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How ‘New Cold Warriors’ Cornered Trump

By Gareth Porter. This article was first published on Consortium News.

Exclusive: The U.S. intelligence community’s extraordinary campaign of leaks claiming improper ties between President Trump’s team and Russia seeks to ensure a lucrative New Cold War by blocking detente, reports Gareth Porter.

Opponents of the Trump administration have generally accepted as fact the common theme across mainstream media that aides to Donald Trump were involved in some kind of illicit communications with the Russian government that has compromised the independence of the administration from Russian influence.

CIA Director John Brennan addresses officials at the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. (Photo credit: CIA)

But close analysis of the entire series of leaks reveals something else that is equally sinister in its implications: an unprecedented campaign by Obama administration intelligence officials, relying on innuendo rather than evidence, to exert pressure on Trump to abandon any idea of ending the New Cold War and to boost the campaign to impeach Trump.

A brazen and unprecedented intervention in domestic U.S. politics by the intelligence community established the basic premise of the cascade of leaks about alleged Trump aides’ shady dealing with Russia. Led by CIA Director John Brennan, the CIA, FBI and NSA issued a 25-page assessment on Jan. 6 asserting for the first time that Russia had sought to help Trump win the election.

Brennan had circulated a CIA memo concluding that Russia had favored Trump and had told CIA staff that he had met separately with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director James Comey and that they had agreed on the “scope, nature and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election.”

In the end, however, Clapper refused to associate himself with the document and the NSA, which agreed to do so, was only willing to express “moderate confidence” in the judgment that the Kremlin had sought to help Trump in the election. In intelligence community parlance, that meant that the NSA considered the idea the Kremlin was working to elect Trump was merely plausible, not actually supported by reliable evidence.

In fact, the intelligence community had not even obtained evidence that Russia was behind the publication by Wikileaks of the e-mails Democratic National Committee, much less that it had done so with the intention of electing Trump. Clapper had testified before Congress in mid-November and again in December that the intelligence community did not know who had provided the e-mails to WikiLeaks and when they were provided.

The claim – by Brennan with the support of Comey – that Russia had “aspired” to help Trump’s election prospects was not a normal intelligence community assessment but an extraordinary exercise of power by Brennan, Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers.

Brennan and his allies were not merely providing a professional assessment of the election, as was revealed by their embrace of the the dubious dossier compiled by a private intelligence firm hired by one of Trump’s Republican opponents and later by the Clinton campaign for the specific purpose of finding evidence of illicit links between Trump and the Putin regime.

Salacious Gossip

When the three intelligence agencies gave the classified version of their report to senior administration officials in January they appended a two-page summary of the juiciest bits from that dossier – including claims that Russian intelligence had compromising information about Trump’s personal behavior while visiting Russia. The dossier was sent, along with the assessment that Russia was seeking to help Trump get elected, to senior administration officials as well as selected Congressional leaders.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona. March 19, 2016. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

Among the claims in the private intelligence dossier that was summarized for policymakers was the allegation of a deal between the Trump campaign and the Putin government involving full Trump knowledge of the Russian election help and a Trump pledge – months before the election – to sideline the Ukraine issue once in office. The allegation – devoid of any verifiable information – came entirely from an unidentified “Russian emigre” claiming to be a Trump insider, without any evidence provided of the source’s actual relationship to the Trump camp or of his credibility as a source.

After the story of the two-page summary leaked to the press, Clapper publicly expressed “profound dismay” about the leak and said the intelligence community “has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable,” nor did it rely on it any way for our conclusions.”

One would expect that acknowledgment to be followed by an admission that he should not have circulated it outside the intelligence community at all. But instead Clapper then justified having passed on the summary as providing policymakers with “the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.”

By that time, U.S. intelligence agencies had been in possession of the material in the dossier for several months. It was their job to verify the information before bringing it to the attention of policymakers.

A former U.S. intelligence official with decades of experience dealing with the CIA as well other intelligence agencies, who insisted on anonymity because he still has dealings with U.S. government agencies, told this writer that he had never heard of the intelligence agencies making public unverified information on a U.S. citizen.

“The CIA has never played such a open political role,” he said.

The CIA has often tilted its intelligence assessment related to a potential adversary in the direction desired by the White House or the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but this is the first time that such a slanted report impinges not only on domestic politics but is directed at the President himself.

The egregious triple abuse of the power in publishing a highly partisan opinion on Russia and Trump’s election, appending raw and unverified private allegations impugning Trump’s loyalty and then leaking that fact to the media begs the question of motive. Brennan, who initiated the whole effort, was clearly determined to warn Trump not to reverse the policy toward Russia to which the CIA and other national security organizations were firmly committed.

A few days after the leak of the two-page summary, Brennan publicly warned Trump about his policy toward Russia. In an interview on Fox News, he said, “I think Mr. Trump has to understand that absolving Russia of various actions that it’s taken in the past number of years is a road that he, I think, needs to be very, very careful about moving down.”

Graham Fuller, who was a CIA operations officer for 20 years and was also National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East for four years in the Reagan administration, observed in an e-mail, that Brennan, Clapper and Comey “might legitimately fear Trump as a loose cannon on the national scene,” but they are also “dismayed at any prospect that the official narrative against Russia could start falling apart under Trump, and want to maintain the image of constant and dangerous Russian intervention into affairs of state.”

Flynn in the Bull’s Eye

As Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn presented an easy target for a campaign to portray the Trump team as being in Putin’s pocket. He had already drawn heavy criticism not only by attending a Moscow event celebrating the Russian television RT in 2016 but sitting next to Putin and accepting a fee for speaking at the event. More importantly, however, Flynn had argued that the United States and Russia could and should cooperate in their common interest of defeating Islamic State militants.

Retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Oct. 29, 2016. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

That idea was anathema to the Pentagon and the CIA. Obama’s Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had attacked Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating a Syrian ceasefire that included a provision for coordination of efforts against Islamic State. The official investigation of the U.S. attack on Syrian forces on Sept. 17 turned up evidence that CENTCOM had deliberately targeted the Syrian military sites with the intention of sabotaging the ceasefire agreement.

The campaign to bring down Flynn began with a leak from a “senior U.S. government official” to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius about the now-famous phone conversation between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak on Dec. 29. In his column on the leak, Ignatius avoided making any explicit claim about the conversation. Instead, he asked “What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?”

And referring to the Logan Act, the 1799 law forbidding a private citizen from communicating with a foreign government to influence a “dispute” with the United States, Ignatius asked, “Was its spirit violated?”

