The selection of the next chairperson of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has enormous implications for the future of the party. There is currently a strong movement within the party to select Rep. Keith Ellison (MN) as chair.
Ellison is an outspoken and active progressive. He represents the Paul Wellstone tradition of Minnesota Democrats. He served as Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (with Rep. Raul Grijalva, AZ). He was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primaries. He has the support of Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar (of his home state of Minnesota), and even new Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer. He has been endorsed by a number of unions.
He has a unique opportunity to lead the Democratic Party into a new progressive identity.
But he is also black. And Muslim. He is critical of Israel’s policies of occupation and separation. At one time, he held views favorable of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
His selection would be a gift to the right-wing opponents of progressive change. As the face of the Democratic party he would divert any discussion from a conversation about party policies to a demand for explanation of Ellison’s putative anti-white, anti-Semitic, and, ultimately, anti-American views. His personality, not his polities and those of his party, would eclipse any potentially substantive analysis by “journalists” and “pundits.”
Already, conservative activists in the “Israel lobby” have launched attacks on Ellison, labeling him “anti-Semitic” and arguing that he represents an attempt to move the party away from its generally uncritical support of Israeli government policies. (Notwithstanding the growing split between Israeli PM Netanyahu and Democrats, as Netanyahu and his advisors vocally support the Republicans.)
There is a chilling possibility that the debate over Ellison’s views on Israel can descend into an open conflict between blacks and Jews within the Democratic Party, reminiscent of the conflicts between the two groups in the 1970s. Fortunately, the support of Senators Schumer – possibly Israel’s strongest supporter in the US Senate – and Bernie Sanders, both Jews, might calm the anxieties of Democrats who are sincerely concerned about the party’s position on Israel under Ellison’s leadership. But there is no sign that the attacks labeling Ellison as anti-Semitic are about to diminish.
Ellison is not the only candidate for the DNC chair. His strongest opponent is Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who has the de facto endorsement of President Obama. Perez has strong liberal credentials. His work as Maryland Secretary of Labor and as Assistant US Attorney General for Civil Rights has brought him endorsements from unions and progressive organizations.
There is some risk that the selection of Perez over Ellison will cause resentment among black Democrats. They might interpret it as a rejection of a member of a consistently loyal constituency in favor of the much sought after rapidly growing Hispanic population. However, given the general passiveness of establishment black Democrats, and Perez’s civil rights record, his selection might make few waves.
The greatest opposition to rejection of Ellison might come from the “Bernie” faction of progressive Democrats, who would once again see themselves as betrayed by the party’s corporate elites. It would be up to Senator Sanders, and perhaps also Senator Warren, to keep them within the party.
Democrats have an important choice to make this February. They must reconnect with the electorate at the local, state, and national levels. They can spend the next four years campaigning to win elections and save our democracy. Or they can spend them explaining and defending Keith Ellison to bloodthirsty right-wing politicians and pundits and their scandal-hungry media parasites.
However shameful the reasons, Democrats must make the right decision.
The election of Donald Trump has been like the loss of a loved one. It is possible to go about one’s daily routine, doing normal things, thinking one’s accustomed thoughts, making plans consistent with a normal life – when suddenly it hits! – Trump has been elected President of the USA and nothing is the same.
Yesterday (12/20/16) it stuck me how much our (I refer to myself and my fellow progressives) reaction to the election and its aftermath corresponds to the five stages of grieving that were described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross proposed that the process of facing one’s death involved five by now well-known “stages:” denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model has been applied to various grief experiences, from loss through death to loss through the breakup of a relationship.
I don’t accept this model beyond its value as a metaphor. In fact, for years critics have pointed out the flaws in the model (for example here, and here). But, as metaphor, these components of the grieving process are useful in describing my observations about the state of the progressive community. It is also a useful way to explain my present approach to the emerging political situation.
My initial thought about this metaphor came the day after the Electoral College confirmed Trump’s election. It was the day before the Winter Solstice and the longest night of the year. I thought of the Electoral College vote as the end of the bargaining stage. Progressives (including me) had signed petitions asking electors to withhold their votes from Trump for the good of the country. Or, at least, they should wait until his numerous conflicts of interest were investigated (by the Republican-controlled Congress!) and his tax returns were surrendered and scrutinized. This slimmest of slim hopes faded away and the ascendancy of Trump was sealed.
Enter depression. But, as scholars have pointed out, these hypothetical stages don’t follow some linear order. There’s still a lot of anger, often in response to the hatred spewed by Trump’s cult followers. There’s denial, often in the form of avoidance, as if not talking about it will make it go away.
I expect that “acceptance” in some form will come with Trump’s inauguration. He will be President. Congress will hold hearings on his cabinet appointments. And we can begin the work of resistance in earnest.
