One Year Later: The Political Cancer Metastasizes

By Neal Gabler, billmoyers.com, Democracy & Government, November 10, 2017 http://billmoyers.com/story/one-year-later-political-cancer-metastasizes/

America was never what it had purported to be.

Excerpt…There will come a time, no doubt, when professional historians look back on these times and assess what happened to America, and I don’t think the assessment will be pretty. They will think of it as a period of national derangement, a time when America lost its bearings.

One year ago, Donald Trump, through the vicissitudes of our bizarre electoral system, beat Hillary Clinton… Trump’s victory broke with the idealism in America’s history, traditions and values. There was a feeling in some quarters that those of us who felt that way were being alarmist… You could hope that the Americans who supported Trump would come to their senses and that those who opposed him would create a countermovement. Happily, to some degree, that has indeed happened. …Many voters … enthused over Trump’s promise to destroy America as they had come to know it, which was the America of civility and tolerance and diversity, but also the America of elites and economic inequality and condescension.

That promise, however, was predicated on something else: that having blown up the country, Trump’s demolition would rediscover the old America underneath…About the only thing he is likely to accomplish is a massive tax redistribution from the middle class to the upper classes, under the guise of “tax cuts,”…

After last Nov. 8, this suddenly became a different country than it had been. Not only had the skeletons come out of the closet, they were leading the parade. No, America was never what it had purported to be. The idealism was always better in theory than in practice. We were always too self-congratulatory, too fixated on American exceptionalism, on ideas like The Greatest Generation, overlooking a fundamental fissure.

That fissure opened because the country was formed over conflicting concepts of freedom and equality. We like to think of ourselves as champions of equality: a tolerant, charitable, compassionate egalitarian people, showing one another respect and decency, and sometimes we are. This is, I believe, the very foundation of American liberalism. But we also like to think of ourselves as free from constraints, independent and self-sufficient, less concerned with compassion than with what we regard as personal justice. This, I believe, is the foundation of American conservatism.

Throughout our history, these two forces have continually vied with one another and at best tempered one another. The country operates in a kind of equilibrium between community and individualism, between sacrifice and self-interestedness. Trump has upset that equilibrium. By foreswearing equality entirely, he turned us from a community into, as many observers are now saying, a group of tribes, each focused only on its own prerogatives. Trump turned us against one another. He created a new, cold civil war between an expiring America where freedom was paramount and an ascending one where equality was paramount. He arrested history… His tweets are aimed squarely against immigrants and minorities who he believes have stolen the country away from the white Americans (white male Americans) who rightfully should control this country…. He has stressed might over morality. In short, his is the authoritarian playbook.

…. It is the single most radical political change, I believe, in the country’s history.

So the idea that Trump is just some bump in the road, or a contagion that will pass, is, I think, a fool’s dream. He now owns the Republican Party lock, stock and barrel…We cannot and should not ignore that nearly 40 percent of Americans — basically the entire Republican Party — will walk in lockstep with him wherever he leads. That should terrify us…. Trump, while no genius, certainly realizes how little he has to do to redeem himself just enough to keep his hate crusade afloat…That is also from the authoritarian playbook. Egomaniacs don’t care about other people’s lives.

I wrote here a year ago that there would be no coming back from this — that no matter what happened subsequently, we had crossed a threshold… the country is damaged, its values are damaged and repair will be a long time coming, if ever.

Trumpism now owns that dark and malignant strain in American life that has long sabotaged the ideals we prefer to celebrate ….White supremacists are not likely to forget that one of their hatemongers took the presidency…We can enjoy Tuesday’s triumphs as a rebuff to Trump, which they most certainly were. We can and must remain vigilant to contain the malignancy. Still, we cannot erase the fact that Trump’s rampage has left our country deeply wounded, perhaps fatally. He blew up America. A year later, there is no great old America underneath for the Trump-supporting nostalgists. There is instead rubble. And he is not done yet.

Full text

One Year Later: The Political Cancer Metastasizes By Neal Gabler, billmoyers.com, November 10, 2017

America was never what it had purported to be.

Exactly one day short of one year after the election of Donald Trump, the fog finally seemed to lift and the skies brightened. On Tuesday, voters rejected Trumpism in New Jersey and in Virginia, where establishment Republican Ed Gillespie embraced Trump’s racism and nativism, indicating how deeply the president’s poison has penetrated even the precincts of the party that should be vigorously in opposition to it.

