We Are Ignoring the Worst Dangers of Trumpism at Our Own Peril

As the mainstream media keep up their relentless barrage of criticism of Donald Trump’s personal foibles, and as Hillary Clinton’s campaign takes advantage of it in a manner that seems clearly coordinated, the genuine concerns of nearly half of all Americans Donald Trump has tapped into are being ignored and sidelined by the intellectual elite. But Trumpism is a new constitution of populist authoritarianism in America, a permanent ideological tendency that will not fade away, regardless of the outcome of this election.

In one sense—having been up against the entire political and intellectual establishment—Trump has already come out the winner, because he has put into radical doubt (as did Bernie Sanders on the other side) the neoliberal consensus around which both major parties and their institutional supporters cohere in Washington. His is a renegade candidacy that will have a lasting impact on world politics, though it is easy to overlook this amid the din of moral righteousness currently trumped up by the establishment.

Whether or not Trump is a neo-fascist is less interesting than tracing his similarities to European right-wing populists like Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jörg Haider, Umberto Bossi, Gianfranco Fini, and others. It can’t be denied that every extreme right-wing movement has a tendency to slip into overt fascism at times, as when entire populations are targeted for exclusion and punishment. But to understand Trumpism we are better off searching for familiar strains in American populism, from Father Coughlin to George Wallace, from Huey Long to Pat Buchanan. I mention Long, the populist governor of Louisiana during the Great Depression, because there are elements of Trump’s critique that have something of the redistributive element as well, though Coughlin’s charismatic media presence, Wallace’s appeal to white supremacy and Buchanan’s America First xenophobia and protectionism are clearer markers of Trumpism’s homegrown origins.

Because Trump has taken his blunt critique of elite politics further than any of his recent predecessors in the major parties, sometimes it appears he is manifesting Mussolini-like fascist tendencies, but to think like this would be to stretch fascism’s definition beyond meaningfulness. Fascism is the close alliance of corporations and government in a movement of national regeneration, mobilizing the resentful parts of the population toward racist and militarist aims. Though Trump likes to say that he’s fond of the military, I do not see war as being a priority for him; nor do I see the integral corporate-government merger that is a sine qua non of fascism; and nor do Trumpists seem to have any enthusiasm to dissolve their personal identities in the cause of the state, as is true of fascism.

The closest we came to fascism was in the 2001-2003 Bush period, but at that point hardly anyone in the commentariat was interested in picking up that frame of reference; now they throw the term around whenever someone utters anything the least bit racist or xenophobic. The deployment of the epithet becomes hollow and dismissive. Indeed, it was said about Italian fascism that it had no ideological content, which excused European liberals in the 1920s and 1930s from addressing the root causes of the movement and allowed them the kind of moral distancing we see again in the American intellectual reaction toward Trumpism.

Trump does, however, have the charisma that Bush the younger lacked, which among other reasons makes me convinced that November 8 will not be the end of his movement. I have believed for many years that about a third of the population is primed to a message of his kind at any given time, but this proportion can go up to 50 percent or more during crises. There is no way that the Republican Party will be able to reassemble the coalition that has defined it since the Reagan years. Trump has questioned the fetish for “small government” in substantive ways, sidelined evangelical Christians for the first time in 35 years (though he makes a feint at acceding to their sensitivities), and blown the cover on the bipartisan neoliberal consensus around trade, taxes, immigration, and other economic issues. Whatever happens on election day, there will be a new reckoning for Republicans—and for Democrats as well.

It is helpful to look at the precedents of the various right-wing populist movements in Europe over the last four decades to understand Trumpism. Every major European country has had its parallel movement, which arose in reaction to a new form of globalization (or postindustrial modernization) that began eroding the security of middle-class constituencies, and which targeted some typical scapegoats to alleviate their anxieties: foreign workers, refugees and asylum seekers, and Muslims above all.

The Front National (FN) in France, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria, the Lega Nord and Alleanza Nationale (AN) in Italy, the Vlaams Block (VB) in Belgium, the Progress parties in Denmark and Norway and the New Democracy party in Sweden, the NPD, DVU, and REP in Germany, the Center Party and Center Democrats in the Netherlands, the Democratic Union of the Center (DUC) in Switzerland, the British National Party (BNP) in Britain, and the Reform Party in Canada, to mention some of the prominent examples, are all direct precursors of Trumpism, bearing strong similarities across time and space, patterns of resentment and mobilization that Trump is faithfully replicating in his movement.

