Rising death rate for middle-aged US workers driven by “deaths of despair”

By Niles Niemuth
24 March 2017

The latest research on rising mortality rates by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, presented this week at the Brookings Institution, shines new light on the depth of the social crisis which has devastated the American working class since the year 2000.

Building off their initial 2015 study which documented a sharp rise in the mortality rate for white, middle-aged working-class Americans, Case and Deaton conclude that the rising death rate is being driven by what they define as “deaths of despair,” those due to drug overdoses, complications from alcohol and suicide. The mortality rate for these causes grew by half a percent annually between 1999 and 2013.

During the course of the 20th century, the annual mortality rate for all middle-aged whites fell from 1,400 per 100,000 to 400 per 100,000. The US experienced a 100-year period of almost uninterrupted improvements in death rates and life expectancy. In this context Case and Deaton identify the recent rise in middle-aged mortality as “extraordinary and unanticipated.”

Midlife deaths of despair across countries

The epidemic of deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide was initially seen in the American Southwest in the year 2000 but soon spread to the Appalachian region and Florida and is now nationwide, affecting rural and urban areas alike.

While every region of the US has seen an increase in the rate of “deaths of despair” among middle-aged whites over the last 15 years, the hardest-hit states are in the South (Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi). Large urban and suburban areas have been the least affected, rural areas the most.

The mortality rate for working-class whites was also pushed up by a slowing and then stagnation of the decline in deaths from heart disease for white Americans between 2009 and 2015. On top of this the decline in mortality from lung cancer, caused by smoking and occupational hazards, slowed for white men 45-54 between 2000 and 2014, while mortality actually increased for white women 45-49 between 2000 and 2010.

Case and Deaton found that midlife mortality for middle-aged, working-class, white Americans surpassed the midlife mortality for all African Americans for the first time in 2008, and by 2015 mortality for working-class whites was 30 percent higher than for blacks. More significantly, their data shows that the gap in mortality between whites and blacks in the working class has all but disappeared. This is the outcome of a general decline in mortality for blacks and a rapid increase for whites over the last decade-and-a-half, though in recent years the mortality rate for working-class blacks has begun rising along with that of whites.

Case and Deaton’s report is supported by the most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data concerning suicides and overdoses.

The CDC found that after declining between 1986 and 1999 the US suicide rate rose gradually between 2000 and 2015, with the rate growing most rapidly in smaller cities and rural areas after the 2007-2008 economic collapse. Whites and Native Americans had the highest suicide rates, with both groups seeing noticeable increases. All told there were 600,000 suicides in the US between 1999 and 2015—the equivalent of the loss of a major city, more than the total estimated deaths in the Syrian civil war.

Another recent CDC report found that overdoses from all drugs has more than doubled since 1999, with middle-aged Americans having the highest rate of overdoses. The overdose rate for whites has more than tripled since 1999 and is now more than double the rate for blacks and Hispanics combined. Nearly 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses alone in 2015, more than four times the number of deaths recorded in 2010.

Midlife mortality by all causes in the US

The data collected and analyzed by Case and Deaton reflects a deeply sick society, the outcome of a social counterrevolution which has accelerated since the 2008 crash.

Their research makes clear that the American working class, regardless of race, is being made to pay the price for the failure of capitalism, exposing the lie repeated by pseudo-left groups and the practitioners of identity politics about the “privileged white working class.”

In the period reviewed by Case and Deaton, the Democratic Party completed its repudiation of a political program which in any way addressed the needs or interests of the working class, in favor of middle-class identity politics. This found its culmination in the election of Barack Obama, the first black president, who funneled trillions of dollars into Wall Street and expanded the wars in the Middle East. In the last year of his presidency, which had seen such catastrophes as the lead poisoning of Flint and the BP oil spill, and seven years of wage stagnation, Obama asserted that things were “pretty darn great” in America.

The immiseration of the American working class has also been made possible by betrayals of the trade unions which over the last four decades have collaborated with and integrated themselves ever more closely with the corporations in order to shutter factories, eliminate jobs and enforce wage and benefit cuts.

The period in which the American working class has been subjected to unrelenting attacks has seen the growth of historically unprecedented levels of social inequality. The resources of society and the wealth created by the working class have been plundered and funneled into the hands of an ever wealthier financial aristocracy. This process will only accelerate under Trump.

While it is claimed there is “no money” to pay for decent wages or social services in the US, the country claims eight of the world’s 10 wealthiest billionaires and spends more than the next seven countries combined on its military. The health care overhaul and budget cuts being proposed by the Trump administration are guaranteed to accelerate the social counterrevolution.

In this regard it is striking to note the overlap between the areas of the country particularly devastated by “deaths of despair” in the period examined by Case and Deaton and those with a large vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The anti-working class policies pursued in the Obama years paved the way for Trump.

The residents of these areas, either rural or devastated by years of factory closures, voted for Trump not out of racial animus—an assertion often made by the mainstream media and pseudo-left—but as a cry of desperation, incipient anger and complete disgust with the political establishment.

These people have been at the frontlines of the onslaught against the working class, facilitated by Democrats and Republicans alike. As far as Trump identified himself as an outsider, opposed to the political establishment which facilitated the plunder of the working class, he drew significant support. These same working people are quickly being disabused of any illusions they may have held in the billionaire businessman.

The fundamental question raised by Case and Deaton’s research is the struggle of the working class against the capitalist system and for socialism. Social inequality has never been higher and the rich have never been richer. The working class is the only force which can reverse this counterrevolution. Workers must turn to socialism and fight to build a mass independent movement which will fight for political power and take control of the wealth plundered from them, putting it to use for the common good.

 

WSWS

The Culture of Cruelty in Trump’s America

Posted on Mar 22, 2017

By Henry A. Giroux / Truthout

For the last 40 years, the United States has pursued a ruthless form of neoliberalism that has stripped economic activity from ethical considerations and social costs. One consequence has been the emergence of a culture of cruelty in which the financial elite produce inhuman policies that treat the most vulnerable with contempt, relegating them to zones of social abandonment and forcing them to inhabit a society increasingly indifferent to human suffering. Under the Trump administration, the repressive state and market apparatuses that produced a culture of cruelty in the 19th century have returned with a vengeance, producing new levels of harsh aggression and extreme violence in US society. A culture of cruelty has become the mood of our times—a spectral lack of compassion that hovers over the ruins of democracy.

While there is much talk about the United States tipping over into authoritarianism under the Trump administration, there are few analyses that examine how a culture of cruelty has accompanied this political transition, and the role that culture plays in legitimating a massive degree of powerlessness and human suffering. The culture of cruelty has a long tradition in this country, mostly inhabiting a ghostly presence that is often denied or downplayed in historical accounts. What is new since the 1980s—and especially evident under Donald Trump’s presidency—is that the culture of cruelty has taken on a sharper edge as it has moved to the center of political power, adopting an unapologetic embrace of nativism, xenophobia and white nationalist ideology, as well as an in-your-face form of racist demagoguery. Evidence of such cruelty has long been visible in earlier calls by Republicans to force poor children who get free school lunches to work for their meals. Such policies are particularly cruel at a time when nearly “half of all children live near close to the poverty line.” Other instances include moving people from welfare to workfare without offering training programs or child care, and the cutting of children’s food stamp benefits for 16 million children in 2014.  Another recent example of this culture of cruelty was Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeting his support for Geert Wilders, a notorious white supremacist and Islamophobic Dutch politician.

Focusing on a culture of cruelty as one register of authoritarianism allows us to more deeply understand how bodies and minds are violated and human lives destroyed. It helps us to acknowledge that violence is not an abstraction, but is visceral and, as Brad Evans observes, “should never be studied in an objective and unimpassioned way. It points to a politics of the visceral that cannot be divorced from our ethical and political concerns.” For instance, it highlights how Trump’s proposed budget cuts would reduce funding for programs that provide education, legal assistance and training for thousands of workers in high-hazard industries. As Judy Conti, a federal advocacy coordinator [at the National Employment Law Project] points out, these cuts would result in “more illness, injury and death on the job.”

Rather than provide a display of moral outrage, interrogating a culture of cruelty offers critics a political and moral lens for thinking through the convergence of power, politics and everyday life. It also offers the promise of unveiling the way in which a nation demoralizes itself by adopting the position that it has no duty to provide safety nets for its citizens or care for their well-being, especially in a time of misfortune. Politically, it highlights how structures of domination bear down on individual bodies, needs, emotions and self-esteem, and how such constraints function to keep people in a state of existential crisis, if not outright despair. Ethically the concept makes visible how unjust a society has become. It helps us think through how life and death converge in ways that fundamentally transform how we understand and imagine the act of living—if not simply surviving—in a society that has lost its moral bearing and sense of social responsibility. Within the last 40 years, a harsh market fundamentalism has deregulated financial capital, imposed misery and humiliation on the poor through welfare cuts, and ushered in a new style of authoritarianism that preys upon and punishes the most vulnerable Americans.

The culture of cruelty has become a primary register of the loss of democracy in the United States. The disintegration of democratic commitments offers a perverse index of a country governed by the rich, big corporations and rapacious banks through a consolidating regime of punishment. It also reinforces the workings of a corporate-driven culture whose airwaves are filled with hate, endless spectacles of violence and an ongoing media assault on young people, the poor, Muslims and undocumented immigrants. Vast numbers of individuals are now considered disposable and are relegated to zones of social and moral abandonment. In the current climate, violence seeps into everyday life while engulfing a carceral system that embraces the death penalty and produces conditions of incarceration that house many prisoners in solitary confinement—a practice medical professionals consider one of the worse forms of torture.

In addition, Americans live in a distinctive historical moment in which the most vital safety nets, social provisions, welfare policies and health care reforms are being undermined or are under threat of elimination by right-wing ideologues in the Trump administration. For instance, Trump’s 2017 budgetary proposals, many of which were drafted by the hyperconservative Heritage Foundation, will create a degree of imposed hardship and misery that defies any sense of human decency and moral responsibility.

Public policy analyst Robert Reich argues that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s [budget] initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.” Reich writes:

His new budget comes down especially hard on the poor—imposing unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, job training, food assistance, legal services, help to distressed rural communities, nutrition for new mothers and their infants, funds to keep poor families warm, even “meals on wheels.” These cuts come at a time when more American families are in poverty than ever before, including 1 in 5 children. Why is Trump doing this? To pay for the biggest hike in military spending since the 1980s. Yet the U.S. already spends more on its military than the next 7 biggest military budgets put together. His plan to repeal and “replace” the Affordable Care Act will cause 14 million Americans to lose their health insurance next year, and 24 million by 2026. Why is Trump doing this? To bestow $600 billion in tax breaks over the decade to wealthy Americans. This windfall comes at a time when the rich have accumulated more wealth than at any time in the nation’s history.

This is a demolition budget that would inflict unprecedented cruelty, misery and hardship on millions of citizens and residents. Trump’s populist rhetoric collapses under the weight of his efforts to make life even worse for the rural poor, who would have $2.6 billion cut from infrastructure investments largely used for water and sewage improvements as well as federal funds used to provide assistance so they can heat their homes. Roughly $6 billion would be cut from a housing budget that benefits 4.5 million low-income households. Other programs on the cutting block include funds to support Habitat for Humanity, the homeless, energy assistance to the poor, legal aid and a number of antipoverty programs. Trump’s mode of governance is no longer modeled on “The Apprentice.” It now takes its cues from “The Walking Dead.”

If Congress embraces Trump’s proposal, poor students would be budgeted out of access to higher education as a result of a $3.9 billion cut from the federal Pell grant program, which provides tuition assistance for low-income students entering college. Federal funds for public schools would be redistributed to privately run charter schools, while vouchers would be available for religious schools. Medical research would suffer and people would die because of the proposed $6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health.

Trump has also called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, making clear that his contempt for education, science and the arts is part of an aggressive project to eliminate those institutions and public spheres that extend the capacity of people to be imaginative, think critically and be well-informed.

The $54 billion that Trump seeks to remove from the budgets of 19 agencies designed to help the poor, students, public education, academic research and the arts would instead be used to increase the military budget and build a wall along the Mexican border. The culture of cruelty is on full display here as millions would suffer for the lack of loans, federal aid and basic resources. The winners would be the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the private prison industry and the institutions and personnel needed to expand the police state. What Trump has provided in this budget proposal is a blueprint for eliminating the remnants of the welfare state while transforming American society into a “war-obsessed, survival-of-the fittest dystopia.”

The United States is now on a war footing and has launched a war against undocumented immigrants, Muslims, people of color, young people, the elderly, public education, science, democracy and the planet itself, to say nothing of the provocations unfolding on the world stage.  The moral obscenity and reactionary politics that inform Trump’s budget were summed up by Bernie Sanders: “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, when 43 million Americans are living in poverty and half of older Americans have no retirement savings, we should not slash programs that senior citizens, children and working people rely on in order to provide a massive increase in spending to the military industrial complex. Trump’s priorities are exactly the opposite of where we should be heading as a nation.”

As more and more people find themselves living in a society in which the quality of life is measured through market-based metrics, such as cost-benefit analyses, it becomes difficult for the public to acknowledge or even understand the cost in human misery and everyday hardship that an increasing number of people have to endure.