In Maine, voters approved an expansion of Medicaid that their right-wing governor had rejected several times. In Washington state, Democrats won the upper house of the legislature. Meanwhile, GOP members of Congress are deserting the ship, one by one. As Steve Bannon marshals his “alt-right” forces to defeat mainstream Republicans, his primary candidates may be so far off the political spectrum next year that they could derail the Republicans’ Senate hopes. Across the board, Democratic prospects in 2018 look promising, if the Democrats don’t manage to screw things up, which is a very big if.

And yet, before anyone gets too sanguine, consider where we are. There will come a time, no doubt, when professional historians look back on these times and assess what happened to America, and I don’t think the assessment will be pretty. They will think of it as a period of national derangement, a time when America lost its bearings.

One year ago, Donald Trump, through the vicissitudes of our bizarre electoral system, beat Hillary Clinton, and one year ago I wrote a valedictory to the America I had known and loved, quoting lines from W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939, in which he described the cataclysm of Hitler’s armies marching into Poland and launching World War II. America had flirted with disaster in the past, but we prided ourselves on not having succumbed to it, save with the Civil War. Somehow alleged good sense and solid institutions kept us from going over the precipice. Somehow.

And then, last Nov. 8, we did.

I wrote then of the peril the nation faced, of the way Trump’s victory broke with the idealism in America’s history, traditions and values. There was a feeling in some quarters that those of us who felt that way were being alarmist — that Trump would either normalize himself to fit the contours of our politics or that he would be normalized by the inhibitions of American democracy, where inertia exerts far more power than movement, especially since the great divide between the conservatives and liberals. You could hope that the disruption Trump represented would be mild, and it would be brief. You could hope that the Americans who supported Trump would come to their senses and that those who opposed him would create a countermovement.

Happily, to some degree, that has indeed happened. Even before Tuesday, recent polls showed a sense of buyer’s remorse. Many voters no doubt had felt glee at upending the applecart of modern America, and they enthused over Trump’s promise to destroy America as they had come to know it, which was the America of civility and tolerance and diversity, but also the America of elites and economic inequality and condescension.

After last Nov. 8, this suddenly became a different country than it had been. Not only had the skeletons come out of the closet, they were leading the parade.

That promise, however, was predicated on something else: that having blown up the country, Trump’s demolition would rediscover the old America underneath. Trump was supposed to be a political archeologist, digging down to another epoch. He was supposed to restore America to a halcyon past of white supremacy, on the one hand, and populism, on the other.

But Trump has betrayed that promise, even as he continues to give lip service to it. About the only thing he is likely to accomplish is a massive tax redistribution from the middle class to the upper classes, under the guise of “tax cuts,” which is something any old establishment Republican could have accomplished. In short, as a policymaker, Trump is less than nil, and that probably wouldn’t matter much to his supporters, who really don’t give a damn about policy, if it weren’t for the fact that Trump sold himself as a doer, and he is also nil there.

Still, that is just policy. Trump’s real accomplishment goes far deeper and is far more destructive than his attempts to repeal Obamacare or revoke environmental protections or banking regulations or any of the other dozens of things he has tried to do and sometimes did. After last Nov. 8, this suddenly became a different country than it had been. Not only had the skeletons come out of the closet, they were leading the parade. No, America was never what it had purported to be. The idealism was always better in theory than in practice. We were always too self-congratulatory, too fixated on American exceptionalism, on ideas like The Greatest Generation, overlooking a fundamental fissure.

That fissure opened because the country was formed over conflicting concepts of freedom and equality. We like to think of ourselves as champions of equality: a tolerant, charitable, compassionate egalitarian people, showing one another respect and decency, and sometimes we are. This is, I believe, the very foundation of American liberalism. But we also like to think of ourselves as free from constraints, independent and self-sufficient, less concerned with compassion than with what we regard as personal justice. This, I believe, is the foundation of American conservatism.

Throughout our history, these two forces have continually vied with one another and at best tempered one another. The country operates in a kind of equilibrium between community and individualism, between sacrifice and self-interestedness. Trump has upset that equilibrium. By foreswearing equality entirely, he turned us from a community into, as many observers are now saying, a group of tribes, each focused only on its own prerogatives. Trump turned us against one another. He created a new, cold civil war between an expiring America where freedom was paramount and an ascending one where equality was paramount. He arrested history.

When he is called the “divider-in-chief,” the label goes beyond his incendiary rhetoric to a zero-sum blame game. Whatever ails his supporters, he says, is the result of someone having taken something from them. His tweets are aimed squarely against immigrants and minorities who he believes have stolen the country away from the white Americans (white male Americans) who rightfully should control this country.

