Friday, February 24, 2017

Bannon brings nationalist deconstruction to CPAC

Posted By on Fri, Feb 24, 2017 at 9:11 AM

Bannon at CPAC - J.M. GIORDANO
  • J.M. Giordano
  • Bannon at CPAC
Steve Bannon, the schlubby alt-right White House advisor who wants to destroy the state, was the clear star of the first day of the conservative circle jerk that is CPAC.

Bannon shared the stage with Reince Priebus, former head of the Republican National Committee, but nobody really cared what Priebus said. Partly because Priebus talks a lot more than Bannon, who has not appeared publicly since Trump won the election. But it was also because Priebus sounded pretty much like everyone else, while Bannon talked like a stoned college senior who somehow accidentally found himself secretly ruling the most powerful country in the world.

The first thing clear on the inaugural day of the conference where Trump first laid out his own political agenda half a decade ago was that Kellyanne Conway, who co-ran the campaign, in its later stages, with Bannon, is on the outs. She spoke at 9:10 am, when almost no one was there yet. She was the opening act of the opening act, followed by Dr. Larry Arm, the head of Hillsdale College. Never heard of him? Exactly. I mean he was talking about Socrates and quoting Latin and shit.
That’s how bad it looks for Kellyanne right now. But, even if it required talking largely in generalities, she did avoid telling big major falsehoods or inventing terrorist attacks. She did seem to confuse herself for a millennial for a moment, when asked about feminism. “This generation particularly don’t particularly like labels,” she said of the youngsters, adding “we’re not necessarily joiners or like to label ourselves.”

In giving a bit of advice, she may have directed a bit of it at the prez, saying: “Don’t live online. Live in real time … Make sure people see something other than the top of your head.”

Shortly after Conway wrapped up, Dan Schneider of the American Conservative Union, which was hosting the event, gave a talk on how the “alt right ain’t right at all.”

He referred to the alt right as a “sinister organization trying to worm its way into our ranks” and as “garden variety left-wing fascists.”

Yep. You got that right. The far-far right racists like Richard Spencer, who was mobbed by press and eventually kicked out of the conference, are leftist.

But when Bannon and Priebus took the stage, the repeated use of the words “nationalism” and “deconstruction”—and Bannon's repeated attacks on the press as the “opposition party”—made it hard not to think about fascism.

He said he wanted the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

“If you look at these Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction,” Bannon said.

“You know, I've said that there's a new political order that's being formed out of this. And it's still being formed,” Bannon said. “But I think we—the center core of what we believe, [is] that we're a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a—and a reason for being. And I think that is what unites us and I think that is what is going to unite this movement going forward.”

This is scary. Remember, these are supposedly small government guys talking about creating a new political order around a national culture..

The "corporatist globalist media" is opposed to Trump's “economic nationalism,” he said, adding that things would get worse because the “opposition party” would fight back.

"If you think they [press] are going to give you your country back without a fight you are sadly mistaken,” Bannon said.

Displayed behind his head was the logo for the Breitbart News Network — one of CPAC's sponsors.
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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Indiana's legislature positions itself to fail

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2017 at 9:59 AM

House chambers at the Indiana Statehouse.
  • House chambers at the Indiana Statehouse.

In the past week, the Committee on Elections and Apportionment failed to move HB 1014 along to the full House. That anti-gerrymandering bill calls for establishing a commission to oversee redistricting. Unless bold action has been taken since this writing, the bill is dead for this session.

There is no other bill of greater importance before the Indiana General Assembly. A redistricting commission would help correct the corrupt practice of providing safe seats for Indiana's congressional representatives and those holding positions in the State Senate and House.

However, our self-serving, one party legislature has no interest in promoting democracy. Even those in the minority party have little concern for fair primaries and elections.

Indiana will continue to have a legislature that is not representative of the people and not focused on the future of our economy. Instead, the General Assembly will persist as an instrument of the powerful and the privileged. The priorities of slumbering and backward industries will prevail, subjecting Hoosier communities and workers to a spiral of weak and mediocre economic performance.

Let's look at just one example of how it works. In January 2011, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce issued "Right to Work and Indiana's Economic Future." The report suggested a grim future for the state, if RTW did not pass. It was as impressive as the performance of a stage magician, a masterpiece of misdirection.

At that time Right to Work (RTW) was in place in 22 of the 50 states. With the U.S. and Indiana in the massive Great Recession, the General Assembly, grasping at anything which promised more jobs, passed RTW in 2012. The law did not clear the Indiana Supreme Court until November 2014.

The Chamber's 2011 report showed the growth of Indiana's Gross State Product (GSP) and Per Capita Personal Income (PCPI) lagged well behind both the 22 RTW states and the 28 Non-RTW states from 1977 to 2008. Clearly, the Hoosier experience was due to more than the presence or absence of RTW. This may have come as a surprise to legislators who had been dozing for the past three decades.

What then happened without RTW during the period 2008 - 2015? In terms of Gross State Product, Indiana had the 24th best growth, ahead of 12 of the RTW states. In terms of Per Capita Personal Income, Indiana had the 25th best growth rate, ahead of 11 of the RTW states.

In effect, Indiana's economic performance 2008 - 2015 without RTW was very average, traditionally mediocre, but better than the 1977 to 2008 period. The legislature had been bulldozed again by special interests and their specious, ideological onslaught.

Redistricting should bring about more careful consideration of facts by improving the quality of representation, removing the deadwood, and reducing the impact of special interests. But can it be done with the current low quality of representation, the accumulated deadwood, and the dominance of special interests?