All of these parties are populist in the sense that they refuse the elite consensus around the contours of governance amidst postindustrial transformation, and they refuse, as well, the accompanying and essential cultural consensus, namely multiculturalism, that all Western democracies have adopted in some form or another to go along with the neoliberal economic creed. One does not find, in any of these parties, a purely economic critique centered around trade and protectionism, or welfare and taxes; rather there is always a corresponding cultural counterinsurgency as well, namely around breaking the various taboos and silences that have been imposed by the neoliberal elite on what is or is not acceptable social behavior in the new economic milieu.

So contemporary neo-populism is better understood not in terms of the earlier fascist model, but as a productivist impulse that identifies collectivist groups supposedly benefiting from multiculturalism as standing in the way of entrepreneurial individualism. To some extent, indeed, there is truth to the alleged chain of causation, since it is the offshoring of manufacturing to cheaper Asian locations that has caused the erosion of the manufacturing base in the Western democracies, and likewise it is the exploitative importation of cheap labor that helps create a downward push on wages for native white populations.

Of course, to stop at this point in the analysis—as unfortunately neo-populists do—is to grievously abridge the logic of economic inequality, which, if it is to be complete, must take in the overall composition of neoliberal economic philosophy. In fact, to a large extent, the productivist mentality enshrined in Trumpism and European populist authoritarianism is as much a reflection of neoliberalist individualism as it is a yearning for the principles of 19th-century laissez-faire economics.

Trumpism and allied movements cannot take on globalization without also taking on multiculturalism. The neo-populists see no way around neoliberal globalization except through overcoming multiculturalism. They see those unfairly benefiting from the multicultural model as being the cause of their misery, their perpetual uncertainty in the new economy, because there is no telling when their jobs might be permanently lost due to lower wages in other countries or because of unfair competition from immigrants who ought to have less of a rightful claim than natives. Whether it’s called France for the French, Germany for the Germans, or Make America Great Again, the idea is the same.

The Brexiteers knew well that they wanted to blow up the system which wasn’t working for them; every charge by the American media that Trump wants to do the same only makes him more popular among his supporters, since that is exactly what they want. That’s the level of deprivation a quarter-century of unresponsiveness by the governing elites has brought them to.

The language of multiculturalism that comes so smoothly to elites on either side of the Atlantic is precisely the problem for neo-populists. End the reproduction of this language and you end the transmission of new mechanisms of globalized production and exchange, they tend to believe. Trump, in this country, has made this connection more explicit, more robust, and more durable than anyone in the past. He speaks a constantly irritating politically incorrect speech because it is central to his critique that the decks are stacked against hardworking Americans—real Americans, white Americans—who cannot get ahead despite their best efforts because there is a conspiracy of intolerance against their individualist mores (here, guns and the Second Amendment come in as crucial elements of the mythology of victimhood, as well as explicit refutation of the politically correct language that has developed around race, religion, and gender).

There has been much speculation about the class basis of Trump’s support, as the elite media, often without much data, concludes that the average Trump supporter tends to be better off than the average Clinton or Sanders supporter. This conveniently ignores the vast numbers of unemployed or underemployed Americans, those on the economic margins who do not see a way back in, who manifestly appear at Trump rallies around the country. This also allows the establishment media to dismiss Trumpism as a hissy fit, a momentary aberration amongst relatively advantaged people (for one thing because they are white!) that will be over just as soon as the election is done.

The key point that is missed is that Trumpists view themselves as beset by anxieties, whether or not their actual economic standing reflects the heightened state of their worry and resentment. Some of them may be definitionally middle-class, but they do not see themselves as functionally middle-class, and certainly not emotionally middle-class. As Trump resonantly declared, addressing these people in the most rhetorically persuasive convention speech I have witnessed, “I am your voice.”

