David Masciotra

Famous former neo-Nazi shifts focus: America is becoming 'the skinhead's dream of the 1990s'

"I've been at war for 30 years," Christian Picciolini says, intensity widening his eyes, "I'm ready to go home."

His homeward journey involves leaving the work that has consumed his life for the past two decades: disengaging white extremists from neo-Nazi organizations or similar groups. Physically and emotionally exhausted, wrestling with PTSD and panic attacks, and dealing with death threats on a regular basis, Picciolini says he has no choice but to stop working one-on-one with white extremists attempting to reform their lives.

"If I don't stop doing this, I could burn out and be no good to anybody, or I could die," Picciolini said, explaining that it's not just his own psyche he is trying to save, but also multiracial democracy in the United States. "There is a greater danger on the horizon, and I'm going to focus on that full time," he said.

As former leader of Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH) and lead singer of the hate-rock band the Final Solution, Picciolini has devoted the past 21 years of his life to anti-racism advocacy and outreach young extremists. He makes no excuses for the brutal reality of his past. "I hurt many people, and the music I made as a teenager influenced people like Dylann Roof" — the young white man who murdered nine Black worshipers at a South Carolina church in 2015.

"I'll have to live with that," Picciolini said. What began more than two decades ago with asking for forgiveness directly from the people he had harassed or assaulted, along with their communities, eventually grew into the world's most successful effort at disengagement or "deradicalization" — a word Picciolini avoids — effort in the world. That work has given him an up-close view of how the political and legal institutions of the United States are failing, he says, to adequately address the rising tide of white hate. Democratic politicians and most mainstream media reporters and commentators, he believes, are also frozen in denial regarding the escalation of fascist politics in the Republican Party.

RELATED: Ex-neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini: "The words I used to say are now part of the mainstream"

Citing his experience, observations and research, Picciolini offers a devastating rebuttal to those who believe American democracy is indestructible.

I recently sat down with him for an interview in a quiet restaurant in suburban Chicago, where we both grew up. I asked how he feels about America's future, particularly Donald Trump's apparent consolidation of power within the increasingly autocratic Republican Party, and Trump's likely candidacy for the presidency in 2024. He said, "I'm terrified."

In 2017, Picciolini spoke to an audience in Hungary: "I told them, 'Based on everything I know and everything I've seen throughout my life, you are in big trouble." Three years later, the international nonprofit House of Freedom demoted Hungary from a "semi-consolidated democracy" to a "hybrid regime," reflecting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's autocratic assault against the nation's remaining democratic institutions.

Picciolini recently spoke with the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, and sounded the same theme he has repeated to American officials and voters for decades. There is perhaps a painful irony here: In some ways, American society has gone the opposite direction from the trajectory of Picciolini's life.

At age of 14, in the late 1980s, Picciolini met a charismatic neo-Nazi recruiter in a dark alleyway of Blue Island, Illinois, a working-class Chicago suburb. Within a few years, he would rise to the top of his recruiter's violent, white supremacist organization, recruiting other members, committing hate crimes and even exporting "white power" propaganda on a trip to Europe. Picciolini tells the fascinating details of his redemption story, and how he renounced the white power movement, becoming both antiracist and anti-capitalist, in his memoir, "White American Youth: My Descent Into America's Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out."

The most heartbreaking element in Piccioini's chronicle of transformation is the murder of his younger brother. They were 10 years apart in age, but Picciolini says when they were young, they were inseparable: "We were each other's entire world." he said. Then Picciolini's world became the white hate movement, and his brother's world fell apart. Two of his close friends became members of the Latin Kings, a criminal street gang on the South Side of Chicago. Picciolini, having left his own violent gang, tried to warn his brother what lay ahead. "I told him, 'I've been on the road you're on, and it is going to end badly,'" he recalled. But his brother's anger over Picciolini's earlier abandonment of the family undermined any advice he could offer.

In 2004, at the age of 20, Picciolini's brother, riding in a car with his friends to an apparent drug transaction, was killed by members of a rival gang. "For a long time, I felt like my brother got the bullet that was meant for me," Picciolini said. "I've tried to be the guy for other young men that my brother needed before he died. I've tried to be the guy who can help people like my brother. When everyone else sees the monster, I can still see the child, and I try bringing that child back."

Since Picciolini's disavowal of white supremacy, he has worked as an advocate for hate crime prevention, racial equity and progressive politics, through books, speaking tours and a three-episode documentary series for MSNBC, which shares the title of his second book, "Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism." Picciolini now describes himself as a "white nationalist translator," saying, "I still understand their language, symbols and movements. That enables me to go to law enforcement, policymakers and journalists and explain what is happening."

As Picciolini has transitioned from hate leader to democratic healer, he has watched significant sectors of American society, including a major political parties, defend, excuse and sometimes embrace the ideology of white supremacy.

"Everything happening right now is the skinhead's dream of the 1990s coming true," Picciolini told me. "Donald Trump's ideas are not new, but he has made people in influential positions comfortable in expressing racism. In a relatively short time, we've gone from not talking about these things, even if they were always there, to no longer feeling shame about it. Tucker Carlson, other right-wing pundits, congressional representatives like Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks, are saying exactly what I was saying when I was a Nazi. They are using softer terms, but the message is the same."

Picciolini says he understands how this strategy has played out. "We advised infiltration," he said, "infiltration of law enforcement, the military and political offices with low barrier of entry, like the school board, town council, county election positions. And that's exactly what we are seeing now: a widespread, coordinated effort for the far right to take power at the local level."

He specifically means the use of racial paranoia and panic, through invented culture-war issues like "critical race theory" and "voter fraud," as a pretext for far-right political victories.

What hangs in the balance is the survival of American democracy. Picciolini sees all the political momentum on the right, aided by disruptive foreign agents who manipulate social media to encourage hatred, division and extreme partisanship. Meanwhile, the combination of voter suppression and the "big lie" subversion of faith in fair elections has brought America, in his words, "to the edge of disaster." At the more immediate level, Picciolini joins many experts, such as genocide scholar Alexander Laban Hinton and political scientist Anthony DiMaggio, in predicting the possibility of mass violence.

White supremacists, according to all the available data, are already responsible for more political violence than any faction since the 9/11 attacks. Hate crimes from lone actors or small groups have steadily increased over the past 12 years, and Picciolini warns, "With people becoming more radicalized, it isn't a big step for these groups to coordinate larger attacks, especially with leaders like Donald Trump giving encouragement."

He worries that law enforcement's tactical approach is the equivalent of "fighting the war on drugs by going after addicts, and maybe a few street-corner pushers. The traffickers are still out there, and there is an endless supply of addicts and pushers."

But with the U.S. at a flashpoint, Picciolini stands at a crossroads. For the past 14 years, as he chronicles in "Breaking Hate," he has counseled members of hate groups on an individual basis, pairing them with psychologists, teachers, clergy members, life coaches or anyone else who can give them the mental health assistance and treatment they desperately need to reform their lives and, even more important, stop them from hurting other people. As he told Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer — the antifascist protester killed in Charlottesville in 2017 — "We need to work so other mothers don't lose their children." But the grueling requirements of that work, along with the "endless supply" of people who need it, have left Picciolini exhausted.

Picciolini officially shut down his disengagement services organization, Free Radicals Project, in early November. Meetings with those who have suffered at the hands of American hate, such as Bro, capture the conflict of Picciolini's decision. "Frankly, I'm tired of helping white men," Picciolini said before adding that when he has done so he has also insisted on measures of accountability. "I have no interest in being their laundromat," he said, explaining that members of extremist organizations may begin as victims, but morph into victimizers. Picciolini believes American society must "spend more time discussing and helping the victims," which mostly means people of color, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ people and members of other marginalized groups.

"Taking bad white men off the street and stopping them from doing bad things stops the cycle of abuse, and does help the victims," Picciolini said, "But radicalization happens very quickly, and so-called deradicalization takes a long time, sometimes years. There is no way that it can work long-term to prevent extremism throughout the United States."

Picciolini's emotional turmoil was palpable as he discussed his change of direction. In his 14 years of disengagement work, he has rarely taken a personal paycheck, instead directing all the funds he receives from speaking fees, donations and book royalties into his organization. He says he is fortunate: His wife has a professional career that can support them both. More debilitating than the material cost, he says, is the pain of constantly contemplating, discussing and dealing with trauma.

Among members of hate groups, he says, a traumatic disturbance of the psyche is perhaps the single most significant commonality. "Trauma creates potholes, and those potholes take a person off the road to a healthy and happy life," Picciolini said. "I'm a pothole fixer." Picciolini said. He began to suffer from panic attacks for the first time two years ago, he reports. Now in therapy, and feeling spiritually depleted, he is no longer able to relive trauma on a daily basis: hearing stories of abuse and heartbreak, and revisiting experiences in the white power movement that still darken his memory with shame, guilt and regret.

He does feel gratification for his successful interventions, which number in the hundreds, and that compounds the difficulty of closing down the Free Radicals Project. Picciolini said he recently convinced a young member of Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi organization, to repudiate white supremacy and rebuild his life. On Jan. 6 of this year, the young man sent Picciolini a text message saying, "Just want to let you know the reason I am not in D.C. now is because of the opportunities you gave me."

"When I leave, there is going to be a void," Picciolini says. "No one else is really doing what I do right now."

That assertion might surprise many Americans, given the newfound focus on white supremacy after Charlottesville and Jan. 6. There are certainly other organizations ostensibly committed to "deradicalization," but Picciolini expresses suspicion about their authenticity and efficacy. He says he has heard from some hate group members that when they reach out to recently created nonprofit organizations, they hear nothing back.

"After 9/11, there was a cottage industry of terrorism prevention and so-called deradicalization of militant Islamists," he said. "Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security gave $20 million in grant money to organizations claiming to fight homegrown extremism. My worry is we are going to see an ineffective but lucrative 'deradicalization industry.'"

Some organizations he declines to name, he says, have become "grant machines" by looking for "poster boys," whether sincere or otherwise, to herald as conversion success stories. The grift, he suggests, is transactional: The organization obtains the grant and a flashy news story, while the supposedly repentant extremist "gets his reputation laundered."

Those who are genuinely interested in assisting extremists in leaving white-power groups can follow the "blueprint" Picciolini has established, he says. But his concern is that even for those with the best intentions, "It cannot scale to meet the need."

"It is like I've been sent to a hospital emergency room, and there are hundreds of people about to flatline, because they've been poisoned, and I'm supposed to save them all," he said. "In the meantime, the poison is still out there, and I know that within days, another hundred patients are going to come into the ER."

