Stephen Miller Is Punchable, Yes, But He Is Worthy Of Emulation Too

Martin Shkreli has good cause to be aggrieved. He spent considerable time, energy and financial resources aiming to attain the title of America’s Most Punchable Person, and succeeded spectacularly. Unfortunately, the incoming Trump administration has upended many American verities, and Shkreli has found himself similarly displaced from the hearts and minds of the American people. The first pretender to the throne was Richard Spencer, the sunglasses-wearing neo-Nazi who, demonstrating once again that half-baked racial political theories will have a long life in the warm glow of the Bannon rays emanating from the White House, earned himself a punch in the face on the day from one of the half a dozen or so spectators attending the Trump inauguration. Now, another contender is here, and I’m afraid that Shkreli’s pretensions must be put to bed: there is no way that even the smirking, obnoxious, ‘Pharma Bro’ can contend with Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s national policy adviser. (Duke University has a lot to answer for; both Spencer and Miller are Duke graduates. While Spencer does not seem to have distinguished himself with any overt racism during his college days, Miller set the groundwork early for his work in the Trump administration by earning a reputation as an unrepentant racist. An academic friend of mine–who teaches at Duke–noted that while he never had the (dis)pleasure of teaching Miller, Miller had already established himself as a “shithead” on campus.)

Miller’s appearance on the Sunday morning talk show circuit–to lay the groundwork for the voter suppression strategy that is destined to be the centerpiece of many state legislative initiatives this year and the next, as a prelude to the 2018 mid-term elections–will be memorable for many reasons. Foremost among them, of course, is that Americans now have confirmation–if they needed any after the excruciating 2015-2016 election season–that Goebbelsian propaganda techniques i.e., the endless repetition of lies over and over again to turn them into the unvarnished truth are the new normal in national politics. (The Republican Party and conservative talk show luminaries like Rush Limbaugh, Alan Jones, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and their ilk have paved the road, and the Bannon-Miller cavalcade can now merrily zip along on its many lanes.) Voter fraud in the 2016 election is the new ‘Barack Obama’s missing birth certificate’ and unlike that oddity, this one is going to cost many Americans their vote. Moreover, thanks to the effrontery of some Federal courts and their judges in deciding to hold the legal line against the reckless exercise of executive power, the rhetorical barrage to relentlessly undermine the judicial system has continued; as Miller infamously put it, the President’s ‘authority will not be questioned.’

Miller read his lines from a teleprompter; he was prepared to implement the next piece of the Bannon communication strategy and he was efficient, even if affectless, while doing so. Offering refutations of his many lies is going to be exhausting, and Bannon and Miller know it. The only possible counter strategy is to put out an opposing message–one that actually speaks to alternative policies and visions–and to relentlessly repeat it on every possible occasion. It is no shame to learn from one’s enemies; indeed, one must.

Paramilitary Organization Endorses Fascist; Nation Worries

Friday brought us the most frightening news of this terrible election season:

The National Fraternal Order of Police, a 330,000-member union of law enforcement officers, has endorsed Donald Trump for president.

“Our members believe he will make America safe again,” FOP President Chuck Canterbury said in a statement. Trump “seriously looked at the issues facing law enforcement today” and “understands and supports our priorities.”

It is important to not understate the import of this announcement. The police is an armed–to the teeth, with surplus military equipment–paramilitary organization, dedicated to the maintenance of law and order; they possess a monopoly on the use of deadly force and the exertion of violence in the business of law enforcement. The rule of law is exerted against the citizenry by their efforts. They stand–like a ‘thin blue line’–between the citizenry and the depredations of criminals, and also between the citizenry and those who rule. On this latter front, protests are policed by the police; they may disperse them, arrest those who protest, and may, with varying degrees of violence, render those protesting unable to do so any more. When such an organization endorses a politician who expresses utter contempt for both the letter and the spirit of the rule of law, speaks casually about trashing constitutional protections, and hints darkly at mass deportations and reprisals against minorities, it is but natural to wonder what role such a paramilitary organization envisages for itself in the glory days of authoritarian lawless rule that beckon?

Matters look worse when we look a little closer at the particulars of the endorsement by the New England Police Benevolent Association, which has 5,000 members across Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Its executive officer, Jerry Flynn, said that their groups decision came down to “What…the next president of the United States [is] going to do to unite this country in an effort to save police officers? Because it’s open season on police officers”; Flynn went to say that electing Trump was in “best interest of our members.” This mention of an ‘open season on police officers’ echoes the lowest canard consistently promulgated by apologists for the police: that Black Lives Matter and related protests against police racism, brutality, and murder, have led to, if not directly caused the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. This indicates that as before, the police remain afflicted by a ‘deadly‘ defensiveness; they remain committed not viewing their own chosen methods and tactics of policing as a problem worth protesting against.

When a nation’s police turns its self-pitying eyes to a fascist and finds succor there, we have considerable cause to alarmed. It has offered up its loyalties and made them clear: it stands against the people. With little exaggeration, this gesture looks like the self-annointment of a fascist storm-trooper outfit. As I noted in my Facebook status when I posted the above link: “They also put in a request to change the color of their shirts from blue to brown.” Goose-steppers of the world unite and all that.