A culture of cruelty highlights both how systemic injustices are lived and experienced, and how iniquitous relations of power turn the “American dream” into a dystopian nightmare in which millions of individuals and families are struggling to merely survive. This society has robbed them of a decent life, dignity and hope. I want to pose the crucial question of what a culture of cruelty looks like under a neofascist regime, and in doing so, highlight what I believe are some of its most crucial elements, all of which must be recognized if they are to be open to both criticism and resistance.

First, language is emptied of any sense of ethics and responsibility and begins to operate in the service of violence. This becomes evident as social provisions are cut for programs that help poor people, elderly people, impoverished children and people living with disabilities. This is also evident in the Trump administration’s call to scale back Medicaid and affordable, quality health insurance for millions of Americans.

Second, a survival-of-the-fittest discourse provides a breeding ground for the production of hypermasculine behaviors and hypercompetitiveness, both of which function to create a predatory culture that replaces compassion, sharing and a concern for the other. Under such circumstances, unbridled individualism and competition work to weaken democracy.

Third, references to truth and real consequences are dismissed, and facts give way to “alternative realities” where the distinction between informed assertions and falsehoods disappears. This politics of fabrication is on full display as the Trump administration narrates itself and its relationship to others and the larger world through a fog of misrepresentations and willful ignorance. Even worse, the act of state-sanctioned lying is coupled with the assertion that any critical media outlets and journalists who attempt to hold power accountable are producing “fake news.” Official lying is part of the administration’s infrastructure: The more authority figures lie the less they have to be taken seriously.

Fourth, in a culture of cruelty, the discourse of disposability extends to an increasing number of groups that are considered superfluous, redundant, excess or dangerous. In this discourse, some lives are valued and others are not. In the current moment, undocumented immigrants, Muslim refugees and Black people are targeted as potential criminals, terrorists or racial “others” who threaten the notion of a white Christian nation. Underlying the discourse of disposability is the reemerging prominence of overt white supremacy, as evidenced by an administration that has appointed white nationalists to the highest levers of power in the government and has issued a racist appeal to “law and order.” The ongoing rise of hate crimes should be no surprise in a society that has been unabashedly subjected by Trump and his cohorts to the language of hate, anti-Semitism, sexism and racism. Cultures of cruelty slip easily into both the discourse of racial cleansing and the politics of disposability.

Fifth, ignorance becomes glamorized, enforced through the use of the language of emotion, humiliation and eventually through the machinery of government deception. For example, Donald Trump once stated that he loved “uneducated people.” This did not indicate, of course, a commitment to serve people without a college education—a group that will be particularly disadvantaged under his administration. Instead, it signaled a deep-seated anti-intellectualism and a fear of critical thought itself, as well as the institutions that promote it. Limiting the public’s knowledge now becomes a precondition for cruelty.

Sixth, any form of dependency in the interest of justice and care for the “other” is viewed as a form of weakness, and becomes the object of scorn and disdain. In a culture of cruelty, it is crucial to replace shared values and bonds of trust with the bonds of fear. For the caste of warriors that make up the Trump administration, politics embraces what might be called neoliberalism on steroids, one in which the bonds of solidarity rooted in compassion and underlying the welfare state are assumed to weaken national character by draining resources away from national security and placing too large a tax burden on the rich. In this logic, solidarity equates with dependency, a weak moral character, and is dismissed as anaemic, unreliable and a poor substitute for living in a society that celebrates untrammeled competition, individual responsibility and an all-embracing individualism.

Seventh, cruelty thrives on the language of borders and walls. It replaces the discourse of bridges, generosity and compassion with a politics of divisiveness, alienation, inadequacy and fear. Trump’s call for building a wall on the Mexican border, his endless disparaging of individuals and groups on the basis of their gender, race, religion and ethnicity, and his view of a world composed of the deadly binary of “friends” and “enemies” echo the culture of a past that lost its ethical and political moorings and ended up combining the metrics of efficiency with the building of concentration camps.

Eighth, all cultures of cruelty view violence as a sacred means for addressing social problems and mediating relationships; hence, the criminalization of homelessness, poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, surviving domestic violence, reproductive choice and more.  The centrality of oppressive violence in the United States is not new, of course; it is entrenched in the country’s origins. Under Trump this violence has been embraced, openly and without apology, as an organizing principle of society. This acceleration of the reality and spectacle of violence under the Trump administration is evident, in part, in his call for increasing an already-inflated military budget by $54 billion. It is also evident in his efforts to create multiple zones of social abandonment and social death for the most vulnerable in society.

Ninth, cultures of cruelty despise democracy and work incessantly to make the word disappear from officially mandated state language. One example of this took place when Trump opted not to utter the word democracy in either his inaugural address or in his first speech to Congress. Trump’s hatred of democracy and the formative cultures that sustain it was on full display when he and his top aides referred to the critical media as the enemy of the American people and as an “opposition party.” A free press is fundamental to a society that takes seriously the idea that no democracy can exist without informed citizens. Trump has turned this rule on its head, displaying a disdain not only for a press willing to pursue the truth and hold politicians and corporations accountable, but also for those public spheres and institutions that make such a press possible. Under these circumstances, it is important to remember Hannah Arendt’s warning: “What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed … and a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and to judge.”

Tenth, all fascist regimes disparage, dismantle and destroy institutions, such as public and higher education and other public spheres where people can learn how to think critically and act responsibly. Evidence of an act of war against public spheres that are critical, self-reflective and concerned with the social good is visible in the appointment of billionaires, generals and ideological fundamentalists to cabinet positions running public agencies that many of them have vowed to destroy. What does it mean when an individual, such as Betsy DeVos, is picked to head the Department of Education even though she has worked endlessly in the past to destroy public education? How else to explain Trump appointing Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, even though he does not believe that climate change is affected by human-produced carbon dioxide emissions and has spent most of his career actively opposing the authority of the EPA? At stake here is more than a culture of incompetency. This is a willful assault on public goods and the common good.

Eleventh, cultures of cruelty thrive when shared fears replace shared responsibilities. Under such conditions, an ever-expanding number of people are reduced to the status of a potential “terrorist” or “criminal,” watched constantly, and humiliated under the watchful eye of a surveillance state that inhabits practically every public and private space.

Twelfth, cultures of cruelty dispose of all vestiges of the welfare state, forcing millions to fend for themselves. Loneliness, powerlessness and uncertainty—fueled by the collapse of the public into the private—create the conditions for viewing those who receive much needed social provisions as cheaters, moochers or much worse. Under the Republican Party extremists in power, the welfare state is the enemy of the free market and is viewed as a drain on the coffers of the rich. There are no public rights in this discourse, only entitlements for the privileged, and rhetoric that promotes the moral superiority and unimpeachable character of the wealthy. The viciousness of these attacks is driven by the absolute idolatry of power of wealth, strength and unaccountable military might.

Thirteenth, massive inequalities in power, wealth and income mean time will become a burden for most Americans, who will be struggling merely to make ends meet and survive. Cruelty thrives in a society in which there seem to be only individual problems, as opposed to socially-produced problems, and it is hard to do the work of uniting against socially-produced problems under oppressive time constraints. Under such circumstances, solidarity is difficult to practice, which makes it easier for the ruling elite to use their power to engage in the relentless process of asset-stripping and the stripping of human dignity. Authoritarian regimes feed off the loyalty of those who benefit from the concentration of wealth, power and income as well as those who live in stultifying ignorance of their own oppression. Under global capitalism, the ultrarich are celebrated as the new heroes of late modernity, while their wealth and power are showcased as a measure of their innate skills, knowledge and superiority. Such spectacles function to infantilize both the general public and politics itself.

Fourteenth, under the Trump administration, the exercise of cruelty is emboldened through the stultifying vocabulary of ultranationalism, militarism and American exceptionalism that will be used to fuel further wars abroad and at home. Militarism and exceptionalism constitute the petri dish for a kind of punishment creep, in which “law and order” becomes code for the continued rise of the punishing state and the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. It also serves to legitimate a war culture that surrounds the world with military bases and promotes “democracy” through a war machine. It turns already-oppressive local police departments into SWAT teams and impoverished cities into war zones. In such a culture of cruelty, language is emptied of any meaning, freedom evaporates, human misery proliferates, and the distinction between the truth and lies disappears and the governance collapses into a sordid species of lawlessness, emboldening random acts of vigilantism and violence.

Fifteenth, mainstream media outlets are now a subsidiary of corporate control. Almost all of the dominant cultural apparatuses extending from print, audio and screen cultures are controlled by a handful of corporations. The concentration of the mainstream media in few hands constitutes a disimagination machine that wages a pedagogical war on almost any critical notion of politics that seeks to produce the conditions needed to enable more people to think and act critically. The overriding purpose of the corporate-controlled media is to drive audiences to advertisers, increase ratings and profits, legitimate the toxic spectacles and values of casino capitalism, and reproduce a toxic pedagogical fog that depoliticizes and infantilizes. Lost here are those public spaces in which the civic and radical imagination enables individuals to identify the larger historical, social, political and economic forces that bear down on their lives. The rules of commerce now dictate the meaning of what it means to be educated. Yet, spaces that promote a social imaginary and civic literacy are fundamental to a democracy if the young and old alike are to develop the knowledge, skills and values central to democratic forms of education, engagement and agency.

Underlying this form of neoliberal authoritarianism and its attendant culture of cruelty is a powerfully oppressive ideology that insists that the only unit of agency that matters is the isolated individual. Hence, mutual trust and shared visions of equality, freedom and justice give way to fears and self-blame reinforced by the neoliberal notion that individuals are solely responsible for their political, economic and social misfortunes. Consequently, a hardening of the culture is buttressed by the force of state-sanctioned cultural apparatuses that enshrine privatization in the discourse of self-reliance, unchecked self-interest, untrammeled individualism and deep distrust of anything remotely called the common good. Once again, freedom of choice becomes code for defining responsibility solely as an individual task, reinforced by a shameful appeal to character.

Many liberal critics and progressives argue that choice absent constraints feeds the rise of Ayn Rand’s ideology of rabid individualism and unchecked greed. But they are only partly right. What they miss in this neofascist moment is that the systemic cruelty and moral irresponsibility at the heart of neoliberalism make Ayn Rand’s vicious framework look tame. Rand’s world has been surpassed by a ruling class of financial elites that embody not the old-style greed of Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, but the inhumane and destructive avarice of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. The notion that saving money by reducing the taxes of the rich justifies eliminating health care for 24 million people is just one example of how this culture of cruelty and hardening of the culture will play out.

Under the Trump administration, a growing element of scorn is developing toward the increasing number of human beings caught in the web of oppression, marginalization, misfortune, suffering and deprivation. This scorn is fueled by a right-wing spin machine that endlessly spews out a toxic rhetoric in which all Muslims are defined as “jihadists;” the homeless are cast as “lazy” rather than as victims of oppressive structures, failed institutions and misfortune; Black people are cast as “criminals” and subjected en masse to the destructive criminal punishment system; and the public sphere is portrayed as largely for white people.

The culture of hardness and cruelty is not new to American society, but the current administration aims to deploy it in ways that sap the strength of social relations, moral compassion and collective action, offering in their place a mode of governance that promotes a pageant of suffering and violence. There will, no doubt, be an acceleration of acts of violence under the Trump administration, and the conditions for eliminating this new stage of state violence will mean not only understanding the roots of neofascism in the United States, but also eliminating the economic, political and cultural forces that have produced it. Addressing those forces means more than getting rid of Trump. We must eliminate a more pervasive irrationality in which democracy is equated with unbridled capitalism—a system driven almost exclusively by financial interests and beholden to two political parties that are hardwired to produce and reproduce neoliberal violence.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_culture_of_cruelty_in_trumps_america_20170322

Trump’s voucher plan and the right-wing campaign to destroy public education

Part one

By Esther Galen
21 March 2017

President Trump’s budget proposal released Thursday cuts $9.2 billion from Department of Education funding. But there is one funding boost, the only increase in funding for domestic social programs in the entire Trump budget: a $1.4 billion increase for “school choice” programs. This includes $1 billion for the promotion of school vouchers, where families are given a set amount of money, which they can spend on private, charter, religious or even online schools.

Trump proposed $20 billion for school vouchers during his campaign last fall. He did not present any details except to say the funds would come from existing federal dollars spent on education. During his inaugural address, Trump denounced the public school system, saying it was “an education system, flushed with cash” that “leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.”

The president is determined to accelerate the decades-long campaign, pursued by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, to dismantle public education and funnel even more money into the hands of private business interests. In choosing billionaire Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, Trump has selected someone with a clear record of seeking to destroy public education.

The United States government is in the process of turning back the clock for public education. CEOs of the largest corporations, the Democrats and Republicans, and the courts all agree that society does not have an obligation to provide all students with a high-quality education.

The mantra of “school choice” means that the capitalist market should determine how—and whether—students get educated. Parents, as “consumers,” will have a choice as to where they send their children to be educated and evaluate what they bought. If they’re not happy with the school giving the education they purchased, they can look for another one, as though they were buying a pair of shoes. And of course, just as when people shop, those who are wealthier can afford better products, in this case, schools. The working class and poor will not be able to afford quality education.