He nurses grievances, he advances conspiracy theories, he exacerbates angers, he scapegoats. He has opened wounds that had taken a century to begin to heal. And globally, he has given the middle finger to the rest of the world while lowering the nation’s standing and offending our allies while embracing our biggest enemy. He has stressed might over morality. In short, his is the authoritarian playbook.

The idea that Trump is just some bump in the road, or a contagion that will pass, is, I think, a fool’s dream. He now owns the Republican Party lock, stock and barrel.

A recent article in The Boston Globe looking at divisions in York, Pennsylvania, provides a powerful microcosm of how thoroughly Trump has splintered this country in only a year. He may not be the cause of this change, only its product. But no major candidate in any major party ever provided the opportunity he has to loose these divisions and ignite these hatreds.

I think of Trump’s America as a kind of Opposite Day — the game we played in grammar school where everything said was interpreted as the opposite. In a remarkably Orwellian fashion, Trump has taken whatever was good in this country and said and did the opposite. Nothing is what it used to be. Everything seems turned inside out. That is the country in which we now live. It is the single most radical political change, I believe, in the country’s history.

So the idea that Trump is just some bump in the road, or a contagion that will pass, is, I think, a fool’s dream. He now owns the Republican Party lock, stock and barrel. Those few who speak out against him, like Jeff Flake, only do so when they know they cannot win a primary against a Trump-backed candidate. Failure emboldens them. The others pretend to ignore him when it comes to legislation, but they know that while Trump is ignorant of and less than engaged with policy — all he wants are victories, regardless of policy — he is the electoral 800-pound gorilla in Republican primaries.

Rank-and-file Republicans still love him, not because of any ideological affinities but because of their emotional ones. We cannot and should not ignore that nearly 40 percent of Americans — basically the entire Republican Party — will walk in lockstep with him wherever he leads. That should terrify us.

Moreover, Trump, while no genius, certainly realizes how little he has to do to redeem himself just enough to keep his hate crusade afloat. We have already seen how the media practically canonized him for shooting some missiles at Syria, or how they gave him kudos for seeming to make a budget deal with Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. Trump dread is so deep in most of the country that even his refraining from tweeting for a few days would raise his stock and elicit praise that he was now “presidential.” Similarly, as I have written here, a war against North Korea would make him a short-term hero in many quarters and would certainly rally much of the country behind him. That is also from the authoritarian playbook. Egomaniacs don’t care about other people’s lives.

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5 Farewell, America

I wrote here a year ago that there would be no coming back from this — that no matter what happened subsequently, we had crossed a threshold. Once you know that those old institutions won’t inhibit a leader who hired Michael Flynn, a Russian acolyte, as his national security adviser (!), who threatens the press, who enriches himself in direct violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, who promotes white supremacism, who insults government professionals, including members of his own Cabinet, declaring, “I am the only one who matters,” or who… well, you know the litany. You also know that the country is damaged, its values are damaged and repair will be a long time coming, if ever.

Trumpism now owns that dark and malignant strain in American life that has long sabotaged the ideals we prefer to celebrate on the 4th of July, at Thanksgiving, and with stanzas of the national anthem and every salute of the flag. What we have learned this year is that Trumpism is now a permanent part of our polity. White supremacists are not likely to forget that one of their hatemongers took the presidency. This Trump cancer may be only a few aberrant cells, but it is a permanent feature of our body politic, threatening to metastasize, even if he is deposed.

We can enjoy Tuesday’s triumphs as a rebuff to Trump, which they most certainly were. We can and must remain vigilant to contain the malignancy. Still, we cannot erase the fact that Trump’s rampage has left our country deeply wounded, perhaps fatally. He blew up America. A year later, there is no great old America underneath for the Trump-supporting nostalgists. There is instead rubble. And he is not done yet.

Religious Freedom is a Progressive Value

By Frederick Clarkson, Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine. January 3, 2017 http://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/01/03/religious-freedom-is-a-progressive-value/#sthash.95zre6xo.dpbs

One’s beliefs or non-beliefs shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or effect their civic capabilities.             Thomas Jefferson

To read press coverage about it, one might think that religious freedom is a concern only for religious and political conservatives, and not one of the most liberatory ideas in history. One would also think religious freedom and civil rights are at odds with one another.1) Indeed, U.S. history is filled with examples of such competing claims, as resistance to everything from African American civil rights to marriage equality have been cast as matters of religious freedom. But stepping back from the heat of our political moment, there is a different, more fully accurate, story to be told, one I think that as progressives, we need to know and be able to tell.