But for now, I’m taking a breather. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve slowed down my letter writing and petition signing. I’ve mostly stopped listening to my favorite progressive talk radio station (WCPT – 820 AM) because I’m tired of everyone talking about how terrible it’s going to be and how awful Trump’s appointments are and how our democracy is hanging by a thread. (Stop telling me what I already know!)
We have to act. But right now, we’re running in circles with our hair on fire. So, I’m taking a break. To regain my focus. To replenish my creative energies. To look at the big picture, but also at the objects and spaces that make up the big picture.
Soon, I’ll resume writing. And I’ll resume the struggle.
I have been of the opinion for some time that the “movement” around now President-Elect Donald Trump is a cult. This view has been expressed by writers in several publications (see here, here, and here, for example).
I have also expressed my belief that Trump is a fascist. The possibility that Trump is the center of a fascist incursion into our political system has also been explored by writers in a number of publications (for example, here, here and here.)
Now I want to put these ideas together and explore the possibility that fascism is, by its nature, a cult.
I previously published a blog post in which I asserted that religion is essentially ideology. I noted that religious ideas and political ideologies have common elements and intersections. I noted that there are modern “ideologies that have had tremendous power at various times and in various societies, and operate in ways similar to religion. Among these are communism, capitalism, fascism, Nazism, and various expressions of nationalism. Cult-like ideologies created around national leaders have also arisen in the 20th century – Peronism, Maoism, and the cult of the “Leader” in North Korea are three notable examples.”
Umberto Eco famously identified 14 defining characteristics of “ur-fascism.” His list includes:
- the cult of tradition;
- the rejection of modernism;
- action for action’s sake;
- rejection of critical distinctions as a sign of modernism;
- disagreement within society seen as a sign of unacceptable diversity;
- individual or social frustration;
- for those experiencing social frustration, the only privilege is to be born in the same country;
- followers feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies;
- life is lived for struggle;
- an aristocratic and militaristic elitism that expresses contempt for the weak;
- everybody is educated to become a hero;
- permanent war and heroism being difficult, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters;
- a selective, qualitative populism;
- and, the use of “newspeak,” as defined by George Orwell.
This reads a lot like a description of Trump and his followers.
The other part of the equation is the concept of “cult.” Cults figure importantly in the history of religions. The simplest and most neutral meaning of the term is the devotion of a group to a divine being. The cults of Mithra, Isis, Dionysus, and other deities in the Greco-Roman world are part of the western cultural heritage. The worship of Jesus as a god has been described by some scholars as a version of the cult of the dying and rising god (Osiris and Dionysus, for example). The cult of the Virgin Mary is a dominant element of Roman Catholic Christianity, and has been for centuries.
But the term has taken on a more negative connotation in the 20th century. In 1981, Robert Jay Lifton, MD, then a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, published a paper entitled “Cult Formation” in The Harvard Mental Health Letter. In this paper, Lifton identified three characteristics of cults:
- a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
- a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
- economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
Lifton was concerned with the psychological process by which an organization becomes a cult. Numerous books and papers have been published by authors claiming to have a detailed understanding of how cult leaders are able to manipulate and control their followers. However, there is a great lack of consensus regarding the credibility and objectivity of this literature. Much of it demonstrates religious or anti-religious bias. The credentials and overall integrity of some “experts” have been vociferously challenged. The best scholarly information has been derived from the study of extreme cults and their leaders: the (Charles) Manson “family,” Jim Jones and Jonestown, and the Branch Davidians (Waco, TX).
A major, and consistent, element of cults is the leaders’ lack of accountability to the followers. The leader is exempted from the normal moral constraints the apply to other member of society. This is especially true in matters of sexual conduct and financial management. Behaviors that would normally be branded as sexual predation and financial scams are overlooked, excused, or even praised when practiced by the cult leader.
In my opinion, the Trump “movement” has all of the trappings of a cult.
But if the Trump “movement” is a point of intersection between fascism and cult, is it not reasonable to consider whether fascism is, by its nature, a cult? I believe so. In fact, it now appears to me that we can apply the contemporary definition of cult to all expressions of ideology that have at their center the person of a founder or leader. Fascism is one such expression, but it is one of several.
What we are looking at is the situation that is created when a cult takes control of the government of a nation-state.The task that we face is that of wrenching our democracy out of the hands of a cult leader and his inner circle who have, through subversion of the democratic process, the undermining of free and fair elections, the corruption of executive agencies, the complicity of the media, and, probably, the assistance of foreign enemies, taken control of the national government.
