Insubordinate Americans

The Donald, and why the hoity-toity pols hate him

Republished from the Press and Journal

Rick Perry, the presidential aspirant and former Texas governor, recently bellowed this about Donald Trump at a speech in downtown Washington, D.C.: “Let no one be mistaken, Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded.”

“He’s becoming a jackass, at a time when we need to be having a serious debate about the future of the party and the country,” South Carolina senator and fellow 2016 candidate Lindsey Graham told CNN’s Erin Burnett.

“The Donald’s life has been seven decades of buffoonery,” Kevin Williamson wrote in the conservative National Review.

In the vein of Rodney Dangerfield, Donald Trump, the mega-rich real estate mogul and unlikely presidential candidate, can’t get any respect. At least not from the hoity-toity political establishment that sits (or dreams of sitting) along the Potomac.

But out in the hinterlands  what D.C. elites call “flyover country”  Trump’s message and style are actually resonating. And the best part about the Trump phenomenon is that no one in the punditocracy can explain it.


Reasonable people can still debate marriage

Reprinted from the Press and Journal

For months now, I’ve predicted in the Press and Journal that the Supreme Court would foist same-sex marriage upon the country. Lo and behold, with the decision rendered in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court came through in flying – perhaps rainbow – colors.

Gay marriage is now a constitutional right. Where language about marriage exists in the Constitution, I haven’t the slightest, but I’ll accept my prize for being prescient. Any day now…

And just as predicted, liberals went absolutely bonkers with the victory. The eve following the decision, the White House lit up with rainbow-colored lights. Corporations like American Airlines, Kellogg’s, Macy’s, and Visa all lauded the ruling over social media. Andrew Sullivan, the erstwhile blogger and gay rights champion who went into much-needed retirement earlier this year, wrote a powerful piece entitled, “It Is Accomplished.”

The good cheer was understandable. For decades, gays and lesbians have been treated liked underlings by mainstream America. It’s past time they were recognized with dignity. Alas, some revelers took the victory too far.


America is a wimpy nation, and it deserves to feel bad

“U.S.A…..U.S.A.!” the drunk college student behind me chanted. “Yeah, America!” a slurring girl a few feet away followed with. The fireworks exploded over the National Mall in all their pomp and glory. I was standing on the corner of Constitution and 20th Street, watching the annual 4th of July extravaganza. People were in the streets, gayly enjoying the display and beaming with American pride.

I’ll admit the display was impressive. The federal government, being its profligate self, pulls out all the stops when it comes to putting on a half-hour light show. As I stood watching the spectacle, I couldn’t help thinking that the fireworks display was symbolic of America’s current trajectory toward base showmanship. Every firework, each burst of light, exploded fantastically before plummeting to the ground.


White privilege is real, but mewling about it isn’t helping

During the hot racial strife of 1968, author James Baldwin was interviewed by Esquire magazine on the status of race relations in the country. Baldwin, whose works offered keen insight into the worldview of black America, didn’t pull any punches. He was up front with describing the ineptitude of white Americans in alleviating racial animosity. When asked why the state of New York planned to erect a government building in place of a black nationalist bookstore in Harlem, Baldwin plainly told the interviewer, “the American white man has proved, if nothing else, he is absolutely, endlessly, foolish when it comes to this problem.”

“Foolish” is a good way to describe Lehigh University visiting professor Christopher Driscoll. Stupidly garrulous may be another. Dr. Driscoll takes political correctness to a whole new level with his blog Shades of White. After co-hosting a rap music symposium (totally appropriate for a university) with two hip-hop educators (such pedagogy), Driscoll decided to issue “The Ten Cracka Commandments” to teach his fellow whites how to view and interact with black culture. Like Moses descending from Mount Sinai, the totally conscious professor wants, I think, to make sure his people aren’t creating a golden calf out of racial misunderstanding.

First, I’ll give credit where credit is due: Dr. Driscoll is as “white” as can be. His website’s profile picture shows him wearing bright yellow pants and loafers. For being a college professor and dressing like a Capitol Hill staffer, I grant Driscoll the title of “expert on white people.” He better be welcome.


Is Bernie Sanders a socialist?

Editor’s note: The following is an extended version of the comments quoted by Damon Linker in the Week. For less sympathetic coverage of Sanders, see Peter Dreier at HuffPo and Michael Kazin at Slate. C-SPAN will air the National Press Club event on Jack’s new book this Sunday at 6:45 Eastern, 3:45 Pacific, but the full video can be found here.

Is Bernie Sanders a socialist? I know from my mother who lives in Vermont that particularly at constituent events, he more often identifies as an “independent” than a socialist. At other times he’ll take advantage of his socialist reputation, such as appearing on an episode of the 2011 C-SPAN miniseries “The Contenders” on Eugene Debs. But of late, it is the media emphasizing the socialist label for Bernie.