Religious freedom is a powerful idea—the stuff from which revolutions are sometimes made. It includes the right of individual conscience—to believe or not believe as we choose, without undue influence from government or powerful religious institutions, and to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints. It’s no surprise that the first part of the First Amendment guarantees freedom of belief. The right to believe differently from the rich and powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press.2) Grounding our politics, journalism, and scholarship in a clear understanding of what it means and where it came from could serve as both an inoculation and an answer to the distorted, self-serving claims of the Christian Right.

It was religious freedom that allowed for Quakers, evangelicals and Unitarians to lead the way in opposition to slavery in the 19th Century. Religious freedom also allowed Catholics and mainline Protestants to guide society in creating child labor laws early in the 20th Century, and later made it possible for religious groups and leaders to help forge wide and evolving coalitions to advance African American Civil Rights and women’s equality, to oppose the Vietnam War, and eventually fight for LGBTQ civil and religious rights.

Such coalitions aren’t always easy. When North Carolina Disciples of Christ minister Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a leader in the progressive Moral Mondays movement, was asked about squaring religious freedom and marriage equality, he looked to the lessons of history and the wisdom of his own religious tradition. Working within a coalition that had long included LGBTQ advocates, Barber noted that the Christian Right was trying to “divide our ranks by casting doubt either among the LGBTQ community or among the African American community about whether our moral movement truly represented them.”

In the last century the NAACP had faced a similar challenge over the question of restrictions on interracial marriage. They ultimately opposed the bans, he wrote, as a matter of upholding “the moral and constitutional principle of equal protection under the law.” Faced with yet another fear-based tactic today, Barber wrote, “our movement’s position had to be the same.” He found his response in the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of churches, synagogues, and mosques to discern for themselves “what God says about marriage,” free from governmental attempts to enforce its preferred religious doctrines.3)

The Revolutionary War era Virginians who created our approach to religious freedom understood religious freedom to be synonymous with the idea of the right of individual conscience. James Madison wrote that when the Virginia Convention of 1776 issued the Virginia Declaration of Rights (three weeks before the Declaration of Independence), the delegates removed any language about religious “toleration” and declared instead “the freedom of conscience to be a natural and absolute right.”4) Madison was joined in supporting the rights of conscience by evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists who also insisted on a separation of church and state for fear that mixing would corrupt both.

Invoking the words of the Founders may seem hokey or sound archaic to some. But they knew that the freedom they were seeking to establish was fragile, and likely to be opposed in the future. Understanding the through line that connects the struggles for religious freedom at the founding of the country to today’s helps us fight to defend the principle from redefinition and cooptation.

Such an understanding helped the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 2016 when it issued a major report on issues involving religious exemptions from the law. “Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others,” said Commission Chair Martin R. Castro, who also further denounced the use of religious liberty as a “code word” for “Christian supremacy.”5)

The Commission found that overly broad religious exemptions from federal labor and civil rights laws undermine the purposes of these laws and urged that courts, legislatures, or executive agencies narrowly tailor any exemptions to address the need without diminishing the efficacy of the law.6)

Religious freedom advocates of the colonial era faced powerful entrenched interests who actively suppressed religious deviance and dissent that might upset their privileges. In the Virginia colony attendance was required at the Sunday services of the Church of England, and failure to attend was the most prosecuted crime in the colony for many years. Members of these Anglican church vestries were also empowered to report religious crimes like heresy and blasphemy to local grand juries. Unsurprisingly, the wealthy planters and business owners who comprised the Anglican vestries were able to limit access to this pipeline to political power. Dissenters from these theocratic dictates were dealt with harshly.7) In the years running up to the Revolution, Baptists and other religious dissidents in Virginia were victims of vigilante violence. “Men on horseback would often ride through crowds gathered to witness a baptism,” historian John Ragosta reports. “Preachers were horsewhipped and dunked in rivers and ponds in a rude parody of their baptism ritual… Black attendees at meetings––whether free or slave––were subject to particularly savage beatings.”