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Trump's press conference proves his enemy is objective reality

Posted By on Fri, Feb 17, 2017 at 12:16 PM

ILLUSTRATION BY ANDREW KLEINDOLPH
  • Illustration by Andrew Kleindolph


For a moment earlier this week, it seemed that the regime might have to come to terms with the reality the rest of us share. But Trump’s Thursday press conference reaffirmed the notion that objective reality is his real enemy.

As the story of Mike Flynn’s ignominious resignation broke, the far far right immediately said it was an establishment coup initiated by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. They felt like KellyAnne Conway and the Steves (Bannon and Miller) would be next.

They understood that if Trump conceded anything to reality, the entire edifice would crumble. He won the campaign on a Foucauldian casting of truth as a discourse designed to benefit those in power—whether the press, the scientists, or the intelligence community, or the bureaucrats.

The far far right saw Flynn’s resignation as a victory for the press and so did several news orgs. And then, when illegal-immigrant hiring and tax-dodging Hardee’s hotdog and Carl Jr Jefe Andrew Puzder had to back out because four Republican Senators refused to support his bid for Labor, it looked like the regime might begin to normalize despite itself.

Then Trump held that crazy-ass press conference. The bad week was all a media conspiracy:

“Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, D.C., along with New York, Los Angeles in particular, speaks not for the people, but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system. The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. Tremendous disservice. We have to talk to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”

This is nothing new for Trump, of course, but it should kill the hopes of any optimist who thinks this is not going to end badly. The whole press conference was intended to make citizens distrust everyone but Trump. It only looks like he is doing so poorly because the elites are against him.

“I am talking — and really talking on this very entrenched power structure, and what we’re doing is we’re talking about the power structure; we’re talking about its entrenchment. As a result, the media is going through what they have to go through too often times distort — not all the time — and some of the media is fantastic, I have to say — they’re honest and fantastic,” he said.

“But much of it is not a — the distortion — and we’ll talk about it, you’ll be able to ask me questions about it. But we’re not going to let it happen, because I’m here again, to take my message straight to the people.”

Again, classic Trump authoritarianism. And now, despite the fact that he got five deferrals in Vietnam and never served, he claims to have used military equipment.

“But our country will never have had a military like the military we’re about to build and rebuild. We have the greatest people on earth in our military, but they don’t have the right equipment and their equipment is old. I used it; I talked about it at every stop. Depleted, it’s depleted — it won’t be depleted for long,” he said.

No one asked “Uh, when did you use military equipment?” because there were so many goddamn other crazy things to ask about. And just to make sure no one can get too nitpicky, he throws in a lot of stuff that just doesn’t mean anything at all to keep everyone confused and off guard.

“Obamacare is a disaster, folks. It is a disaster. I know you can say, oh, Obamacare. I mean, they fill up our alleys with people that you wonder how they get there, but they are not the Republican people our that representatives are representing.”

“Yes sir, who fills up the alleys with what people? And how does that relate to Obamacare?”

No one bothers because of course it means nothing. No one is filling any alleys with any people.

The stories about Russia were false but the fact that the information was illegally leaked is real, Trump insisted. When questioned too much on Russia, he went nuclear. And holocaust.

“Nuclear holocaust would be like no other,” he said.

Yes. Yes, it would.

There was plenty more chiding of the press and other embarrassing and crazy-ass stuff. But he also slipped in all the dangerous policy, like the fact that they are going to introduce a new comprehensive executive order next week to create a new travel ban; begin construction of the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipelines; and fight drugs, which are now “cheaper than candy bars.”

“Excuse me, Mr. President. Where exactly are you scoring? Because I brought that claim to my guy, you know, and he told me to fuck off.”

But of course, the math is all beside the point. The purpose of the press conference was to reaffirm the alternate reality and comfort his base.

And it worked. Mike Cernovich, who declared the Flynn resignation a sign of Trump’s weakness. During the press conference, he tweeted “Trump is crushing the opposition media right now, this is what he does best.”

But just to make sure, he finished the press conference with some profoundly troubling signals to the racists who support him.

First, he chided a Jewish reporter for asking about the rise in anti-Semitism. Then, when April Ryan, an African American reporter, asked whether he would include the Congressional Black Caucus in his plans for the “inner cities,” Trump asked her to set up the meeting.

“Do you want to set up the meeting?” he asked.

“No — no — no. I’m not —” she said.

“Are they friends of yours?” he asked.

“I’m just a reporter.” she said.

“Well, then, set up the meeting,” he said.

This is one of those places where he just seems stupid but is actually most dangerous. In a single move he gives a nod to the Neo-Nazis who support him, makes the insane assumption that all African Americans are friends, and that reporters and Democrats are actually allies.

Shortly after this, when asked about the extreme actions of his followers, he blamed racist graffiti and the like on his opponents.

“Can I be honest with you? And this has to do with racism and horrible things that are put up. Some of it written by our opponents. You do know that. Do you understand that? You don’t think anybody would do a thing like that. Some of the signs you’ll see are not put up by the people that love or like Donald Trump, they’re put up by the other side and you think it’s like playing it straight?”

This is so Putinesque that it reaches all the way around to Stalin. Blame your enemies for the actions of your followers.

But it is also a warning, an inherent threat of violence—and a clear sign of where he will place the blame for any violence.

There is no hope this man will moderate. His entire platform is the denial of reality. If we fail to recognize this, we are, whether we like it or not, accomplices.
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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Governing like adults in Indiana

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2017 at 9:44 AM

wh_vs._sh.jpg

Let's check the scorecard right now in the world of politics.

The president of the United States now is on the edge of war with the nation's judicial branch. His angry tweets about a federal judge and now an entire federal appellate court have prompted widespread criticism from, among others, his own nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The president's counselor, Kellyanne Conway, now seems headed for an ethics investigation because it appears she broke a federal law by hawking products produced by the president's daughter on national television.