While private schools choose what students to admit and keep enrolled, public schools are legally bound to serve all children, including special education, English as a Second Language (ESL) and low-income students. The purpose of vouchers is to starve the public schools of desperately needed resources to finance private and parochial schools.

Trump says he plans to take the $20 billion for vouchers from already existing funds. Will the federal government end Pell Grants to low-income students to go to college ($22 billion in 2016)? Will it cut Title I state grants ($14.9 billion) that help improve learning of low-income elementary and secondary students and provide them with school lunches? Will special education state grants ($11.9 billion) be hit, or Head Start ($9.2 billion), which is technically funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and provides preschool and other family health services to low-income families?

There are many other federal grants to states that may be cut, including funds for School Improvement, Striving Readers, Math and Science Partnerships, and Rural Education.

Currently, public school funding comes from the federal government (10 percent), local government (45 percent, mostly through property taxes) and state government (45 percent). Much of federal funding has been for programs to assist low-income or disabled students. When these funds are ended, it will devastate whole working class communities.

As to state funding, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, “Most states provide less support per student for elementary and secondary schools—in some cases, much less—than before the Great Recession.”

But far from increasing funds to public schools, vouchers will destroy them. States have been implementing voucher programs since the early 1990s, starting with the first Bush administration and continuing with Clinton, Bush and Obama. All these administrations passed legislation on public education used to undermine public schools.

State voucher programs

Today, 27 states and Washington, D.C., have some sort of voucher program, and some have more than one type, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The vouchers are also called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), Tax-Credit Scholarships, Individual Tax Credits and Individual Tax Deductions.

  •  Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., have vouchers that give private schools state funding to pay tuition for students, primarily those who are low-income, have special needs or attend so-called poor-performing schools.
  •  Seventeen states, including Indiana and Florida, have tax credit scholarship programs. A nonprofit scholarship-granting organization is formed to collect donations from individuals and/or corporations, who then get a tax credit; the nonprofit gives private school scholarships to eligible students.
  •  Eight states give tax credits or deductions to parents who send their kids to private schools, according to EdChoice. In Indiana and Louisiana, families can deduct tuition on their taxes, while Illinois and Iowa let parents claim a tax credit for their children’s private school tuition.
  • In five states, including Arizona and Mississippi, education savings accounts let parents choose how to spend the state’s per-pupil allotment for their child’s education—whether it’s putting them in private school or paying for tutoring.

Vouchers in Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is America’s longest-running private school voucher program, begun in 1990. About 28,200 Milwaukee students now use vouchers to attend private schools. A big spike in attendance occurred in 1998, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that families could use their state vouchers at religious schools.

The program has shifted public spending on education in the city. Milwaukee Public Schools will see a $52.1 million loss this school year to pay for its share of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. By 2014, it was expected the total amount of public money spent on vouchers in Milwaukee would surpass $1.7 billion.

Public school enrollment has declined and a fifth of the students who remain are classified as having disabilities, from learning to emotional to physical. Forty-one percent of all private schools that participated in the Milwaukee private school voucher program between 1991 and 2015 have closed.

Milwaukee Public Radio aired a series with many interviews on the voucher program’s 25th anniversary. Milwaukee School Board member Larry Miller, who has been involved with the district for the voucher program’s entire history, said, “It’s transformed the landscape in the sense of it becoming a free-market competition. This program, in my opinion, started as a program for low-income students and has turned into a movement now to dismantle public education. … I feel that the results that we’re seeing now are the results of a failed experiment.”

Barbara Miner, who wrote Lessons from the Heartland, about the history of education in Milwaukee, is a leading critic of the voucher program, saying it blurs the separation of church and state and leaves Milwaukee Public Schools facing the highest hurdles. “Private schools operate by completely different rules than public schools,” she told Milwaukee Public Radio. “They do not have to follow the federal special education law. They do not have to provide bilingual education,” Miner said. “They can kick kids out and there’s no constitutional right to free speech or due process.”

Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow at Marquette Law School and long-time education reporter, reviewed several sets of studies. He was asked, what have the scores shown since 2010? He responded, “The notion that the voucher program would lead to a major step forward for all students in the City of Milwaukee, unfortunately, has not been true.”

The New York Times recently reviewed research assessing student progress in voucher programs compared to public schools. In 2015, researchers published their assessment of the Indiana voucher program, which involved tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement. They also saw no improvement in reading.”

More negative results

Researchers found similar results when they studied Louisiana’s voucher program and released the results in February 2016. “Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families. They came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school. They found large negative results in both reading and math.”

Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature—not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.”

In June, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, released a third voucher study financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation. It focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers wrote.

Part two

By Esther Galen
22 March 2017

Billionaires set the education agenda

Billionaires and their foundations see opportunities to increase their wealth through school privatization. They’ve gotten a lot of experience already with setting up charter schools, many of which accept vouchers. For example, the New Markets Tax Credit that was initiated by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s combines “the private sector and the federal government—to bring economic and community development to low-income communities” (Treasury Department).

The tax credit gives hedge fund managers and wealthy investors opportunities to make money from charter schools. They get a 39 percent tax credit that more than doubles the returns on these investments in about seven years.

David Brain, head of the real estate investment firm Entertainment Properties Trust, appearing on CNBC in 2012, said charter schools are “probably the most profitable sector in real estate investment. … I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product.”

That’s not how school reformers described schools 87 years ago. What we today describe as public schools began in the 1830s as the Common School movement. The reformer Horace Mann proposed a system of free, universal and nonsectarian schools for all children, regardless of religion or social class. Students would gain knowledge, while learning how to be productive democratic citizens.

Today, the ruling class wants to indoctrinate students with free market propaganda. Kevin K. Kumashiro analyzed this agenda in an article for the journal of the American Association of University Professors in May-June 2012, titled, “When Billionaires Become Educational Experts: ‘Venture philanthropists’ push for the privatization of public education.”

His article traces the influence of the business sector in education and how it has changed, noting, “In recent years a handful of millionaires and billionaires have come to exert influence over educational policy and practice like at no other time in American history.”

“Venture philanthropists” seek to develop a layer of students who embrace capitalism and conservative ideologies, produce research that makes conservative ideologies accessible and can take leading positions in government and advocacy organizations.

To do this, they had to destroy public education. As Kumashiro writes, “At the top of the chopping block was public education, considered by some to be a drain on the government and a crutch for society not only because it was the most expensive of domestic enterprises but also because it exemplified what they considered to be a socialist enterprise. Conservatives called for the entire school system to be privatized, made into a free enterprise, and the conservatives’ strategy of choice was school vouchers.”

The right-wing economist and free-market advocate Milton Friedman first proposed school vouchers to “denationalize” education more than half a century ago. He wrote, “Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum they themselves provided on purchasing educational services from an ‘approved’ institution of their own choice. … The role of government would be limited to insuring that the schools met certain minimum standards, such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants” (Capitalism and Freedom, 1962).

This appreciation of education delivered like fast food is promoted today by the top-giving venture philanthropies, which include the Broad Education Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Donald and Doris Fisher Fund, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

And they don’t just sit on the sidelines. They participate actively in setting up the very structures to destroy public education. They have every level of government—federal, state and local—assisting them.

On January 23, 2017, a bill sponsored by the Republican congressman from Iowa, Steve King, was introduced to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. While having little chance of passing now, the bill gives an idea of what the most rabid anti-public-school forces would like to see.

A summary the Choices in Education Act of 2017 on Congress.gov states:

“This bill repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and limits the authority of the Department of Education (ED) such that ED is authorized only to award block grants to qualified states.”

The bill sets up an education voucher program whereby the federal government funds block grants to states for distribution to parents who elect to enroll their child in any public or private elementary or secondary school in the state or to home-school their child.

The role of the courts

Right-wing demagogues like Trump present the federal courts as a bastion of liberalism and routinely denounce the courts for “legislating from the bench.” In reality, the courts are a bastion of the capitalist state and follow the lead of the ruling class, in education as on every other issue. When public school advocates go to court to try to defend education, they find the courts rule to advance the privatization agenda. While there continue to be numerous lawsuits against voucher programs, the courts have ruled overwhelmingly to support them, as described in the examples below.

Ruling: There is no fundamental right to education guaranteed in the Constitution:

Texas: The Supreme Court made a significant decision related to education in 1972 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. The San Antonio Independent School District in Texas was funded in part by local property taxes, as were many school districts. The District sued the state on behalf of its students, arguing that since property taxes were relatively low in the area, students at the public schools were being underserved compared to wealthier districts.

The district argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment mandates equal funding among school districts. But the Court ultimately rejected their claim, ruling that there is no fundamental right to education guaranteed in the Constitution, and that the Equal Protection Clause doesn’t require exact “equality or precisely equal advantages” among school districts.

Ruling: Using state funds to pay for religious schools does not violate state or federal constitutions:

Wisconsin: The Wisconsin constitution requires the state to provide uniform and free district schools to all children and states that “no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.” In a case challenging Wisconsin’s voucher program, Davis v. Grover, 1992, the Wisconsin Supreme Court stated: “The legislature has fulfilled its constitutional duty to provide for the basic education of our children. Their experimental attempts to improve upon that foundation in no way denies any student the opportunity to receive the basic education in the public school system.”

Ohio: The US Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002, reviewed Ohio’s program to decide if it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibiting the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” More than 90 percent of the financial aid was going to parents with students in religious schools. The court’s ruling upheld Ohio’s voucher program in Cleveland.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, “The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.”

Nevada: Most private schools in Nevada are run by religious institutions and include religious curriculum. Nevada was the first state to pass a law allowing any parent to remove a child from public school and take tax dollars with them to pay for private or parochial school. Nevada’s constitution does not allow public funds of any kind to be used for sectarian purposes.

However, Las Vegas District Court ruled in 2016 that the program did not violate the constitution: “The state has no influence or control over how any parent makes his or her genuine and independent choice” to spend that money, the judge wrote in his ruling. “Parents, and not the state, direct through their own independent decision the funds to religious education schools.”

Education is a social right

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are making sure the elites can accomplish their goals for education. Trump has said that public schools “allow the progressives in the Department of Education to indoctrinate, not educate, our kids. What they are doing does not fit the American model of governance. I am totally against these programs and the Department of Education.” DeVos has said her goal is to displace public schools from the center of communities, so that religious institutions can resume their rightful role.

The teachers’ unions, which were built in the course of major struggles to defend and expand public education, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, have suffered the fate of all the other so-called labor organizations in America. They have become nothing more than business operations, run by a privileged layer of bureaucratic officials, who rake in huge salaries, administer billion-dollar pension and benefit funds, and willingly support charter schools and other privatization efforts providing the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) and their local affiliates can still collect dues from the underpaid, superexploited teachers whom they hire.

An affordable, high-quality education is a social right of every working-class child and youth, but this right is being destroyed by the operation of the profit system. The struggle to defend education means a struggle against capitalism. Parents, teachers, and students, and every section of the working class must take up the fight to defend the right to an education, against the capitalist class, its political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties, and their servants in the unions. This means building a political movement of working people based on a socialist perspective.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/03/22/vch2-m22.html

Why does Donald Trump demonize cities?

Because they show that the liberal experiment works

March 17

Will Wilkinson is the vice president for policy at the Niskanen Center and a former U.S. politics correspondent for the Economist.

President Trump is a big-city guy. He made his fortune in cities and keeps his family in a Manhattan tower. But when Trump talks about cities, he presents a fearsome caricature that bears little resemblance to the real urban landscape.

“Our inner cities are a disaster,” he declared in a campaign debate. “You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs.” Before his inauguration, in a spat with Atlanta’s representative in Congress, he tweeted: “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested).” He makes Chicago sound like an anarchic failed state. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” he warned. His executive order on public safetyclaimed that sanctuary cities, which harbor undocumented immigrants, “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

With this talk, Trump is playing to his base, which overwhelmingly is not in cities. Party affiliation increasingly reflects the gulf between big, diverse metros and whiter, less densely populated locales. For decades, like-minded people have been clustering geographically — a phenomenon author Bill Bishop dubbed “the Big Sort ” — pushing cities to the left and the rest of the country to the right. Indeed, the bigger, denser and more diverse the city, the better Hillary Clinton did in November. But Trump prevailed everywhere else — in small cities, suburbs, exurbs and beyond. The whiter and more spread out the population, the better he did.

 

He connected with these voters by tracing their economic decline and their fading cultural cachet to the same cause: traitorous “coastal elites” who sold their jobs to the Chinese while allowing America’s cities to become dystopian Babels, rife with dark-skinned danger — Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, “inner cities” plagued by black violence. He intimated that the chaos would spread to their exurbs and hamlets if he wasn’t elected to stop it.

Trump’s fearmongering turned out to be savvy electoral college politics (even if it left him down nearly 3 million in the popular vote). But it wasn’t just a sinister trick to get him over 270. He persists in his efforts to slur cities as radioactive war zones because the fact that America’s diverse big cities are thriving relative to the whiter, less populous parts of the country suggests that the liberal experiment works — that people of diverse origins and faiths prosper together in free and open societies. To advance his administration’s agenda, with its protectionism and cultural nationalism, Trump needs to spread the notion that the polyglot metropolis is a dangerous failure.