I have always viewed multiculturalism as neoliberalism’s ideological arm, a methodology for neoliberalism, for the last 25 years, to divorce culture from economics, movements of individual liberation from class consciousness, offering a form of recognition that rests on isolation, fragmentation, and segregation, rather than universal human values. Thankfully, Trumpists also see multiculturalism the same way, a technique the neoliberal elites have adopted to present themselves as self-righteous moralists while doing nothing about the economic causes of their misery. They have seen through the act.

History shows that the support base for right-wing extremist movements tends to be primarily the petty bourgeoisie—small businesspeople, professionals at the lower levels—but populism never gets far without the support of large numbers of the permanently unemployed. The official economic statistics would have us believe—and Trump vigorously contests this—that we are at or near full employment. In fact, this is a gross deception, because there are tens of millions of Americans who have given up looking for employment, who for various reasons are not employable in any meaningful sense of the word. Trump claims it is 30 percent of the population, but whatever number it really is, experience shows that it is pervasive, outside a few humming urban centers that give the illusion of high employment. As a matter of policy, the U.S. has not been committed to full employment since the 1970s, as part of the anti-inflationary monetary policy inaugurated by Paul Volcker and carried on by other committed neoliberals.

It is interesting to read bemused articles by correspondents at elite magazines like the Atlantic and the New Yorker, wondering who the Trump supporters really are (as they do after every populist upsurge), acting as though they were writing about aliens from another planet (which they are in a sense, since the elite commentators cannot understand why the Trumpists take such a dire view of the economy, since everything, from their point of view, seems pretty decent, with a 5% unemployment rate, the stock market doing well, and the evidence of their own booming urban areas).

Trump is not incorrect when he paints his picture of hell in American cities. I am fortunate to live in Montrose, the bohemian but rapidly gentrifying part of Houston, Texas, and while the small cultural district is livable, even pleasant, enormous swaths of the larger Houston metropolitan area seem to have been abandoned to primal wilderness, lacking basic infrastructure, decent schools, safety and recreation, even access to good food and clean air and water. Directly east of downtown lies the Fifth Ward, as close a realization of Trump’s apocalyptic vision as I have ever seen. But it is not just the Fifth Ward, it is vast territories that have been left to wither and die, as neoliberal municipal governments commit their resources to recreating central city zones as arenas for spectacular multiculturalism (which translates into gigantic bounties for real estate developers), while withdrawing financial support for neighborhoods outside the elite zones. 

In the absence of any effort by the neoliberal elites to provide an explanation for historically high levels of permanent unemployment, both in Western Europe and the United States, right-wing populism leeches on to the idea of unfair labor market penetration into heritage occupations, unfair trade agreements benefiting countries on the economic periphery, and unfair racial policies and preference quotas advantaging those without qualifications. This is not a rational way of thinking, but it is a self-consistent logic, which becomes all the more hardened the more the elite neoliberals deny the very existence of such concerns. It is in the latter’s interest to promote trade and immigration along strictly neoliberal lines, benefiting the capitalist class at the very top and leaving everyone else worse off.

Some seem to look at the 40 percent support Trump always seems to settle around as his ceiling, but I choose to look at it as his floor, a level of adherence that isn’t likely to go away in the new Republican Party we are going to see constituted in the wake of the election. The degree of support for Trumpism has become constant because the Democratic Party has forced down our throats not the clear popular choice for the nominee, i.e., Bernie Sanders, but the candidate that was at the absolute forefront of the accelerated second phase of neoliberalism during the Bill Clinton presidency (after the relatively tentative and half-successful stabs at it in the Reagan era). 

We could have had a clear choice, dictated by democratic forces, between democratic socialism (Bernie Sanders) and populist authoritarianism (Donald Trump), a contest that would have been bracingly clarifying, a turning point that would have brought into being new alignments, new political realities. What we got instead—because of Democratic Party shenanigans, the entire party establishment conspiring with Hillary Clinton and her brand of neoliberalism, from Jerry Brown in California to Sherrod Brown in Ohio, buttressed by the liberal apparatus from the media to the academy—is a contest between the old neoliberalism and an amped-up right-wing populism, except that in this case, because of media demonization of Trump, neoliberalism has received a free pass during this election cycle from explaining any policy outcomes.

