ALBERT SCARDINO: America’s uncivil war
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From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, US politics has a long history of hatred, anger and violence. As a deeply divided America goes to the polls amid heightened tensions, Pulitzer prize-winning writer ALBERT SCARDINO, asks what can bridge the country's great schism?
Uncivil war has a grip on America. The mid-term elections next week won't bring peace, or even a truce. The party in power across the US has no intention of laying down its arms, even if the anti-Trump movement succeeds in its most ambitious aim for this election cycle, to take control of the House of Representatives.
Trump's election in 2016 may have been a fluke, but the ground was well ploughed. Over the last few years, by pouring tens of millions of dollars and sophisticated technology into state and local campaigns, Republicans have won control of obscure state offices that run elections, control school systems, and enforce environmental regulations. They have elected mayors and other officials in cities that have been Democratic strongholds for generations.
Campaign spending has become so egregious that it can now take $2 million or more to win a state senate term in Florida, a job that pays $30,000 a year. Republicans started this escalation of campaign spending in 2010 and used it to triumph in legislature after legislature. By the time Democrats caught on, the Republican majority had crystallised into a powerful legal and judicial platform for counter-revolutionary action, working to overturn 75 years of progressive development in civil rights, environmental quality and anti-corruption reform.
The flood of money and revolutionary zeal has turned the US into a one-party state across wide swathes of the country. Across the South and Midwest, as well as at the federal level, the one party is Republican, with an agenda that combines religious fervour, white superiority and corporate libertarianism. On the West Coast and, to a lesser extent, on the eastern seaboard from Washington to the Canadian border, Democrats rule but are playing defensively, typically with a secular liberal 20th century ambition of good state schools, good healthcare and sympathy toward immigrants. The pattern is indicative rather than rigid, but it is there.
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Until Trump and his cabinet took office, Washington had almost forgotten what pigs looked like. There haven't been so many hogs with their snouts in the public trough in nearly 100 years, not since Warren Harding was president. One of Harding's cabinet officers became the first to go to prison. Harding then had the grace to die in office, after serving only two years.
Under Trump, corruption seems to have returned to the centre of Washington life. As a recent article in the New York Times, with the headline 'Trump's Corruption: The Definitive List', alleged: 'President Trump, his family and more than a few of his appointees are using his presidency to enrich themselves. They are spending taxpayer dollars for their own benefit. They are accepting sweetheart deals from foreigners. And they are harnessing the power of the federal government on behalf of their businesses.'
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In this environment, Democrats hold modest hopes for the elections. If they win the House, they would control one-half of one-third of the three co-equal branches of American government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. They would be able to block new Trump legislation, but they would have no capacity to bring in new laws on their own.
They would control the House committee structure, with subpoena powers to investigate any subject they chose, as the Republicans did for 30 months as they tried to portray Hillary Clinton as weak on terrorism.
A Democratic House might scrutinise the Trump tax returns or the drinking habits of the newest Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh. But Trump's taxes are now the subject of an inquiry by New York State officials, and a congressional investigation could jeopardise that. Kavanaugh is on the bench already. Removing him would require a trial in the senate, so not much purpose in pursuing that.
In addition to their control in Washington, Republicans have a tight grip on 28 state governments where they control the governor's office and both Houses of the legislature. The Democrats hold similar control in only eight states.
Success for the party in opposition would be turning Republican super-majorities in many of these state governments into mere majorities. Awakening the voters, and bringing in more new voters as fast as the Republicans disenfranchise old ones, will provide a base for future elections. After all, about one-half of one per cent of all voters die each year. About one percent of the population comes of voting age in the same year.
This trend favours Democrats, but younger citizens tend to congregate in cities, which have become liberal, multicultural citadels, leaving rural counties and states to older, more conservative voters with stronger evangelical Christian affiliations.