The president has filled his administration with advisers who oppose the liberal pluralism practiced profitably each day in America’s cities. “The center core of what we believe,” Steve Bannon, the president’s trusted chief strategist, has said, is “that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” This is not just an argument for nationalism over globalism. Bannon has staked out a position in a more fundamental debate over the merits of multicultural identity. Whose interests are included when we put “America first”?

When Trump connects immigration to Mexican cartel crime, he’s putting a menacing foreign face on white anxiety about the country’s shifting demographic profile, which is pushing traditional white, Judeo-Christian culture out of the center of American national identity. “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” wrote Michael Anton , now a White House national security adviser, is “the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die.” Bannon has complained that too many U.S. tech company chief executives are from Asia.

The Census Bureau projects that whites will cease to be a majority in 30 years. Suppose you think the United States — maybe even all Western civilization — will fall if the U.S. population ever becomes as diverse as Denver’s. You are going to want to reduce the foreign-born population as quickly as possible, and by any means necessary. You’ll deport the deportable with brutal alacrity, squeeze legal immigration to a trickle, bar those with “incompatible” religions.

But to prop up political demand for this sort of ethnic-cleansing program — what else can you call it? — it’s crucial to get enough of the public to believe that America’s diversity is a dangerous mistake. If most white people come to think that America’s massive, multicultural cities are decent places to live, what hope is there for the republic? For Christendom?

The big cities of the United States are, in fact, very decent places to live. To be sure, many metros have serious problems. Housing is increasingly unaffordable, and the gap between the rich and poor is on the rise. Nevertheless, the American metropolis is more peaceful and prosperous than it’s been in decades.

Contrary to the narrative that Trump and his advisers promote, our cities show that diversity can improve public safety. A new study of urban crime rates by a team of criminologists found that “immigration is consistently linked to decreases in violent (e.g., murder) and property (e.g., burglary) crime” in the period from 1970 to 2010. What’s more, according to an analysis of FBI crime data, counties labeled as “sanctuary” jurisdictions by federal immigration authorities have lower crime rates than comparable non-sanctuary counties. The Trump administration’s claim that sanctuary cities “have caused immeasurable harm” is simply baseless. Even cities that have seen a recent rise in violent crime are much safer today than they were in the early 1990s, when the foreign-born population was much smaller.

Yes, cities have their share of failing schools. But they also have some of the best schools in the country and are hotbeds of reform and innovation. According to recent rankings by SchoolGrades.org , the top 28 elementary and middle schools in New York state are in New York City; Ohio’s top four schools are in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Youngstown and Columbus; and the best school in Pennsylvania is in Philadelphia. “The culture of competition and innovation, long in short supply in public education, is taking root most firmly in the cities,” according to the Manhattan Institute researchers who run the site.

And it gets things exactly backward to think of unemployment as a problem centered in cities.

Packing people close together creates efficiencies of proximity and clusters of expertise that spur the innovation that drives growth. Automation has killed off many low- and medium-skill manufacturing jobs, but technology has increased the productivity, and thus the pay, of highly educated workers, and the education premium is highest in dense, populous cities. The best-educated Americans, therefore, gravitate toward the most productive big cities — which then become even bigger, better educated and richer.

Meanwhile, smaller cities and outlying regions with an outdated mix of industry and a less-educated populace fall further behind, displaced rather than boosted by technology, stuck with fewer good jobs and lower average wages. The economist Enrico Moretti calls this regional separation in education and productivity “the Great Divergence.”

Thanks to the Great Divergence, America’s most diverse, densely populated and well-educated cities are generating an increasing share of the country’s economic output. In 2001, the 50 wealthiest U.S. metro regions produced about 27 percent more per person than the country as a whole. Today, they produce 34 percent more, and there’s no end to the divergence in sight.

Taken together, the Great Divergence and the Big Sort imply that Republican regions are producing less and less of our nation’s wealth. According to Mark Muro and Sifan Liu of the Brookings Institution, Clinton beat Trump in almost every county responsible for more than a paper-thin slice of America’s economic pie. Trump took 2,584 counties that together account for 36 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Clinton won just 472 counties — less than 20 percent of Trump’s take — but those counties account for 64 percent of GDP.

The relative economic decline of Republican territory was crucial to Trump’s populist appeal. Trump gained most on Romney’s 2012 vote share in places where fewer whites had college degrees, where more people were underwater on their mortgages , where the population was in poorer physical health, and where mortality rates from alcohol, drugs and suicide were higher.

But Trump’s narrative about the causes of this distress are false, and his “economic nationalist” agenda is a classic populist bait-and-switch. Trump won a bigger vote share in places with smaller foreign-born populations. The residents of those places are, therefore, least likely to encounter a Muslim refugee, experience immigrant crime or compete with foreign-born workers. Similarly, as UCLA political scientist Raul Hinojosa Ojeda has shown, places where Trump was especially popular in the primaries are places that face little import competition from China or Mexico. Trump’s protectionist trade and immigration policies will do the least in the places that like them the most.

Yet the Great Divergence suggests a different sense in which the multicultural city did bring about the malaise of the countryside. The loss of manufacturing jobs, and the increasing concentration of the best-paying jobs in big cities, has been largely due to the innovation big cities disproportionately produce. Immigrants are a central part of that story.

But this is just to repeat that more and more of America’s dynamism and growth flow from the open city. It’s difficult to predict who will bear the downside burden of disruptive innovation — it could be Rust Belt autoworkers one day and educated, urban members of the elite mainstream media the next — which is why dynamic economies need robust safety nets to protect citizens from the risks of economic dislocation. The denizens of Trump country have borne too much of the disruption and too little of the benefit from innovation. But the redistribution-loving multicultural urban majority can’t be blamed for the inadequacy of the safety net when the party of rural whites has fought for decades to roll it back. Low-density America didn’t vote to be knocked on its heels by capitalist creative destruction, but it has voted time and again against softening the blow.

Political scientists say that countries where the middle class does not culturally identify with the working and lower classes tend to spend less on redistributive social programs. We’re more generous, as a rule, when we recognize ourselves in those who need help. You might argue that this just goes to show that diversity strains solidarity. Or you might argue that, because we need solidarity, we must learn to recognize America in other accents, other complexions, other kitchen aromas.

Honduran cooks in Chicago, Iranian engineers in Seattle, Chinese cardiologists in Atlanta, their children and grandchildren, all of them, are bedrock members of the American community. There is no “us” that excludes them. There is no American national identity apart from the dynamic hybrid culture we have always been creating together. America’s big cities accept this and grow healthier and more productive by the day, while the rest of the country does not accept this, and struggles.

In a multicultural country like ours, an inclusive national identity makes solidarity possible. An exclusive, nostalgic national identity acts like a cancer in the body politic, eating away at the bonds of affinity and cooperation that hold our interests together.

Bannon is right. A country is more than an economy. The United States is a nation with a culture and a purpose. That’s why Americans of every heritage and hue will fight to keep our cities sanctuaries of the American idea — of openness, tolerance and trade — until our country has been made safe for freedom again.

A Last Chance for Resistance

Posted on Mar 19, 2017

By Chris Hedges

  President Trump exits Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday, following a weekend trip to Florida. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

The crawl toward despotism within a failed democracy is always incremental. No regime planning to utterly extinguish civil liberties advertises its intentions in advance. It pays lip service to liberty and justice while obliterating the institutions and laws that make them possible. Its opponents, including those within the establishment, make sporadic attempts to resist, but week by week, month by month, the despot and his reactionary allies methodically consolidate power. Those inside the machinery of government and the courts who assert the rule of law are purged. Critics, including the press, are attacked, ridiculed and silenced. The state is reconfigured until the edifice of tyranny is unassailable.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in “The Gulag Archipelago” noted that the consolidation of Soviet tyranny “was stretched out over many years because it was of primary importance that it be stealthy and unnoticed.” He called the process “a grandiose silent game of solitaire, whose rules were totally incomprehensible to its contemporaries, and whose outlines we can appreciate only now.”

Czeslaw Milosz in “The Captive Mind” also chronicles the incremental expansion of tyranny, noting that it steadily progresses until intellectuals are not only forced to repeat the regime’s self-praising slogans but to advance its absurdist dogmas. Few ever see the tyranny coming. Those who do and speak out are treated by the authorities, and often the wider society, as alarmists or traitors.

The current administration’s budget proposes to give the war industry, the domestic policing agencies, the fossil fuel industry, Wall Street, billionaires and the national security and surveillance agencies more than they could have imagined possible before the election. These forces, as in all fascist states, will be the pillars of the Trump regime. They will tolerate Donald Trump’s idiocy, ineptitude and unbridled narcissism in exchange for increased profits and power. Despots are often buffoons. Appealing to their vanity and ego is an effective form of manipulation. Skilled sycophants can play despots like musical instruments for personal advancement.

Trump, like all despots, has no real ideology. His crusade against Wall Street, including Goldman Sachs, and the billionaire class during the presidential election campaign vanished the moment he took office. He has appointed five former Goldman Sachs employees to high posts in his administration. His budget will bleed the poor, the working class and the middle class and swell the bank accounts of the oligarchs. He is calling for abolishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts and the cutting of programs that provide legal service to low-income people and grants to libraries and museums. If Trump’s budget is approved by Congress, there will not even be a pretense of civil society. Trump and his family will profit from his presidency. Corporations will profit from his presidency. Wall Street will profit from his presidency. And the people will be made to pay.

Despots demand absolute loyalty. This is why they place family members in the inner circles. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose vanity rivaled that of Trump, and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein filled their governments with their children, siblings, nephews, nieces and in-laws and rounded out their inner courts with racists, opportunists and thugs of the kind that now populate the White House.

“President Trump’s point man on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is a longtime Trump Organization lawyer with no government or diplomatic experience,” reads the opening paragraph of a New York Times article headlined “Prerequisite for Key White House Posts: Loyalty, Not Experience.” “His liaison to African-American leaders is a former reality-TV villain with a penchant for résumé inflation. And his Oval Office gatekeeper is a bullet-headed former New York City cop best known for smacking a protester on the head.”

Despots distrust diplomats. Diplomats, often multilingual and conversant with other cultures and societies, deal in nuances and ambiguities that are beyond the grasp of the despot. Diplomats understand that other nations have legitimate national interests that inevitably clash with the interests of one’s own country. They do not embrace force as the primary language of communication. They are trained to carry out negotiations, even with the enemy, and engage in compromise. Despots, however, live in a binary universe of their own creation. They rapidly dismantle the diplomatic corps when they take power for the same reason they attack intellectuals and artists.

Trump’s proposed cut of nearly 29 percent to the State Department’s budget, potentially eliminating thousands of jobs, is part of the shift away from diplomacy to an exclusive reliance on violence or the threat of violence. The militarization of the diplomatic corps, with the Central Intelligence Agency and military intelligence operatives often taking over embassies, especially in conflict zones, began long before Trump took office. But Trump will deal the coup de grâce to the diplomatic corps. Despots replace diplomats with sycophants with no diplomatic experience, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who promise to impose the despot’s will on the rest of the world.

The dismantling of a diplomatic corps has dangerous consequences. It leaves a country blind and prone to wars and conflicts that could be avoided. Leon Trotsky called Josef Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, who negotiated the disastrous 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact that left the Soviet Union unprepared for German invasion, “mediocrity personified.” The other signatory of the pact, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was a former champagne salesman. Ribbentrop, as Molotov did with Stalin, parroted back to Adolf Hitler the leader’s conspiratorial worldview. Ribbentrop, again like Molotov with Stalin, knew that Hitler always favored the most extreme option. Molotov and Ribbentrop unfailingly advocated radical and violent solutions to any problem, endearing themselves to their bosses as men of unflinching resolve. This is what makes Steve Bannon so appealing to Trump—he will always call for Armageddon.

There are three institutions tasked in a functioning democracy with protecting the truth and keeping national discourse rooted in verifiable fact—the courts, the press and universities. Despots must control these three to prevent them from exposing their lies and restricting their power. Trump has not only attacked the courts but has also begun purges of the judiciary with his mass firing of U.S. attorneys. The Trump White House plans to fill 124 judgeships—including 19 vacancies on federal appeals courts—with corporatist lawyers such as Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch who are endorsed by the reactionary Federalist Society. By the time Trump’s four-year term is up, Federalist Society judges could be in as many as half of the country’s appellate seats.

Trump has continued to attempt to discredit the press. During his rally in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, he told the crowd, “Some of the fake news said I don’t think Donald Trump wants to build the wall. Can you imagine if I said we’re not going to build a wall? Fake news. Fake, fake news. Fake news, folks. A lot of fake.” He went on to say in an apparent reference to the reporters covering the rally, “They’re bad people.”

The attacks on universities, which will be accelerated, are on display in the budget proposal. The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Education, the Commerce Department, the National Institutes of Health, the Energy Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs all give grants and research money to universities. Colorado State University, for example, gets about 70 percent, or $232 million, of its research budget from federal sources. In February, Trump suggested he might attempt to cut federal funding for universities such as UC Berkeley. His comment was made after a riot at the California school forced the cancellation of a speech there by the far-right ideologue Milo Yiannopoulos, who has called Trump “Daddy.” A university will of course be able to get corporate funding for research if it casts doubt on the importance of climate change or does research that can be used to swell corporate profits or promote other business interests. Scientific study into our ecocide and the dangers from chemicals, toxins and pollutants released by corporations into the atmosphere will be thwarted. And the withering of humanities programs, already suffering in many universities, will worsen.

