide to drive their cars into protesters who are engaging in non-violent civil disobedience, blocking a road. Republican legislators in Oklahoma similarly passed a bill that grants civil and criminal immunity to motorists who kill or injure protesters “fleeing from a riot”.

These bills are part of a broader effort to criminalize protest and narrow our First Amendment rights. GOP legislators in 34 states introduced 81 anti-protest bills since the beginning of the year. Using the excuse of being “anti-riot”, many of these bills make it dangerous to engage in mass public protests of any kind.

The bills do things like expand the definition of rioting to sweep up more protesters under that rubric. Florida makes it a crime to use what they call “mob intimidation” which is defined as when three or more people “gather to threaten to force another person from taking a viewpoint against their will”. What constitutes “mob intimidation” is beyond vague, just wildly open to interpretation. Vagueness allows prosecutorial mischief with chilling effect.

In Iowa, the legislature introduced an anti-protest bill that would increase the penalties for a riot from an aggravated misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill enhances the punishment for unlawful assembly by those who block streets or sidewalks during protests. South Carolina has also proposed legislation that criminalizes blocking streets or sidewalks and imposes a punishment of five years in prison.

In power and rising to power, fascist parties typically do not tolerate political opposition and dissent. They have a history of gaining power by squashing political opposition. The anti-riot bills are the Republican response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the ferment caused by the repeated episodes of police brutality. They are a further step down the authoritarian road.

This criminalizing of protest is part of a broader pattern discarding any quality of normalcy in Republican politics. We are witnessing the degeneration of the party into a 21st century fascist entity.

I am not being hyperbolic. Consider the voter suppression legislation in many states, the refusal to accept the 2020 presidential election and the peaceful transfer of power, opposition to a January 6 Commission, the sexist effort to eliminate womens’ reproductive rights, and the Trump-inspired “patriotic education” bills which attempt to whitewash American history.

Winning at all costs is the game plan and amorality is the ethos.

These are all pieces of a bigger puzzle and the cumulative picture is not the old Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It is a different creature. The party is now unified in its submission to a cult of personality. Along with commitment to white supremacy, loyalty to Donald Trump, aspiring dictator, is the reigning ideology. Republicans must slavishly fall into line behind their Dear Leader or face the ostracized fate of Liz Cheney.

The party has wedded itself to the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. For Republicans, how humiliating to mouth a fraudulent narrative when the entire world knows it is a lie. You get the absurd spectacle of the Arizona audit.

Fear of Trump and his goons keep Republican officeholders in line. Some like Rep. Pete Meijer (R-MI) have expressed concern about the physical safety of Republican colleagues who told him they were afraid to impeach Trump after January 6. GOP freshman Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-S.C) applied for a concealed carry permit and sent her kids away out of fear because she opposed Trump’s effort to overturn the election. Trump increased tolerance for intimidation, hate and bullying inside the party.

Officeholders like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu who take the most modest steps to separate from Trump are extremely careful to never disparage him. This is no profile in courage. Behind his smiling face, Sununu must worry the Trump mob might turn on him. Only a very few Republicans have had the courage to speak up about the authoritarianism.

In both 2016 and 2020, Trump said losing was not an option. In 2016, he had said he would not accept the results of the election – until he won. In 2020, Trump lost but refused to concede. Refusing to concede broke with a democratic tradition dating back to 1797 when George Washington willingly stepped down as our first president.

If you argue that losing is an impossible result, you are mirroring the behavior of autocrats who refuse to give up power and who reject the results of democratic elections.

What motivates rank and file Republicans to reject democracy in favor of a Putin-wannabee figure like Trump? Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, offered a surprising answer. Researching 377 people who were arrested in connection with the January 6 insurrection, Pape found that fear of the “Great Replacement” was a powerful motivator.

Insurrectionists interviewed believed minorities are replacing white population due to mass immigration policies and low white birthrate. Pape found that the insurrectionists were generally older and more professional than right wing protesters surveyed in the past. They were overwhelmingly white and male. A high percentage of the insurrectionists hailed from counties experiencing a significant decline in the non-Hispanic white population.

Fascist movements rely on scapegoating and, in America, immigrants are playing the role the Jews played in Nazi Germany.

People who identify as Republicans need to ask themselves: are you on board with junking democracy for fascism? What happens next with the Republican Party could make or break our democracy.

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