The implications of the coy revelation of the Flynn conversation with Kislyak were far-reaching. Any interception of a communication by the NSA or the FBI has always been considered one of the most highly classified secrets in the U.S. intelligence universe of secrets. And officers have long been under orders to protect the name of any American involved in any such intercepted communication at all costs.

But the senior official who leaked the story of Flynn-Kislyak conversation to Ignatius – obviously for a domestic political purpose – did not feel bound by any such rule. That leak was the first move in a concerted campaign of using such leaks to suggest that Flynn had discussed the Obama administration’s sanctions with Kislyak in an effort to undermine Obama administration policy.

The revelation brought a series of articles about denials by the Trump transition team, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, that Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions with Kislyak and continued suspicions that Trump’s aides were covering up the truth. But the day after Trump was inaugurated, the Post itself reported that the FBI had begun in late December go back over all communications between Flynn and Russian officials and “had not found evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government….”

Two weeks later, however, the Post reversed its coverage of the issue, publishing a story citing “nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls,” as saying that Flynn had “discussed sanctions” with Kislyak.

The story said Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak was “interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.”

The Post did not refer to its own previous reporting of the FBI’s unambiguous view contradicting that claim, which suggested strongly that the FBI was trying to head off a plan by Brennan and Clapper to target Flynn. But it did include a crucial caveat on the phrase “discussed sanctions” that few readers would have noticed. It revealed that the phrase was actually an “interpretation” of the language that Flynn had used. In other words, what Flynn actually said was not necessarily a literal reference to sanctions at all.

Only a few days later, the Post reported a new development: Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on Jan. 24 – four days after Trump’s inauguration – and had denied that he discussed sanctions in the conversation. But prosecutors were not planning to charge Flynn with lying, according to several officials, in part because they believed he would be able to “parse the definition of the word ‘sanctions’.” That implied that the exchange was actually focused not on sanctions per se but on the expulsion of the Russian diplomats.

Just hours before his resignation on Feb. 13, Flynn claimed in an interview with the Daily Caller that he had indeed referred only to the expulsion of the Russian diplomats.

“It wasn’t about sanctions. It was about the 35 guys who were thrown out,” Flynn said. “It was basically, ‘Look, I know this happened. We’ll review everything.’ I never said anything such as, ‘We’re going to review sanctions,’ or anything like that.”

The Russian Blackmail Ploy

Even as the story of the Flynn’s alleged transgression in the conversation with the Russian Ambassador was becoming a political crisis for Donald Trump, yet another leaked story surfaced that appeared to reveal a shocking new level of the Trump administration’s weakness toward Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, following his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015. (UN Photo)

The Post reported on Feb. 13 that Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama holdover, had decided in late January – after discussions with Brennan, Clapper and FBI Director James Comey in the last days of the Obama administration – to inform the White House Counsel Donald McGahn in late January that Flynn had lied to other Trump administration officials – including Vice President Mike Pence – in denying that he discussed sanctions with Kislyak. The Post cited “current and former officials” as the sources.

That story, repeated and amplified by many other news media, led to Flynn’s downfall later that same day. But like all of the other related leaks, the story revealed more about the aims of the leakers than about links between Trump’s team and Russia.

The centerpiece of the new leak was that the former Obama administration officials named in the story had feared that “Flynn put himself in a compromising position” in regard to his account of the conversation with Kislyak to Trump members of the Trump transition.

Yates had told the White House that Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail because of the discrepancies between his conversation with the Ambassador and his story to Pence, according to the Post story.

But once again the impression created by the leak was very different from the reality behind it. The idea that Flynn had exposed himself to a potential Russian blackmail threat by failing to tell Pence exactly what had transpired in the conversation was fanciful in the extreme.

Even assuming that Flynn had flatly lied to Pence about what he had said in the meeting – which was evidently not the case – it would not have given the Russians something to hold over Flynn, first because it was already revealed publicly and second, because the Russian interest was to cooperate with the new administration.

The ex-Obama administration leakers were obviously citing that clumsy (and preposterous) argument as an excuse to intervene in the internal affairs of the new administration. The Post’s sources also claimed that “Pence had a right to know that he had been misled….” True or not, it was, of course, none of their business.

Pity for Pence

The professed concern of the Intelligence Community and Justice Department officials that Pence deserved the full story from Flynn was obviously based on political considerations, not some legal principle. Pence was a known supporter of the New Cold War with Russia, so the tender concern for Pence not being treated nicely coincided with a strategy of dividing the new administration along the lines of policy toward Russia.

Mike Pence speaking with supporters at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. August 2, 2016. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

All indications are that Trump and other insiders knew from the beginning exactly what Flynn had actually said in the conversation, but that Flynn had given Pence a flat denial about discussing sanctions without further details.

On Feb. 13, when Trump was still trying to save Flynn, the National Security Adviser apologized to Pence for “inadvertently” having failed to give him a complete account, including his reference to the expulsion of the Russian diplomats. But that was not enough to save Flynn’s job.

The divide-and-conquer strategy, which led to Flynn’s ouster, was made effective because the leakers had already created a political atmosphere of great suspicion about Flynn and the Trump White House as having had illicit dealings with the Russians. The normally pugnacious Trump chose not to respond to the campaign of leaks with a detailed, concerted defense. Instead, he sacrificed Flynn before the end of the very day the Flynn “blackmail” story was published.

But Trump’s appears to have underestimated the ambitions of the leakers. The campaign against Flynn had been calculated in part to weaken the Trump administration and ensure that the new administration would not dare to reverse the hardline policy of constant pressure on Putin’s Russia.

Many in Washington’s political elite celebrated the fall of Flynn as a turning point in the struggle to maintain the existing policy orientation toward Russia. The day after Flynn was fired the Post’s national political correspondent, James Hohmann, wrote that the Flynn “imbroglio” would now make it “politically untenable for Trump to scale back sanctions to Moscow” because the “political blowback from hawkish Republicans in Congress would be too intense….”

But the ultimate target of the campaign was Trump himself. As neoconservative journalist Eli Lake put it, “Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.”

Susan Hennessey, a well-connected former lawyer in the National Security Agency’s Office of General Counsel who writes the “Lawfare” blog at the Brookings Institution, agreed. “Trump may think Flynn is the sacrificial lamb,” she told The Guardian, “but the reality is that he is the first domino. To the extent the administration believes Flynn’s resignation will make the Russia story go away, they are mistaken.”

The Phony “Constant Contacts” Story

No sooner had Flynn’s firing been announced than the next phase of the campaign of leaks over Trump and Russia began. On Feb. 14, CNN and the New York Times published slight variants of the same apparently scandalous story of numerous contacts between multiple members of the Trump camp with the Russian at the very time the Russians were allegedly acting to influence the election.