Picciolini's former organization, Life After Hate, received a grant during the final months of the Obama administration only to have the incoming Trump administration immediately revoke it — a devastating early harbinger of a presidency that internally passed along articles from white nationalist websites, complimented white supremacists as "very fine people," and asked the Proud Boys, a violent hate group, to "stand by."

Picciolini says he will now focus on administering the antidote for the poison of racism, white supremacy and far-right violence" "long term prevention." Cultivating a society that diminishes the viability of hate organizations and demolishes the ideologies they promulgate, will require a mass political movement, he believes, to reorient public policy toward community, equality and solidarity. Progressive economic policies, expressed through reliable social services, such as education, health care and vibrant public institutions, will create healthier and happier people. Picciloni told me, "Healthy and happy people do not join hate groups." Central to the policy prevention agenda, he argues, is the demolition of systemic racism. "Institutional racism breeds racists because it creates privilege, and people will fight to keep their privilege," he said.

Such a political program, Picciolini says, is "the only way to turn off the bigot spigot," as opposed to dealing exclusively with the outflow on a piecemeal basis. That kind of long term solution is obviously difficult to achieve, since it demands an inversion of political priorities and cultural biases, but he thinks current efforts aimed at short-term mitigation of white extremism are even less likely to succeed.

Among Picciolini's reasons for ending the Free Radicals Project, perhaps the most alarming is his claim that no one in government or law enforcement is really listening. He recalls giving lectures to police officers and feeling them withdraw, cross their arms and stare at the ceiling. The only questions he receives from most officers concern the supposed dangers of antifa or Black Lives Matter activists. "Police union leaders, whether they're talking about BLM or vaccines, sound exactly like right-wing extremists," he said.

Citing recent research by political scientist Robert Pape, Picciolini noted that at least 21 million Americans appear willing to support violence as a pathway toward political victory. "What if research found that millions of Muslim Americans were supportive of ISIS, or millions of Black Lives Matter activists were supportive of violence?" Picciolini asked, leaving the obvious answer hanging in the air.

Recent reporting that Attorney General Merrick Garland fears sentencing Jan. 6 insurrectionists to lengthy prison terms at risk of "further radicalizing them" underlines Picciolini's condemnation of the Democratic Party: "You've heard the phrase, 'Don't bring a knife to a gunfight,'" he said. "They're not even bringing a knife."

Picciolini is certainly not alone in his sense of foreboding. The Brennan Center for Justice has documented that many police departments have officers with white supremacist sympathies, which clearly compromises efforts to investigate hate organizations and likely leads to more episodes of racial profiling and police brutality. The Brennan report describes internal attempts to combat white extremism within law enforcement as "strikingly insufficient." A similar problem exists in the military, with the Military Times reporting on the high number of extremists in the armed services. As the Brookings Institution has noted, these crises became viciously manifest on Jan. 6, when law enforcement reacted with leniency, especially compared to the often-violent response to BLM protesters during the summer of 2020.

Ryan Greer, national security director for the Anti-Defamation League, applauds the FBI for allocating more resources to combating the threat of white extremism, and welcomes increased political discussion of the problem, but also warns, "We simply have failed to see the massive scale of effort that is truly needed."

The consequences of failure are potentially catastrophic. "People always ask me about all the talk of 'war' and 'civil war' on the right," Picciolini said. "They say, 'Do you think there's going to be war?' I tell them, 'It doesn't matter what I think. If they believe there's going to be war, they will make sure of it. We're going to have a war.'"

Christian Picciolini's description of his own work varied over the course of our conversation. He called himself a "pothole fixer," a "white nationalist translator" and, by implication, an emergency physician. Although he didn't use the term, perhaps this is the best way to capture how he hopes to meet this historic moment: He aims to be a peacemaker.

Former neo-Nazi: Tucker Carlson sounds like me

The foul odor of fascism has become inescapable in the American atmosphere. Republican officials across the country are working overtime to undermine the right to vote, leading right-wing pundits brazenly promulgate racist conspiracy theories and the Anti-Defamation League reports that 2020 saw a 45 percent increase in hate crimes throughout the Midwest.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

There is perhaps no time more urgent to learn from one of fascism's former foot soldiers. Christian Picciolini became a neo-Nazi as a teenager in the working class Chicago suburb of Blue Island in the late 1980s. As the leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH) and singer in the white-power rock band the Final Solution, Picciolini was one of the most effective recruiters in the white supremacist movement.

His story transformed, however, from horrific to redemptive and inspiring. Picciolini is now one of the most effective anti-hate activists in the United States. The details of his transition from Nazi to progressive — from hate leader to democratic healer — are available in his fascinating and important memoir, "White American Youth: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement – And How I Got Out."

Picciolini is the co-founder and director of the Free Radicals Project, an international multidisciplinary organization dedicated to the prevention of hate crimes, and working to stunt the growth of the movements that fuel them. He chronicles his current work in his insightful new book, "Breaking Hate: Countering the New Culture of Extremism."

He is also the host of a new podcast, "F Your Racist History," which aims educates listeners on the often unknown or whitewashed influence of racism in American culture, politics and economics.

In the past few years, Picciolini's warnings have become increasingly severe. As he and his colleagues at Free Radicals work to preserve the promise of multiracial democracy in the United States, Picciolini worries that the nation's complacency will soon meet a catastrophic end.

I recently spoke with Picciolini by phone about this work and analysis of the current crisis facing American politics.

You recently published an alarming assessment of American politics and culture on your Facebook page, writing, "Everything happening in America and the world right now and for the last decade (rise of neofascism, Qanon/conspiracists, Trumpism, 'America First,' white nationalism, polarization, etc.) is leading me to believe we will face a period of darkness like we've never seen before." Could you elaborate? What specifically has you so worried about this period of history?

Well, what's happened since Barack Obama's election is that we've seen the resurgence of a different kind of white supremacy. Up until that point, professionals, experts and those in law enforcement were touting the supposed fact that white supremacist organizations were either dead or dying. They were claiming that hate groups were going away, no one was joining groups like the Klan or becoming skinheads anymore and we were making great progress in combating white extremism. When Obama was elected, we saw a different kind of white supremacy. It wasn't about joining the Klan or neo-Nazi organizations. It became about recruiting and radicalizing the mainstream.

That's been happening now for a little longer than 12 years. We've seen the Libertarian Party infiltrated, and conservative spaces infiltrated by the same ideology I was involved with 30 years ago. Today we are seeing the effects of it. The fact that we are still in a place as a nation where we cannot agree that we have a problem with white supremacy — there are people who downplay the problem, there are others who are adamant that it doesn't even exist — we are setting ourselves up for a big failure. I think after this administration we are going to see things become more conservative politically, and then government will exercise a stranglehold over how we combat white extremism. It is already tough now. We can't find a consensus on it, which means we can't properly fight it. Imagine how tough it will become when the federal government is under control of less friendly policymakers.

I wish that I could tell you something different, but everything I've seen happen over the last 30 years, and everything I see happening now, leads me to believe that we are in for a period of darkness. That means that law enforcement won't feel that it has the support to do what they need to do to arrest white extremist criminals. White extremist criminals will blossom, and they will feel that they have the leeway to push the envelope. At the same time, we are seeing the institutions we depend on for safety — law enforcement, the military — becoming infiltrated with the same ideologies that affected me 30 years ago. It is becoming more and more part of the mainstream.

What I've seen happen, slowly but surely, over the past 30 years is that words I used to say as a neo-Nazi skinhead, the belief system that I had when I was an avowed white supremacist, are now part of the mainstream discussion. We are seeing people who are not neo-Nazis, or at least not claiming to be, spouting off the same beliefs — politicians, law enforcement officers, police unions. So we're in for a very rude awakening.

It is terrifying that if you compare the rhetoric of contemporary right-wing figures, including Donald Trump, and the rhetoric in your memoir as you look back on your involvement with neo-Nazis, or the rhetoric of Timothy McVeigh, it is difficult to find any daylight between them. Can you specify what language, issues and ideas that are now prominent in right-wing discourse and Republican Party propaganda resemble what you and your associates were saying when you were a neo-Nazi?

First, there is the more blatant conspiracy-oriented language, regarding the "others" controlling the power structure. That is starting to exist in the language of QAnon, in terms of talking about "globalism." But also, more specifically, what's penetrated the right is "replacement theory" or the "Great Replacement." What I mean by that is white supremacists believe that the demographics of the country are changing rapidly, and that soon white people will lose agency and power, because they will be the minority. Whether that is happening statistically or not is a different story, because what white supremacists believe is that it is an intentional process being put forward by global cabals of, in most cases, Jewish people who are trying to upset the balance of white power. White supremacists claim that diversity is genocide for the white race. They believe that the promotion of multiculturalism is a tool of white genocide.

We've started to hear those ideas, and similar ideas, come out of Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host with millions of viewers. It isn't just people like me when I was hanging out in dark alleys reading pamphlets from other conspiracy theorists. People are now getting this theory and hatred from Donald Trump, and various people in his orbit. They are getting it from Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona. These are people with suits and ties. They look like the mainstream, they sound like the mainstream and, in certain cases, they've been elected to powerful positions by the mainstream. And yet they are saying the same dangerous and outlandish things that a 17-year-old Christian Picciolini said when he was sporting a swastika tattoo.

It is the whole notion that if white people don't wake up now, that they will be overrun. If you watch Tucker Carlson, people like David Duke and Tom Metzger, in the old days, said almost the exact same thing. They said, "White people, wake up! Immigration, the religions that they are forcing down our throats, multiculturalism — it's all a conspiracy to destroy our white power." Sometimes they use more palatable language, but they are using fear rhetoric to make white people afraid that they are being overrun by these other people and forces. Whether it is Islam, refugees, crime, immigrants or even the way they talk about outsourcing of jobs, it is all rooted in that same idea that white people have to be afraid.

And there is a certain set of policies that emanate out of that paranoia: "Build the wall," family separation, the Muslim ban, voter suppression. Does this racist paranoia explain why so many Republicans have overtly turned against electoral democracy? They are making a brazen attempt, through voter suppression and partisan seizure of election offices, to undermine democracy. Is that where the paranoia has taken us?

I think so. Voter suppression has been around a long time. Every time there is a push for inclusion, for more people to vote, there is voter suppression. If you go back to poll taxes and literacy tests, that's exactly what the Voting Rights Act was correcting. Yes, it was technically legal for Black people and others to vote, but white people in power made it almost impossible. There has always been a pushback by people who hold power against relinquishing that power. If you look at who is in power, it is mostly white men. Now, as they see it slipping away, or as other people become empowered, they are ramping up the dirty tactics.