What we know about freeing people from the grasp of cults is that it is extremely difficult. “De-programming,” when successful, occurs on an individual basis. Cult members passionately embrace their new reality and view any effort to break their connection to it as a violation of their personhood. Indeed, so-called de-programmers walk a fine line between lawful intervention on behalf of loved ones and criminal acts of abduction and unlawful restraint. To their beneficiaries they are life-saviors and heroes. To their detractors they are zealots, vigilantes, and criminals.
But the de-programming of a single individual, or even a small group of people, pales in comparison to breaking the hold of a charismatic leader on thousands of people. The cult followers are still a minority of the US population. But it does not require the active support of the majority for a dictatorship to hold power. It requires only the ability to intimidate and demoralize the opposition, provide symbolic victories for the believers, and have at hand a ready supply of scapegoats to blame for the regime’s inevitable failures.
Liberals (and especially members of the Democratic Party) are conflicted about the way to deal with the right-wing regime and its followers. Some liberal-minded people are ready to try to reach the “hearts and minds” of Trump’s followers. But they have been encouraged to turn off their minds and harden their hearts.
So, what strategy is left?
I am not so arrogant as to think that I have the best answer to this question. I will also admit that I have done what I criticize other for doing: presenting an analysis of a problem without proposing a solution. I do plan to follow-up with some suggestions for action. But for now I want to put our current situation into an historical, cultural, and psychological context.
We cannot defeat an enemy we don’t understand.
On February 27, 1933, an arson fire destroyed Germany’s parliament building, the Reichstag. Hitler’s Nazi party blamed the fire on foreign-born communists, one of whom was convicted and executed. The fire and the purported threat of a communist coup d’etat provided the basis for legislation outlawing political activities by non-approved (meaning other than the Nazis) political groups. This, in turn, paved the way for Hitler’s Nazis to take control of the German state.
On November 16, 2016, Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and a close advisor to President-Elect Donald Trump stated that Trump is considering a registry for all immigrants who are Muslims or who come from areas of the world where Islamic terrorists are active.
This idea recalls the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans living on the west coast under orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. And while this kind of group punishment is repugnant and immoral, it may be legal under the US Constitution.
I have no doubt that Trump and his advisors expect that such a move would be met with vehement opposition by groups throughout the country. International outrage could also be expected. But more chilling is the possibility of armed attacks within the US by jihadis outraged by the treatment of their fellow believers.
This scenario has eerie similarities to the incident of the Reichstag fire in 1933. The fire was an actual arson. But historians have yet to agree on whether the arsonist(s) acted independently or were duped into the crime by Nazi operatives, a “false flag” operation designed to justify a complete silencing of political opposition.
It is not beyond imagining that members of the Trump administration (with what cooperation of FBI agents we can only begin to speculate) would instigate followers of Daesh or other jihadi sympathizers to launch a serious attack (or attacks) in the US in order to justify a more comprehensive clamp-down on Muslims, immigrants, and political militants. Or, such attacks could occur autonomously as a violent reaction to the Trump administration’s policies.
In any case, it is imperative that right-minded people force an end to any talk of or plans for a “Muslim registry.” It violates the basic principles of our democracy. And it could be the first step in the elimination of democratic freedoms for all of us.
In the aftermath of the disastrous presidential election, journalists, political analysts, and other “pundits” have begun to dissect the Democratic Party in an effort to determine how the party and its candidate lost so unexpectedly and decisively.
This is reminiscent of the review undertaken by the Republican Party after its 2012 defeat – the so-called “autopsy” report. The Democratic Party has not yet begun an analysis of its problems, pending the selection of a new chairperson of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and new party leadership. Nonetheless, the current discussions point to an approach similar to that of the Republicans four years ago – an indictment of the party for overlooking key voting blocs and recommendations for engaging with them.
In this case the group most consistently mentioned is “working class” white men – but it is actually “working class” white potential voters generally – in so-called “rust belt” states. This group contained a sufficient number of Democratic voters to give Barack Obama victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, and Florida, all of which Hillary Clinton lost.
Activist Film-maker Michael Moore, a lifelong resident of Michigan, predicted that Trump would defeat Clinton. He saw up close how the Trump campaign was succeeding where the Democratic campaign failed in appealing to the disenchanted, high school-educated white workers in the Midwestern “rust belt.” These workers had seen their factory jobs disappear and their incomes decline and had received no satisfactory response from the “elites,” among whom they included white collar professionals, “Wall Street,” and especially the political class in Washington, DC.
So now, as racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic sentiments are freely and publicly expressed and as an increasing number of incidents of violence toward non-white people are reported, progressives are asked to consider how to make their party more accommodating to working class whites who found in Trump the expression of their barely suppressed emotions. Thus, progressive Democrats face the challenge of rallying their core constituencies against the Republican machinery that controls the entire Federal government and many state governments as well, while seeking to accommodate a hostile Republican constituency in the hope of regaining the political ascendancy.