It will be increasingly difficult to carry out mass protests and civil disobedience. Repression will become steadily more overt and severe. Dissent will be equated with terrorism. We must use the space before it is shut. This is a race against time. The forces of despotism seek to keep us complacent and pacified with the false hope that mechanisms within the system will moderate Trump or remove him through impeachment, or that the looming tyranny will never be actualized. There is an emotional incapacity among any population being herded toward despotism or war to grasp what is happening. The victims cannot believe that the descent into barbarity is real, that the relative security and sanity of the past are about to be obliterated. They fail to see that once rights become privileges, once any segment of a society is excluded from the law, rights can instantly be revoked for everyone.

There is a hierarchy to oppression. It begins with the most vulnerable—undocumented workers, Muslims, poor people of color. It works upward. It is a long row of candles that one by one are extinguished. If we wait to resist, as the poet C.P. Cavafy wrote, the “dark line gets longer” and “the snuffed-out candles proliferate.”

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/a_last_chance_for_resistance_20170319

Trump and Mussolini: 11 Key Lessons from Historical Fascism

Italian fascism provides a better model for our moment than Nazi Germany—and the comparison is not encouraging.

Photo Credit: By Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije (USHMM Photograph #89908) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fascism is a religion. The 20th century will be known in history as the century of fascism.
— Benito Mussolini

I’d like to draw some comparisons and contrasts between our present situation and that of fascist Italy between 1922 and 1945. I choose fascist Italy rather than Nazi Germany because it has always seemed to me a better comparison. Nazi Germany was the extreme militarist, racist and totalitarian variant of Italian fascism, which was more adaptable, pragmatic, rooted in reality and also more incompetent, ineffectual and half-hearted, all of which seem true to our condition today. Italy was the original form, while Germany was an offshoot. Although there have been many European and some Latin American varieties of fascism since then, the Italian model was the first and the one that has had the most lasting influence.

Mussolini drew on strong existing left-wing European currents such as anarcho-syndicalism, wanting to offer the world an alternative to what he saw as the failures of the Western democracies. His was a revolutionary agenda, designed to turn the world order upside down, rooted deeply in romantic and even avant-garde sensibilities. To see fascism as stemming ultimately from liberalism might sound surprising, but this is true of both socialism as well as fascism, because finally it is liberalism’s principle of human perfectibility from which these impulses derive. Fascism, we might say, is liberal romanticism gone haywire. In its healthy state, liberalism gives us constitutional democracy, but in its unhealthy state we end up with totalitarianism.

Futurism, one of the leading modernist movements of the time, fed easily into fascism. F.T. Marinetti, who believed in war as “hygiene,” was a keen Mussolini supporter, as was the playwright Luigi Pirandello, though he had a different aesthetic tendency. Many philosophers, academics and artists were already sick of the mundane, transactional, enervating nature of democracy under leaders like Giovanni Giolitti, prime minister several times in the two decades preceding fascism.

Benedetto Croce, on the other hand, was the great Italian idealist philosopher, an optimistic Hegelian who believed that liberal constitutionalism was forever on the move, boosted by the Italian Risorgimento (unification) of the mid-19th century, even if its progress couldn’t always be detected. Mussolini never openly persecuted Croce, partly for reasons of credibility — some internal criticism had to be allowed, to preserve the façade of diversity of opinion — but mostly because, with a slight twist, Croce’s Hegelian logic can easily lead to fascism.

To discuss Italian fascism in the context of Trumpism is not to draw silly one-on-one comparisons, because many material factors are different today, but to understand current developments there must be some historical basis for analysis. What this exercise attempts is to show that the myth of American exceptionalism is just that, a myth, and that we have traveled so far from our national founding impulses that other tendencies, namely forms of what used to be considered peculiarly European anxieties, have now become the defining features of our polity.

1. Fascism rechannels economic anxiety

The German condition in the 1920s, with the economic instability then prevalent, is well known, but this was also true of European countries in general in the wake of World War I. Especially after the Russian Revolution, the urgent question for all of Europe became: Was socialism the right path, or capitalism? And in either case, was a new political order required?

In Italy, socialism became quite popular after the war, making industrialists and large agriculturalists very worried. The fascist squads, which at first had arisen spontaneously, came in handy to break the back of socialist cooperatives, both in industry and agriculture, particularly in northern Italy which was more advanced than the south. In the early part of his career, the opportunist Mussolini was anti-war (he didn’t want Italy to join the war), as were socialists in general. But during the course of World War I he changed his tune. Evidence shows that he was financed by oligarchic foreign interests who wanted Italy to get into the war, which of course it did.

For the same money men, the question became, after the war, what to do with the mobilized energy of the arditi, or the squadrists? The original fascists, Mussolini included, were very socialist in inclination, and their manifestos reflected that. Mussolini’s initial program for fascism could pass, with some changes, as an egalitarian dream. The founders of fascism were big on workers’ rights, expropriation of leading industries and even women’s right to equality. The violent contest between socialists and fascists in the countryside had already abated by the time Mussolini came to power. Yet the oligarchic powers sought, in Mussolini, a figure to permanently channel and mobilize the violent social energy on behalf of capitalism.

The most recent phase of globalization, which took off during the 1990s, has created similar anxieties around the world as the class dislocations did following World War I. For the elites who propagated the “Washington consensus” in the 1990s, supported by such popularizers as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, there was nothing complicated about globalization: Incomes would rise around the world, inequality would fall and liberal tolerance would flourish. This rosy picture is so far from reality as to be laughable, and it is a truth evident to the world’s peoples, except for the transnational elites still beholden to the abstract propositions. Thus the question arises again, with as much urgency as in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution: What shall be the world’s economic order? Is it possible to conceive, at this late date, of globalization with a human face? Or is something more revolutionary needed?

The problem today is that socialism, unfortunately, became discredited in the eyes of liberals in the West because of the failed Soviet experiment. Socialism did not have to go the authoritarian route, but that is sadly how it turned out. So today we have a clear problem, i.e., burgeoning inequality on an almost unprecedented scale, and no ideological solution in sight, at least not one that majorities of liberals can agree on.

Into this vacuum, fascists all over the Western world are entering to redirect the majority white population’s nervousness into xenophobic and imperialist aims. Each country, depending on its power structure, will pursue these aims, once it succumbs to the fascist virus, differently. It is worth remembering, however, that it was liberalism, with its absurd triumphant mentality in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that took away movement toward any form of socialism as a legitimate path, and therefore made the rise of fascism inevitable.

2. Liberal institutions have already been fatally weakened

We are currently lamenting Trump’s evisceration of the media and other institutions of democracy, but he would not be having such success, at least with half of the population, if those institutions were not already seriously compromised. It is easy to dismiss his mockery of the “fake media,” but before Trump did anyone take the media, with some venerable exceptions, seriously anyway? The mass media have never been interested in the nuances of policy, and are focused instead on personality, celebrity and spectacle. Most of the print media are also compromised because of loyalty to American exceptionalism.

It is no coincidence that Trump has merged his critique of the “fake media” with exceptionalism, because it allows him to present the media as tools of a discredited ideology. Before Trump, the media were tied, as a general rule, to the consensus on neoliberalism, and their bias became all the more evident during the last campaign. When it comes to telling the truth about power, the media have not been interested in doing so for a long time. They may now be reacting viscerally against Trump, because of the crude way in which he takes on their shallowness, but it doesn’t mean anything to his supporters. Trump’s critique of the media applies to all our liberal institutions prior to his arrival on the scene.

Mussolini’s fascist program landed in the middle of deep disillusionment with liberal institutions. Italy had experienced a rapid spurt of growth due to industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the rewards weren’t equally distributed. The south was poor and undeveloped, overcome by feudal values, while the north was unsure about empowering labor to share the fruits of growth. The strong labor movement started shading into anarcho-syndicalism, quite similar to the original fascist manifesto. The situation is not exactly comparable today, because ours is a mature economy with declining traditional industrial sectors, while Italy’s was an emerging economy with growing industries. But the sense that the institutions of democracy were failing to support a fair standard of living was widespread.

The Italian parliamentary system was marked by a tendency toward transformismo or “transformism,” to which our strongest parallel would be Bill (or Hillary) Clinton’s triangulation. In many ways Clinton can be seen as a parallel to Giolitti, with the same ability to throw doubt on the health of liberal democracy, even as deals are cut right and left). Transformismo, or triangulation, appeals to career civil servants, politicians and media people, but its chameleon-like tendency to absorb the ideas of the opposition and to neutralize them and make them invisible leaves a profoundly disillusioning aftertaste. Ideology desperately wants to make a comeback, which was true in transactional Italy, and is certainly true of America now.

3. Internal strongmen tussles don’t mean anything

In the beginning Mussolini didn’t seem the most obvious choice to lead the fascist movement. Italy’s best-known provocateur, Gabriele d’Annunzio, a flamboyant writer with a continental reputation, beat him to it by organizing a militia to lay siege to Fiume, a small territory on the northeast coast, part of the unredeemed lands claimed by the irredentist movement. In his short-lived siege, d’Annunzio perfected a fascist style — harangues prompting back-and-forth exchanges from balconies overlooking vast public squares, the symbolic elaboration of the myth of martyrdom in the cause of the nation and the articulation of an emotional method for communicating reality — that Mussolini, and all later fascists, would adopt. D’Annunzio — a legendary womanizer and decadent — was one of the most colorful of all Europeans, and his peculiar interpretation of Nietzschean values has become a permanent challenge to liberal democracy.

But when push came to shove, Mussolini was seen as the more pliable agent of fascist change by his corporate benefactors, and Mussolini was quick to sideline d’Annunzio’s claim to leadership. There were always more assertive fascists around than Mussolini — for example, Roberto Farinacci, the ras (or leader) of Cremona, who later became fond of Hitler’s henchmen — but Mussolini was able to keep them in check. He was a master at playing one competitor against another, exploiting their vulnerabilities to always stay in power. The squadrist militias under control of the provincial ras, like Farinacci and others, were at first used by Mussolini to send terror into the hearts of wavering capitalists and later, in different stages, were controlled and even neutralized as competing power centers, all of them absorbed in the mostly subservient National Fascist Party (PNF).

At the moment, Trump is our Farinacci, the most assertive of the ras, compared to whom all the Cabinet secretaries — even the ones who most frighten us for their racism (Attorney General Jeff Sessions) or Islamophobia (Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly) — seem tame in comparison. No matter the insanity of the secretaries in charge of the environment, education, energy or other departments, none seems as willing to openly flout the rule of law as Trump. Or we can say that in our case the showman d’Annunzio has taken power, rather than a more grounded journalist-turned-politician like Mussolini. We confront the speculative exercise of trying to imagine how it would have turned out for fascism had d’Annunzio, not Mussolini, been the leader.

Nonetheless, we ought not to be swayed by the temporary ascendancies of this or that group within the fascist hierarchy, whether it is Steve Bannon or Michael Flynn who rises or falls. Fascism is greater than the individuals who make up its core at any given moment. Fascism requires the strongman at the center to make it move, yet if a given personality fails to do the job, another can be found as replacement.

4. Fascism keeps mutating

Before fascism was formalized by Mussolini in 1919, organizing the scattered energies of the displaced combatants, it was in many ways an aesthetic movement. It was certainly radically socialist in orientation, with a strong attraction to equality for workers. Then, just before taking power, it became a movement for capitalist law and order, suppressing the demands of socialists. Once in power it adopted some of the modes of parliamentary behavior, but with great irritation, as it sought to preserve a democratic façade. After the consolidation of the dictatorship in 1925, it became almost a developmental state, strongly interested in Italy’s economic growth. A corporatist state, with strong autarkic goals (such as the “Battle for Wheat,” to make Italy self-sufficient, or the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes), was clearly articulated, eliciting approval from the world’s leading capitalist powers.

With the onset of worldwide depression, however, fascism realized the intractability of economic problems and turned its attention to imperialism. The PNF, which had become relatively quiet during the period of capitalist development, was revived as a harsh ideological force, with growing tentacles in every part of Italian society. This phase began in the early 1930s and lasted until defeat in World War II. Fascism was not particularly racist to begin with, as Mussolini, like most Italians, took exception to Nazi anti-Semitism; but as Italy threw in its lot with Germany in the late 1930s, “scientific” racism became a central fascist platform. After Mussolini was overthrown by his own Grand Council in 1943, for the last two years of the war he held fort in the Republic of Salò, in the northern part of Italy, supported by Hitler’s fading power. The Republic of Salò backtracked to the original socialist principles enunciated at the formation of fascism.

What this shows is that fascism is highly adaptable to different needs and conditions, just as its opposite, democracy, is similarly flexible. This also suggests that fascism is a viable ideology just like democracy, because it can appear in different guises at different times, even under the same leadership, without losing credibility. In considering Trump and the movement he has sparked, we would be better off looking at the overall aims of the regime, rather than get carried away by feints in one direction or another. Their aim, it should be clear, is to end democracy, since that is the energy fascism feeds on.