As someone who has been on both sides of it, how do you suggest that a civil society with a Bill of Rights that protects speech and the press should effectively deal with hate speech, racist incitement and neofascism? How do we strike a balance between preserving our freedoms but also aggressively tackling this problem?

That's a tough one. We must do a better job of preventing future generations from finding what you describe as a viable option. All we can do right now is fight our way through it and hope that we survive.

Ultimately, what we have to do is hold people accountable. I'm talking about criminals, not people who are just saying things. We have a hard time holding criminals to account for the crimes they've committed. Just last week, Brandon Russell, one of the founders of a white supremacist terrorist group, Atomwaffen Division, was released from prison after four years, and this is after investigators found illegal guns and bombmaking material in his apartment. There are probably people in prison longer for marijuana, and this guy, for plotting to overthrow the U.S. government with a mass casualty event, is free.

It is hard to cut the head off the snake, because we are fighting this war against extremism the same way we fought the war on drugs. We are arresting and going after a lot of addicts, instead of going against the smugglers that are enabling the problem.

To round that out, we also learned this week that the FBI had been supporting Joshua Sutter, a confidential informant who was a white supremacist for 18 years. They paid him over $100,000. This is a person who still today is publishing white supremacist books and other materials, and those materials are used to radicalize people into joining Atomwaffen Division. So here is our own government actively funding someone who is working to radicalize people. That's a problem.

How do we expect to defeat white extremism if their coffers are being filled by the people who are supposed to protect us? When I say that we are in for darkness because we aren't taking the right approach to combat extremism, that is exactly what I am talking about. First, we have to take care of that problem. Then we can have the tougher debate on what we do about hate speech.

I am also more of the mind that we need to do a better job of raising our children. Give them all the information that they need to succeed, and when they become adults, provide them with services like health care, like higher education — all those services we make difficult for people to access. In some cases, the only way people feel they can find agency is by joining hate groups, because they are the only ones who seem to pay attention to them, to listen to their problems. It is, of course, a toxic environment, and what they are getting is not positive interaction, but they are gravitating to these groups because they are getting something that they should be getting from society instead. So we should be thinking about how we lay a foundation under young people so that joining a hate group doesn't even seem like an option, and so that what they offer is never attractive.

That brings us to your story, and your organization, Free Radicals. There probably isn't a massive group of people who have a family member or friend who is in a hate group. But many people know someone in QAnon or someone who has taken an ideologically dark turn. For the sake of them, can you talk about what Free Radicals does, and also address the steps to de-radicalize people?

The Free Radicals Project is a nonprofit organization that I founded to help people disengage from hate groups. Yes, you are accurate when you say that there aren't many members of hate groups. Now, most people with the hateful mindset aren't card-carrying members of the Klan. That's part of how things have shifted in the last 20 to 30 years. It is less about the group and more about the movement. There is a coalescence into the general movement. What we do is work with people directly who are in these movements, and we recognize that they don't know how to disengage. Even if they are feeling doubt, they can't discuss that with their comrades.

As someone who has been there myself, I have the ability to listen. We are guides, and we guide them out. It begins with understanding that ideology is likely not what brought them there. It was a search for identity, community and purpose. What I do is I offer people substitutes for the identity, community and purpose that they've found, and replace them with things that are more positive. We work for ways to replace the identity they found or the community in which they feel welcomed and rewarded.

That process begins with identifying the "potholes" in their lives. Potholes are those things we all encounter on our journey. Potholes are trauma. So, what is the pothole — the trauma — that put them on the road to their direction? Without debating about their ideology, we focus on those potholes and find pothole fixers — therapists, job trainers, teachers, life coaches, hobby groups, anything that can work to build a better foundation under them.

Isn't it true that you received a federal grant, but the Trump administration eliminated it?

My old organization that I co-founded, Life After Hate, applied for and won a $400,000 grant in 2016. We never received the money, because the administration had changed. In December 2016, we were notified by the Obama administration that we won. In the early months of the Trump administration, we were notified that we would not receive the grant. They had reviewed our application and rescinded it. We were the only organization out of 36 that had the grant revoked. We were also the only one that was focusing on white supremacy. All of the others were focusing on Islamist extremism.

That speaks to the larger issue. Earlier, you used the word "terrorist." As you know, FBI statistics show that white supremacy organizations and related hate groups are responsible for more murders of Americans than any other extremists since 9/11. We all watched the gruesome and sad footage of Jan. 6. But it still seems that most of white America remains blasé about the terrorist threat of white hate.

Absolutely. That is one of the biggest reasons why we can't combat it. We can't even name it. We refuse to look in the mirror and face that it is other Americans, not foreigners, who are the biggest threat to American democracy. We need to get over that hump, and recognize that these people are terrorists. They are criminals. We need to call them out and hold them accountable as such. My concern is that we don't have the will to call it out.

Is that part of what motivates your new podcast, "F Your Racist History"?

Yes, that was part of it. After 25 years, I've taken it upon myself to try to educate Americans about the world I was part of, because few others were stepping up to do that. I also learned a lot as I was going through my transition. We did an episode on Henry Ford, and I knew about him when I was a Nazi. I knew then that he was a supporter of Hitler. The rest of the world didn't know that. We had a museum about Henry Ford. Every town had a Ford dealership.

So some of the podcast is about things I already knew but few others seemed to discuss, and some of it is what I've learned about American history. It is part of a recognition that if we don't know where we came from, how the hell are we going to measure our progress? And part of it is that if we can't admit that we've been part of this — that we've all been complicit — we aren't going to stop it.

Currently, there is all this hysteria over "critical race theory." Until a few months ago, it was a relatively obscure legal theory taught almost exclusively in law schools. Many polls confirm that most people claiming to have passionate objections to it don't even know what it is. So it is effectively an umbrella term, for those rallying against any instruction of systemic racism and, as you say, "complicity." Why is it important that Americans learn the true history of our country, and why is there so much backlash against that, where they are going so far as to try to ban it in colleges and high schools?

As Americans, as people who tout our democracy, we need to understand what we are preaching. We need to understand where we come from. We should be proud of how far we've come, but we also have to recognize that there are still many people oppressed and excluded due to institutional racism. Until we address those things, we are creating an ecosystem that is breeding racists. As long as there are people who benefit from racism, there will be people who are attracted to it. If we ever hope to make an equitable society, we have to understand the progress but also the ugliness, and also identify all the things that are preventing us from becoming an equitable society today.

White supremacists and the right wing are using "critical race theory" to make white people afraid that their society is going to deprive them, and turn everyone else against them. The irony is that is exactly what they are covering up — that white people, for centuries, have divided people and treated everyone else unequally. They are afraid of the mask being torn off. They are also banking that most people aren't going to do the intellectual work to understand what they are talking about. They will just emotionally buy into it.

I talked earlier about identity, community and purpose — and potholes — as they relate to individuals, but I also think the United States as a country right now is struggling with its identity, community and purpose. We have a whole history of potholes that we've not dealt with, and until we deal with them we are going to keep finding ourselves going off onto the fringe. Right now we are dealing with so much uncertainty relating to the pandemic, politics, jobs, health care, so much else. Well, uncertainty is the one ingredient that allows extremism to thrive. So we are in a very dangerous position. We are on a tinderbox. We have to be really vigilant about dealing with it.

Jesse Jackson Jr. warned us about democracy

"The United States is not a democracy. It is moving toward democracy," former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. explained during our recent conversation in his Chicago home. As I began to ask him to elaborate, he cut off my sentence at the knees, giving a small semantic correction — but a politically crucial one — to his already bleak assessment: "Was. The United States was moving toward democracy."

We were sitting underneath the visual aid of what is a lifelong passion for Jackson: a large chart and timeline depicting a comprehensive theory for the interpretation of American history. Beginning with the colonial and slavery days of the 17th century and moving to the present, the timeline identifies the critical stages of American development using a nifty metaphor: the "tremor phase," "the great earthquake" of the Civil War, and everything that happened subsequent to Reconstruction, including a violent mob storming the Capitol in January 2021, with many insurrectionists waving Confederate flags, as "the aftershocks."

The chart and the book that emanates from this historical theory, "A More Perfect Union: Advancing New American Rights," co-authored with longtime civil rights activist and political strategist Frank Watkins, were both vastly ahead of their time. Jackson recalls showing the work to visitors in his congressional office in the 1990s and early 2000s, and describes the solutions that his historical framework pulls into focus, with no small measure of modesty but not without justification, as "the most progressive ever proposed" within mainstream American discourse.

Locating racism as central to the historical development of the U.S., it was "critical race theory" before the term became familiar, and an early version of the "1619 Project," many years prior to the New York Times series. In fact, when "A More Perfect Union" was published in 2001, the New York Times, along with nearly every other major publication, refused to review it. Its advantage over critical race theory and the 1619 Project is that it opens an exit from the oppressive structures of American law and power. Rather than collapsing into "Afro-pessimism," it delineates a template for a radical restructuring of society.

Jesse Jackson Jr. acquired what he calls an "orientation" from coming of age as the son of one of the world's foremost civil rights leaders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and formally studying theology and law. He was first elected to Congress, representing the South Side and southern suburbs of Chicago, in 1995, and served 17 years as a consistent advocate for voting rights, investment in public goods and services, and peace. He was also national co-chairman of the Barack Obama campaign in 2008. Following a federal investigation of his campaign finances in 2012, Jackson was forced to resign from Congress and plead guilty to one count of wire and mail fraud in connection with misuse of campaign funds. In the same period, he began receiving treatment for bipolar disorder. He ultimately served more than two years in federal prison.

Jackson rarely grants interviews these days, but is committed to carrying his intellectual and political work into the present. In 2019, he collaborated with his mother, Jacqueline Jackson, to publicize her book, "Loving You, Thinking of You, Don't Forget to Pray: Letters to My Son in Prison." They used their media appearances to discuss criminal justice reform, the moral failures of the penal system and how best to assimilate ex-convicts, especially those who are not former members of Congress, into roles of productive citizenship.

Insistent that his triumphs and failures, his imprisonment and redemption are all critical to his expansive perspective, Jackson began with his initial entrance to the Capitol when I inquired about why he saw voting rights as superior to all other issues in political struggle.