In the context of the historic American Socialist movement, Bernie is squarely in the tradition of the Socialist Party politicians elected in the first half of the 20th century in places as far flung as Milwaukee; Schenectady, NY; Butte, MT; Minneapolis; Reading, PA; and Bridgeport, CT – success through delivering on core constituency service and clean government. His first election as mayor of Burlington in 1981 was due to a property tax revolt and the opportunistic support of the police union. In 2013, I attended the annual Fourth of July parade in picturesque Warren, VT, where respectful but modest applause for Governor Shumlin was followed by absolute pandemonium for Bernie (as he is known simply to Vermonters). The two things that have sealed this – and 70% of the vote – are an A rating from the NRA and zeal in securing veterans benefits.

Politically shrewd as he is, I hoped Bernie would decide to marshal his well-earned influence behind a candidate who can better replicate his model of success nationally such as Jim Webb. Maybe I was naïve to think he could do this without first running a campaign himself, and I imagine both Webb and Martin O’Malley are happy to have Bernie deliver the truly rough punches to Hillary. But perhaps what Bernie has been thinking is that he wants to replicate the Ron Paul model of inspiring and leaving a large activist organization in his wake.

This exact thinking is revealed in a blog by the editor of Jacobin (see Counterpunch for the truly nasty anti-Bernie argument on the left). My fear is that such a large opening for a consciously “socialist” politics in America today will inevitably be filled by the uber-PC Jacobin, which has been in the forefront calling for a merger of the various remnants of the Communist Party with the Democratic Socialists of America, along with such ideologues in the professional class of the labor movement who tend to look to the 1930s Popular Front as their usable past.

Here we come to the core arguments of my book: 1) that the reason radicalism has been so painfully irrelevant in the post-9/11 era is because it suffers the same affliction as liberalism, the idolatry of identity politics, and 2) that it was the Popular Front that displaced the historic Socialist Party, of the original middle American radical Eugene V. Debs and the quintessential progressive isolationist Norman Thomas, profoundly committed to the ballot box and to Jeffersonian virtue, with what became contemporary liberalism – the elevation of protest over politics at the expense of democratic virtue.

Yet the real turning point to contemporary liberalism was the civil rights movement and the new left, whose foundation was in the replication of this model by the Trotsky protégé Max Shachtman, whose followers took over the corpse of the Socialist Party at the end of the 1950s and ultimately became a core component in the forging of neoconservatism. The irony is that Bernie Sanders’ political pedigree runs against the grain of all this: beginning in a radical dissenting faction of the Shachtmanite Young People’s Socialist League in the early 1960s, and then squarely situated in the most impeccably small-d democratic segment of the new left, that hoped to revive the possibilities for a new party and a spirit resembling the historic Socialist movement.

I do not expect Bernie to substantially revive the old faith in the ballot – it is true that he is more Swedish welfare statist than Jeffersonian radical. At the same time, it is misleading to say that he would be perfectly at home in a mainstream European center-left party; the example of the 1960s was ultimately adopted by, and profoundly transformed, the European social democratic left and turned upside-down the Cold War-era question of “American exceptionalism.” Indeed, if only by virtue of the necessities of running for president, Bernie’s reliability on foreign policy and the surveillance state have risen substantially.

What Bernie can and likely will do, though it is not necessarily his intention, is pry open the contradictions in contemporary liberalism, as it is led by the force of events to emphasize economic inequality, civil liberty, and responsible government at the ultimate expense of its identity politics zeal. Bernie has made his displeasure with identity politics known in the past – though he may not push hard on a critique of contemporary liberalism, he will certainly provoke the discussion as Elizabeth Warren would not.

I wrote my book because my family background was in the labor movement and the increasingly forgotten non-Communist left, and that the historic Socialist Party denounced by some new left historians as “the left wing of McCarthyism” deserved to be reconsidered on its own terms a generation after the Cold War. The result may have been a book that greets most self-identified socialists in the United States of 2015 as something from another planet. Yet Bernie Sanders represents just enough of a link to that past to raise some interesting if not troublesome questions.

(Image source)

There is no easy solution for Baltimore

The recent unrest in Baltimore is yet another sign of our trying times. More out-of-control than the chaos that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, the looting and destruction in the city was another reminder that America is an increasingly divided country. And by divided, I mean split in more pieces than two.

As the media picks sides in the debate over keeping order and grievances about police abuse, I have a novel question: what, if anything, can be done about police brutality and inexcusable violence and looting? Is reconciliation possible, or is America fated to live with irrational destruction driven by corrupt policing?

I have my doubts. Complex issues – and the situation in Baltimore is anything but simple – are tough to weed through. They require looking at things through a kind of prism. All sides should be considered, as much as humanly possible. Of course, bias and predilection will always distort pure, objective reasoning. But we can make a good-faith effort to try and understand what is at the core of problem before formulating a solution.