We might even say that what we’re actually getting now is not a contest between neoliberalism and Trumpism, but that because the media has written Trump out of the equation altogether in the latter stages of this campaign, we are now hearing neoliberalism fight it out with its supercharged ideal, which would be Hillary if she were a perfect multiculturalist, without any of her baggage.

But I am certain that the inevitable reckoning has only been deferred. The neoliberal elite, soon after the electoral rituals are over, will desperately try to change the subject with the instigation of crisis, mostly likely war (as they did in the wake of the antiglobalization protests of the late 1990s). But Trump has consolidated right-wing populism to a more defined extent than anything in modern American politics, he has solidified a base which is not going to relinquish prominence under any circumstances, and which, in fact, should propel the corresponding rise of a democratic socialist movement on the left, whether or not it is under Sanders’ direction.

Imagine if Trump had faced off Clinton in the primaries. Think of how easily he disposed of “low-energy” Jeb Bush (the Republican version of Hillary) by assailing his brother for letting 9/11 happen on his watch and for his failed Iraq war, breaking sacrosanct Republican taboos. Whenever in this campaign the media has taken a break from scandals, and Trump has been allowed to focus on ideas, he has made gains in electoral standing. This was true during August above all as he focused on his signature economic ideas, and this would have been very true after the second debate, when he finally took on Clinton’s corruption head-on and stayed on his economic message, had it not been for the media’s self-righteous focus on his politically incorrect persona, the one surefire way to bypass and invalidate any underlying causes of the malaise his supporters (the “basket of deplorables”) feel. Once Donald Trump has been made to morph into Bill Cosby, we need not take him seriously; he is dehumanized, as are his supporters.

After all, Hillary Clinton cannot possibly engage in a substantive discussion with Trump. It’s unfortunate that he lacks the intellectual acumen to probe each problem to its origin, and he is also restrained from pursuing obvious lines of inquiry because of his own right-wing ideology, but how could the politician who, during the 1990s, most typified everything that is essential of neoliberalism, who threw her weight behind every important move in that direction, possibly defend the outcomes? She supported NAFTA and other trade agreements, welfare reform, crime and terrorism initiatives, punitive measures against immigrants that halted the liberalization in place since the 1965 immigration act, the downsizing of government, the inflation of housing and other bubbles, and the deregulation of banking, telecommunications, and other industries with dire consequences in the following decade.

I thought Trump was right during both debates when he pointed out her legacy of inaction toward causes she now wants to champion, and I thought he was right to mock her for directing people to the policies inscribed on her website. I have visited there too, and I fail to see the slew of statements as anything other than campaign fodder, rhetorical devices that do not exist at any realistic level, since nothing there has any chance of coming to fruition in the absence of control of both houses of congress. Even if the House were to be captured by some miracle, there would not be a move to realize anything like the true progressive policies—free college, universal healthcare, a just wage, and an end to wars—that constituted Sanders’ agenda.

What you see on Hillary’s website are theoretical insinuations to recoup some minute incrementals of the New Deal consensus that she herself was instrumental, above anyone else besides her husband, in shattering during the 1990s. So the very person who brought about the neoliberal corporate state—a fundamental shift that occurred in the early 1990s, making the U.S. a different kind of country than even what we had known in the Reagan years—now promises to regain a tiny fraction of it, not by pursuing the universal welfare policies of the New Deal, but what we might call fatalist incrementalism or pessimistic consensualism. And that’s at the rhetorical level, before any negotiations take place with a hard-boiled anti-welfare ideologue like Paul Ryan.

While Democrats act self-righteously about Trump’s rhetoric toward immigrants, let us note that immigration as a contemporary problem first truly manifested itself during the Clinton administration, with the onset of NAFTA, the immiseration of parts of Mexico which led to a surge of new forms of migration, the technical barriers that were erected to make legalization less possible than in earlier years, the huge backlogs that emerged in the process of resistance to administrative discretion that used to be the norm, and the onset of demonization of immigrants (as potential terrorists, criminals and abusers of the welfare system) that had not been seen since the Great Depression. Reagan and the elder Bush were the last two presidents to hold a humanitarian immigration outlook.