"When we got to Congress in 1995, our orientation prepared us for everything that was percolating in the body politic," Jackson said, referring to himself and Watkins. "Newt Gingrich, the Republicans and some Southern Democrats were halting all progress. We walked through the Capitol, and we saw Robert E. Lee's statue, Stonewall Jackson's statue and Gen. Joseph Wheeler from Alabama's statue. The customs of politics had come to accept that 'states' rights' was a legitimate form of organizing an agenda."

Jackson remembered, as a freshman congressman investigating why many of his colleagues felt such hostility toward the very notion of multiracial democracy, taking a tour of many Southern districts, including that of Gingrich, then speaker of the House, in Georgia. "We could see that the politics associated with the Civil War," Jackson said, "was a factor in the representatives that the people send to Washington, D.C. They merely changed the name from 'Confederate' to 'conservative.'"

One of his first efforts to confront the sacralization of states' rights was to lobby for the inclusion of a Rosa Parks statue in the Capitol building. It was not until 2013 that the effort succeeded, and the civil rights hero was able to stand alongside men who committed treason in what is purportedly a pantheon of the American democratic tradition. Jackson explained, with audible disgust in his voice, that Nancy Pelosi recently told a reporter about how he had "tried" to remove the statues of Confederates from the Capitol.

"Jesse tried?" Jackson asked in response. "Well, how long has Chuck Schumer walked past those statues? How long has Nancy Pelosi herself walked past those statues? You see, it isn't about the statues. It is about the politics that they legitimize — the politics behind them that signal it is acceptable for those figures to be there."

"It is business as usual," Jackson said, summarizing the Democratic Party's complacency on both matters of symbolism and substance, "They do not understand or appreciate the existential threat facing democracy."

To acquire a sophisticated understanding of American democracy, Jackson argues that historical knowledge is a non-negotiable necessity, particularly "the history of the American Negro." While making it clear that he has no desire to "elevate Black history above anyone else's history," he argued that the unique usefulness of Black American history is that it clears away the fog that obstructs the view of America's ongoing conflict between authentic democracy and various forms of white supremacy and rule by the rich.

"We should legitimize the perspective of women's history in the United States. We should legitimize Native American history. We should legitimize labor history, and LGBTQ and immigrants, and down the list," Jackson said. "They all offer important, even essential perspectives. We're all fighting for civil rights." His voice rises almost to a shout, slowly drawing out the words "civil rights."

"However, I will argue that it is the history of the Negro that shows the formulation of the government as other histories cannot," he continued. "It will show why states left the Union. It will show why states are added to the Union — some slave, some free. It will show how the nation itself expands. It will show movements like popular sovereignty. It will show why statues were being torn down last summer, and why a mob stormed the Capitol in January of 2021. It alone will show the history of the struggle to add the 14th Amendment — a citizenship right and a personhood right — and therefore the privileges and protections of the Constitution apply to you because you are within the borders. You have to come through the history of how the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were added to the Constitution, and you have to go through the history of the Negro to get there, in order to understand the formulation of the United States government."

Jackson acts as docent for a history that the Democratic Party, most mainstream commentators and — as he is quick to point out — even some civil rights organizations have either failed to grasp or chosen to ignore. The history renders the following conclusion inarguable: American democracy is inherently flawed, given its systemic advantages toward the white majority and moneyed class, and "states' rights" functions as a disguise for the reactionary politics of white supremacy. Republican strategist Lee Atwater was famously brazen in his acknowledgement of the latter point, once telling an interviewer, "You start out in 1954 by saying, N***er, n***er, n***er. By 1968 you can't say n***er — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff."

Progress toward racial equity, labor rights and social justice continually collides with "states' rights" road blocks. Voting, Jackson argues, is the most salient example, because it is the foundation of democratic participation, but also because it determines who — and, by extension, what conception of society — gains authority over the decision-making processes that govern people's lives.

The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which removed federal oversight from voting policies in former Jim Crow states and opened a pathway for all the voter suppression laws those states have adopted in 2021, demonstrated that under the current states' rights system the universal franchise is forever in jeopardy. Beyond the Shelby case, the Voting Rights Act itself is inadequate. As a consequence of its insufficiencies, Congress has made five amendments to the act, and has had repeatedly extend its provisions. The obvious and frightening question then becomes, what will happen if or when Congress decides to weaken or even end the Voting Rights Act?

"I remember when Reagan supported an extension of the Voting Rights Act for 25 years," Jackson said, "Well, hell — he's been dead that long. So, here we are again trying to extend civil rights protections, in the form of voting, in an environment that isn't as tolerant as Reagan's was."

Karl Marx explained that capitalism carries the tools of its own demolition. Its dual reliance on extreme inequality and widespread consumption installs a crisis at its center. Similarly, American democracy will exist in permanent cycles of crisis — experiencing "aftershocks" of varying severity — as long as it allows "states' rights" to undermine the exercise of democracy. From the Electoral College to myriad forms of voter suppression, the veto power of the states, especially in the hands of oligarchs and white nationalists, endangers all efforts to improve the nation.

The only permanent solution is to demote — or finally destroy — the corrosive concept of states' rights. "I understand why people don't want to talk about the long-term solutions," Jackson said while acknowledging the "impracticality" of what he is proposing, "But the short-term solutions keep presenting themselves over and over again, and failing over and over again."

The 10th Amendment delegates authority to the states on matters that the Constitution does not explicitly address. Therefore, to nationalize a right, the Constitution cannot remain silent on the question of whether or not that right exists. "In America, a human right has to be in the Constitution. That's how and why we have a strong press, strong religious freedom and strong right of assembly," Jackson said.

If Americans genuinely want a strong franchise — a universal right to vote and equal protection of that right for all citizens — we must pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that right. The first section of the resolution that Jackson introduced in Congress in 2003 states, "All citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, shall have the right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides. The right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, any State, or any other public or private person or entity." The amendment would vest authority in Congress to "enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Only a constitutional amendment could create one national standard of voting rights, under one system, impervious to interference from racist and self-serving state officials. Jackson reminded me that the TSA was created only in 2001. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, political leaders agreed that to ensure the safety of travelers and prevent similar crimes in the future, it was essential to centralize airport security procedures under a single federal agency. Voting policy and practice, Jackson argues, could operate under similar federal protocols and regulation.

"We took airport security from the states and turned it over to the TSA," Jackson said. "My amendment would take voting from the states and turn it over to a machinery that has thousands of vote counters, poll workers and technology that are incorruptible by local officials.

"We can no longer have the governor of Texas overseeing elections his way, the governor of Georgia doing it his way, the governor of Florida doing it his way," Jackson added. "That's a problem for democracy. Voting must have constitutional protection if we are going to call ourselves a democracy."

In the short term, Jackson supports the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but cautions that even if they are passed, the crisis will not be over. He offers the grim prediction that "as soon as the For the People Act or John Lewis Voting Rights Act passes, you'll see 20 state attorneys general challenge it." After those Republican objections, those laws will "run through a legal gauntlet where one of Trump's judicial appointments will hear the case." It might eventually arrive at the Supreme Court where, as Jackson puts it, "Amy Coney Barrett and the Supremes will say, 'Stop in the name of states' rights.'"

"We should support the For the People Act and the John Lewis Act, because we want our democracy to hobble into the future, even with one broken leg and drunk," Jackson said. "But we should really work to make it so that our democracy can finally stand tall."

In Congress, and in the book that he wrote with and Frank Watkins, Jackson also proposed amendments to guarantee Americans the right to health care, a clean environment, a quality education, housing and other rights enumerated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Using the vocabulary of rights to support progressive goals of equality, justice and environmental sustainability could provide an overarching argument that can unite the multiple factions of the American left. If Republicans in the early 2000s, including then-President George W. Bush, could propose and promote a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage, Democrats should overcome their deficit of imagination at least enough to discuss big ideas that can help create a better country and a better world. Even if those ideas are unlikely to succeed in the short term, they can create a sense of mission — and any movement without long-term goals will surely fail.

In terms of the survival of American democracy, the risk of failing to act on voting rights is potentially lethal. The law currently offers no preventive measures against states' rights sabotage. In "The Sun Also Rises," Hemingway describes the stages of going bankrupt as "First, gradually. Then, suddenly." Americans have ignored the gradual for so long that we now face the terror of the sudden.

During my conversation with Jackson, I spelled out the nightmare scenario that historian Timothy Snyder, political scientist Anthony DiMaggio and others have recently described. Here's a quick summary: Republicans regain control of the House and Senate in 2022, and several pro-Trump Republicans are elected as secretaries of state in Electoral College swing states. In the 2024 election, President Biden (or another Democrat) wins several of those states by narrow margins, but Republican officials, claiming "irregularities" and fabricated "fraud," refuse to certify the results. So a candidate who lost both the popular and electoral votes becomes president, and the United States is no longer a democracy.

When I finished outlining the hypothetical scenario, I asked Jackson, "What, right now, could stop that from happening?"

He answered without hesitation: "Nothing."

How Bruce Springsteen – and the left – can reclaim and cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism

The American flag has become a symbol of right-wing politics. Democrats can insist otherwise, but honest observers will concede that when they see a house, vehicle, or wardrobe adorned with the stars and stripes, it probably belongs to an American whose conception of patriotism allows everyone to have easy access to a firearm arsenal, but medicine to remain a high-priced luxury item.

The success of the right wing in their co-optation of patriotic language and symbols reached its absurd zenith on Jan. 6 when a mob of domestic terrorists proudly waved the flag and chanted, "USA!" before assaulting police officers and attempting to murder elected officials in their aspiration to replace American democracy with a dynastic dictatorship.

Beyond the ignorance of the Trump insurrectionists, it is essential for the left to evaluate how the far right monopolized patriotism and the hallmarks of Americana without much difficulty. The left has always demonstrated a healthy aversion to displays of national pride. Understanding the manipulative power of the flag, and that maudlin tributes to "God and country" typically shadow the ongoing injustices that take place under their invocation, progressives have largely neglected to offer a counterargument to operationally anti-American pundits and politicians who personify the words of Jewish activist and journalist James Wise, often misattributed to Sinclar Lewis: "If fascism comes to America . . . it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty."

Despite a justifiable reticence surrounding pious displays of American pride, the left has made a critical error by not forcefully confronting the right's self-serving, deceitful, and hateful brand of chauvinism. Most Americans – left, right, and apolitical – desire to feel some affection toward their country, especially considering that people have the tendency to associate their own community with their country, distilling the abstract "America" into the concrete hometown of their youth.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty brilliantly describes the contradictions of patriotism, and the self-inflicted wound of the left in refusing to cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism, in his prescient collection of lectures, "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America." Rorty begins with the assertion that "National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement."

"Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself," Rorty argues, "need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of." The right wing is clearly childlike and delusional in its familiar refrain that any denunciation of American policy or history is tantamount to treason, but Rorty insists that by only associating patriotism with atrocity and oppression, the left disarms itself in debates about the identity of the country, and how best to advance a national construct that makes words like "liberty and justice for all" actionable and real. Rorty devotes most of his search for edifying patriotism to the beautiful and magisterial poetry of Walt Whitman, wisely celebrating the American bard's tributes to democracy, paeans to the working class, and lyrical advancement of the idea that the "password primeval" of America is in the voices of the "diseased, despairing, those whose rights others are down upon."

In democratic practice, Martin Luther King famously argued that the civil rights movement was an effort to cash the "promissory note" of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. When I asked Jesse Jackson, who was one of King's aides, about the common sight of American flags at voting rights marches and Black freedom rallies in the 1960s, he said, "We used the flag and the cross for equality and justice. We made a convincing case that we represented a true form of patriotism because we had the Constitution on our side."

The poetry of Whitman, and the leadership of King and Jackson offer insight into the distinction that the British poet and pamphleteer, Samuel Johnson, made in his essay on patriotism. Famous for the warning, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," Johnson wasn't condemning natural feelings of affection for one's country, but in his time and place, scoundrels like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, who are "self-professed patriots," more concerned with their own power and profit than any abiding sense of national prosperity or unity. "True patriotism," Johnson declared, is not only possible, but important.

In recent years, as Trump invoked the flag to encourage hostility toward Black people, immigrants, and Muslims, and actually hugged and kissed the flag in a bizarre psychosexual display at a rally, more thoughtful and compassionate cultural figures have attempted to express "true patriotism" in rebuttal to "self-professed patriotism."

No musician has a more all-American image than Bruce Springsteen. Committed to progressive causes since the late 1970s, he has consistently used his music to spotlight injustice, and as he puts it with no small measure of modesty, "measure the distance between the American reality and ideal." The widespread misinterpretation of "Born in the USA," for which he was partially responsible, is infamous, but the song itself is one of the most powerful explorations of an unjust war and societal neglect of working class veterans.

In the past few months, Springsteen has made a concerted effort to communicate with his own predominantly white, Baby Boomer audience, seemingly with the awareness that many of his fans voted for Trump. First, there was a grievously ill-advised Super Bowl commercial for Jeep in which the rock and roll legend drives around a small town in Kansas in search of a chapel located at the geographic middle of the continental United States. While wearing a cowboy hat and impersonating Clint Eastwood, Springsteen suggests that Americans of diametrically opposed ideologies "find the middle." He offers no indication of how any Americans, irrespective of political persuasion, can find unity with the Trump cult that has not only rejected the possibility of compromise, but also empirical reality.

Even more bothersome in terms of content is the replication of the imagery of Christian nationalism that is central to the far right fascist movement. Halfway into the Jeep ad, the camera zooms in on a cross hanging over a red, white, and blue map of the United States. Where this leaves Jews, Muslims, atheists and others who do not identify patriotism with Christianity is out of the realm of discussion. One should not expect too much from a multinational corporation making a major contribution to the climate crisis. It is disappointing at this late stage of his career, that Springsteen would shill for big business, breaking a record of integrity that dates back to when he rejected Chrysler's multimillion dollar offer of appear in one of their ads in the 1980s.

Springsteen's investment in his own heroic myth seems to motivate his other recent attempt at rescuing patriotism from the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic sewer of right wing outrage. Together with his friend, former president Barack Obama, he has launched a podcast, "Renegades: Born in the USA." The two eloquent speakers explore American identity, race, and masculinity throughout the eight episodes of the series, but they do so in constant reference to themselves. They make a fine argument for social liberalism, and as the title would suggest, attempt to identify patriotism with diversity, acceptance of outsiders, and hospitality for those who are unconventional, but the larger message is lost in their unabashed egomania.

During the first episode, Springsteen declares "My Hometown," his 1985 hit about communal conflict and loyalty, a "great song," and in the second episode, speaks at length about the "power of the idealism of the E Street Band." Not to let his friend outdo him, Obama, without any hesitation, offers as conclusion to part one, "People often ask me, 'What is your favorite speech'?" Then, proceeds to name one of his own speeches, and recite it verbatim.

The natural question in response to such self-aggrandizement is "why?" Why is a former president squandering his authority and influence on a meandering podcast about his youth, and in the words of the Springsteen song, "boring stories of glory days?"

It would appear that Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are coequal partners in the icon business. Believing that they can use their iconography to the advantage of liberalism, they are attempting to present their own stories as patriotic myths. As the banality of the podcast would illustrate, it is a poor political project; doomed to fail with anyone who does not already adore both the former president and rock and roll legend.

The mission to become living and breathing icons is particularly fraught in an age of iconoclasm. In San Francisco, Chicago, and cities across the country there are various campaigns to rename schools and public buildings currently christened to honor everyone from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln. There is an opposition to the traditional icons of patriotism emanating out of a new focus on the injustices that they either ordered or observed without intervention. Indiscriminate slaughter of sacred cows also seems like poor politics, destined to alienate even those sympathetic with reinterpretations of American history. The campaign to, for example, remove a statue of Abraham Lincoln from a Chicago city park not only offers a narrow and boringly pious vision of history, but also further surrenders patriotism to the far right. If the left announces, "We don't want Lincoln," intentionally or not, they gift the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the president who saved the Union, to right wing demagogues.

Howard Zinn, the brilliant historian and activist, once rebuffed a question about whether his classic exploration of U.S. history through popular movements, "A People's History of the United States," would influence young students to dislike their own country, and deprive them of patriotic heroes who could inspire them to strive to improve the conditions of their country. Zinn's response offers instruction to those who, like Rorty, are concerned about the future of critical patriotism on the left.

We should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes. Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain — well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don't learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren't told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. No.
We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. And I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, you know, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But people don't learn in school . . . that Helen Keller was a socialist. She was a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.
And so, there are these alternate heroes in American history. There's Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. There are the heroes of the civil rights movement. There are a lot of people who are obscure, who are not known. We have a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. And that was before Rosa Parks. I mean, Rosa Parks is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested, and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and really the beginning of a great movement in the South. But this 15-year-old girl did it first. And so, we have a lot of — we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people back into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, "This is the way to live."

The crucial insight that Zinn offers is that patriotism should spotlight virtuous behavior in service to justice within a shared community. Richard Rorty interprets Whitman according to that definition, and there are living artists who have employed their creativity in the discovery of ways to celebrate what is unique and good about America, without ignoring or lying about what is unjust and oppressive.

Like Zinn, the poet Rita Dove locates patriotic profundity in the life of Rosa Parks. Her 1999 collection of poems, "On the Bus with Rosa Parks," makes the heroic activism of Parks central to American life. The bus not only rides through Montgomery, but all of American history, offering an invitation to anyone who would like to help push the passenger vehicle closer toward freedom, justice, and equality.

"Pull the cord a stop too soon," Dove lyricizes, "And you'll find yourself walking a gauntlet of stares." The immediate impression is that she is describing the inhospitable response, possibly even violent, a Black American will receive in the "wrong" neighborhood, but the perspective soon widens to include the assassination of advocates for civil rights, and how those deaths continue to haunt American history: "Dallas playing its mistake over and over/ until even that sad reel won't stay stuck – there's still / Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis / at every corner the same / scorched brick, darkened windows."

Dove advances an idea of patriotism that demands movement and insists upon forward progress. In her poem, "American Smooth," she not only pays tribute to the multicultural tapestry of American music, but also compares its sociopolitical life to a couple on the dance floor, finding its rhythm, continuing to dance to the sounds that surround them. The only error, Dove seems to warn, is to stop.

As she herself implies with reference to the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, tragedies and atrocities often leave mourners no choice but to stop, and in their pause, reflect on the gravity of the loss.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were many tributes to the victims, especially the firefighters and first responders who risked their own safety to save the lives of strangers. Martin Espada offers one of the most beautiful memorials of Sept. 11 in his poem, "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100."

It is dedicated to the 43 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees 100 who died while working at the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. Espada describes the wide range of countries where these workers – the dishwashers, the cook, the busboy – travelled from to make their home in America. With homage to Whitman's poem, "I Hear America Singing," he praises the majestic and soulful music of their labor, their voices, and their harmonious presence.

Espada ends the poem with the imagery of war – "from Manhattan and Kabul" – and provides a dark, but profound insight into the separation between power and the people who are so often the victims of those who exercise it.

Patriotism, like any feeling of affection, is only as useful as its ability to assist in the alleviation of human suffering, and the flourishing of human potential. In that respect, it is a localized iteration of compassion and justice, calling upon the best traditions of a particular country.

A pandemic should have activated this form of patriotism throughout the United States, but the scoundrels most eager to wave the flag have little interest in helping the people who live underneath it.

An entire set of policies – from voting rights to universal health care – should emerge out of the patriotic instinct. Otherwise, all the red, white, and blue gestures are nothing more than symbolism that is both empty and obfuscating. As John Prine sang in 1971 with eternal relevance:

Well, I got my window shield so filled
With flags I couldn't see.
So, I ran the car upside a curb
And right into a tree.
By the time they got a doctor down
I was already dead.
And I'll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said...
"Your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven…"

Here's why the arrogance of 'centrism' may destroy us all

The philosopher George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." One insight to draw from Santayana's oft-repeated aphorism is that the repetition of clichés is likely to have little effect, given the widespread tendency to ignore pithy advice and continue witlessly recycling, recreating and reliving history.

Over the past few weeks, the Republican Party has proven itself hostile to freedom and democracy; its merciful incompetence the only thing saving whatever remains of our republic from the fascist insurrection of a con man. The absurdity of the cast members — from Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell to their incoherent Michigan "witness" and of course Donald Trump himself — have made the entire fiasco seem more like a satirical film than political reality. At the other multiplex on the Democratic side of town, every screen is running previews for the third version of a box office smash, "Centrist Failure," with Joe Biden taking over the leading role from his more charismatic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The 1990s original had audiences entranced by a seductive Southerner, Clinton, who under the guidance of the Democratic Leadership Council rebranded his party as the "new Democrats," which apparently translates into "Republicans." Clinton cut social programs, ended "welfare as we know it" by making single mothers work low-income jobs without child care, signed a massively destructive and draconian crime bill into law, deregulated the financial industry, and approved NAFTA. Democrats throughout the mediocre commentariat largely applauded, on the grounds that right-wing policies with a friendlier face were the only way Democrats could win or maintain power, and prevent another Reagan-like figure from seizing control of the country.