National security advisor Michael Flynn resigned Monday evening amid controversy. Flynn allegedly discussed with Russia's ambassador the sanctions imposed on Russia for attempting to influence the election before Trump was officially in office.

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, found herself stifled by Republican leadership and prevented from reading a 30-year-old letter from a civil rights icon on the Senate floor. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, utters a sentence that has become a new rallying cry for the feminist and progressive movements — "nevertheless, she persists."

Meanwhile, back here in the Hoosier state, far from the circus in the nation's capital, Indiana's leaders go about their work without much fuss.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, quietly addresses a decades-old injustice and pardoned Keith Cooper. And, with a similar lack of fanfare, Holcomb signed an executive order declaring a disaster emergency at East Chicago's SuperFund site and ended negotiations with Agile Networks to maintain and market the state's communications network.

The governor also, quietly but persistently, has been encouraging both legislators and citizens to start thinking of taxing and spending decisions the way grownups should — by looking exclusively not at cost or at benefit, but by considering the relationship between the two factors.

While the new governor has been going about his work the way adults do, the members of the Indiana General Assembly by and large have resisted the temptation to indulge in the needlessly bitter and divisive battles that have split the state in recent years and diverted our attention from larger and more pressing issues.

Instead, Hoosier lawmakers have focused their time and attention on trying to figure out solutions to long-term challenges, such as how to pay for the necessary repair and maintenance of Indiana's crumbling roads and bridges. They have continued to do so in the face of sputtering opposition from tea party-type activists, who find the notion that things have costs to be a disturbing revelation.

The governor thus far has refused to commit himself to any specific solution to the roads-and-bridges challenge. Possibly this is because Holcomb realizes a couple of things. The first is that, as governor, his moment of maximum influence on this issue will come later in the process, when his weight might tip the balance. The second is that, if there is a significant difference of opinion, he will find it easier to reconcile the sides if he serves as an honest and open broker from the beginning.

In short, while the federal government finds itself consumed by one embarrassing and confidence-sapping sideshow after another, Hoosier elected officials have eschewed exhibitionism for once and are simply going about their work.

Just like real people do.

Wow.

Who would have thought that Indiana's state government would become an oasis of relative sanity in an increasingly crazy world?

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Confirmation Bias

Posted By on Fri, Feb 10, 2017 at 11:00 AM

screen_shot_2017-02-10_at_11.05.09_am.png

Senators shuffle by the desk on Tuesday to cast their votes on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, chattering like kids returning from summer break to find that everything has changed. Somehow even the victors seem confused. None of them really expected the world to look like this.

Except, maybe, Sen. Jeff Sessions. He is standing toward the front of the Senate chambers, his hands behind his back, at ease. There is a grin on his face. He has just cast what will be his final vote as senator—to confirm DeVos.

Though he is not attorney general yet, he was instrumental in planning the flurry of authoritarian executive orders marking Trump’s first weeks in office, including the now-contested Muslim ban. Sessions wanted to go even harder, hoping for a “shock and awe” approach, overwhelming the opposition with the dramatic pace of change.

In a Washington Post story that called Sessions the “intellectual godfather” of “Trump’s hard-line actions,” the director of a conservative immigration think tank compared the Republican senator to a “guerrilla in the hinterlands preparing for the next hopeless assault on the government” who suddenly learns that “the capital has fallen.”

With his dark suit, white hair, and wrinkled white peach of a face, Sessions does not look like he’s spent much time training in the jungle. But he does seem surprised—stunned almost—that the next vote his colleagues cast will make him attorney general of the United States.

He walks slowly to his seat. Sitting down, he bows his head. His eyes seem to be closed, as if praying. He brings the tips of his fingers together, facing upward, on his lap.

A few moments later, he takes out a silver object and holds it gingerly between the first two fingers and thumbs of each hand, almost as if unwrapping foil on a stick of gum.

But it doesn’t seem to be gum—it’s impossible to tell what it is from the press gallery above the Senate floor—and he does not unwrap it, he just fingers it, his head bowed.

Then the vote is called. He puts away the silver object. It is 50 to 50.

As expected, Vice President Mike Pence confirms DeVos with a historic tie-breaking vote. It is a huge blow to anyone who cares about competency, public education, or ethics in government. The Democrats spent the last 24 hours complaining about all of these issues, but that doesn’t matter now. They have no control. The whole process demonstrated that the new regime can do as it wishes on the Hill.

Across the room, Sen. Al Franken acts like he is charging someone with a podium, making a clear reference to Melissa McCarthy’s “Saturday Night Live” skit satirizing Sean Spicer, the president’s communications director and press secretary.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham sit beside each other talking quietly, as if conspiring or gossiping. McCain says something and sucks his bottom lip. Graham scans the room from left to right.

Sessions gets up and looks around the room again before he heads toward the door.

When he returns to the Senate later that day, Sessions is the nominee under consideration. He sits behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while Sen. Elizabeth Warren quotes late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who called Sessions a “disgrace to the Justice Department” during a 1986 confirmation hearing, when Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of allegations of racism.

Now Warren reads from a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., sent to the Senate during that same failed confirmation.

“Mr. President. Mr. President,” McConnell interrupts, defending Sessions. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair. Senator Warren said, ‘Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.’”

“I call the senator to order under the provisions of Rule 19,” McConnell says.