There was little subtlety in how mainstream media outlets made their point. CNN’s headline was, “Trump aides were in constant touch with senior Russian officials during campaign.” The Times headline was even more sensational: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence.”

But the attentive reader would soon discover that the stories did not reflect those headlines. In the very first paragraph of the CNN story, those “senior Russian officials” became “Russians known to U.S. intelligence,” meaning that it included a wide range Russians who are not officials at all but known or suspected intelligence operatives in business and other sectors of society monitored by U.S. intelligence. A Trump associate dealing with such individuals would have no idea, of course, that they are working for Russian intelligence.

The Times story, on the other hand, referred to the Russians with whom Trump aides were said to be in contact last year as “senior Russian intelligence officials,” apparently glossing over a crucial distinction that sources had had made to CNN between intelligence officials and Russians being monitored by U.S. intelligence.

But the Times story acknowledged that the Russian contacts also included government officials who were not intelligence officials and that the contacts had been made not only by Trump campaign officials but also associates of Trump who had done business in Russia. It further acknowledged it was “not unusual” for American business to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly in Russia and Ukraine, where “spy services are deeply embedded in society.”

Even more important, however, the Times story made it clear that the intelligence community was seeking evidence that Trump’s aides or associates were colluding with the Russians on the alleged Russian effort to influence the election, but that it had found no evidence of any such collusion. CNN failed to report that crucial element of the story.

The headlines and lead paragraphs of both stories, therefore, should have conveyed the real story: that the intelligence community had sought evidence of collusion by Trump aides with Russia but had not found it several months after reviewing the intercepted conversations and other intelligence.

Unwitting Allies of the War Complex?

Former CIA Director Brennan and other former Obama administration intelligence officials have used their power to lead a large part of the public to believe that Trump had conducted suspicious contacts with Russian officials without having the slightest evidence to support the contention that such contacts represent a serious threat to the integrity of the U.S. political process.

The Women’s March on Washington passing the Trump International Hotel. January 21, 2017. (Photo: Chelsea Gilmour)

Many people who oppose Trump for other valid reasons have seized on the shaky Russian accusations because they represent the best possibility for ousting Trump from power. But ignoring the motives and the dishonesty behind the campaign of leaks has far-reaching political implications. Not only does it help to establish a precedent for U.S. intelligence agencies to intervene in domestic politics, as happens in authoritarian regimes all over the world, it also strengthens the hand of the military and intelligence bureaucracies who are determined to maintain the New Cold War with Russia.

Those war bureaucracies view the conflict with Russia as key to the continuation of higher levels of military spending and the more aggressive NATO policy in Europe that has already generated a gusher of arms sales that benefits the Pentagon and its self-dealing officials.

Progressives in the anti-Trump movement are in danger of becoming an unwitting ally of those military and intelligence bureaucracies despite the fundamental conflict between their economic and political interests and the desires of people who care about peace, social justice and the environment.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

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Trump EPA pick: still 'some debate' over human role in climate change

By Oliver Milman. This article was first published on The Guardian.

At Senate confirmation hearing to lead Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt defends his relationship with fossil fuel industry

Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill. The Oklahoma attorney general has sued the EPA 14 times over regulations. Photograph: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency, has claimed there is still “some debate” over the role of human activity in climate change and has defended his relationship with the fossil fuel industry during a combative Senate confirmation hearing.

Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, has sued the agency he is now set to lead 14 times over the EPA’s smog, mercury and other pollution regulations. Several of these cases are still ongoing and Pruitt said he would recuse himself in dealing with these cases if instructed to do so by the EPA’s ethics board.

In testy exchanges with senators including Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey, Pruitt said there was “some debate” over how much influence human activity has upon the climate but rejected the president-elect’s claim that climate change is a “hoax”. Pruitt also said the EPA had a “very important role” in regulating carbon dioxide.

“Science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity in some manner impacts that change,” he said. “The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue ... so it should be.”

Last year was the warmest on record, scientists announced on Wednesday, with Nasa and Noaa both stressing the primary driver of the warming trend is the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity. Of the 17 hottest years on record, 16 have occurred this century.

Pruitt also seemed uncertain over how much lead can be safely ingested by children, in the wake of the toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan. “I don’t know,” Pruitt said. “I’ve not looked at the scientific research on that. That’s not something I’ve reviewed nor know about.” The EPA itself states that any amount of lead consumption can be harmful.

Democrats on the Senate committee on environment and public works questioned Pruitt over his repeated challenges to the agency he now seeks to head, as well as his ties to the fossil fuel industry. The oil giant Exxon and coal firm Murray Energy have both given the maximum allowable amount of money to Pruitt, with the Oklahoma attorney general siding with donors 13 times in court cases against the EPA.

One Oklahoma firm, Devon Energy, even drafted a letter for Pruitt that he sent on to the EPA in 2011 under his letterhead with minimal alterations. The letter criticized federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas producers. A boom in gas fracking activity in Oklahoma has contributed to a surge in earthquakes in the state.

Questioned over this letter by Democrat Jeff Merkley, Pruitt said: “I was representing the interests of the state. It was protecting the interests of the state, it wasn’t sent on behalf of any one company. It was particular to an industry – there’s an oil and gas industry that is vibrant and vital to the state.”

In his opening statement, Pruitt said: “We must reject as a nation the false paradigm that if you’re pro-energy you’re anti-environment and that if you’re pro-environment you’re anti-energy. In this nation we can grow our economy, harvest the resources God has blessed us with as well as being good stewards of the land, air of water by which we’ve been favored.”

Pruitt said he wanted a better partnership with the states, which he said had been subject to “duress and punishment” from the EPA. He said the states had the “resources and expertise” to safeguard America’s environment but accepted that pollution does cross state lines.

Republicans on the committee backed Pruitt, with Senator James Inhofe, who once brought a snowball to the senate floor in an attempt to disprove global warming, citing Pruitt’s fighting of “federal overreach” as praiseworthy. Fellow Republican attorney generals from other states have also supported Pruitt’s nomination.

However, Christine Todd Whitman, who was EPA administrator under George W Bush, warned there may be “war” within the agency unless Pruitt adopted a more conciliatory posture.

“I wish he hadn’t been nominated,” Whitman, a Republican, told Guardian US. “Mother Nature doesn’t care about states’ rights. You need some area of federal oversight to protect human health and the environment. You can’t just turn it back to the states; most of them don’t have the budget to do the scientific research.

“I think this new administration will try to back down some of the regulations and slow down enforcement of the regulations they don’t like. They will starve the agency for money.