After all, they asked, wouldn't you rather have Clinton, with his paeans to social liberalism, administrative proficiency and obvious intelligence, than George H.W. Bush? Sure — but then along came Bush's son, holding the White House door open for the ghoulish likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and proving himself far worse than his father. Two horrific wars, the criminal ineptitude of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crash created fertile conditions for radical reform, but instead the "hopey-changey" Obama administration committed the first error of national politics. They failed to act on the keen insight of the aforementioned Cheney, who once told a defiant Republican senator, "We don't negotiate with ourselves."

Obama clearly enacted policies that improved American life. The Affordable Care Act rendered an ongoing catastrophe somewhat less deadly, he doubled Pell grants (barely keeping pace with exorbitant tuition spikes), signed the Paris climate accords and negotiated a decent nuclear deal with Iran. He also staffed his Cabinet with corporate sycophants, allowing the same banking and high-finance bandits who had liquidated working-class wealth to manage the "recovery"; dropped the "public option" from his health care proposal without a fight; and spent years attempting to reach compromise with an obstructionist opposition that he eventually admitted — rather too late — had no interest in productive policy and governance.

Obama was inarguably better for the country than a potential McCain-Palin administration would have been, let alone the planned corporate tyranny of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But throughout his two terms in office, Democrats lost countless state and local offices, while obliviously arguing that demographic changes all but guaranteed their permanent ascension to power — a great victory that somehow always lies just beyond the horizon. Performing a cover version of the Clinton composition, mainstream politicians and pundits also insisted that any openings to the left would provoke a vicious backlash, manifesting in a menacing right-wing resurgence. In other words, if Obama had governed as a progressive, someone like Donald Trump might have become president.

A rational observer might assume that the victory of a reactionary psychopath who upended all normative assumptions about politics would have introduced a little humility and introspection into the centrist consensus. That observer had best not hold her breath.

Biden hasn't even taken the oath of office, and the centrist crew, including Obama and Biden himself, are blaming the left for Democratic losses in the Senate, House and state legislatures, citing the activist call to "defund the police" as the primary reason for the party's poor down-ballot performance. There is no data to support this conclusion. If anything, the available evidence actually suggests that candidates with progressive positions outperformed the so-called moderates.

Lack of evidence has never stopped the centrists before. Now they've reached a point where information is an unnecessary impediment to their effort to overwhelm all legitimate political or ideological debate with a mélange of platitudes and bromides.

John Harris, writing in Politico, chastises the "stupid second guessing of Biden" from the left over his corporate Cabinet choices, focusing closely on the early opposition to the potential appointment of former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Harris claims that progressives "don't know what they are talking about," and then attempts to prove Emanuel's merits by summarizing a book he co-wrote in the 1990s. He never mentions that Emanuel left Chicago as the most hated mayor in the city's long and colorful history, earning contempt for closing dozens of schools in poor neighborhoods and then covering up video footage of the police killing of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, which eventually sent the officer involved to prison.'

Joe Klein, the former sage of Time magazine and champion of "radical centrism," shared Harris' article on his Facebook page, acting as if he had received it from the hands of Jehovah on Mt. Sinai. When I reminded Klein of the McDonald murder, observing that the country's leading civil rights organizations and labor unions opposed Emanuel, Klein responded that I was "missing the bigger point."

Centrists are always threatening to make a big point, but never follow through. Here is the big point that they've been missing for 40 years: The neoliberal consensus is disintegrating, taking traditional party politics into oblivion, because the policies on which it was built have devastated the lives of ordinary people. Widespread privatization and the elevation of what Karl Marx called "fictitious capital" — interest, stocks and commodities, dividends and incomprehensible financial instruments of many kinds — have transformed an economic arrangement that, for all its flaws, gave at least some working-class people a chance to build stability and generational wealth into a Serengeti Plain where the powerful use their fangs and claws to rip the flesh from the weak.

The RAND Corporation — hardly an advocate of socialism or Marxism — recently reported that from 1975 to 2018, the top 1 percent, taking advantage of tax policies, corporate welfare and other built-in benefits, took in $47 trillion — that's trillion, with 12 zeroes – that otherwise would have been distributed among the bottom 90 percent.

Naomi Klein explains brilliantly in her book "The Shock Doctrine" that catastrophes and crises typically exacerbate inequality in various ways: They offer multinational corporations an opportunity to force out small competitors, convince governments to deregulate or surrender public land and other areas of the commons, and accelerate urban gentrification and residential segregation. It is hardly surprising then that COVID-19 has only enhanced these hideous developments. According to one report from the Center for Public Integrity, 900 companies that accepted billions in Paycheck Protection Program loans still laid off a cumulative total of 90,000 workers.

American life, for most citizens, has become a never-ending struggle, with essentials like health care, child care, and high-quality education all but inaccessible. As a recent report from NPR made clear for those sitting in the back, even many Americans who appear to have it made in the shade, earning relatively high salaries and owning substantial homes, still live paycheck to paycheck, frightened that an unexpected expense will drown them in debt.

There's "stone cold rage in the hinterlands," Warren Haynes shouts in the Gov't Mule song, "Stone Cold Rage," capturing the way that entire American towns have collapsed into conditions that resemble war zone. Small villages that once had a vibrant communal center made possible by family farming, light manufacturing employment and small retail business have become ghost towns, without much hope for middle-class or even working-class resurrection. In a previously unprecedented and horrific development, "deaths of despair" — primarily meaning those caused by suicide, drug overdose, alcoholism and obesity — began to rise in the United States a few years ago, especially among men in rural areas.

The inhabitants of these desolate and deprived outposts have accepted a theory, albeit a terrible and dangerous one, to explain their demise. Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist who spent five years conducting lengthy interviews with poor people in the Louisiana bayou, summarizes it this way:

Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they'd worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].

Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.

Hochschild is not seeking to excuse the obvious racism embodied in this narrative, or to deny its pervasive influence on whites who support Donald Trump and other xenophobic Republicans. She only explains that nearly everyone she interviewed articulated some version of this "deep story," to use her words — "a story in which you lift away facts and moral judgment and just find the story that feels true."

A massively funded apparatus of creative thinkers and skillful personalities inundate voters with right-wing propaganda on a daily basis, creating an alternative universe in which "facts and moral judgment" drift away to make room for the hateful scapegoating of all the people Hochschild identifies above.

What is the centrist "deep story" that might respond to this? Is there even a centrist hypothesis to explain and alter the continual decay of American life?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently courted the scorn of centrists for stating the obvious by calling Biden's vision for the country "hazy." None of the attacks on her even tried to offer an alternate assessment of Biden's prospective agenda. Of course there is time for the incoming president to communicate with more clarity and specificity, but progressives in Congress are only expressing the reasonable concern that 20 months after Biden announced his presidential candidacy, no one can honestly describe his overarching vision for governance, reform and public policy.

The progressive or leftist politics that Ocasio-Cortez represents at least offers Americans, especially those who suffer from poverty and despair, a "deep story." The leftist deep story has the benefit of being true. It doesn't require adherents to overlook relevant facts or suspend all moral judgment. It makes no room for racism or nativism. Instead it accurately surveys the reality on the ground, from the South Side of Chicago to the swamps of Louisiana, and offers real, actionable solutions, which double as an effective counterargument against the nationalism of the fast-rising far right.

As psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl demonstrates in his book, "Dying of Whiteness," many white people in "heartland" America are so deeply committed to "racial resentment" that they will actively vote and fight against their own access to medicine, education, clean air and better wages. Many of the poor people Metzl interviewed essentially took the position that it is preferable to starve than to endorse policies that might better the lot of Blacks or "illegal immigrants."

Of course progressives shouldn't assume that they will convert Trump followers to democratic socialism with a few Bernie Sanders speeches and John Mellencamp records. They may, however, begin to shift some political support with active and aggressive engagement throughout the country, explaining exactly why their "deep story" is better than racial inculpation and division.

As for the centrists, they guarantee failure, offering exactly nothing other than their own arrogance and provably false prescriptions to ordinary people confused and outraged over the decline of their communities and the precarity of their own lives.

Centrists insist that "moderation" is the only sensible approach to national politics in a large and diverse country. They might have an argument worthy of consideration if the world's problems were moderate. But the impending climate apocalypse is not moderate, nor is the dramatic and worsening economic inequality, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. Those things cannot be addressed with compromises or half-measures.

Centrist equivocation will only alienate Americans from each other, while emboldening the forces of right-wing extremism, ignorance and hatred. From the 1980s onward, through recession, war terrorism, and ecological catastrophe, this story has repeated itself time and time again. How many times will the "sensible" centrists have to watch the country descend into chaos before they learn its lessons?

Trump's delusions and conspiracies are one aspect of a distinctive American bias against reality

On this holiday, millions of Americans are gathering around a homemade feast of comfort food, basking in the warmth of familial love and giving each other a potentially life-threatening virus. One week ago, Erin Burnett asked during the lead segment of her nightly talk show on CNN, "The CDC is warning Americans not to travel or gather in large groups for Thanksgiving. Will they listen?"

Any fool could have answered the question: No. Millions of travelers have moved through the airports to greet their loved ones, perhaps with gestures of physical affection, all but coughing in each other's faces. One cannot help but wonder how many families will share napkins as they debate the efficacy of masks as protection against COVID-19.

A pandemic is dangerous, frightening and chaotic enough in the best circumstances. Throw in a population given to superstition, hatred of experts as diabolical elites and hostility toward science, and reasons to give thanks — other than the ability to breathe without the aid of a ventilator — will rapidly diminish.

The farcical spectacle of ostensible adults screaming about the tyranny of face masks and indulging in megaphone-mad conspiracy theories while their neighbors die would invite howls of laughter, if it weren't so tragic. Far surpassing the death rate of Canada, Germany, Japan and almost every other country on Earth — the planet where seemingly everyone but Americans still reside — the United States has lost more than 260,000 people to the coronavirus. As Joe Biden often said during the presidential campaign, that is 260,000 kitchen tables without a parent, spouse, sibling or child.

Yet a baffling and terrifying amount of Americans act as if the virus is not real, or at least does not present a threat to them and their loved ones. A nurse in South Dakota, Jodi Doering, has told the surreal horror story of patients denying that COVID-19 exists, up until the moment that they die from it.