Trump is fully capable of showing an apparently “presidential” side, for example in his first speech to Congress. The priority has shifted from eradicating immigrants to passing the neoliberal agenda on taxation, social spending, education, energy and the environment, so a slightly modified relationship is needed with the corporate world and the media for the immediate future, which Trump should easily be able to accomplish. Mussolini, though an inveterate atheist, made peace with the Vatican, in the famous Lateran Accords of 1929, abandoning his most cherished beliefs in order to gain the complicity of the Catholic church. Earlier in the 1920s, he installed corporate-friendly ministers to work with Italy’s industrialists to enact an agenda they could be comfortable with. Such mutations are par for the course for fascists, they’re nothing to get excited about.

5. Fascism is eternally recurring

Just as democracy is eternal, so is fascism. There have always been authoritarian or dictatorial responses to democracy since the beginning of modern civilization, but fascism, with its imprint of spectacle, theater and mass communication, was a particular permutation that arose once the Western democracies had been consolidated. Italy and Germany were two of the late bloomers, but democracy had mostly been attained by the time they turned to fascism. Fascism could not have arisen were democracy still an evolving condition, as was true of parts of the West in the 19th century. So fascism is an indication of maturity, once democracy’s initial bloom is off.

Many historians were eager to write off Italy’s fascist experience as an aberration, as something so abnormal that it did not properly belong to Italian culture, but the opposite is true. Fascism will often borrow the symbolism, legal architecture and academic norms of pre-existing society, rather than throw them overboard. In Italy’s case, all the existing tendencies of aesthetic modernism came in handy, as well as the legacies of socialist, anarchist and syndicalist cultures. In northern cities like Turin and Milan, fascism flourished side by side with avant-garde political and cultural thinking. Once the dominant liberal culture succumbed, it wasn’t as difficult to impose fascism’s content upon the less democratic south’s institutions.

Fascism was not an aberration for Italy, nor is this the case anywhere it occurs. It is inherent in the DNA of any given culture, an authoritarian side that goes along with, and is even a necessary prop for, democracy. The interwar years marked industrialization’s maturity in the Western world, which had been preceded by a huge burst of globalization, leading up to World War I. A fascism drawing energy from the masses employed in industrialized occupations, as was the case between the wars, is going to manifest very differently than the post-industrial environment of 21st-century America. But the differences are more stylistic than foundational.

6. Of course it’s a minority affair

To note that Trump did not win the popular vote (as was true of George W. Bush in 2000), does not take away from the power of fascism. Given civilized norms in a democratic society, it is always going to be difficult for fascists to muster an outright numerical majority. The point is their relative strength in terms of raw power. Moreover, in periods of emergencies (such as Bush after 9/11 and in the lead-up to the Iraq war), more than a majority can usually be cobbled together. This speaks strongly to the hidden patriotic foundation of what passes for liberalism, its inherent weakness which can so easily be converted to mass militarism.

Mussolini, though he established his regime on the myth of the March on Rome, was actually appointed by King Victor Emmanuel III when Mussolini seemed like the only figure, compared to the discredited liberal politicians, who could bring order to the country. Trump too is trying to make predictions of chaos and violence a self-fulfilling prophecy, but this is a staple of all fascist regimes: They bring about and thrive on the disorder that they then claim to be the only ones to be able to suppress. There was actually no such thing as the March on Rome; the king had already invited Mussolini to Rome to come and form the government when the march took place. Had the king given the order — and this looked possible until the last fateful moment — the army would easily have crushed the ragtag bunch of nobodies who had showed up from all parts of Italy.

Only a small minority need give overt consent. The rest can be quiet, or complacent, or complicit, unless they feel their personal security threatened, for example because of war that might spin out of control. That is all that’s needed for fascism to go on its merry way, so it’s quite beside the point to argue its minority status. Most bloody revolutions are minority affairs.

7. There is an ideology behind the chaos of ideologies

Just as Italian historians after the fact claimed that fascism was an aberration that didn’t belong to Italy’s history proper, contemporary observers often insisted that there was never a fascist ideology. Partly this is because of the mutational aspect of fascism. But primarily this is due to intellectual laziness. Liberal scholars, after all, are not likely to credit their mortal opponent with ideological clarity. We too, lazily, ascribe the same lack of ideology to Trumpism, and interpret events in terms of personality and contingency. I would say that fascist ideology has always, since its inception a hundred years ago, been so strong that it takes democracy an extremely favorable environment, and a huge amount of luck, to sustain itself.

Fascist ideology aims for nothing but to weaken and end democracy. It is democracy’s successes, whether in Weimar Germany, or in a strange way in Giolitti’s Italy, or in countercultural America of the 1960s, that breed the opposite tendency which wants to swallow it up.

Mussolini pursued imperialistic goals in wanting an empire in North Africa, East Africa and the Balkans, but was his pursuit of empire (the New Rome) the same as Britain’s, for example, in the 19th century? For Britain, the empire made financial sense. For Italy, all its wars were financially ruinous (and this has been true of our own wars after 9/11 as well), exerting unsustainable pressures. To the extent that the wars undermined democracy, breeding fascism at home, they were certainly successful. In our present and future wars, that is the criterion we must keep in mind. It’s not what a particular policy is doing to the budget or our diplomatic standing or the state of the culture, but how a policy serves to undermine democracy.

8. Its cultural style makes no sense to elites

This is where I felt the Bush incarnation of fascism fell short, and this is where Trump too is having a difficult time. Milo Yiannopoulos proved in the end to be too exotic even to his sponsors at Breitbart, and the campy, decadent d’Annunzian style, of which Milo is an heir, has its limits in evangelical America, committed to bourgeois verities despite the fascistic overlay. Our homegrown brew of Fox News, Breitbart, Alex Jones, border militias like the Minutemen, millenarian Christianity, the Tea Party and gun culture, combined with simplistic beliefs in “free market” capitalism and American exceptionalism, seems to me a particularly tame cultural concoction. It doesn’t have traction with anyone with the least amount of liberal education. Mussolini was working with more resonant cultural stuff, as the emergence of industrial capitalism since the Risorgimento had set up a cultural platform that was malleable enough to work for fascism.

Trump and his successors will have to work with less potent stuff. So-called conspiratorial thinking is a unifying strand — I already mentioned Alex Jones — which connects many of the strands of ultra-conservative ideology throughout the past century. The Reds become Jews and then Muslims; the substitutions are not that difficult to make. But although the elites will remain incredulous toward fascism’s cultural style, there seems to be enough of a momentum, with all the tendencies beginning to attain critical mass together. Thus the successful transition from Bush to Trump, which suggests that our homegrown fascist style is strong enough now not to need a leader.

Masculinity — or shall we say faux masculinity — is an important part of this cultural style, perhaps the principal reason why Yiannopoulos couldn’t last. It is a reaction to the perceived effeminacy of liberalism, and is a blast (along with racism) against what is seen as the failed order. Fascism relies on activation of our most atavistic, violent and primitive selves, by wanting to return women to invisibility, along with condemning the darker races. Needless to say, Italian fascism reconstructed women as facilitators of warrior-masculinity in all the active fields of life, depriving women of organizational visibility even when they were outstanding fascists.

9. Fascism leads inexorably to suicidal war

It’s possible to argue that Mussolini was sucked into World War II against his will, He knew it was going to end his regime since Italy was not prepared. We might credit it to Hitler’s powers of manipulation over Mussolini that Italy entered a disastrous war. The truth is that from the beginning Mussolini had been biding his time to exert Italian power abroad. He had no respect for diplomats, exactly like Trump, and chose to go his own way, believing himself to be a master strategist. He made increasingly assertive forays into war-making, from the little adventure in Corfu in 1923, all the way to the massive commitment to the Ethiopian war in 1936, along the way proclaiming himself “protector of Islam.”

Fascism, like all forms of government not based on the consent of the majority, requires more and more energy to keep the population under control as time goes by. Once the façade of virile domesticity starts getting exposed, war becomes the only option to keep the regime going. Fascism always claims that war is not of its choosing, that it is forced into war by others, but it is a voluntary, even eager, action to perpetuate the regime. At some point, the boomeranging negative energy — violence inflicted upon the fascist power in return — is so great that the tide of opinion turns. Even if war might be fought to an end, the internal consensus, including among fascist believers, is gone. We are, obviously, a long way from that.

10. Racism is inherent to fascism

It is absolutely key that Trump began his campaign by proclaiming a genocidal manifesto against Mexicans — and then Muslims and Arabs — and has continued to keep it as his central point of action. Because fascism is not competing on an even ideological terrain — most people in any civilized country are not given to violence — it must imagine enemies powerful enough to sustain a majority reaction.

Mussolini and his lieutenants used to mock Hitler’s racial animus, both before and after he became chancellor, holding that Italians had no anti-Semitic sentiment, which was quite true. Some of Mussolini’s most ardent early supporters were Jewish, and he had prominent Jewish lovers, like his biographer Margherita Sarfatti. But after the goodwill from the Ethiopian war started fading in the late 1930s, and a closer alliance with Germany became inevitable, Italy turned around and instituted an official anti-Semitism that deprived Jews of their honor, property and basic rights. The situation never got as bad as in Germany, with most Italians harboring deep suspicions toward the newfound anti-Semitism and the construction of Italians as a superior Aryan race, but the damage was done.

Just as war is inevitable, so is virulent racism. Both go together in fascism. One provides an external enemy while the other provides an internal enemy. If they can be linked together — the worldwide Jewish banking conspiracy, or the worldwide Islamic terror conspiracy — so much the better. War becomes more comprehensible, for fascist supporters, when the internal enemy is attached to the endless cycle of wars abroad, which is said to stem from the same root threat to virile nationalist probity.

11. No form of resistance works

Finally, how do you fight fascism? Is there a magic formula, has anything ever worked? Or are we, too, assuming that we are launched on our own fascist cycle, doomed to repeat the familiar pattern until the end? Can liberalism awaken itself in time, once it recognizes the mortal danger, to defeat fascism? Will the citizenry in a liberal democratic nation, once prompted to the threat, find resources it hadn’t counted on before to invalidate and eventually suppress fascism? Can violence, in short, be defeated by nonviolence? We would have to presume this to be true, unless we accept that liberals would take up arms to defeat fascism, which is not likely and probably defeatist anyway.

The Italian press, when Mussolini took over the country, was extremely vigorous. Political parties of every persuasion were highly energized, and they all had their vocal newspapers. Mussolini himself had run socialist newspapers — first Avanti! and then Il Popolo d’Italia — for the majority of his adult career, and knew that to neutralize the press was his first order of business. He did so in stages, eventually ushering in a regime of complete censorship after 1925, particularly after failed assassination attempts gave him the excuse. He installed fascist stooges at all the newspapers and carefully monitored their every word for the rest of his regime. Loyalty oaths were likewise instituted everywhere, from higher education to civil service. The institutions appeared the same; they were not abolished, but they had been hollowed out.

The press went underground, numerous political activists went into exile, particularly in France, and the communists, socialists, conservatives, liberals, monarchists and Catholics bided their time, engaging in resistance when they could, hoping for an awakening of mass consciousness. Neutralizing the church with the Lateran Accords, and thereafter depoliticizing Catholic Action — the organization competing with Mussolini’s numerous social and leisure organizations — was important, and the church never regained its full voice. Exiles abroad were killed or injured in large numbers; many died in the Spanish Civil War. It was not until Mussolini’s own Grand Council deposed him in 1943, when it was clear that Italy had lost the war, that the country divided into two and the partisans emerged to slowly recover Italian democracy in stages.

Italians tried every form of resistance we can imagine, including getting themselves and their families killed or imprisoned, as countless lives were lost in the fascist tyranny. Nothing worked. Nothing ever works until fascism’s logic, the logic of empire, stands discredited to the point where no denial and no media coverup is possible anymore.

Some final thoughts

The thing to notice is that fascism, in all the places it’s been known to arise, converts an admittedly minority point of view into a mass energy that soon overwhelms every civilized instinct. Perhaps Trump doesn’t need to do this footwork; perhaps much of this foundational work was already accomplished in the Bush era. What should really concern us is that fascism now seems to have a certain stability that we have not seen in earlier models that relied on a single charismatic leader. Despite the Obama interlude, Trump has resumed where George W. Bush in his most feverish mood had left off. This suggests that fascism has become permanently stabilized in this country. It is the most worrisome aspect of the present situation.

Fascism would never have gotten such traction here had liberalism not already succumbed, over the course of 40 years, to various abridgments of rights in the name of community or security or risk-aversion, which defines much of liberal discourse today. Fascism cannot thrive on true individualism, which is inherently opposed to mass delusions, but liberalism took the lead long ago in giving up individualism for forms of imagined community. This is ultimately the breeding ground for fascism, and this is why it is an affair that envelops all of us, not just a certain segment of the population that we can condemn as fascist and be done with it.

One remarkable similarity — among many others — between Trump and Mussolini is their total preoccupation with coverage in the media. Trump regularly consumes the “shows,” apparently getting most of his news and information from TV, and has little use for time-consuming memoranda and policy documents. He obsessively monitors what the media says about him. Mussolini, it could be said, was almost a full-time journalist during his 23 years of power. Just as Trump’s Oval Office desk is littered with the “papers,” so was Mussolini’s time taken up with controlling every word that was printed about the regime. Obsessively detailed veline went out every day to the country’s newspapers, instructing them on how to interpret every event. There were to be no pictures of Mussolini appearing in less than heroic posture, no mention of crime or poverty or violence, no disparagement of the fascist regime.