“I would hope that Scott Pruitt will understand how important and complicated the EPA is once he gets in there but EPA people are assuming it will be a war. That won’t be pretty for anyone. Unless he makes real strides to outreach and respect the mission, it will be war.”

Thirteen former state EPA chiefs have urged the Senate to reject Pruitt, citing his “deeply troubling” position on climate change and his repeated courtroom challenges to EPA clean air and water standards.

“Rather than EPA acting as our partner in state-led efforts to ensure clean air and water for our residents, we fear that an EPA under Mr Pruitt would undermine the rules that help to make sure that our state regulations are successful,” the group wrote in a letter to the environment and public works committee.

More than 170 environment groups, including the Sierra Club and the Clean Air Task Force, have written a separate missive to senators decrying Pruitt’s views that “run counter to the EPA’s critical mission to protect our health and the environment”. The letter also calls for the Senate to reject the Oklahoma attorney general.

Pruitt is the “worst nominee ever tapped to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency”, according to Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“He doesn’t have a single environmental achievement to his name, doesn’t believe in the agency’s mission, and has made a career out of suing the EPA to try to block it from doing its job as the guardian of our environment and health,” she added.

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Why Was Tom Perez Willing to be the New Democrats’ DNC Stalking Horse?

William K. Black. February 22, 2017     Bloomington, MN

Hillary Clinton did not lose the presidential race because she is stupid.  The New Democrats have dominated the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates for decades.  This means that they are extremely good at internal Democratic Party politics.  The New Democrats faced a major challenge after Hillary’s loss to the worst presidential candidate in our Nation’s history.  The loss discredited the New Democrats’ leaders, policies, institutions, and funders.  It proved the accuracy of Tom Frank’s efforts to warn the Party about the price it would pay for abandoning the Party’s traditional working class base.

Bernie Sanders posed a major challenge both to Hillary in the nomination contest and to the New Democrats’ domination of Party organs such as the Democratic National Committee (DNC).  Keith Ellison, one of the Nation’s rising stars among progressives, announced his candidacy to lead the DNC.  Ellison was among Bernie’s most effective surrogates.  Ellison gained the support of Senator Schumer and became the odds on favorite to become the next DNC head.  At that point, however, the New Democrats’ leaders showed their cleverness, the depths of their hostility to Bernie and progressives, and their ruthless determination to maintain their dominance of the Party.

The New Democrats faced a difficult tactical problem, however, in coming up with a workable plan to defeat Ellison.  The DNC had proven ineffective and been caught putting its thumb on the scale to try to ensure that Hillary beat Bernie.  The New Democrats lacked a strong candidate.  They could have supported Ellison, who is widely viewed as likely to be a highly effective DNC leader that will lead the revitalization of the Party.  Obama and the Clintons, however, are enraged at the prospect that a Bernie supporter would lead the DNC.  Their highest national political priority is defeating Ellison.  Do not fall for the “cool Obama” hype.  Obama is furious with Bernie and Ellison and has pulled out all the stops to try to prevent progressives’ from challenging his legacy as a New Democrat.  The Clintons share his rage.

Obama was clever in his tactics to defeat Ellison.  He recruited Thomas Perez, twice a senior official in the Obama administration, to run against Ellison.  This was an unconventional political choice for Maryland Democrats are eager for him to run for governor and take that seat back from the Republicans.  Ellison, by contrast, has said he would step down as a Congressman.  His seat (a few miles from where I write this piece) is a safe seat for the Democrats so the Party does not risk an election defeat if Ellison becomes DNC chair.  Perez is a clever tactic from the New Democrats’ perspective for several reasons.  First, Obama signaled that Perez is the New Democrats and Obama’s candidate.  Second, Perez is a Latino.  Third, Perez was Obama’s most effective enforcer against discriminatory lending and employment.  He is competent and was one of Obama’s liberal officials.  (Ellison is black and strongly progressive.)  The New Democrats understood that by running Perez they could split the progressive vote in the DNC election and split the vote of those who wished to encourage diversity.

There is no mystery about why Obama and the Clintons would select Perez as their candidate to seek to block Ellison’s election.  The mystery is why Perez agreed to allow the New Democrats to use him to try to defeat Ellison.

Perez’ willingness to allow Obama and the Clintons to seek revenge against Bernie because he had the audacity to contest Hillary’s nomination will, if successful, outrage progressives.  Progressives are the modern base of the Democratic Party.  They have very high voter turnout and likelihood of voting for Democratic candidates.  Progressives have these characteristics regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.  The downside of this loyalty, of course, is that New Democrats have taken the position that because progressives will continue to vote for New Democrats, the Party should ignore progressives’ preferred policies and exclude them as candidates for the presidency and for leadership of Party organizations.

Progressives know how to defeat this tactic.  They are outraged enough to defeat it.  The question is whether they will exhibit the will to end the New Democrats’ perennial strategy of playing them.  Perez could do a great service for the Party and the Nation by endorsing Ellison and refusing to be the New Democrats’ surrogate.  No one, of course, expects that to happen.  The election is pivotal to whether the Democratic Party survives which will require a rebirth and return to first principles developed in the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement.

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Can Canada Get Out of the War Business?

By David Swanson

Canada is becoming a major weapons dealer, a reliable accomplice in U.S. wars, and a true believer in “humanitarian” armed peacekeeping as a useful response to all the destruction fueled by the weapons dealing.

William Geimer’s Canada: The Case for Staying Out of Other People’s Wars is an excellent antiwar book, useful to anyone seeking to understand or abolish war anywhere on earth. But it happens to be written from a Canadian perspective of possibly particular value to Canadians and residents of other NATO countries, including being valuable right now as Trumpolini demands of them increased investment in the machinery of death.

By “other people’s wars” Geimer means to indicate Canada’s role as subservient to leading war-maker the United States, and historically Canada’s similar position toward Britain. But he also means that the wars Canada fights in do not involve actually defending Canada. So, it’s worth noting that they don’t involve actually defending the United States either, serving rather to endanger the nation leading them. Whose wars are they?

Geimer’s well-researched accounts of the Boer war, the world wars, Korea, and Afghanistan are as good a depiction of horror and absurdity, as good a debunking of glorification, as you’ll find.

It’s unfortunate then that Geimer holds out the possibility of a proper Canadian war, proposes that the Responsibility to Protect need merely be used properly to avoid “abuses” like Libya, recounts the usual pro-war tale about Rwanda, and depicts armed peacekeeping as something unlike war all together. “How,” Geimer asks, “did Canada in Afghanistan slip from actions consistent with one vision, to those of its opposite?” I’d suggest that one answer might be: by supposing that sending armed troops into a country to occupy it can be the opposite of sending armed troops into a country to occupy it.