The crazy thing about Rule 19, in this context, is that it was created in 1902, after the notorious white terrorist and Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman beat up a colleague who had defected to the other side of a debate. Tillman founded a group called the Red Shirts, which terrorized African-Americans as Reconstruction bled into Jim Crow. He was an early mentor of white supremacist Strom Thurmond, who, as the chair of the Senate’s judiciary committee, was the guy who both smashed Sessions’ hopes of becoming a federal judge and the guy who kept King’s 1986 letter out of the Senate record. When Warren read the letter, she was correcting Thurmond’s 30-year-old error.

So it is grimly fitting that McConnell, who has learned to manipulate the Senate in order to grab control of the judiciary for his party, cites Rule 19 to defend Jeff Sessions, the old-school law-and-order white supremacist who stuck around long enough to make it mainstream again.

During the exchange (in which McConnell now famously uttered the iconic sentences “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”), Sessions picks his nose, rubbing it with a handkerchief, making sure he gets it all, blowing again.

Nearly 24 hours later, McConnell uses the last few minutes of debate to offer a cornpone encomium to his departing colleague, calling Sessions a “true Southern gentleman,” like that’s an unquestionably good thing, eliding the difficult history connecting Sessions’ home state and the fight for civil rights.

Finally, in a Thursday morning ceremony, Pence swears in Sessions, who cites a “dangerous permanent trend” of increasing crime and pledges to end “lawlessness.”

Like Sessions, Trump regularly exaggerates the increase in violent crime. He uses the occasion of Sessions’ swearing in to sign three executive orders that further empower the already vast police state, now overseen by Sessions.

Neither man mentions the epidemic of African-Americans shot and killed by police.

“A new era of justice begins, and it begins right now,” Trump says.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Church and Trump

Democracy in Crisis

Posted By on Mon, Feb 6, 2017 at 2:47 PM

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch speaks at his nomination announcement. - WHITEHOUSE.GOV
  • whitehouse.gov
  • U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch speaks at his nomination announcement.

In front of the illuminated columns of the Supreme Court Building, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney and several other Christian activists were gathered together, waiting for Donald Trump to announce his pick for Supreme Court justice — a spot left vacant for nearly a year after Republicans refused to acknowledge Barack Obama’s nominee.

When Trump announced Colorado judge and possible teenage fascist Neil Gorsuch, perhaps best known for his Hobby Lobby opinion that showed a willingness to protect discrimination based on sexual orientation, Mahoney and his small crowd rejoiced.

Mahoney called on his followers to kneel down at the steps of the courthouse, declaring it would be “the first public prayer” for the new nominee. But someone beat him to the punch.

“God help us all!” a man yelled from the back of the growing crowd of protesters.

It was an appropriate first public prayer upon the appointment of Gorsuch.

Thrice-married and adulterous Trump — not known for turning the other cheek — was not an intuitive choice for the religious right, which has spent the past several decades attacking the personal morality of political candidates and claiming God sends catastrophes to nations to punish their citizens for sexual deviancy.

An old joke about the late, lecherous and notoriously racist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond might capture the initial religious perception of Trump’s position on their core issues.

Trump’s secretary calls through and says, “There’s someone on the phone who wants to talk to you about the abortion bill.”

“Just tell her I’ll pay it,” he replies.

Trump’s louche opportunism is one reason that many on the religious right backed the otherwise universally reviled Ted Cruz, proving perhaps, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, that God, or at least his followers, “chose things despised by the world,” (1 Corinthians 1:28).

But eventually they got behind Trump, even if it meant admitting their concerns with personal morality were actually nothing more than Machiavellian hypocrisy. Trump would repay them by appointing, in Mahoney’s words, “the justice who would help overturn Roe v. Wade.”

“This is the reason why so many went out, passed out literature, held signs, made phone calls,” Mahoney said. “We knew the critical importance of this moment, and so we gather here tonight and we feel the first thing to do is to pray. We are going to ask God to lead and direct Judge Gorsuch. We are going to ask that his confirmation hearing run smoothly.”

The Democrats are the worst opposition party imaginable, so Jesus probably won’t have to work too hard.

The day after the announcement, Trump encouraged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to “go nuclear” and lower the number of senators required to confirm a justice and end a filibuster from 60 to a simple majority. Democrats are already counseling each other to save their political capital for the next fight, instead of trying to force Republicans to use a little of their political capital. Right now, the Democrats have so little capital that there may be no next fight.

But Trump seems to know the evangelicals will fight—according to Pew, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, more than for George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney—and he is rewarding them handsomely.

On the same day he announced his Supreme Court nominee, Trump named Jerry Falwell Jr. the head of a task force on higher education. He described Falwell as “one of the most respected religious leaders in our nation."

Falwell’s Liberty University may be slightly more rigorous than Trump University, but the announcement signals a shift from teaching the fundamentals of critical thinking toward teaching a fundamentalism that is critical of thinking. Liberty’s Center for Creation Studies aims to “research, promote, and communicate a robust young-Earth creationist view of Earth history” based on “sound Biblical interpretation.”

Two days after his court announcement, the tension between Trump’s personal vanity and his commitment to enacting religious policy reached its apotheosis when he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Trump made headlines by using prayer to diss the current ratings of his former NBC show, “The Apprentice.” ("The ratings went right down the tubes. It's been a total disaster," Trump told those in attendance. "I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings.") Trump is still listed as a producer on the show, so he likely stands to profit from improved ratings. Still, nobody at the breakfast seemed to care because Trump also promised to “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits, like churches, from participating in political campaigns, directly or indirectly.

Falwell Jr. said the elimination of this amendment — proposed by Lyndon B. Johnson during his time as a U.S. Senator from Texas — would “create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.” It would free churches to further support Trump so he could further support them.