This was the context in which Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, which took nearly a decade to become law. The statute effectively disestablished the Anglican Church as the state church of Virginia, curtailing its extraordinary powers and privileges. It also decreed that citizens are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The statute was the first in history to self-impose complete religious freedom and equality, and historians as well as Supreme Court justices widely regard it as the root of how the framers of the Constitution (and later the First Amendment) approached matters of religion and government.9)

The principle of religious equality under the law was a profoundly progressive stance against the advantages enjoyed and enforced by the ruling political and economic elites of the 18th Century. Then, for example, as John Ragosta writes in Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, “Marriages had to be consecrated by an Anglican minister, making children of dissenters who failed to marry within the Church of England (or pay the local Anglican priest for his cooperation) subject to claims of bastardy, with potentially serious legal consequences.”10)

Such abuses may seem like a relic of the past, but in recent years some Christians have tried to outlaw the religious marriages of others. In 2012 Christian Right advocates in North Carolina sought to build on existing laws limiting marriages to heterosexual couples by amending the state constitution, using language that would effectively criminalize the performance of marriage ceremonies without a license. This meant that clergy from varied religious traditions, from Judaism to Christianity to Buddhism, would be breaking the law if they solemnized religious marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. And the motive was explicitly religious. State Senator Wesley Meredith, for example, cited the Bible in explaining, “We need to regulate marriage because I believe that marriage is between a man and woman.”11)

This issue was part of the 2014 case General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, wherein a federal judge declared that laws that deny same-sex couples the right to marry in the state, prohibit recognition of legal same-sex marriages from elsewhere in the United States, “or threatens clergy or other officiants who solemnize the union of same-sex couples with civil or criminal penalties” were unconstitutional.12) It was an historic victory for a progressive version of religious liberty but one soundly rooted in the history of religious freedom. Clergy could now perform same-sex marriage ceremonies “without fear of prosecution,” said Heather Kimmel, an attorney for the UCC.13)

Jefferson and his contemporaries saw religious freedom as the key to disentangling ancient, mutually reinforcing relationships between the economic and political interests of aristocrats and the institutional imperatives of the church: what Jefferson called an unholy alliance of “kings, nobles, and priests”—meaning clergy of any religion—that divided people in order to rule them. He later wrote that his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was “intended to put down the aristocracy of the clergy and restored to the citizens the freedom of the mind.”14)

A quarter-millennium later, we are still struggling to defend religious freedom against erosion and assaults by powerful religious institutions and their agents inside and outside of government. Aspiring clerical aristocrats debase the idea of religious freedom when they use it as tool to seek exemptions from the generally applicable laws of the United States—particularly those that prohibit discrimination.

Religious freedom and civil rights are complementary values and legal principles necessary to sustain and advance equality for all. Like Rev. Barber, we must not fall for the ancient tactic of allowing the kings, nobles and priests of our time to divide and set us against one another.

We have come a long way since the revolutionaries who founded our country introduced one of the most powerfully democratic ideas in the history of the world. The struggle for religious freedom may never be complete, but it remains among our highest aspirations. And yet the kinds of forces that struggled both for and against religious freedom in the 18th Century are similar to those camps today. We are the rightful heirs of the constitutional legacy of religious freedom; the way is clear for us to find our voices and reclaim our role.

References   [ + ]

1. Joe Davidson, “Civil rights or religious liberty — what’s on top?,The Washington Post, September 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/09/commission-says-religious-liberty-should-not-top-civil-rights/.
2. Frederick Clarkson, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right, Political Research Associates, January 2016, http://www.politicalresearch.org/when-exemption-is-the-rule-the-religious-freedom-strategy-of-the-christian-right/.
3. The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), p. 91.
4. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville:University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 61.
5. Martin R. Castro, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, September 7, 2016, http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/Peaceful-Coexistence-09-07-16.PDF, p. 29.
6. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Releases Report: Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” PR NewsWire, September 7, 2016, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-us-commission-on-civil-rights-releases-report-peaceful-coexistence-reconciling-nondiscrimination-principles-with-civil-liberties-300324252.html.
7. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 40-73.
8. John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virgin’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5.
9. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 99.
10. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 46.
11. Kay Diane Ansley, Catherine “Cathy” McGaughey, Carol Ann Person, Thomas Roger Person, Kelley Penn, and Sonja Goodman v. Marion Warren, in his Official Capacity as Director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. 2016, Case No.: 3:16-cv-114. The United States District Court For The Western District Of North Carolina Asheville Division, http://www.southernequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Ansley-v.-Warren-Complaint.pdf.
12. Max O. Cogburn, “Memorandum of Decision and Order,” General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, October 10, 2014.
13. Anthony Moujaes, “UCC victorious in lawsuit as judge strikes down N.C. gay marriage ban,” UCC News, October 9, 2014, http://www.ucc.org/north-carolina-marriageequality-10102014.
14. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 20.
Frederick Clarkson is a senior fellow at Political Research Associates. He co-founded the group blog Talk To Action and authored Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.