While I cannot report anything so extreme, I can say that I've had conversations with several people — all of them college-educated professionals — who repeat the following claims as if they are self-evident: 1) COVID death numbers are significantly inflated, because hospitals make more money from treating those patients; 2) China created the coronavirus in a lab as a biological weapon (this is one particularly incoherent, because even if true it would not negate the danger of the virus); 3) only the elderly die from COVID so we don't have to worry about it (if this were true, it would make adherents to that belief sociopathic, not reasonable); 4) the only way to beat back the pandemic is through herd immunity.

When pressed to give their sources of evidence, they will typically fall back on what has become the favorite line of many Americans, a delightful distillation of the ignorance and arrogance of individualism and anti-intellectualism in one sentence: "I do my own research."

According to polls, most Americans believe that COVID is not a hoax. The majority also regularly wear masks in public, even when there is no mandate. Despite the good news, there is a gap between theory and practice. The staggering amount of Thanksgiving travel is only the latest example of a general public that suffers from what psychologists are calling "pandemic fatigue."

Having grown tired of compliance with CDC protocols, many Americans have adopted a cavalier attitude. They have resumed dining in restaurants, shopping in malls, and having parties in their homes. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California broke his own coronavirus guidelines by dining indoors with several friends, and New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo examined the potential of his family's Thanksgiving gathering to spread the virus, determined that it was significant, and then concluded he was doing it anyway.

With friends like these, everyone concerned about succumbing to a deadly virus might as well throw a mask burning party … indoors.

Meanwhile, the most pathetic attempt at a coup d'état in world history reaches a merciful end with Rudy Giuliani's hair dye melting in beads down his face as he impersonates Joe Pesci, and his co-counsel on behalf of Trump, Jenna Ellis, telling Republican pollste and frequent Trump critic, Frank Luntz that he has a small penis. Despite the legal weakness of the Venezuela voter-fraud conspiracy theory, not to mention the micropenis defense, upwards of 70 percent of Republicans now believe that Joe Biden won the election by fraudulent means.

This isn't much different from the 51 percent of Republicans who "doubt" that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, the 50 percent of Republicans who believe that the QAnon theory that a secret ring of pedophiles run the federal government is, at least, "partially true," and the 40 percent of Americans who are creationists.

e American population is some combination or variance of ignorant, delusional or insane.

In a country with many of the best universities in the world and almost unlimited technological resources, a salient inquiry for an engaged intellectual class would be, how the hell did this happen? Why do so many Americans accept lunacy as empirical truth?

To begin by reaching for the low-lying fruit, let's start with the far right. The late Richard Hofstadter, a Pulitzer-winning historian, authored a famous book in 1964 called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Despite a few errors, Hofstadter's analysis of the delusions and fears of the right gains relevance with each year.

In his introduction, the historian explains that Americans are increasingly responsive to politics as competing gestures of emotional symbolism, rather than debates about material interest or theories of effective governance. On the right, an affinity for symbolism combines with the "apocalyptic carryovers" of the "evangelical spirit" to create the foundation for the paranoid style. Hofstadter's nuanced and detailed definition of the eponymous term of his text is worth reading in full, but here is a key excerpt:

When I speak of the paranoid style … it is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself. Webster defines paranoia, the clinical entity, as a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions of persecution and of one's own greatness. In the paranoid style, as I conceive it, the feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy. But there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others. … His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.

The contemporary application of Hofstadter's delineation of the "paranoid style" makes it clear that Donald Trump is flypaper for every pathology that Hofstadter, along with many psychiatrists, diagnoses, but also that Trump's following marks the culmination of a right-wing divorce from reality that has unfolded over several decades.

The danger of the "paranoid style" is clear, but becomes profound when Hofstadter describes how the political paranoid sees the opposition, an analysis that should resonate with anyone who has watched a few minutes of Fox News, listened to Rush Limbaugh or gone through the masochistic ritual of attempting to debate a full-fledged Trump supporter:

He [the paranoid] does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.

Hofstadter estimated that the extreme right of the John Birch Society and similar movements comprised 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, and therefore was able to distinguish between the "working politician," meaning the typical Republican, and his more militant voters. Fox News, social media and Donald Trump have obliterated that distinction. Americans who are curious why their Trump-devoted friends broke off all contact might want to reread the paragraph above. More importantly, people who believe that the political opposition is literally aligned with Satan, as onetime Hollywood star Jon Voight recently said about progressives — in a viral video approvingly shared by many leading Republican pundits — will fall for anything.

If Democrats are Lucifer's foot soldiers, working to subvert everything that is good in the world, why wouldn't they use a pizza parlor in Washington to traffic children to pedophiles? Stealing an election is a misdemeanor by comparison.

Those who believe that their political opponents are pure evil will also justify anything, which clarifies evangelical Christians' willingness to forgive Donald Trump's countless offenses against decency, and so many Republicans' evident glee as the Trump administration did everything in its power to sabotage American democracy.

Hofstadter was wise to make a connection between paranoid politics and Christian fundamentalism. Like the fundamentalist who suspects the devil of every misfortune or temptation, ranging from a car accident to the temptations of internet pornography, the far right paranoid sees the anti-American, liberal hand at work in every area of life. Wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus infection isn't adhering with public health protocol, but yielding to the arch-conspiracy of global tyranny.

It is difficult to imagine what life must feel life for these people. They believe that a homicidal cabal of demons in human form is running the country, feverishly working to destroy their lives with multiculturalism and communism, yet they still have to pick up groceries at the market, drop their children off at school and pay their taxes.

Paranoid delusions make them susceptible to a series of cons, from Steve Bannon's "We Build the Wall" campaign to Donald Trump's "Stop the Steal" fundraiser, but it also makes ordinary governance of the United States painfully difficult.

Before the rest of us judge our conspiracy-theorist neighbors too harshly, we should perhaps consider how their lives also require some detachment from reality.

In January of this year, the members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the "Doomsday Clock" — a measurement of humanity's proximity to global catastrophe — one minute and 40 seconds from midnight, citing the growing threat of climate change.

The United Nations warned in 2018 that the human species had only 12 years left to take decisive action on climate change, before facing existential disaster. Even the Department of Transportation under the Trump administration predicted that without major reforms, climate change would destroy life as we know it by the end of this century.

There are inspiring movements to demand aggressive measures to combat climate change, and most Americans support them in theory. In practice, however, most of us carry along without a care in the world. There was almost no discussion of climate change during the recent presidential campaign, and the majority of Americans haven't shown anything resembling the urgency a reasonable observer would expect from people who have learned that their entire species faces the threat of widespread destruction within a relatively brief time span.

In the past two years, major newspapers reported that humanity has eliminated 60 percent of the animal population since 1970, and that 40 percent of the world's plant species are at risk of extinction. But this notional awareness that our planet is dying planet has little effect on political discussion, as powerful officials and influential pundits debate the margins on corporate tax rates, agree that the Green New Deal is "too radical," and argue about Twitter should ban Donald Trump after Biden's inauguration.

Climate change is one reason among many that Democratic calls for a "return to normal" are effectively tickets for a flight from the real world. Except for having a president who respects democratic norms and institutions, the "normal" of 2015 isn't exactly an Edenic paradise to which we should aspire. Extreme inequality, environmental degradation and the subordination of ethics to corporate capitalism — manifesting most clearly in health care, criminal justice and decaying public infrastructure — was shot through American life then. Without transformative action, they will continue to wreak havoc in the lives of countless people long into the future.

After a survey of American culture, an obvious question might be: Where are the real realists?

Wherever they reside and struggle, they will have to live alongside the right-wing paranoiacs who threaten to undermine American democracy, and the more respectable members of the educated liberal classes, who appear content to turn up the music while the tornado siren blasts outside the window.

Those who are curious how that might work out, especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving, might want to ask a Native American.

Noam Chomsky: 'If you don't push the lever for the Democrats, you are assisting Trump'

Noam Chomsky, one of the world's foremost public intellectuals, has provided the international left with wisdom, guidance and inspiration for nearly 60 years. Proving that he operates at the locus where argumentation and activism meet, he demonstrates indispensable intellectual leadership on issues of foreign policy, democratic socialism and rejection of corporate media bromides.

One of the founders of linguistics, he is also an American dissident who has wrestled with systems of power on matters no less important than genocide, war and poverty, creating a corpus of classics, ranging from his manifesto against the Vietnam War, "American Power and the New Mandarins," to his amplification of reason against a jingoistic cacophony following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, "9-11." "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media," which he co-authored with Edward S. Herman, is essential reading for anyone interested in the real biases against democracy in the commercial press. His more recent book "What Kind of Creatures Are We?" provides a deft and provocative exploration of human purpose and the common good.

At 91, he is still committed to seeking and sharing the truth, and showing little patience for the foolishness and selfishness of the powerful.

With dozens of books, and countless lectures and articles, Chomsky has addressed nearly every major topic of politics and economics with an orientation toward democracy, peace, and justice, but his new book is possibly his most urgent. "Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal," co-authored with progressive economist Robert Pollin, measures the stakes of climate change as threatening the survival of the human species, and offers a bold and ambitious solution that can not only stave off disaster, but create a more beautiful, hospitable and just world.

I recently interviewed Chomsky over the phone about climate change, the Green New Deal, and the 2020 presidential election.

We can, perhaps, begin by spotlighting Amy Coney Barrett's remarks at her nomination hearings calling climate change a "controversial and contentious issue." One of the realities you and your co-author, Robert Pollin, identify in this book, which seems to elude most other analysts, is that while our mainstream discourse often presents a "debate" surrounding climate change, there is no debate at all – not just among scientists, but among the institutions that are actively making the problem worse. They know they are courting catastrophe.

Not just "courting," but causing catastrophe. She not only said that it is "contentious." She said, "I'm not a scientist. I don't really know about it." Unless she is a hermit living in Montana without any contact with the outside world, it is inconceivable that anyone could even be considered for a Supreme Court position who doesn't know about the most significant environmental issue.

In the case of the major institutions, let's start with the Pentagon. They are open about it. They acknowledge that climate change is a serious threat. They've argued we should prepare for it. They've published documents about it. Certainly, they know about it.