The inordinate amount of time Mussolini (and Trump) spent cultivating his image does not have anything to do with a personality disorder. It has to do with democracy’s failure to live up to its egalitarian ideals, so that the lie about equality becomes more important than actual equality. The liberal democratic and fascist authoritarian versions of this lie have much in common. It is futile to look for tanks on the street as a marker of fascism; there were no tanks in the streets in fascist Italy either. What is important to notice are the weak spots of liberal democracy, which fascism exploits, such as the gradual loss of faith in our voting and electoral systems. What is important to notice is the symbolic order, which becomes more and more different until one day it becomes a vehicle for a different ideology than the majority ever bargained for.

 

Anis Shivani’s books in the last year include Soraya: Sonnets and Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems. His book Assessing Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century comes out in early 2017. 

Open borders are the only way to defeat Trump and build a better world

Everyone’s wrong on immigration:

This entire debate is built on cruel and false assumptions. Here’s the truth: Immigrants’ rights are human rights

Everyone's wrong on immigration: Open borders are the only way to defeat Trump and build a better world
(Credit: Getty/John Moore)

There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less, but they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.
— Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, March 6, 2017

The immigration debate has become mired in myths, falsehoods and half-truths, with little clarity among liberals or conservatives alike. Conservatives think there’s nothing wrong with Trump defending America to keep “the bad ones” out because, after all, every sovereign nation should have that right. Liberals concede the point, but modify it a bit by claiming exception for the “good ones,” such as the Dreamers (those who were “brought” here at a young age “due to no fault of their own”). Immigrants’ rights advocates seek an elusive middle ground, even as the terrain of immigration has shifted from morality or economics or even national identity to the spectacle of crime and punishment.

Most Americans who have no direct experience with the immigration system are easily misled by xenophobic claims that often sound commonsensical, such as the (false) notion that immigrants drive down wages and make those who are native-born lose their jobs. They may not want to go to the extreme of taking up arms to defend the nation — as do the Minutemen on the southwestern border — but they passively accept the myths. What many don’t realize is that each time a right is taken away from immigrants, with implied consent, it eventually affects citizens’ rights, too. To remain distant from the issue is no longer an option for any of us. Secretary Ben Carson’s comment above had less to do with our past history with slavery than our future ideal for immigrants.

We want to shut ourselves up behind a wall — paid for by Mexico, of course — as we turn citizenship into a privilege derived from exaggerated notions of loyalty. Such self-disciplining consciousness is the other side of the overt criminalization of immigrants. American citizenship has become the sole passage to a utopia of freedom by way of crushing the undeserving other, the poor immigrant.

What is going on? Why has the country turned so anti-immigrant (despite hollow claims from politicians that we remain “a nation of immigrants”)? Did 9/11 cause this? Is it because of President Donald Trump? Or is there something predating terrorism or the authoritarian upsurge? Is changing sentiment toward immigrants rooted in rational anxieties, such as concern about jobs? Or does it represent a free-floating, pessimistic discourse that is as much a part of our self-construction as the optimism we’re more used to hearing?

Here are some of our most damaging misunderstandings in this defining area of national policy:

1. There is no line to get into.

Americans seem to think that if you are a capable person somewhere in the world, you just need to get in line, and if everything checks out, you’re in. Or if you have relatives who have spent their life in America and you want to join them, you’d join the line. The idea that people should “get in the back of the line,” a mantra we hear every time the topic of so-called comprehensive immigration reform comes up, doubles down on the nonsense.

There is no line. There is only a nightmarish engagement with an immigration bureaucracy for those lucky enough to deal with it.

Perhaps there is a theoretical line. If you are a sibling of a Filipino citizen, you may wait up to 20 years to get in — if your family member will take full financial responsibility, at the risk of being pursued in court if an emergency compels you to seek public assistance. If you are a high-skilled immigrant in demand by Silicon Valley, you may seek an H-1B visa. But you must be the type of person who fits corporate America’s vision of a good citizen in every aspect of your life. Immigrants with technical skills arrive on a presumed pathway to citizenship, even if theoretically they are temporary immigrants.

What if you are a bright young person with a visitor visa but want to study and live in the United States? Adjusting your status may not be easy, and if you run afoul of any technicalities, you’re out of luck and “illegal.”

What if your visa has lapsed, yet you found the resources to establish a life here, marrying a citizen and having children? Can you correct your status? You’d have to prove hardship of a kind that would satisfy the immigration bureaucracy, a fantasy of torture and devastation for yourself and your family, rather than any realistic definition of hardship.

The line is a fantasy. Those whom corporate America desires go straight to the front anyway, their papers awaiting them and their families. For those who have ever struggled in life, who may be from poor backgrounds but want to better themselves through education and civic participation, the options are limited.

Many of us know someone who may be an outstanding citizen in every respect, even a prominent member of the community, except for the lack of technical legality. They may even have the money to pursue a legal avenue. Have we ever considered why these people choose to remain “illegal”? If there were a line for accomplished immigrants who desired to fix their status, wouldn’t they join in?

Shouldn’t the immigrant, without having to be tied to an absurd mythology of hardship, be able to fulfill the desire to stay, based on equities built up that would be lost with the finality of deportation? Isn’t that what most people imagine when they say those who want to stay should “get right with the law,” that they should pay the fines and “get their citizenship”? Our immigration practices have become so distorted that such possibilities do not really exist.

2. The distinction between legal and illegal is meaningless.

Both restrictionists and reformists love to say, “I’m for legal immigration but against illegal immigration.” The current regime’s most prominent nativists love to make this claim, even as their intent is to end legal immigration, just as we did, more or less, during the 1920s.

Yet a more absurd proposition is difficult to imagine, given a government that encourages underground migration and suppresses official migration with every resource at its disposal. An immigrant is always in a tenuous situation — as our predecessors knew well before we formalized whom we wanted and whom we didn’t — as he or she moves from temporary to permanent, denizen to resident, illegal to legal, or in the reverse direction, with ambiguity clouding the definition at any given time.

Before neoliberalism reshaped immigration policies in the 1990s, professional workers used to be in an extended limbo because their status, once they were sponsored by an employee, wasn’t exactly clear. They were not supposed to be here, but they were and already working for their sponsor, based on the probability that their labor certification would be approved. We never had a problem with “illegality” in the case of professionals, though we have cleared things up in their favor quite a bit since then.

On the other hand, what is your status if you applied as a refugee from, say, Central America 20 or 30 years ago? Your application was provisionally approved, but has fallen into limbo; a deportation order has not been issued, but your status has lapsed. We wanted you when there was a “Soviet-sponsored” Marxist insurgency that we were fighting, but we don’t care about you when we’ve decided to leave homegrown turmoil alone. Meanwhile, you’ve gone to school, had children, started a business, employed workers and paid taxes. Your children are allowed to sponsor you when they come of age. Shortly before they are able to do so, are you legal or illegal? Do you become legal the day they apply for you or do you have to wait until approval? In the years it might take immigration officials to decide your case, are you legal or illegal?

Many of us know of such ambiguous situations, which apply to all migrants, except those whom corporate America has desired unreservedly over the last 30 years, since we brought immigration into line with neoliberal economic needs. Our federal immigration laws consist of layers upon layers of irrational, inconsistent, even bizarre and inexplicable exceptions, preferences, loopholes, punishments, waivers, mandates and discretions that render the division between “legal” and “illegal” meaningless.

3. Immigration law is by nature exclusionary and racist.

We didn’t always have a federal immigration bureaucracy. The idea began in the 1870s and 1880s, when we had finished building the railroads and accomplished enough developmental goals to feel that we could dispense with cheap imported labor. The presence of large numbers of Chinese and other Asians on the West Coast led to the complaints about unfair job competition that we hear today, buttressed by similar inflammatory rhetoric. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was our first immigration law, setting the tone for our federal bureaucracy ever since then.

For Justice Stephen Johnson Field, who ruled on the first important case upholding exclusion, Chae Chan Ping v. United States in 1889, Chinese people “remained strangers in the land,” forever alien and unassimilable. We went from individual states setting the conditions for immigration to a federal bureaucracy founded on excluding a subpar race from tainting our racial stock.

From our country’s foundation until our first immigration laws, our openness allowed us to successfully assimilate immigrants of diverse origins, all of whom had at first been looked upon suspiciously, such as the Germans and the Irish. Once we established a federal bureaucracy, it needed continuous rationales to sustain itself and grow. After excluding Chinese people, the country moved on to Japanese people, and then Eastern and Southern Europeans including Jews, followed by subversives during the cold war and finally Muslims and Arabs as the latest targets for exclusion.

Some of us may be under the illusion that we follow objective criteria to decide who comes in and who stays, observing standards that make moral, economic or political sense. That has never been the case since the beginning of federal immigration policy.

The targets have varied, but the logic remains the same. At the beginning of the 20th century, progressives, trade unionists, eugenicists and respectable politicians of all stripes were angered by large numbers of “inferior,” disease-carrying, non-English-speaking Southern and Eastern Europeans, so we shut them out with the 1924 national origins quota system and decided instead to unofficially bring in large numbers of Mexicans.

We preferred Mexican immigrants persisting in limbo to European immigrants we would have to accommodate as citizens. We just had to make sure to periodically evict them from territorial assertion, as we did during the Great Depression, and as we did when we followed up the Bracero Program (importing guest workers) with Operation Wetback (involving mass deportation), a pattern that repeats to this day. We might say that we had an unofficial bracero program since the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement until today, but we now want to expel that labor force.

Our history of exclusion is inherent in the nature of the bureaucracy and in all the laws that have been passed to empower it. During World War II we decided not to admit Jews seeking refuge from the European inferno. The logic of Asian exclusion easily led to the internment of Japanese-Americans by our most progressive president. Today we willfully exclude some of the best and brightest amont us, if they happen to be Latino or Muslim or Arab. Exclusion affects whole classes of people and causes great national damage each time.

4. The contemporary havoc goes back to the 1996 law.

But the repugnant national origins quota system, the internment of a whole race of people and the persecution of individuals because of political beliefs are all things in the past, right? We don’t do these things anymore, do we? After all, what was the great liberalization of the 1960s all about, if not to end such practices?

In reality, some of the most barbaric practices we as a nation have followed in terms of removal, slavery and exclusion have come back in full force due to a reconceptualization of immigration under the 1996 law called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The key word here is “responsibility,” used in a twisted neoliberal manner, placing burdens that are not so much responsibilities as refusals of humanity.

Though Trump’s so-called travel ban has been getting all the attention, the infinitely greater area of concern is his targeting of every immigrant as potentially a “criminal alien” subject to “expedited removal.” The authority that Trump needs to put his genocidal plan into action was gifted to him under the 1996 law. It vastly expanded the definition of crimes and included everything from shoplifting to child neglect as “aggravated felonies” that could lead to deportation without appeal. “Expedited removal” means that the traditional safeguards offered to those under deportation proceedings are gone, and prosecutorial discretion is limited to the point of nonexistence.

The distinction between legal and illegal is intentionally blurred in such laws. “Aggravated felonies” retroactively subject not just undocumented people but legal permanent residents to deportation. Countless permanent residents have fallen under the net of this repressive law, one of the worst in our nation’s history. Years or decades ago someone may have copped a guilty plea to a misdemeanor to get a lighter sentence, as is common in our criminal justice system. An encounter with the police, bringing the earlier “crime” to light, may abruptly destroy that person’s life.

The 1996 law severely curtails the chances for refugees to have a fair hearing, while asylum seekers are presumed guilty when making a claim and put in a mandatory detention that can last for years. Families who have experienced torture in countries that the U.S. has often had a hand in destabilizing are then placed in detention among hardened criminals and made to wait for years before knowing their fate.

The 1996 law was part of the same movement toward “personal responsibility” — a euphemism for blaming victims for social crimes against them and then punishing them — that also resulted in “welfare reform” and expanded the reach of counterterrorism in a law that became a precursor to the Patriot Act. These three laws — on immigration, welfare and terrorism — overlap in some respects, for instance in curtailing judicial review or ending public assistance for legal immigrants.

5. Neoliberal economic policies are the main cause of “illegality.”

So-called illegality is a self-created bureaucratic problem, which is convenient for the neoliberal state to address as a criminal matter. It comes in handy because it keeps the lid on demands for democracy across racial lines, and it maintains a permanent underclass without rights, acting as a counterweight against universal fairness in the workplace.

The modern problem of illegality began in 1994 with the passage of NAFTA. That agreement offered a set of advantages to American big business and agriculture, creating tremendous pressure on Mexican small industry and farms and leading to the displacement of millions of workers, and many of them headed north. NAFTA freed capital movement at the same time as it restricted labor movement. So on the one hand, we created dire pressure for migration northward — to call it “push and pull” seems disingenuous, as if referring to inexorable laws of economics — at the same time as we cut off pathways to legal migration.

Before the 1990s, we always had a pattern of circular migration from Mexico. Migrants came and went; they didn’t necessarily want to stay for good. Almost 30 million Mexicans entered the country between the start of the Bracero Program and the 1986 immigration law, but most of them went back. But the neoliberal regime made the price of mobility prohibitive. Border controls became so repressive, and the price of re-entry so high, that many migrants decided to put down roots. The children of these migrants have become the Dreamers we now claim are the immigrants worthiest of our compassion.