But Geimer also proposes that no mission that will result in the killing of a single civilian be undertaken, a rule that would completely abolish war. In fact, spreading understanding of the history that Geimer’s book recounts would likely accomplish that same end.

World War I, which has now reached its centennial, is apparently a myth of origins in Canada in something of the way that World War II marks the birth of the United States in U.S. entertainment. Rejecting World War I can, therefore, be of particular value. Canada is also searching for world recognition for its contributions to militarism, according to Geimer’s analysis, in a way that the U.S. government could really never bring itself to give a damn what anyone else thinks. This suggests that recognizing Canada for pulling out of wars or for helping to ban landmines or for sheltering U.S. conscientious objectors (and refugees from U.S. bigotry), while shaming Canada for participating in U.S. crimes, may have an impact.

While Geimer recounts that propaganda surrounding both world wars claimed that Canadian participation would be defensive, he rightly rejects those claims as having been ludicrous. Geimer otherwise has very little to say about the propaganda of defensiveness, which I suspect is much stronger in the United States. While U.S. wars are now pitched as humanitarian, that selling point alone never garners majority U.S. public support. Every U.S. war, even attacks on unarmed nations halfway around the earth, is sold as defensive or not successfully sold at all. This difference suggests to me a couple of possibilities.

First, the U.S. thinks of itself as under threat because it has generated so much anti-U.S. sentiment around the world by means of all of its “defensive” wars. Canadians should contemplate what sort of an investment in bombings and occupations it would take for them to generate anti-Canadian terrorist groups and ideologies on the U.S. scale, and whether they would then double down in response, fueling a vicious cycle of investment in “defense” against what all the “defense” is generating.

Second, there is perhaps less risked and more to be gained in taking Canadian war history and its relationship with the U.S. military a bit further back in time. If Donald Trump’s face won’t do it, perhaps remembrance of U.S. wars gone by will help sway Canadians against their government’s role as U.S. poodle.

Six-years after the British landing at Jamestown, with the settlers struggling to survive and hardly managing to get their own local genocide underway, these new Virginians hired mercenaries to attack Acadia and (fail to) drive the French out of what they considered their continent. The colonies that would become the United States decided to take over Canada in 1690 (and failed, again). They got the British to help them in 1711 (and failed, yet again). General Braddock and Colonel Washington tried again in 1755 (and still failed, except in the ethnic cleansing perpetrated and the driving out of the Acadians and the Native Americans). The British and U.S. attacked in 1758 and took away a Canadian fort, renamed it Pittsburgh, and eventually built a giant stadium across the river dedicated to the glorification of ketchup. George Washington sent troops led by Benedict Arnold to attack Canada yet again in 1775. An early draft of the U.S. Constitution provided for the inclusion of Canada, despite Canada’s lack of interest in being included. Benjamin Franklin asked the British to hand Canada over during negotiations for the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Just imagine what that might have done for Canadian healthcare and gun laws! Or don’t imagine it. Britain did hand over Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana. In 1812 the U.S. proposed to march into Canada and be welcomed as liberators. The U.S. supported an Irish attack on Canada in 1866. Remember this song?

Secession first he would put down
Wholly and forever,
And afterwards from Britain’s crown
He Canada would sever.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy.
Mind the music and the step
and with the girls be handy!

Canada, in Geimer’s account, has lacked ambition to dominate the globe through empire. This makes ending its militarism quite a different matter, I suspect, from doing the same in the United States. The problems of profit, corruption, and propaganda remain, but the ultimate defense of war that always emerges in the United States when those other motives are defeated may not be there in Canada. In fact, by going to war on a U.S. leash, Canada makes itself servile.

Canada entered the world wars before the U.S. did, and was part of the provocation of Japan that brought the U.S. into the second one. But since then, Canada has been aiding the United States openly and secretly, providing first and foremost “coalition” support from the “international community.” Officially, Canada stayed out of wars between Korea and Afghanistan, since which point it has been joining in eagerly. But to maintain that claim requires ignoring all sorts of war-participation under the banner of the United Nations or NATO, including in Vietnam, Yugoslavia, and Iraq.

Canadians must be proud that when their prime minister mildly criticized the war on Vietnam, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson reportedly grabbed him by the lapel, lifted him off the ground, and shouted “You pissed on my rug!” The Canadian prime minister, on the model of the guy Dick Cheney would later shoot in the face, apologized to Johnson for the incident.

Now the U.S. government is building up hostility toward Russia, and it was in Canada in 2014 that Prince Charles compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. What course will Canada take? The possibility exists of Canada offering the United States a moral and legal and practical Icelandic, Costa Rican example of a wiser way just north of the border. If the peer pressure provided by Canada’s healthcare system is any guide, a Canada that had moved beyond war would not by itself end U.S. militarism, but it would create a debate over doing so. That would be a continental step ahead of where we are now.

--

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.

Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook.

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A MOOD IS NOT A MOVEMENT: FIVE IDEAS FOR THE ANTI-TRUMP FORCES

Richard Rubenstein

Comrades and friends, I am not writing to advise you how to resist the Trump regime. There are as many action proposals in circulation as there are anti-Trump groups, with “resistance” the buzzword of the moment.  But resistance against what, exactly, and for what purposes?  Most of the tactical proposals I have seen are strangely devoid of political content.  It seems that anti-Trump is more a mood than a movement with shared aims.  It is a negative sentiment shared by most of the identity and interest groups that formed part of the Democratic Party coalition (or, as the President himself would put it, by the losers) during the 2016 election.

The spread of public protests against the new regime’s immigration ban and other initiatives is heartening to those who oppose these measures.  Yet, protest by itself doesn’t create a movement.  Spending one’s days reacting to Donald Trump’s misstatements, prejudices, and cruelties risks repeating the mistakes of the presidential campaign, when the country split 50-50, more or less, and a right-wing populist appeal aimed primarily at working class Americans generated an electoral vote majority for the Tweeter-in-Chief.  Outrage provoked by Trump’s character, rhetoric, and behavior is inevitable.  Even so, this is a time for hard thinking and conversation, not just outraged action.  (This is the point of Slavoj Zizek’s 2015 video, “Don’t act, just think.”  Take a look at it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLOTi2498xg.)

We dearly need to spend more time talking with each other about what the underlying problems are and what kinds of organization and action are needed to start solving them.  I have a few preliminary ideas about how to frame the issues requiring discussion. If you find any of them interesting, let’s talk further about what a credible program for real change would look like, and how to organize a coherent movement to realize it.