Such collaboration between church and state is not uncommon for authoritarian strongmen. The “Punk Prayer” that landed members of the Russian activist group Pussy Riot in prison was an attack on the close relationship between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

In a final scene from last week’s apocalypse, anonymous sources told Reuters Thursday that the administration wanted to rechristen the "Countering Violent Extremism” program "Countering Islamic Extremism" or "Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.” Along with the name change, the program “would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.”

That would mean Dylann Roof, who sat and prayed with nine African-Americans before he murdered them in their church, would not be considered a dangerous extremist. For nationalists, the message is clear: It is not only about Christianity. It is about whiteness and ethnic nationalism.

Not everyone is blind to this. On the night of Gorsuch’s nomination, at the Supreme Court Building, Mahoney and his associates knelt and ostentatiously prayed the second public prayer over Trump’s appointee.

“So father, we commit him to you and we are thankful,” Mahoney said as the growing crowd around him drowned out his words, chanting “Black Lives Matter.”

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Terminally-ill Syrian in Indiana reflects on Trump's immigration ban

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2017 at 3:34 PM

KATHERINE COPLEN
  • Katherine Coplen

My name is Morhaf Al-Achkar.

I am a family doctor at Indiana University and work at Methodist hospital. I am also a professor at the School of Medicine. Over the past five years, I have trained many family medicine residents, taught hundreds of medical students and physician's assistant students. They are now caring for thousands of patients throughout the country.

I am a proud Syrian and came to the U.S. as an immigrant ten years ago. My sister — a neuroscientist and professor at the University of California — and her family are refugees. My brother, a professor in Syrian and now an engineer in the UK, and his three kids who are studying pure math, physics, and medicine are refugees in Europe.

My dad, a 72-year-old economics professor, also found refuge in Maryland after he lost all his fortune to the war in Syria. His wife is now trapped in Saudi Arabia — he may not be able to see her. She can't come and if he leaves he can't return.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. My disease is so advanced that no treatment out there will cure me or even make me live longer. Patients in my situation are given 4 to 10 months to live.

I have metastatic cancer. I may not be here in few months and my family — because they are Syrians —can't come to visit me.

I can't speak on behalf of the Syrian refugees who have experienced the shelling and bombardments of their homes. My words cannot describe their unimaginable suffering. I can't look them in the eyes to try to understand their pain living with the loss of a mother, a father, a brother, or a sister, and facing imminent death every day — and now the hatred of the world. I can't see their side of the story. I can only look inside myself and try to imagine what they feel.

My suffering is not even close to that of the refugees who have faced death and the questions about the meaning of their suffering, and the longing to be just normal.

I don't expect anyone of you to be able to help me. It is my destiny and cancer is my battle. Syrians refugees, however, have the right to expect of you and me way more. We can do something for them and yes we should. We can let them in just like what we wish ours to do to us if we become victims of brutality and had to wander looking for refuge. Refugees should be welcome.

The attack on refugees, immigrants, and Muslims is part of Trump's war on the most vulnerable among us. It is an attack on our values and on the moral and the beautiful within us.

Closing our borders and building the walls is part of a self-defeating mindset — "Let's put America first and who cares about the rest of the world." If we believe this then tomorrow someone will call, "Let's put our state first; we don't give a shit about others." Another would say, "Let's put our city first." Then, "Let's put our neighborhood first."

Then someone will say, "I am putting myself first, who cares about my patients, who cares about my residents, who cares about my students?" or, "I am putting myself first, who cares about my children!"

This is not, however, a moral position that we can face the world with. This is not the America that we want as home.

I have metastatic cancer and my family can't come to say goodbye.

Syrians are not numbers. Our suffering has names and has a face.


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Monday, January 30, 2017

Lawyers work to secure release of detained travelers at airports

Posted By on Mon, Jan 30, 2017 at 12:36 PM

Protestors gathered at Indianapolis International Airport last night to stand against Trump's executive order. - KATHERINE COPLEN
  • Katherine Coplen
  • Protestors gathered at Indianapolis International Airport last night to stand against Trump's executive order.


Lawyers are huddled up, poring over papers on the floor of Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington D.C. a couple hundred feet away from the throngs of protesters cheering, chanting and welcoming home people coming out of customs from international flights.

Since Donald Trump signed a poorly considered and chaotically implemented executive order banning immigrants, refugees, and even green card holders from seven majority-Muslim countries on Friday evening — stranding people already in transit to the U.S. — these lawyers have been busting their asses.

“I could quit my job and just file Habeas writs” one says. Her colleague laughs, wearily.

The work has been paying off, in some ways. The regime stepped back the ban on green card holders and on Saturday night a federal judge ordered a stay on the order. But Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials have refused to acknowledge the stay in many airports, including Dulles, kicking off what many have called a constitutional crisis.

So the lawyers are still here.

Some hold signs asking passengers for information. Others carry pizzas and crates of bottled water. People have already turned old pizza boxes into signs. Others make furious phone calls, file papers, read briefs.

And some talk to the press.

“Yesterday was horrific,” Mirriam Seddiq says of Saturday night at the airport, when confusion reigned and the constitutional crisis unfolded. She says things calmed down a lot on Sunday.

“I think that’s because today, since Trump is big on optics, is not to let them on planes. So they’re not letting them on the plane or they’re taking them off at layovers. A lot of them in Turkey are being taken off. In Munich. Again these are all the stories. We don’t have any direct information,” she says.

They don’t have information because CBP agents have denied those being held a right to counsel — even after the court order.

“We had lawyers go and try to knock on the door at about 9:30 this morning and nobody would answer the door,” Seddiq says. “A little after that at about 10:00 we sent three lawyers back and they talked to them and said, ‘Here’s a copy of our [Temporary Restraining Order, or stay]. Are you actually holding green card holders? Can we speak with them? We’re attorneys. And they said ‘It ain’t gonna happen.’”