When we wanted cheap agricultural labor we willfully let in large numbers of immigrants whom we did not want to assimilate. Now that the latest phase of globalization has run its course, the Trump regime wants to repatriate these people, long resident in our country, back “home.” We can always crack the wall open a bit when we need a new burst of cheap labor.

Under neoliberalism, we shuffle off unwanted labor to our private detention system, which daily commits horrors on a scale worthy of history’s worst nightmares. Our policy preference is to put immigrants in detention for long periods of time before expelling them, so that they become revenue-earners for private prisons. Under Trump we are about to witness a massive resurgence of the private prison industry, which lobbies for criminalization of immigrants.

6. Comprehensive immigration reform is a boondoggle.

In every version it appears, comprehensive immigration reform, a favorite prescription of both parties, is nothing but a Trojan horse to sneak in and formalize existing inhuman practices. Each immigration reform bill has been increasingly regressive, starting with the one that actually passed, Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Every comprehensive immigration reform proposal attempts to do three things: 1. It further criminalizes and delegalizes growing categories of people, reducing pathways to citizenship, while offering some sort of legal status to those few who qualify within increasingly narrow boundaries. 2. It seeks to convert immigrants into guest workers to the extent possible, implementing a regime that strays from linear outcomes. 3. As a bargaining chip to sway restrictionists, who may have problems even with limited forms of legal status, it implements new policing measures to harden the already militarized border.

Comprehensive immigration reform is no solution. The 2006, 2007 and 2013 bills were each more draconian than their predecessors. The last one, under Obama, was much harsher than the ones Bush wanted. Militarization, which already stands at mind-boggling levels, with more than 20,000 border patrol agents, would have gone up drastically in each immigration reform bill. To the extent that a wall can exist, it already does. Each time an immigration reform bill is proposed, its legalization provisions don’t become reality, but its militaristic provisions come true by other means.

Ever since the 1970s — with the arrival of Southeast Asian and Caribbean refugees, and the growing visibility of Asians in our population — sharply restrictionist moves have been packaged as comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalist John Tanton has been at the fount of most recent anti-immigrant advocacy. His Federation for American Immigration Reform, along with associated organizations such as the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA, seeks to end legal immigration. Immigration reform bills have moved this goal closer and closer in sight, until Trump can almost smell victory. FAIR and its affiliated organizations are consulted by the press on every policy move and given equal footing with the vast array of pro-immigrant groups.

7. The Dreamers have been a destructive wedge issue.

This relates to my point about how some immigrants who are offered ambiguous legalization, rather than universal access to citizenship being offered to everyone under predictable conditions. The Dreamers are the splinter group artfully deployed to silence the demand for rights for all other immigrants.

The concept of the Dreamers arose in the early 2000s (Sen. Dick Durbin was an early proponent), once the 1996 legislation had had time to do its work. Instead of welcoming the immigrant, as we had done through all our history, we would welcome only the Dreamer. Anyone not certifiably a Dreamer would not belong.

Who exactly is a Dreamer? A Dreamer is the postmodern version of a slave, embodying the idea of the pliant immigrant with which we seem most comfortable. The Dreamer is brought here against his will (evoking the rhetoric of slavery), yet harbors no resentment toward the white majority who have enslaved his people. The Dreamer is not expected to mind that his parents may not be recognized as people, even if they have present in the community for decades. The Dreamer willingly pays for college out of pocket, putting up with all the obstacles strewn by anti-immigrant states, particularly in the South and Southwest. The Dreamer is unashamedly invested in the capitalist dream that he or she will have to purchase, as a consumer but not a citizen. The Dreamer is expected to be grateful for grudging symbols of identity, a temporary work permit or a driver’s license. The Dreamer begs to be granted the least token of recognition in return for partaking in our collective dream.

What about elderly and disabled people, the creative and artistic, the bohemian and nonconformist, all those not employed in the professions that neoliberalism elevates? What about the parents of Dreamers? What about those who have committed any transgressions? They don’t count as Dreamers;, they are “criminal aliens.”

The Dreamer is seen as accepting exclusion as a principle in return for being made a provisional part of our nationhood. No doubt Trump will use the Dreamers to split the rest from this small slice, to whom he might grant minimum concessions on the road to ending legal immigration. The Dreamers would be expected to go along, because all comprehensive immigration reform bills, former President Barack Obama’s included, have separated the “good” from the “bad.”

8. Immigrant rights are human rights.

There is a debate whether constitutional rights extend to all “persons” present in the United States or only to citizens. The Constitution clearly says that rights belong to persons, not just citizens. Today the rights of noncitizens are being abridged as perhaps never before, and there’s a paramount need for the defense of the idea that immigrants have all constitutional rights.

Are freedom of speech and association, due process and equal rights limited to citizens? Such would not seem to be the case if we look at much of our judicial history. Yet there is plenty of judicial precedent for those who want to construct a vision of constitutional rights applying to all people.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act set up the federal bureaucracy, states such as California and Arizona started passing legislation discriminating against immigrants. The courts held at the time that equal protection applied to persons, not just citizens, for example in striking down laws that discriminated against Chinese owners of laundries in California. And in the Truaux v. Raich decision, the Supreme Court held in 1915 that Arizona could not restrict the employment of immigrants.

The important recent landmark case is the Plyler v. Doe decision of 1982, when the Supreme Court held that Texas was obligated to provide access to kindergarten through grade 12 education to all people, regardless of status. In succeeding years, the precedent set by the Plyler decision, when it comes to immigrants’ right to public services necessary for a fulfilling life, has not been consistently applied. Also, if kindergarten through grade 12 access is vital, then isn’t the same true for higher education?

We tend to assume that people present on our soil have access to constitutional rights, at the very least the right to due process and habeas corpus (which was stripped from immigrants in the 2005 REAL ID Act). In reality, we have intentionally created a vast population of essentially stateless or displaced people, refusing to extend constitutional rights to them, regardless of the letter and spirit of our founding documents.

Once we go down that path and create two regimes of law, one for citizens and one for everyone else, then it is inevitable that the regime created for immigrants will start affecting citizens as well, and constitutional rights will become restricted for all, as indeed has been the case over the last few decades. We cannot pretend anymore that what happens to “them,” as immigrants, does not affect “us,” as citizens. In every area of law, from the rights of consumers against corporations to the rights of citizens against the police, we have seen a drastic diminishment. Much of that has to do with our callousness toward immigrants.

9. The president has almost unlimited powers.

To the extent that Trump will be able to have his ban against Muslim immigration approved by the courts (and we seem to be headed toward extension to more Muslim countries), it will be because of the plenary power doctrine.

Ever since the federal immigration bureaucracy came into being, the courts have ceded vast powers to the executive to set the guidelines for immigration. Trump will make full use of this authority, some of it latent, some of it used by other presidents.

The Chae Chan Ping decision of 1889 was the first case, soon after the Chinese Exclusion Act, where the plenary power doctrine became inscribed, justifying the government’s power to exclude. After World War II, several landmark cases that were decided amid an atmosphere of Cold War paranoia — Knauff v. Shaughnessy (in 1950), Harisiades v. Shaughnessy (in 1952) and Shaughnessy v. Mezei (in 1953) — reaffirmed plenary power. Immigrants trying to return to the country were stopped or detained, based on alleged subversive views. Granting such unlimited powers is only asking for trouble when an unscrupulous administration comes along to take undue advantage.

Trump will test the limits of the plenary power doctrine with a range of executive orders and legislative initiatives. The only check on his power to do with immigrants as he wishes is for the courts to return firmly to precedents where limits on plenary power have been acknowledged — and for the courts to take a stand against the existence of this power in the first place.

10. Open borders are the only way to go.

We are in a situation of chaos, breeding technical illegality, because federal regulations have become too complex. Comprehensive immigration reform of any type would make these laws even more cumbersome by drastically curtailing family unification (our quotas, even after the 1965 liberalization, have always been vastly insufficient to the needs) and thus inviting more illegality. I don’t want to rest my case for open borders on the economic justification, but studies in the 1980s noted that world economic output would double if open borders prevailed everywhere, and studies in the 2000s showed even greater gains for the world economy.

Americans often compare the nation to a house, arguing that immigrants who enter without inspection or overstay their visas are like robbers whom we have every right to detain and expel. But a country or even a state or a city or a neighborhood is not a house (just as it is simplistic to compare a country’s budget to a household’s). The nation is dynamic and includes all of us. The nation is an abstraction is only as good as the operation of freedom within it. The same is even truer of the world. If the world cannot be put inside a border, then a country trying to do the same is foolish.

A wall is a fantasy, not a reality, that makes us economically and politically weaker. None of the moral grounds for exclusion make any sense, despite our knee-jerk resort to national sovereignty. Imagine if America had kept admitting Asians throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, instead of allowing them in only after 1965. Imagine if we had continued allowing Southern and Eastern Europeans after 1925. Would we have been a more progressive country, less likely to have succumbed to the burdens of an empire, with a more global outlook in the crucial midcentury years?

Today immigrants are treated as criminals for their violations, with deportation as the ultimate life-altering penalty, and yet immigrants are not provided the rights due to a criminal defendant. Immigration is and always has been a civil matter; it is not a crime to be present without authorization. We have in essence two sets of laws, one for immigrants, who do not have the rights of defendants when charged with “crimes,” and one for everyone else. The only solution to this anomaly is to cease treating immigration violations as crimes and to completely end detention for immigration. If an immigrant commits a crime, he or she should be prosecuted under normal laws, as a criminal defendant not as a “criminal alien.”

Ultimately, the only solution is to reduce the complexities, to end the web of regulations and exceptions — which, just as in corporate law, favor the powerful at the expense of the weak — and to finally shed immigration laws altogether.

Immigration should become a purely voluntary affair, no different than filing taxes. We trust citizens to do that, reporting millions of dollars in income. So why can’t we trust people to report their status and file for changes based on equities they have built in our community? As soon as a person steps on our soil, he or she should have full constitutional rights, so as to not be subject to exploitation. Why can’t we visualize immigration without government regulation? We certainly did very well with that regime until the federal bureaucracy emerged in the 1880s, and with revived global understanding we can do so again.

President Donald Trump is taking advantage, for white nationalist purposes, of a legacy of tragically unfair rules that have defined our immigration system ever since it has existed. We are now bearing the full fruits of a system that was begging to end in catastrophe.

In the first six months of 2011, more than 46,000 immigrants with at least one U.S. citizen child were deported by the Obama administration. In the 10 years following the passage of the 1996 law, more than 12 million people were forced to agree to voluntary departure. Though Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump is dramatically apprehending immigrants in public venues — a theater of cruelty meant to terrorize everyone — and causing great consternation, this exact process of splitting up families has been going on for two vicious decades, in numbers that classify as one the world’s major human rights calamities.

Countless numbers of immigrants, even legal permanent residents, have been hauled away from their families, their communities, everything they know and love, based on some minor misdemeanor they may have committed decades ago, which has suddenly been reclassified as an “aggravated felony,” and is cause for their deportation to places they have no memory of. Such immigrants do not have the right to be heard by a judge except in a perfunctory manner, with little room for clemency based on individual circumstances.

We do not call our immigrant detention facilities concentration camps, but at any given time we have about 34,000 immigrants serving time in prisons far from home, waiting to be deported. Is this any different than the prison regimes of the most brutal governments we have protested?

Migration is a human right. A person anywhere in the world has the right to migrate, just as there is a right to free speech or association. In fact, most other rights follow from the right to migrate. If governments are allowed to lock up people behind walls, then it’s only a matter of time before other rights will dissipate, too. If we do not recognize migration as an inviolable human right, and if we do not give up the idea of the wall, we are bound to lose human rights for all of us.

American citizenship, by having become associated with the hypernationalist project, will at first look enviable and untouchable, but ultimately will be so cheapened as to be worth nothing. For the courts, as they face the Trump assault, the challenge is clear: Do away with the plenary power doctrine and extend full constitutional rights to immigrants. Rights should depend on personhood not citizenship, as some of our best legal minds have recognized throughout our history.

One thing that would strongly push the country in the opposite direction than the one Trump intends is for individual states, particularly progressive states in the West or Northeast, to pass laws as favorable to immigrants as the ones in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama have been unfavorable. What if, say, California were to pass legislation extending full human rights to all people present in the state? That would set up a historic confrontation, bringing out all the anomalies in our inhuman immigration regime for due public consideration. “Sanctuary” would become a constructive, constitutional, universal concept, not a purely reactive one against police powers.

Every time we say that we should let immigrants stay because they do the dirtiest work that native-born folks aren’t willing to do, we should remember that we do not justify our ancestors’ arrival with that logic. We deserve to be here because we have a human right to be, just as we accepted this in the centuries preceding racist federal bureaucracies. We are here because we are humans, not because of our utility toward someone else’s comfort.

 

Anis Shivani is at work on a novel called “Abruzzi, 1936.” His most recent books are “Karachi Raj: A Novel,” “Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems” and “Soraya: Sonnets.” “Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century: Conversations” comes out in April 2017.