Idea #1: Trumpism is a symptom, not the disease.

Once upon a time, the American system started to fail.  On the economic front, vast areas of the country de-industrialized, wages stagnated, inequality soared, and poverty or near-poverty became endemic.  So did criminal activity, police violence, substance abuse, mental illness, community decay, and other ills associated with socioeconomic stagnation and decline.  Family and communal bonds frayed under the pressure.  Public schools became increasingly dysfunctional.  In politics, the two-party system produced little more than partisanship, gridlock, endless foreign wars, and a bureaucracy dedicated to serving favored interest groups.  Americans insecure about their declining status felt threatened by the slippage of their influence abroad and the challenges of changing mores and multiculturalism at home.  Discontent finally reached the point that workers and middle class folk long associated with the Democratic Party in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida abandoned the Democrats in sufficient numbers to hand a new type of Republican – the nationalist/populist Donald Trump – a presidential victory.

A system in trouble – a sociopolitical structure that regularly produces shattered hopes and civil violence – is the problem.  Trumpism is a symptom of our failure to solve it.  Worse yet, by offering a set of generically false solutions, it almost inevitably ensures that systemic failures will continue.  What I mean by “generically false” can be illustrated by a syllogism:

(1) The American social system remains basically healthy;

(2) But all sorts of social ills and dangers to Americans are multiplying.

(3) Ergo, the sources of these ills and dangers must lie mostly outside the system.  The troublemakers are foreign governments, terrorists, and immigrants, abetted by local groups that put their own interests ahead of those of the Nation and domestic leaders who lack the determination, courage, and toughness needed to deal with these threats.  In other words, these sources of decline are not only “un-American” for the most part, but also un-structural; they are produced by personal characteristics like malice, greed, laziness, and – above all – failures of willpower.  (A propaganda movie commissioned by the new administration might well be called “The Triumph of the Will.”)

But isn’t this also the way many of the President’s opponents also think?  I have heard anti-Trump activists blame the loss of the election on foreigners (Vladimir Putin, in particular), domestic racists and other misguided “deplorables,” Hillary Clinton’s lack of charisma, and the arrogance and dogmatism of the anti-Clinton Left.  I have also heard them dwell obsessively on Trump’s personal failings and peculiarities, his and his followers’ racial and religious prejudices, the anti-scientific known-nothing-ism of the climate change deniers, and the Far Right’s maleficent intentions to enrich the rich and persecute the poor.  No doubt, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and belligerent behavior invite a counter-attack in kind.  Yet playing the personalist game leaves the country very close to where it was in November 2016 – divided roughly 50/50, with at least half the nation aggrieved and alienated by the results of system failure.  This suggests a second notion:

Idea #2: The problem isn’t Donald Trump’s or Steve Bannon’s ‘radicalism.’ Oppositionists need to be more radical than they are, not less.

Consider the President’s inaugural speech, an angry tirade that described closed factories scattered “like tombstones” across the land, “carnage” in city streets, and America as a global power in decline.  This rhetoric the New York Times and Washington Post found shocking – just shocking!  Things aren’t nearly so bad as the upstart realtor alleged, they replied. Business is recovering, the crime rate is falling, and we really are “great,” just as Hillary said.

Have liberals learned so little from the naqba of 2016?  Anti-Trumps flaunting their own rectitude and high-culture credentials continue to talk about Trump like a Henry James heroine appraising a fortune-hunting adventurer.  What a vulgar upstart the fellow is! How rude and obnoxious!  Whatever one thinks of Trump’s breeding and motives, however, things are not ok for working people in America.  The new president’s references to industrial tombstones and urban carnage seemed perfectly accurate to a great many of them.  That (plus racial and religious ressentiment) is why so many either voted for him last November or stayed home.

We need to be more radical than Trump, not less.  This means understanding that America’s social problems are systemic, and that solving them will probably mean changing the system in some basic ways.  I argue in a recent book (Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed) that the alternative to systemic criticism and change is “partisan moralism” – a type of thinking that blames all one’s social and political problems on the other side’s personal defects. This is what happens when liberal critics characterize the President and his cronies as bad boys and girls out to challenge the rules of respectability, conventional diplomacy, world order, and free trade.

I do not mean to oversimplify this issue.  There can be a spillover from behavior that is simply rude and boorish to behavior that endangers democratic norms.  Trump’s angry attacks on judges, journalists, and political opponents are troubling.  Even so, there is something inherently conservative, isn’t there, about this constant criticism of the man’s “uncivilized” behavior?  Such attacks are aimed at rallying all the forces of Order, from Wall Street bankers to well brought-up Bernie-ites, to resist changes threatened by the new regime. Take a look at Thomas Friedman’s or David Brooks’s op-ed pieces for the New York Times and you will see how upset neoliberal critics are by the President’s defiance of traditional norms and the elites that support them.  Such critics slide easily from disapproving of Trump’s vulgar tweets to condemning his heretical views on NATO and Russia.

Most important, focusing on Trump’s personal failings keeps us from confronting the more serious challenges of his and Bannon’s proposed New Order..  In a brilliant article in Dissent magazine, the philosopher Nancy Fraser describes and analyzes the Clintonite alliance between identity groups seeking emancipation and corporate elites that fell apart in November 2016.  “Progressive liberalism,” she declares, is over (https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/progressive-neoliberalism-reactionary-populism-nancy-fraser).  The need to develop an alternative “progressive populist” program raises at least three crucial questions for anti-Trump forces and, ultimately, for pro-Trump groups as well.  These topics are (a) economic restructuring, (b) ethical globalism, and (c) democratic (small “d”) renewal.  Each topic, I suggest, requires a different type of public discussion.  Let’s take a closer look at them.

Idea #3: We need to talk together NOW about alternatives to “economic nationalism” and the capitalist system.

At a time like this, it may seem counterintuitive to put radical economic reform on the political agenda.  Faced with Trumpism and its dangers, there is an understandable tendency for people to shun debates that might threaten to disunite the opposition.  But an opposition consisting primarily of racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious identity groups is already disunited.  An opposition that seeks to join anti-Trump progressives with anti-Trump conservatives is even more so – it constitutes what old-time leftists used to call a “rotten bloc.”  Subordinating the issue of social class to a mélange of other causes seems to me a potentially fatal error.