Trump may talk of a Muslim ban, but Clintonian neoliberalism created a vast immigration problem, preventing normal legalization, a legacy that Bush and Obama confronted with unprecedented levels of deportation. Immigrants have became a tool that the neoliberal elite continues to exploit to the full in their transformation of the American economy, depriving them of their legitimate rights as a way to drive down wages for all and to mount a broad-based assault on civil liberties for all. We are bearing the fruits of those years now. Not once have I heard the Clintons or Obama make a comprehensive moral or even economic case for immigration; when you are enforcement-only and not idealists or humanitarians, then soon an even greater enforcer will come and take your place.

Likewise, when it comes to Trump’s issues with women, let us note the transcendent dimension of it, of which Hillary Clinton is a major culprit, along with academics and politicians who, during the 1990s, created structures of mental classification and separation that remain divisive to this day. Just as an example, to engineer “welfare reform,” retreating from a core moral commitment of the New Deal, the black woman of political mythology who was the prime recipient of such aid had to be demonized as a nonproductive citizen, her body and environment and heritage had to be problematized as worthy of correction by managerial means, in order that she might overcome “dependency” and derive the moral benefits of employment.

That experiment has been a failure, as entire populations have been abandoned to poverty, or at best low-wage employment that interferes with the care of children and families. This is not to mention incalculable numbers of other peoples affected by the neoliberal policies of systematic exploitation and cultural and aesthetic genocide. There are levels of exploitation and degradation; Trump’s has been distinctly minor league, he has hardly had recourse to the flourishing arsenals of power a politician like Hillary Clinton has thrived on. The underlying case for welfare reform was built on depicting welfare-receiving women as fat, lazy, sleazy, and promiscuous, an actionable universal category, compared to the contemporary phenomenon of body-shaming by Trump as a purely personal construct in an entertainment context. 

We have to go back to the problem of insecurity created among the tentative middle-class, Trump’s base of supporters, a direct result of the revolutionary reengineering of American governance during the Clinton era. The compact between government and citizens was broken in those years, and was replaced by nothing new, a vacuum that Trumpism is stepping into now, especially because the corrupt Democratic party ensured that Sanders’ left populism wasn’t legitimized.

To further shift the focus from Trump’s alleged immoral supporters to the systematic immorality that is neoliberalism, I would like to offer these speculations:

1. Trumpism is creating a new form of cultural capital, distorted and perverted though it may be, as is true of all right-wing populism or neo-fascism. The academic left has held a monopoly for a long time on self-righteousness, which has lately, in the present form of political correctness, burst forth in a relentless pseudo-self-criticism amongst intellectuals, aiming to purge the protagonists of their own white guilt. Trumpism forms a counter to this elite self-flagellation by offering an empowered version of popular white supremacy, to not only oppose the imposition of guilt but reorient the polity toward productivist rather than nonproductivist explanations of economic decline.

In other words, shame has been lent an economic, not a cultural, veneer, in the new movement. This is a massive breakthrough, something to be grateful for to Trump, just as Ralph Nader, and then Bernie Sanders, also sought to disconnect cultural rhetoric from economic causes. Trumpism may, quite possibly, emerge in the long run as a bridge—an unsteady one, for the moment, no doubt—to a postcapitalist libertarianism, even a left anarchism, which seems inevitable as the 21st century goes along.

2. Sanders’ message was so popular among millennials because he identified a few core solutions to economic inequality, relentlessly hammered at them (just as Trump does in a distorted manner from the other side of the political spectrum), rather than rehearse multicultural pieties. I believe that the collective Trumpian cultural capital is now stabilized, regardless of the outcome of the election, and ready to emerge from the fringes of the media spectrum.

Can we also say that Sanders’ movement was a left-libertarianism that dared to exclude the moral impositions of academic multiculturalism? And if that’s the case, then can Trumpism, in future iterations, also move in a parallel libertarian direction? It seems to me that neither Trump nor Sanders’ nascent movements can be absorbed and assimilated in either major party as presently constituted, so we must look to some fundamental change as neoliberalism encounters further domestic and foreign failures (probably in the Middle East).