According to Seddiq, when the lawyers again pointed to the court order the CBP agents were nice and polite but said, “We understand but it’s not going to happen ... we are not allowed to talk to you. Here’s our number for public affairs.”

Although Senator Cory Booker was allowed back to see those detained on Saturday night, five members of congress — Representatives John Delaney and Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly, and Bobby Scott of Virginia — were also denied access on Sunday as they urged CBP to enforce the court order.

Dan Press, another lawyer on the scene, says that there is a separate litigation team working on compliance with the court order. “We’ve been in touch all day with the U.S. attorney’s office which is representing the CBP. They’re on it. We’re making progress. I mean we’re not making progress on the access to counsel issue. But we’re making progress on some other issues,” he says.

“For instance on the green card holders, having the green card holder ban be lifted is a huge testament to all of the work these people have done,” Seddiq says.

“It’s the lawyers and it’s the demonstrators,” Press adds.“Because this administration is big on optics and big numbers,” Seddiq says.

“There were big numbers right outside of Trump hotel today. Big numbers in airports around the country yesterday and today and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] blinked,” Press says.

“At least they’re not putting them back on a plane and turning them around unless they chose to do that,” Press says of the small victories. “But they’re still not being given the right to counsel to advise them given this whether they should turn around and go home or go hang out at Farmville indefinitely [in a vetting facility]."

He adds a warning to anyone, even green card holders, who might have plans to travel outside of the country. “I would still advise any green card holder who is here not to leave,” he says. “I am not convinced that any policy with this administration right now is firm enough that we can say it’s safe to go to Canada and come back.

As the last of the international flights expected to have residents from the 7 banned countries aboard come into the airport late on Sunday night, everyone in the airport is acutely aware that the fight is far from over.

Seddiq says the lawyers will be there as long as it takes. “You can see how many lawyers we have here. Some are immigration lawyers trained in immigration law. A lot of them are not. It doesn’t matter to us right now. We have the support here to keep this up as needed,” she says.
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Radical thoughts on commuting

Posted By on Mon, Jan 30, 2017 at 9:51 AM

highway_signs.jpg

Snow Flake wears a “Hippie for Goldwater” pin and a “Make Indiana Great Again” cap. After she reads a draft of the column intended for this week, she says, “Rewrite it.”

I’m aghast. No one has ever told me to rewrite an entire column. Seething, I ask, “Why?”

“It doesn’t promote the policy needed in this country,’ she says. “It fails to advocate civic and environmental responsibility, an end to urban sprawl, and a restoration of family life by reducing cross-county commuting.”

“Snow,” I answer, “this is just a column pointing out the magnitudes of money that cross Hoosier county lines by commuting, something like $63 billion in 2015.”

“We’d be better off,” she responds, “if that money stayed where it was made. People ought to live where they work and work where they live. All this commuting causes time lost in needless travel, excess use of energy, pollution, congestion, and alienation from community.”

“Hardly useless,” I insist. “Commuting allows workers greater choice in jobs and families greater choice in residences.”

“But it rips people out of their communities,” Snow says. “What interest do you have in the problems of the county in which you work, if you live elsewhere? And commuters probably have less time or concern with their home county because it is not the source of their livelihoods.”

“Reality…” I start to say. But she interrupts, “Don’t give me your take on reality. Each county, each state, each nation needs to do what’s best for itself.

“Over a billion dollars a year are stolen via commuting from each of six Indiana counties: Marion, Elkhart, Vanderburgh, Allen, Bartholomew and Tippecanoe. They’re the biggest of the 19 exporters of earnings in the state.

“The other 73 counties are leaches,” she continues, “sucking the life out of the exporting counties that give up their land, endure the traffic, and risk decades of pollution by providing jobs to people who don’t live there.”

“That’s a horrifying picture of our society,” I say.

“We can change it,” Snow says. “Charge fees on vehicles with out-of-county license plates for parking in our county. Place a tax on the income of non-residents. Tax employers who hire out-of-county workers or give them tax breaks for hiring in-county workers.”

“Some of those ideas have been tried,” I say. “But, economies work best when goods, services, capital and people can cross boundaries freely.”

“That’s old-style thinking,” Snow smirks. “We all know that taking care of ourselves first is the best way to increase the welfare of everyone.

“That would mean no inter-state commuting?” I say.

“Right on!” she says. “If you work in Chicago or Louisville or Cincinnati, go live there or find a job in your home county.”

“That policy would deprive Hoosiers of about $5.8 billion dollars in earnings,” I note.

“There’s more to life than money,” Snow chants. “Change your column from dull numbers to these patriotic ideas and you’ll have people cheering.”

I’m listening for the cheers or jeers.

(Click on the link below to see the data that illustrates the flow of income dollars between counties in Indiana.)
2015_Commuting_data_Flows.pdf
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Beachheads and Trump's war on facts

Posted By on Mon, Jan 30, 2017 at 9:24 AM

democracy-in-crisis_01_29_17.jpg

The teams of President Trump’s temporary appointees laying the groundwork for taking over and remaking federal agencies refer to themselves as “beachheads” or “beachhead teams,” a military term for the point of invasion.

Politico reports there were approximately 520 members of such teams when Trump took the oath of office. In any presidential transition, there will be tensions between career civil servants and political appointees pushing a new president’s agenda, but according to experts on the matter, this administration’s use of the term may exacerbate those relations.

The term was offhandedly used in 2000 by Bush’s incoming press secretary, Ari Fleischer. It was central to the language of Romney’s 2012 transition plan, which was provided to the Trump team. But its use here seems systematic, making many within various Federal agencies feel they are being conquered.