Here’s why.  If the capitalist system, as it operates today in America and elsewhere, is basically healthy – if all that is needed to put people to work, satisfy their basic needs, and restore their faith in economic progress are moderate reforms such as liberal proposals to tax the rich or conservative proposals to “untax” and deregulate them, there is no need to think about more radical changes.  But if the system is basically in crisis – if, without major changes, another generation of working and middle class people will likely be condemned to poverty, precarity, and social demoralization – we need to talk now about how to reconstruct the economy.  In fact, if the system is not fundamentally healthy, the choice will not be between liberalism and conservatism at all, but between some form of fascism and some form of socialism.

We can already see this choice hovering on the horizon.  In winning the 2016 election, Donald Trump appealed to the half-hidden racism, misogyny, and xenophobia of white people fearful of losing social status and political clout.  But these appeals would have gotten nowhere without a socioeconomic program designed to capitalize on working class misery – a goulash that can be summed up in two words: economic nationalism.  Noting – correctly – that American working people have been exploited or neglected for decades by powerful globalizing interests (interests absurdly labeled “Washington” by right wing ideologues), Trump and Bannon promise to restore domestic industries and the workers dependent upon them to health by adopting an “America First” economic program.  More specifically, they propose to compel big companies to keep their production facilities in the U.S., jawbone Big Pharma into lowering drug prices, tax or place tariffs on manufactured imports, slash taxes on the rich and super-rich, relieve Wall Street investors and companies of “burdensome” government regulations, cancel or renegotiate trade agreements, modernize and expand U.S. military forces, and – the piece de resistance – initiate a huge new public works program to rebuild roads, bridges, dams, the electrical grid, and other elements of the national infrastructure.

We have not yet seen these proposals put in the form of legislation or executive orders, but that will surely happen.  Robert Reich and other Democratic liberals have criticized them as “trickle down economics dressed in populist garb,” opining that they will further enrich the wealthy without creating jobs, raising wages, reducing poverty, or mitigating inequality.  Interestingly, many conservatives agree that Trump’s populism will remain a matter of symbolic gestures, while market forces ultimately decide which companies move abroad or stay put, how drugs are priced, how high tariff levels go, whether or not to replace live workers with machines, and so forth.  What these middle-of-the-road opinions ignore, however, is that, if the economy continues to stagnate and to generate inequality, Trump/Bannon’s economic nationalism could turn out to be a lot more like Benito Mussolini’s New Order than Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America.

Suppose that the proposed program to rebuild the infrastructure (already endorsed by two national unions of construction workers) does not create that many jobs or raise incomes substantially.  Even so, it may give the impression that the regime is trying to put the working class back on its feet.  More important, if a limited program of government intervention doesn’t work, America First economics, already tending toward corporatism, “fortress America” autarky, and forcing business executives to behave, could move in a consciously authoritarian (i.e., fascist) direction.  For example, the regime could sponsor a larger public works program under regulations dictating the terms of employment, limiting automation, sponsoring “friendly” trade unions, and interfering with the labor market in other ways.  (That’s what Mussolini did.)  Worse yet, if economic growth proves too slow to offset the budgetary deficits produced by tax cuts and public works spending, Trump & Co. could attempt to solve that problem by involving the nation in a major war.  (That’s what Hitler did.)

People worried about what Richard Falk calls the current regime’s “pre-fascist” leanings need to talk now about alternative forms of economic restructuring that could restore the American and global economies to health.  A discussion of socialist measures, among others, seems overdue.  Clearly, since many Americans have been taught to identify “the S word” with totalitarianism, one immediate task will be to show in practical terms how activist governments, local as well as national, can operate under the effective control of working people rather than some bureaucratic elite.  At the same time, discussants should look with a critical eye at European versions of social democracy that have tried to give capitalism a human face, but without solving economic problems at a fundamental structural level.  (Bernie Sanders’ proposals, interesting though they were, never reached this level either.)

The discussions we need – and which a number of us hope to organize soon – should include a wide range of social visions ranging from Bernie’s reform proposals to more radical approaches being advanced by Marxists, cooperativists, Greens, feminists, and others.  Economic libertarians should not be turned away either, if they have something to contribute to the discussion.  These ideas may not be able to be implemented immediately, but that’s ok.  The point is to be ready for the crucial moments when working people understand that economic nationalism doesn’t work, and when they begin searching in earnest for more thoroughgoing and effective answers.

Idea #4: ‘America First’ is a moral abomination.  We need to discuss the possibility of developing Ethical Globalism as a realistic, morally satisfying alternative to nation-worship.

Watching people who consider themselves progressive responding to the new government’s “America First” proposals is a bit like viewing a professional wrestling match.  The wrestlers try to outsmart and outperform each other, but it doesn’t matter in the end, since the game is phony by definition.  What difference does it make who “wins,” when the only real winner is the World Wrestling Federation?

So, when Donald Trump preaches that American workers are underemployed because their jobs have been outsourced, some progressives agree, while others mutter about jobs being lost to automation. Few or none challenge the assumption that putting Americans to work is far more important than finding jobs for Greek, Egyptian, or Chinese workers.  Similarly, when Trump proposes to close our borders to immigrants, his opponents answer that immigrants don’t take American jobs or commit many crimes, and that immigration is good for America.  They hardly ever argue that people living in impoverished, violence-ridden nations have a right to emigrate and to make better lives for themselves elsewhere.  Ditto where the question concerns America’s world “leadership” (a euphemism for military hegemony).  The liberals think that soft power is better than the harder sort, but they have very little to say about the fundamental concept of hegemonic leadership.  In fact, they blame Donald Trump for weakening U.S. power by cozying up to the Russians and challenging “traditional” concepts of a world order policed by American diplomats and troops.

The game is fixed when the assertion that America should be First is answered, as it almost always is, “Yes, but not by doing violent or repressive things to vulnerable people.”  Anti-Trumps hardly ever answer, “No, America shouldn’t be First.  Nobody should be First.”

Why don’t most liberals they call out the America Firsters?  One possibility is that they share the same faith, although their expressions of it are more civilized than those of crude fundamentalists.  (High Church Firsters, one might call them!)  Another possibility is that many are actually ethical globalists – people who believe in the essential equality of all humans and in the need to construct a global commonwealth dedicated to peace and social justice.  The problem, in their view, is that realizing this vision is not feasible in the current sociopolitical environment, and that expressing it will isolate its advocates and strengthen the most reactionary and fascistic elements of the nationalist movement.