The Democrats have had some success in correcting the financial imbalances. So far this year, in the campaign for the House they have out-raised Republicans in contributions from small donors, $46 million to $15 million. Donors tend to follow their own money at the polling booth.
A few billionaires have come forward to match the money being invested by such Republicans as the Koch brothers, the anti-tax petrochemical titans from Kansas, and Sheldon Adelson, the casino operator from Las Vegas. But defining the situation as a war isn't just political euphemism anymore. People are shooting.
One of the billionaires filling Democratic Party coffers lately, George Soros, was a recipient of a pipe bomb last week.
The suspect arrested for the bomb incidents drove a van plastered with stickers supporting Trump and the numerous conspiracy theories promoted by his favourite television outlet, Fox News. Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, was among 12 targets of the bomber, the rest being a news organisation Trump loves to hate, CNN, and most of the Democratic Party leadership. Assassination, however incompetent so far, is in the air. The president is helping to name the targets.
These public figures don't have the kind of security afforded the president. The next attempt could be far more devastating, like the assault in a Pittsburgh synagogue over the weekend. There a shooter murdered 11 Jews at Sabbath ceremonies after posting on his website a warning that Jews will pay for sheltering immigrants 'that kill our people'. The oldest victim was 97, the youngest 54. The president suggested that the killer could have been stopped if the synagogue had had an armed guard in place to provide protection.
As the armed fighting escalates, the war of words rolls on. Disinformation campaigns, bigger and bigger lies, and conspiracy theories all help to make people crazy. The indirect perpetrators then claim that the problem is mental illness, not the poison destroying the minds of disoriented personalities.
New administrative rules and court decisions have chipped away at the recently won freedoms of homosexuals by allowing 'religious liberty' to justify denying them what is known in the US as 'public accommodation'. The test case involved a Colorado baker asked to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple. But as 50 years of resistance to racial bias laws has shown, those businesses open to the public can find myriad excuses for refusing services. According to reports, the Trump family kept black people out of their housing developments in New York for decades simply by claiming, falsely, 'no vacancy'.
For transgender people, the federal government has rewritten administrative rules to define them by anatomy rather than behaviour and restricting their access to services. No male wearing a dress, lipstick and eyeliner will be allowed to pee in a women's toilet, because they will have no identity, only costumes, so far as federal rules are concerned.
These subtle methods of repression are being replicated in broader public policy. The Trump administration has created camps in remote areas to house 'illegal immigrants', criminals by definition for having entered the country illegally. According to the New York Times, the administration is offering parents the option of voluntarily allowing their children to be incarcerated with them in these concentration camps rather than being forcibly separated and sent to foster homes hundreds of miles away after 20 days in detention. The use of the word 'voluntary' in this way recalls Sophie's Choice more than Orwell, indifferent cruelty more than sadism.
More bluntly, voter intimidation has returned to the South. The Republican state official in Georgia who oversees elections wiped 60,000 black voters from the electoral roles just before polling began this year, an election campaign in which he himself is a candidate for governor. To show his even-handedness, he also wiped off 40,000 whites.
He then blocked approval to register 57,000 new applicants seeking to support his opponent, a black woman. The names on their voter application form didn't exactly match their identity documents. Some of them used a middle initial on the voter form rather than the given name on their social security card or driver's license. Others failed to use the suffix 'Jr' in both places. They may vote 'provisionally', but they would then have to appear with other documentation to prove they were one and the same person.
Next door, in Florida, voters will decide next week whether to restore voting rights to 1.6 million people permanently barred from balloting because they committed a felony. The proposed constitutional amendment would allow those who have served their sentences to participate in future elections. Three-quarters of the people disenfranchised are non-white.
As of now, Florida has 13 million registered voters. Nine million of them voted in 2016. Donald Trump won by 113,000.
It would take a super-majority of 60% to approve the vote-restoration amendment. If it passes, the Florida legislature will have multiple opportunities to consider new obstacles. Both houses are controlled by Republicans, but a black Democrat is on the ballot for governor.