“The language of war being used suggests that cooperation is not the primary philosophy dictating this transition period,” says professor Heath Brown, who studies presidential transitions at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If the operating philosophy is one of combat rather than cooperation, then we’re in for some trouble with how these agencies are going to function on a day-to-day basis.”

Because the Trump team threw out Chris Christie’s transition plans and “started from scratch on election day,” Brown says, there is “a larger level of chaos in the past for an already chaotic process.”

Given the fact that Trump was a reality TV star, it is not surprising that communications is the main focus of these beachhead teams.

“[Trump’s people] want to control message in a lot of different ways, and for that reason I think they have made that a priority,” Brown says. “The Trump transition team devoted a lot more staff resources to communications than transition teams in the past … In the past, communications just hasn’t been a first priority.”

In 2009, Obama only had two communications people on his 13-member senior transition staff. In contrast, at least 10 of 23 staffers in Trump’s transition team served some communications function, Brown says.

In the process, they may well be changing what “communications” means—from informing the public, or even spinning the message, to something more like outright propaganda. Democracy in Crisis uncovered a 1996 Cornell Daily Sun article about then-CNN analyst Kellyanne Conway that shows she has been thinking about media and manipulation for at least 20 years. The story paraphrases Conway (née Fitzpatrick) speaking to student groups about “manipulative media and political jargon.” In the talk, she also criticized people for “following what is decided by a few elite.”

A section of the article subtitled “Questions of Reality” notes: “In a generation where television and Internet images ‘bombard our senses,’ it is essential, according to Fitzpatrick, to realize that the soundbytes or visuals prepared by the evening news editors do not represent reality.”

Conway, the article reads, “applauded [Bill Clinton’s] ability to use the media to his advantage.”

While this shows that Conway’s obsession with controlling the media narrative is not new, it also underlines how she and her boss are pushing the standard spin of ’90s-era Washington into the full-blown denial of reality in the age of Trump.

During the Trump campaign, Politifact found that only 4 percent of his claims could be considered entirely truthful. Some, including President Obama, naively thought the power of the presidency would curb, rather than increase, Trump’s tendency to lie. But thus far truths remain merely occasional, almost accidental.

After the inauguration on Jan. 20, in the first “unofficial” press conference of the new administration, press secretary Sean Spicer stood in front of reporters and repeatedly lied to the press about things that didn’t matter. It was pointless from any standard political means-ends perspective. (Baltimore City Paper did a great job putting together the actual numbers.)

Later, in his first “official” press conference, Spicer said, “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”

Between Spicer’s two statements, on the Sunday talk shows, Conway baptized Trump-speak with a succinct name: “alternative facts.” She also threatened to “rethink our relationship” with NBC if Meet the Press host Chuck Todd persisted in saying Spicer had lied.

A couple days later, Trump advisor and Lenin wannabe Stephen Bannon called the press the “opposition party,” which, he said, should “keep its mouth shut.” Almost immediately after this, Trump gave Bannon a spot on the National Security Council.

The attacks on the press, however, are only part of a larger attack on facts themselves—attacks beginning, appropriately, with the communications-obsessed beachheads now inside federal agencies.

Trump ordered the EPA to freeze all of its grants, to take down the climate change section of its website (although the administration later backed down on plans to remove content) and to cease all communications with the press.

Then, according to an email obtained by BuzzFeed News, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research division prohibited employees, including scientists, from communicating or sharing information with the public. The USDA later lifted the gag order, saying that it was released “without Departmental direction” and was not sent at the request of the Trump administration.

But information about climate change is not the only information at risk—data, science, and research are being suppressed. And Trump’s congressional allies are all too happy to play along.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar introduced bills this week that say “no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.”

This racist bill, which would help maintain the kind of segregation affecting cities like Milwaukee, Baltimore, and St. Louis, could still die in committee, but it is of a piece with Trump’s all-out war on facts. Deprived of access to facts, citizens are incapable of making decisions. This is an essential feature of tyranny.

As an air of war prevails in Washington, using the term beachhead may in fact be among the small minority of things the Trump team is honest about.

Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney's, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. He is the author of the book Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff,"about a white sheriff who used hoodoo to govern a largely black county for 37 years. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, focusing on ethics and tyranny and became a reporter in an attempt to live like Socrates. He wrote the libretto for Rhymes with Opera's climate change opera film Adam's Run.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Trump, Messer and the question of legitimacy

Posted By on Fri, Jan 27, 2017 at 1:40 PM

U.S. Representative Luke Messer
  • U.S. Representative Luke Messer

No one can match the zeal of a late-in-life convert to a cause.

Or the hypocrisy.

Republicans and conservatives now are up in arms that people are trying to “delegitimatize” the presidency of Donald Trump. This is wrong, wrong, wrong, they say — ignoring the fact that we Americans just have emerged from eight years in which they tried not just to “delegitimatize” Barack Obama’s presidency, but also his citizenship and his status as a human being.

And the guy who often led the charge in this effort now occupies the White House.

What’s that saying?

It begins, “What goes around….”

One example of the GOP’s fervor for this newfound faith is an op-ed piece from U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana. If nothing else, Messer’s argument reveals how difficult it can be to learn new skills later in life.

Like math.

Messer advances the notion, which is now a talking point in conservative bunkers, that President Trump would have won the popular vote in the election if we just removed California from the equation — and nation. (Apparently, while it’s wrong to “delegitimatize” a president elected by 46.1 percent of voters, it’s acceptable to “delegitimatize” and argue for disenfranchising the 8,753,788 people in California who cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.)

The difficulty with Messer’s contention is that, like most math problems, it can be turned around.