Very well.  Let’s distinguish what is morally and politically right from what is immediately feasible.   Clearly, underemployed workers and struggling middle class folks want jobs, opportunities, and assistance, not lectures on the rights of underemployed foreigners and refugees.  At the same time, though, if our countrymen and women don’t understand that the interdependence of American society with all other societies is a fact, not “fake news,” they will be doomed to live in an increasingly dangerous fantasy world.  We can’t let them continue, unchallenged, to equate globalism with the globalization of capital!  We need to discuss how to help them understand that the welfare and security of American working people depend on empowering and enriching workers around the globe.  And the same thing is true when the topic is America’s alleged cultural superiority to other peoples.  Those opposed to the current wave of nation-worship need to talk with religious and ethical leaders about how to spread the word (actually, the Good News) that there are no Chosen nations, and that we are no more or less deserving of wealth and security than the other people inhabiting this planet.

Ditto with regard to the assumption that world society is a jungle (or a “clash of civilizations”) in which we Americans must either kill or be killed.   We need to discuss how best to explain that the natural (and obtainable) condition of humankind is not a war of each against all, but a cooperative global commonwealth.   Rabbi Michael Lerner and Frida Berrigan put the matter nicely when they call for a new type of patriotism “that embraces all peoples and all national traditions and cultures even while celebrating one's own cultures and traditions” (http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2017/02/16/loving-america-and-resisting-trump-the-new-patriotism).  Religious and ethical leaders can recognize and help others recognize that America First thinking, which makes the Nation the supreme value, is not patriotism.  It is simply the latest form of Baal-worship.

Idea #5: We need to come together in local and national assemblies to rethink and renovate American democracy.

There seems little reason to doubt that recent political events in the United States are the result of systemic problems, not just anomalous circumstances.  Yes, Russians hackers may have meddled in the 2016 election.  Yes, F.B.I. Director Comey made prejudicial comments when he should have kept his mouth shut.  Still, when one considers the structural factors that contributed to a chaotic, vituperative, money-ridden electoral contest, the matter speaks for itself.

By 2016, the two major political parties, increasingly partisan and ineffective, had lost the nation’s confidence, and people’s distrust of government had reached an all-time high.  Both parties suffered significant internal splits during their nominating campaigns and nominated presidential candidates with sky high disapproval ratings.  In the election itself, the winning candidate ran as much against his own party’s leaders as on their behalf.  On Election Day more than 90 million eligible voters stayed home.  The percentage that voted was 57.9%, the lowest turnout since the year 2000, and the new president’s initial approval ratings were the lowest ever recorded.

Meanwhile, the divisions among Americans exposed and exacerbated by the campaign continue to intensify.  This is not, it seems clear, merely the product of President Trump’s pugnacity.  Five months before the election, the Pew Research Center reported that, “For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party.  And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger” (http://www.people-press.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/).  Following Mr. Trump’s victory, not only were increases reported in acts of politically motivated violence, but also popular dating websites revealed that their clients were insisting that potential dates announce themselves as pro- or anti-Trump.  When political differences invade the eroti-sphere, you know that domestic conflicts are escalating!

This situation points to two more questions urgently requiring discussion.  First, we know that intergroup struggles in modern America are rooted in both socioeconomic inequalities and a clash of cultures.  A glance at the red and blue areas demarcated on the electoral map of 2016, as well as a look at Trump’s recent executive orders, suggests that the “culture wars” analyzed by James Davison Hunter in his famous 1992 study are, if anything, more hotly contested now than they were then, although their foci and dynamics have changed.  These divisions, fusing economic, cultural, and religious differences, are intensifying.  The question is what can be done to understand them more fully and to mitigate their causes.

The good news is that conflict resolvers have developed several forms of conversation particularly well suited to help parties deal with this sort of conflict.  One such form, the interactive or “problem solving” workshop is a confidential, facilitated dialogue, repeated at intervals, that permits participants to explore the deep sources of their mutual alienation and to imagine creative new ways of working things out.  Participants can be community or group leaders, people in mid-level roles, or grass roots folks. This process, like certain forms of public dialogue, does not aim at ending the conflict immediately so much as at helping the parties to speak directly to each other, analyze their situation, humanize their adversaries, and discover how to prevent their differences from destroying lives, communities, and people’s peace of mind.  In some cases (Northern Ireland was one, Mozambique another), it can even lead the parties to decide to act cooperatively to alter a conflict-generating situation.

A second, related inquiry is this: why is the U.S. political system, which is supposed to manage or resolve these conflicts, failing to do so?  What are the structural deficiencies of this system and how can they be remedied?  We can start by recognizing that people generally want their government to be both effective and participatory.  Effective means that an administration works actively to solve the problems that interfere with achieving public order, freedom, and social justice. Participatory means that the government responds to forces operating from the bottom or middle up, rather than just taking orders from an economic elite or giving orders as a political elite.  We need to talk together in local, regional, and national gatherings about how to reconstruct a system that lacks both effectiveness and participation.

The problem is that political institutions designed to manage conflicts and make policies in times of relative domestic peace, when there are few serious divisions of opinion, may break down when confronted by intense and long-lasting differences of the sort that now divide so many Americans.  The two-party system, for example, seems to work best when there is considerable overlap between the political coalitions that constitute each party, since this permits relative “moderates” on each side to negotiate and reach compromise agreements.  When the coalitions do not overlap and the parties separate ideologically, what stabilized the system in more peaceful times can turn out to be a source of instability, like an ocean liner’s stabilizers capsizing the ship in a heavy storm.  In heavy political storms, some people believe that a multi-party system provides a better basis for governing effectively than a two-party system, since it may help satisfy people’s needs for effective government and meaningful participation.

Let’s talk about the two party system, but also about institutions like the American system of campaign financing, widely considered to be a thinly disguised form of officially sanctioned bribery.  People interested in renovating democracy could also reconsider our winner-take-all voting systems, which prevent political minorities from sharing power (or, in the case of the electoral vote system, which disempower electoral majorities!).  Would more participatory systems, like the cumulative voting used in some states and nations, be an improvement?

Finally, such discussions could be expanded well beyond electoral issues.  For example, we know there are non-adversarial methods of problem solving, open to public participation, which may work better in some situations than the traditional methods of power politics.  How might we move from a win-lose political culture towards cooperative problem solving?

I don’t have convincing answers to such questions.  The only thing I’m certain of, in the words of the late Joan Rivers, is that “We need to talk” – and not just about Donald Trump’s foibles!  The controversial presidential campaign and Mr. Trump’s activities in office have generated a great wave of political anxiety and interest in the country, but unless his opponents find ways to focus their thinking on a discrete number of vital issues – and unless they begin to discover creative, practical solutions to underlying systemic problems – the wave could leave them beached.  (Remember the Occupy movement.)

Resist what needs to be resisted?  Certainly!  But, whatever else happens, let’s start talking now about what we are for, not just what we are against – that is about transformative solutions to real social problems.

 

 

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