A problem facing progressive Democrats is that their core constituency has been blacks, college-educated whites in urban areas, some Hispanics (but fewer than anticipated), and the membership of some labor unions and the leadership of others. These constituencies are not sufficient for victories at the state and national levels. And some groups within this ad hoc coalition may abandon the Democratic Party for more aggressively leftist third parties and for ethnically based parties.
Therefore, it seems that the Democrats, hopefully under progressive leadership, must find a way to reach out to “working class” white voters, to whom the attribution of white privilege is considered an insult added to the injury of national indifference to their experience. Sadly, this group cannot see that the people they despise – blacks, immigrants, college graduates struggling to get a foothold in the economy – share their plight and their despair. So outreach to them may require the same appeal to their primitive brain that proved successful for Republican candidates.
The challenge that Democratic Party leaders face is that of bringing the progressive values of the New Deal into the context of the 21st century world economy. The first step in meeting this challenge is to realistically confront the world we face through an open negotiation among the constituencies who are said to make up the Democratic Party’s “Big Tent.”
However, the “Big Tent” is not only a cliché; it is a pernicious hoax on the Democratic faithful. Rather than an arena for consensus among Democratic constituencies, it is a textbook example of a corporatist institution: an assembly of elites who sit atop the organizations identified with the Democratic coalition and claim to speak for their constituents. In fact, they dole out rhetoric and symbolism, keeping each group in its allocated space within the party while hoarding power for themselves and their inner circles.
If the next Democratic leadership cadre wants to expand the party’s base, they must engage the “rank and file” among the groups the party needs attract if it is to re-establish its role as the representative of working people. They must acknowledge that they have not delivered on their promises to the constituencies that have been left behind by the recovery. These groups include working class blacks and working class whites, displaced industrial workers and underemployed recent college graduates, residents of inner cities and of rural communities.
This will be an enormous undertaking for a party that must simultaneously play offence (rebuilding and campaigning) and defense (against the reactionary onslaught of the Republicans). It is likely that national policies enacted by the Republicans will be successful and force Democrats to fight their battles at the state level.
This could prove fortunate. The 2018 elections will focus on candidates in the states: governors, senators, congress members, and state and local legislators. It is in the states the Republicans made the gains that allowed them to gerrymander congressional districts, limit voter eligibility, and enact laws targeting sexual minorities. And it is in the states that the Democrats must make the case that the big tent is a reality and that no constituency’s voice is unheard.
Democrats are nice. Minnesota nice. North Carolina polite and Tupelo honey sweet. Nice like children who’ve been browbeaten and bullied by their parents are nice. With the slightest upturn of an eyebrow and downturn of a mouth they apologize for being born and everything they’ve done since.
So of course Hillary Clinton apologized for her remarks about half of Donald Trump’s supporters being a “basket of despicables.” When she said it, she was the cheerful upbeat Hillary that we love to see. Speaking in front of a group of unequivocal supporters, she enumerated some of the qualities that Trump and his followers share – “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”
Of course Hillary was criticized. And of course Hillary apologized. She said, “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong.” You can read the Republican nonsense about her comments for yourself. One interesting “rebuttal” is the statement by Republican VP candidate Mike Pence at the Values Voters Forum: “The men and women who support Donald Trump’s campaign are hardworking Americans — farmers, coal miners, teachers, veterans, members of our law enforcement community — members of every class of this country, who know that we can make America great again. This is essentially what Hillary Clinton said about the other half of Trump’s supporters: “That other basket of people feel that the government has let them down — the economy has let them down … those are people we have to understand and empathize with, as well.”
In my opinion, Hillary had nothing to apologize for. She should have chided the media for not giving as much coverage to the second half of her comment as to the first. And there should have been an outpouring of support from Democrats for her statement. But in their role of scared children most Democrats were silent.
One voice that responded to Hillary’s critics was that of Charles Blow, writing in the New York Times. I’ve got the link here. You should read it. Blow cites reputable polls of Trump supporters that prove them to be anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, Obama birthers. In Trump’s value system these are upstanding Americans. In my value system, they’re pretty despicable.
I can find no words of rebuttal that equal the closing words of Blow’s OpEd:
“ I understand that people recoil at the notion that they are part of a pejorative basket. I understand the reflexive resistance to having your negative beliefs disrobed and your sense of self dressed down.
The city of Chicago is in the midst of a financial crisis. Or is it? The official record indicates that the city faces a budget shortfall of $137.6 million. This deficit was left after borrowing $2…