For example, if we removed Texas — which always seems to be threatening to secede if an election or a public policy debate doesn’t go its way — from the equation, then Clinton’s popular vote majority swells to nearly 4 million and Trump’s electoral vote lead shrinks considerably.

Or, if we remove the all the Southern states that did try to secede from the Union in the Civil War, then Clinton wins both the popular vote and the electoral college in a landslide.

Just how removing California, which contributes more to the U.S. economy than the 20 lowest-producing states combined, from the United States would benefit Americans Messer doesn’t say, but, then, as generations of students can attest, math is hard.

Messer and his fellow conservatives also struggle with understanding the Constitution.

Messer argues that, under the Constitution, Trump won the presidency fair and square.

That’s true.

But that same Constitution guarantees the rights of the people who are unhappy about Trump’s election to speak and write as they wish, to assemble peaceably and to petition government for redress of grievances — and implies that public officials, such as the president and members of Congress, have an obligation to listen to them.

Messer contends that protesting the president’s actions and policies threatens our republic.

Maybe, but we seem to have survived many similar threats in our history.

A far greater threat would be telling free people they must stop acting like free people because doing so hurts the president’s feelings.

It’s easy to understand why Messer and his fellow Republicans are so concerned about the respect — or the lack thereof — shown to Donald Trump as president.

When Trump took office Jan. 20, his public approval rating stood at 40 percent. Less than a week later, it had dropped another four percent. At the rate the new president is going, before long he’ll be as popular as the common cold and crab grass.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts have built impressive sea walls for Republican members of the House of Representatives such as Messer. But no sea wall is insurmountable. If the opposition to Trump reaches tsunami proportions, even congressmen in supposedly safe districts could find themselves carried out to sea.

But there’s a solution to this problem.

It would involve a change of course. Instead of attempting to purge states from the union or telling citizens they should stop exercising their rights as citizens, Trump and other Republicans could start listening to the people who didn’t vote for this new president. The members of the GOP, such as Messer, could say they realize that many, many Americans didn’t support Trump but that he and they are going to work hard to earn that support now.

In other words, the quickest and surest way to get Americans to start respecting Donald Trump as president of the United States would be for him to start behaving like he’s president of the United States.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

There’s no going back

Posted By on Tue, Jan 24, 2017 at 2:03 PM

A view from the crowd at the women's march in Indianapolis. - MARK A. LEE
  • Mark A. Lee
  • A view from the crowd at the women's march in Indianapolis.

“I will not go quietly back to the 1950s.”

That was the message on Cindy Byrne’s hand-drawn sign that she held as she waited for the start of the women’s rally on the grounds behind the Indianapolis Statehouse Saturday.

She’s done this before. More than 25 years ago she and her daughter, Marcy, joined a pro-choice rally in Washington D.C. That was when Commentary button in JPG - no shadowGeorge H.W. Bush was in the White House and an upstart Democrat from Arkansas named Bill Clinton was challenging the political establishment.

Now, it’s the election of another upstart candidate, Donald Trump, who has propelled Byrne and thousands of other women in Indianapolis and around the nation to say “we won’t go back.”

Byrne’s daughter, now Marcy Zunk, has a daughter, Meryl, who was with them at this rally on a warm and sunny January day.

This time, it’s not just for women’s rights.

“We’re here for the rights of all women and everybody else,” Byrne said. “This isn’t supposed to be a protest against Trump, but I feel like it is. We’re very afraid, afraid he’s taking us backwards and not forward.”

A lot of the people who gathered on the plaza were like Byrne—amazed, frustrated and even angered that they’re fighting and worrying about issues that they believe should have been resolved years ago. One woman even carried a sign that said, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this s**t.”

Oh yes, all things old are new once again.

But I couldn’t help but wonder where these throngs of people were on Nov. 8 when Trump was elected. Where was their passion about these issues when Trump was in the headlines every day with some outrageous statement?

I know what the polls tell us. Some assumed Hillary Clinton would win or some didn’t think it mattered who won—until Trump did win and suddenly a lot of people realized that it does matter who holds the highest elective office in the land.

So what exactly will these protests accomplish today, more than two months after the election?

One Facebook acquaintance suggested they are meaningless, arguing they that the energy and money expended on these demonstrations would be better spent feeding the hungry or directly supporting their causes.

He’s right if the energy isn’t channeled into real action. You can chant all you want “hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go” but if you don’t back that up with real action, then all the chants in the world won’t change a thing.

Except that Saturday’s rallies in Indianapolis, Washington and across the country weren’t about feel good messages and bashing Trump. Oh, that was part of it, but not the only point or even the main point.

The real message was that everyone needs to get involved and help make the change, echoing the theme Barack Obama delivered as he exited the White House. Get involved in your neighborhood, in local politics, in organizations that make a difference in the community, speaker after speaker said.

There were plenty of opportunities. Tables lined the perimeter of the rally with volunteers anxious to sign up people to get involved with everything from Planned Parenthood to the local Democratic Party.

Maggie Kelleher, a sophomore at Butler University, circulated through the crowd before the rally signing people up for Hoosiers for Actions, an organization that urges people to get involved in their local elections.

Speaker and activist Dana Black urged the audience to join organizations that work to protect the rights of minorities and immigrants, like the Black Lives Matter movement or the NAACP.

“Get off yours butts, get off your phones and get involved,” Black said, because activism is more than firing off a few tweets or posting a rant on Facebook.

Black has practiced what she preaches. She ran against Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last November and lost, but she isn’t quitting.

“Make America a more perfect union,” was her challenge.

It’s a good thought and noble goal. But I still wonder how many times will we have to rally for the simple promises of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and how long will we have to wait for that more perfect union.

Maybe not that long at all if Saturday’s passion turns into Monday’s actions.


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