Justice Hugo Black, The Ku Klux Klan, And The Trump Candidacy

In 1914, Hugo Black–a future Supreme Court Justice–was elected solicitor, or district attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. He lobbied to improve prison conditions for both black and whites, and even published a report on coerced confessions. As a trial lawyer, he had successfully represented a black man who had been imprisoned twenty-five weeks beyond his original sentence. But he remained a prisoner of his time and place.

After a stint as district attorney, Black became a personal injury lawyer, and showed himself a master of the racial dog whistle. In one case, he defended a Protestant minister, E. R. Stephenson, accused of murdering a Catholic priest, James Coyle, who had performed the marriage of the minister’s daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican laborer, Pedro Gussman. During his questioning of prosecution witnesses, he asked several of them, “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” Later, he asked for floodlights to be installed in the courtroom, and had them shone on the decidedly not-white Puerto Rican bridegroom during his testimony, saying that he “just wanted the jury to see that man.” And then, during his closing argument to the jury, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Black recited the Ku Klux Klan prayer, “Our father and our God. We, as klansmen, acknowledge our dependence upon Thee.” The jury voted to acquit.

In 1923, Black joined the Klan as a prelude to running for Senate. During his electioneering, Black marched with the Klan and spoke at over a hundred meetings, all the while decked out in Klan robes. He struck many populist and nativist themes in his stump speeches, railing against corporations and income inequality and immigrants. In 1926, he was awarded, and happily accepted, the Klan’s ‘grand passport’ after winning the Democratic Party’s primary. When a clerk asked him why he had joined the Klan, Black replied, “Why, son, if you wanted to be elected to the Senate in Alabama in the 1920s, you’d join the Klan too.”

As Black’s biography shows, racist and nativist populists who rose to power are not unknown in American political history; neither is their skilled deployment of race-baiting techniques and their sounding of dog whistles. The artful politician can invite the sympathy of the working class by concentrating on those issues that address their economic bottom line even as he appeals to their baser instincts by readily finding scapegoats among the usual suspects: foreigners and people of color. Donald Trump has learned his lessons well, even if there is little evidence he burned any midnight oil reading the biographies of Supreme Court Justices. He’s not alone in imbibing these lessons, of course; most of the Republican Party have been diligent students of their dark arts. Trump has just done it better.

And so Trump might yet say to someone who would ask him why, during the election season of 2016, he went on tirades against Mexicans and Muslims, welcomed the support of white supremacists, accused Federal judges of bias, and sought to ban an entire class of immigrants from the nation, “Why son, if you wanted to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in the new millennium, you’d been a fascist too!”

Note: This post is cribbed from Jeffrey Rosen‘s The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America (Times Books, New York, 2006, pp. 136-137).

Donald Trump, Sabbatai Zevi, And The Unchastened Devotee

I have made note, here, of a habit of mine intended to prompt writing:

Sometimes I scribble little notes to myself…prompted by observations while walking…by a passage read in a book…a scene in a movie. Sometimes they make sense when I return to them…and an expanded thought based on them finds its way into my writing…

It doesn’t always work:

But sometimes…they make little or no sense. I have no idea what prompted them…This forgetfulness stems…from their provenance. When I write them down, I am possessed by a panic that the momentary thought will disappear, leaving no trace behind. So, cutting corners, I rush to commit to permanence [leaving out some perhaps necessary detail].

Today, I am confronted with another example of that genre:

Sabbatai Zevi and the Republican fallen

I am not sure what prompted this thought but Donald Trump and his followers prompt a few responses.

Many fascist leaders have portrayed themselves as messiahs. They attract a following, the admiring attention and devotion of those who find in their blunt, intemperate messages the promise of a salvation, a deliverance, from their own messy lives (as all human ones are.) These followers scurry after their New Prophet, unwilling and unable to accept the often mounting evidence that their ‘leader’, their ‘redeemer.’ is anything but. Mostly, they follow him over a cliff, but tragically, not before they have pushed a few innocents from those same ramparts themselves. And then, suddenly or not, the ostensible Messiah is no more, literally or figuratively: he becomes an apostate, or meets death, at his own hand or at those of others. When he departs, his followers may find themselves akin to those who wake up from a nightmare in which they remember themselves as the possessed, sleep-walkers and zombies of a kind. They might look around, at each other, and wonder what demonic forces coursed through their body and mind, committing them to courses of action which now serve as causes of regret and dismay.

It is too early to tell how and when the spectacle of the Trump will conclude. Perhaps he will crash and burn in the Republican primaries; perhaps he will be defeated by party machine maneuvers, perhaps he will be nominated by the Republican Party and then, find defeat at voting stations. (I continue to be resolutely optimistic that he will not be this nation’s next President.)

But I do not think his defeat will be chastening for him or his followers. For Trump, it will mean, as is usually the case in a culture that rewards such bad behavior, a book deal, or perhaps even a new television show. For his followers, convinced of conspiracy and informed by rumor and innuendo, it will be the signal to commit anew to a new struggle. Perhaps with renewed vigor and determination, with an eye firmly on 2020.

The real damage done by Trump is not the uncorking of the fascist genie (that’s been out and about for a while); rather, it is his–and the Republican Party’s–coddling, nourishment, and elevation to national prominence and respectability of that force–all by their placing it on the most exalted American political stage of all.

We will pay the price for this insanity for a long time. In many different and difficult ways.