3. Trumpism turns the logic of multiculturalism, i.e., difference, to a new form of segregation. The European neo-populist parties all exploit the fear of the immigrant in three different dimensions—economic, cultural, and moral—amounting to defense of the race, purification of the body politic, and expulsion of the polluting and criminal and irredeemably alien. Extremist populism is inherent in multiculturalism’s ultimate logic, because Trumpism is simply “diversity” carried to the national level; as with the Brexiteers, Trumpists posit the right of America to be different, morally eccentric and ornery and noncompliant, rather than accept the loss of national identity amidst the cold conquest of markets and territories.

It is a turning inward that can have rich psychological rewards for protagonists overcome by economic anxiety. Trumpism has created the equation, economic protectionism = cultural protectionism, in common with its European forerunners. We may say that in its extreme form, Trumpism is an attempted return to precapitalism, moving back toward uncertainties in trade and rejecting the compulsions of empire that yield certainties (hence the skepticism toward NATO and nuclear non-proliferation regimes and other establishment verities).

It is also possible to read Trumpism in an entirely different way, which would still be self-consistent: as a pure form of neoliberalism, supplemented by a racist or differential veneer, or we might say minus the multicultural distraction that interferes with social darwinist logic proceeding to its final conclusion, exterminating the weak other, the vulnerable environment, all species and beings not conducive to financial success.

We might then interpret the 2000s as a passing phase of neoliberalism, when it was militarist and outwardly directed, not at all given to rumination, but now entering a premodern xenophobic phase, all the easier to blanket the planet with a commercializing logic that will withstand no criticism. In this perspective, Hillary’s incremental fatalism (or what passes as such for popular consumption), her commitment to neoliberal identity claims (one group after another marginally recognized at a time), is perhaps one of the final manifestations of a failed sociability.

Though Bernie’s articulation was the right one for this time and place, there is a lot that Trump, in a distorted, weird way, got right about our situation:

* Both parties are corrupt and beholden to the same oligarchic interests, and Trump had the audacity to point it out, eliciting, I’m sure, exclamations of relief and pleasure at the piercing of the protective veneer neoliberal chieftains like Hillary Clinton have constructed around themselves. He asked for her to be put in jail for the wrong reasons at the second debate, but the neoliberal gerarchy’s innumerable crimes against humanity, from illegal wars to the mistreatment of prisoners, deserve nothing less.

* By focusing on a stark financial calculus (we will all be “winners” in the Trumpian economy, or at least white Americans, the right Americans, will be), he has blown up the dominance of evangelical Christianity on the right side of the spectrum, as far as I can tell.

* He has exposed, by inscribing it in action and speech, the hypocrisies of the academic multiculturalists, who to the Trumpists, not to mention libertarians, embody a self-censoring authoritarian language that does not allow rational thinking to take place.

* He has pointed out the true extent of unemployment (it is said of the European neo-populists that they arose in the face of permanent unemployment, a phenomenon French and German thinkers call “civilisation du chômage,” or civilization of unemployment), which mars, above all, the African-American and Hispanic zones of habitation in America’s cities, landscapes of apocalyptic misery that have received no recognition from the neoliberal masters; he’s right when he asks African Americans, “What have you got to lose?”

* He is a crude simplifier, but he has described, from the other side of the political spectrum than Sanders, intractable problems with the neoliberal conceptions of trade, modernity and empire. He seems far less interested than Hillary Clinton, for example, in starting a confrontation with Russia in the Middle East. 

Once upon a time the Clintons took over a Democratic Party, insecure about its electoral prospects at the national level, and converted it from the inside into something it never was before: a party of neoliberal elitists, beholden to a new moral righteousness among a rising professional class, uninterested in the problems of poverty, no longer recognizing the working class let alone doing anything to help it. This time Trump has started taking over a Republican Party that was working smoothly with Clintonian Democrats for a quarter century, managing to steer its supporters toward a path not questioning the hollowness of multiculturalism but heading them off in a parallel universe of Christian righteousness.

All that is over now. Electoral firewalls seem like firewalls only until their last manifestation, and in retrospect seem like flammable tinder; had Trump been allowed to talk about the issues, and nothing but, even if in his authoritarian way, and had he had the discipline to pivot quickly to his message despite being baited, the Democratic midwestern firewall, for example, might have crumbled. In any event, Trumpism is here to stay; what will the neoliberal elites do next?

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