A Democratic victory there would not be enough for him to push new legislation to undo decades of discriminatory laws, but it would stop Florida being used as a laboratory for testing new forms of repression. It would also bring an end to the easy passage of laws to allow the sale of more guns, and more powerful guns, in the state, at least for now.
Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida since 2011, has been accused of using his executive clemency power to restore the right to vote to thousands of Floridians – a disproportionate number of them white men who tend to vote Republican, while rejecting the applications of black men who tend to vote Democratic.
An investigation by the Palm Beach Post newspaper found it difficult to obtain accurate numbers, because the governor's office refused to release the data, but in the end, the paper concluded, 'Scott restored rights to a higher percentage of Republicans and a lower percentage of Democrats than any of his predecessors since 1971'. That was the civil rights era. In Florida, it was the end of a century of violent persecution of black people. Scott is running for the US Senate in next week's election. His defeat would also count as a victory.
From their executive offices, from their broadcast sites and from the pulpits of their evangelical Christian allies, Republicans whine about being victims. They dismiss their own most flagrant transgressions as the swings and roundabouts of politics. Now that they control so much power and have undermined so many institutions, they have begun to call for civility. Can't we all just have a conversation? Can't you just surrender?
If the Democrats win the US House of Representatives next week, an 85% chance according to some pollsters and election analysts, it would hardly mean a return to power. The courts and the presidency and the Senate will remain in Republican hands for the next two years, at least. Democrats may bring state governments more into balance than they have been the past decade.
That would be best-case. It may slow down the advance of the Trump forces, a move toward stalemate rather than victory.
For those who have studied the last Civil War in America, the pattern here is familiar. A revolt by a minority, fuelled by a sense of moral and religious superiority, built on an unsustainable economic base.
Victory over the Southern military in 1865 ended the revolt, but not the slave economy. To regain entry to the union and end federal military control of their civic life, rebellious states were forced to adopt constitutional protections for newly-freed slaves and for whites who identified themselves as Republicans.
Yet within months, violent suppression of the rights of black people resumed under the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary organisation that enforced its political and extra-legal rule through torture, rape, murder and forced labour.
Within months of re-admission, the Klan had removed the rights of black people – to vote, to hold office, to own property, to work, to travel, to obtain an education, to enter public service, to speak and write publicly, to receive health care, even to access clean water – suppression perpetuated by law, violence and social practice.
The slave economy in what is now the Trump heartland did not begin to shrink until the adoption of new civil rights laws 100 years after the military surrender. The Klan has rebranded itself as white nationalists. Judging by the assault on the Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, the white nationalists may have learned something from their failed effort to defeat the civil rights movement 50 years ago. The gunman in Pittsburgh murdered 11 unarmed adults. The world condemned his anti-Semitism. The Klansmen who bombed the Birmingham church in 1963 killed four young girls. The world condemned their inhumanity.
The current generation of white nationalists remains committed to the Klan principles of suppression of people of colour, exclusion of foreigners, elimination of Jews and, in many corners of the movement, Catholics. They don't wear white robes anymore. They dress in chinos and white golf shirts to fit in with the general population.
Many of Trump's supporters, the Deplorables, as Hillary Clinton described them, are seeking to restore the Klan's philosophy and the fear on which it was preserved. They are in little danger of losing their influence in this election, even if they lose a few legislative seats.
Threatening white people with black people has gone a long way toward helping Republicans swing elections ever since Richard Nixon campaigned on a Southern strategy in 1968, appealing to just this fear. He won.
The racists seeking to roll back the clock 100 years aren't the only ones who will help Republicans hold onto power next week. The libertarian business owners, the billionaire supporters, provide the money. Evangelical Christians, 80 million of them across the South and Midwest, thank Donald Trump for moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, helping them to prepare for the return of Christ to Earth any day now. They provide the votes. Together, these are the base of the Republican Party today. Their crusade marches on.
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