In the case of ExxonMobil, their scientists were among the first to discover the nature of the problem back in the 1970s. We have the full record, and it's quite extensive. Their scientists provided detailed reports on the threat of global warming – on the threat it will have on the business of fossil fuels. They knew and know about everything. What actually happened with ExxonMobil is – when James Hansen made a speech about global warming in 1988, which received a lot of publicity, at that point management moved to a new position. It wasn't outright detail, because that would have been too easy to expose. They said, "Well, it's uncertain." This was a strategy to shed doubt. In other words, "we really don't know yet. So, we better not do anything precipitous." That was an effective strategy, and that's the Barret strategy: "It's contentious." Meanwhile, the scientific evidence is accumulating beyond any question. ExxonMobil knows all of this, and they've said straight out that, unlike other companies, they won't put aside funds to develop sustainable energy. They've committed to keeping to their business model of doing what is most profitable, and that is developing as many fossil fuels as possible.

Then, there is JPMorgan Chase. They know, and they've conceded. They were one of the world's leading financiers of fossil fuels. Recently, their CEO, Jamie Dimon, announced [they] have to do something about fossil fuels, because of the reputational risks. "Reputational risks" translates into "it is harming our business, because consumers are upset." In fact, an interesting memo leaked from JPMorgan Chase that said [the company is] pursuing policies that place the survival of humanity at risk, and [the company has] to be careful about [its] reputational risks. The "survival of humanity."

There is an interesting question about people like Jamie Dimon. They know exactly what is happening, but they are willing to proceed knowing that it is going to cause a cataclysm — a total disaster that will be irreversible. What is in the mind of somebody like that? Maybe we can say that Mike Pence listens to his preacher, and actually believes there is no need to worry, because God will take care of it. But not the executives of ExxonMobil or JPMorgan Chase.

JPMorgan Chase used the phrase, "survival of humanity," and you are quoting it. All of your books deal with serious issues, to put it mildly. It seems, though, that the new book is the most urgent. Is that a fair characterization?

Let's take seriously the publication of the Department of Transportation — their document on climate change and emission standards. It was an astonishing document, and it is shocking that it didn't get more coverage.

It is a careful environmental assessment from the Trump administration. It concluded that on our present course we will reach four degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. What is that? Total cataclysm. No one can even estimate the effects. Organized human life as we know it will be over. Of course, it will build up over the years, getting worse and worse with sea levels rising, extreme weather events, and so on. So, after describing this, they offer a prescription, and here it is: Let's reduce emission regulations on cars and trucks.

This is the most extraordinary document in human history. I can't think of anything like this. The thing that comes closest is the Nazi Wannsee declaration in 1942, which was the formal decision of the Nazi party to wipe out all the Jews of Europe. Not even that said, "Let's race ahead to make some money while destroying the prospects of all human life on Earth." Why isn't this the headline everywhere?

You've asked two questions, I assume rhetorically, but I'm curious if you can offer an answer to either. First, what kind of people have an awareness that they are threatening all livable ecology and proceed along the same course? Second, why isn't this the headline everywhere?

I have no independent evidence about what is inside people's minds. In the case of the Trump administration, I simply think that they don't care. They are sociopaths. We see this constantly with the president, from the pandemic to hurting the World Health Organization, because it improves his election prospects. If that means kill people in Africa and Yemen who depend upon the WHO for survival, that's fine. The Palestinians didn't treat him nicely? Good. Cut off money for their hospitals. I think it is the mentality that all of us have when we walk down the street and realize that we might crush a lot of ants. We don't think, "I'll take all kinds of precautions to avoid crushing ants." That is the Trump administration's attitude toward the human species. I'm sure it isn't everybody, but it is the mentality that comes from the top down.

There is also the idea, "We have force. Therefore, we can compel anyone else to surrender to it." We see that constantly in the most remarkable ways. A couple of weeks ago the administration approached the United Nations Security Council, requesting that they reinstitute the sanctions against Iran, which were torturing and killing Iranians. The Security Council flatly rejected it. Well, they didn't say no. They abstained, because you don't want to irritate the master too much. So what did the U.S. do? Mike Pompeo returned to the Security Council, and said, sorry children, we're reinstituting the sanctions, because we say so. Has that ever happened in the history of the Security Council? I don't know everything, but I don't think so. What country acts that way? This one does.

There's a major biodiversity conference going on right now at the UN. It is of crucial significance not only for the many species that are being crushed, but for human survival. For example, one of the issues they are addressing is how to prepare for the next pandemic. There is one major country that is not attending. The usual one. The United States. Take a look for coverage. I did, and all I could find was approximately two minutes on NPR.

The New York Times: Great newspaper, right? A couple of days ago, they ran an article on Chevron buying Noble, which gives them entry into the Eastern Mediterranean – huge natural gas fields. Good article on how it will expand production. It will be very good for Israel and Egypt. It didn't say one word about how this is another stab in the heart of the possibility of human survival. It isn't something they really think about. They don't see it as their task to think about it. They write about gas markets, very little about climate change, because it is good for Israel-Egypt relations. There is a biodiversity conference happening, but the U.S. isn't attending. So, who cares?

Now, what about the banks? They know what is happening, and this is my best guess. Let's see if it is plausible. I put myself in the position of Jamie Dimon. I'm sure he knows all about global warming. He cares about it. He probably contributes to the Sierra Club is his spare time. He has two choices. He can say, "What we are doing is horrible. I refuse to participate." He does that, and the board of directors throws him out. They bring someone else in who will do it. So, then he says to himself, "I'm as humane as that next guy they would bring in to destroy the planet. So, I might as well be the one to do it."

ExxonMobil has shareholders. They do what is best for them. The only other way to explain it is sociopathy, but I don't think they are all sociopaths. I think they are the same as people like us.

If the profit at the center of the system incentives sociopathy, is it possible to proceed with something like the Global Green New Deal, on the level that is necessary, without addressing the profit motive?

That's a question that Robert Pollin and I discuss. First of all, there is the simple question of timescale. The timescale needed to deal with this urgent problem is a decade or two. Major institutional changes, which I think are very much in order, have a totally different timescale. It is a much longer process. The fact of the matter is that in order to survive we have to deal with the problem within the framework of the existing institutions. Then, comes the question, can it be done?

We think so. Without radical modification of the existing institutions, which on the side, we can continue to pursue – it is a parallel project – but without that happening, there are adjustments possible. This is mainly Pollin's work – looking at how we can proceed within the timescale and within the existing institutions.

Take fossil fuels. One thing that could be done is simply to take them over – socialize them. It isn't even that expensive. With the oil prices, they aren't worth that much right now. Then, we can put the institutions in the hands of the workforce and the community, and have them do what has to be done. What has to be done? Cut back annually – say 5 percent – on the use of fossil fuels. That would be enough to bring us to net zero emissions by the midcentury. Set the workforce to do things that they know how to do. Let's have them work on developing sustainable energy. They know how to do it. Outside of ExxonMobil, every major company has a division on this.

We might recall that one of the leading early environmentalists was Tony Mazzocchi, the head of the Oil, Chemical, Atomic International Workers Union. Those are the guys on the front line. They're the ones being poisoned. Mazzocchi and his union pushed for safety regulations, and the reduction of fossil fuels. That can be picked up. That's within the framework of institutions.

Take the carbon tax. In itself, it is destructive. It leads to what happened in France. You're telling poor, working people, "You will have to pay more to get to work, because I care about the environment." The way that a carbon tax ought to work is redistribution of the income. Tax the fossil fuels, but then redistribute the profits to the people who need it. The rich guys aren't going to like that, but there's a lot of things that they don't like. They don't like Social Security, but we ram it down their throats through popular pressure.

All of this is within a range of expenses that is not very high. We have Robert Pollin's model. We have a different model from Jeffery Sachs, which reaches pretty much the same conclusion. It can probably all be done within 2-3% of GDP. It is important to note that this doesn't only end fossil fuel production. It creates a better world.

The small number of workers in the fossil fuel industry can get a much better job doing something else. If they need help during the transition period, we can do it for peanuts. Pollin points out that the amount that is needed annually is a fraction of what the Treasury recently poured out to save Wall Street. These things are not out of sight.

Now, there are plenty of barriers. Plenty of fighting back. Amy Coney Barrett saying, "I don't know what's happening. I'm too remote from all of this." The people behind her, getting her to say it, they are going to try to block it.

But there are popular forces who pressing for this, because they know it has to happen quickly. Most of them are young. Greta Thunberg, for example, saying eloquently, "You betrayed us." We should listen to her. Yes, we've betrayed them. Now, we have to change course.

Too often the issue is presented as dichotomous, meaning working class economics versus environmentalism. Why is that wrong?

There will be better jobs and more jobs for working people with a Green New Deal. Jobs ranging from construction to retrofitting houses to mass transportation to installing solar panels and wind turbines to research and development. That whole range presents many more opportunities than there are in fossil fuels, and it makes for a better world.

I don't know where you live. I live in Arizona right now, but I lived outside Boston most of my life. It isn't much fun sitting in a traffic jam for over an hour to get to work.

I live near Chicago. I can relate.

Same thing. It would be much nicer to have a highly efficient mass transit system. You step inside, read a newspaper, enjoy a cup of coffee, and get to where you need to go in no time. It is a better world. In Arizona, I know people who pay $1,000 over the summer for air conditioning. I pay $10 a month, because we've installed solar panels on the roof. It is a better life. Furthermore, I don't have to feel guilty about using so much electricity. The sun is up there, and it is just giving it to me. Insulate your home. You are more comfortable, you are saving money, and you are saving the environment.

It isn't 100 percent. The coal miners, for example. It is a rotten job, but it does pay well. They are on their way out anyway, though. So, we better begin to think about how we can ease the transition. They can do constructive things. In Germany, they are phasing out coal mines, and turning them into ways to produce sustainable energy. These are good jobs, cleaner jobs, and less dangerous. Where there are people who are going to be harmed, we can help them ease the transition.

And again, let's remember that the fossil fuel workers are the ones suffering directly. They experience the worst health consequences – the workers and the people who live near the plants. So, it is in their interest more than anyone. It isn't a hard sell if you break through the propaganda.

You are using the simple, but profound phrase, "It's a better life." It seems that the Global Green New Deal presents the left with a great opportunity to offer to people a large-scale, ambitious project for reimagining human life and society that leads to dramatic improvements.

Absolutely. These two questions that you presented earlier — environmentalism or changing the institutions. This is where they coincide.

Let's take the auto industry. It is a huge industry; the core of American production. In 2009, after the financial collapse, the auto industry was nationalized. There were choices at the time, and if the left had been up to it, we could have made a better choice. The first choice, which is what the Obama administration did, was to pay off the executives and the shareholders, and then return the industry to its original owners, and have them go back to what they were doing — make traffic jams in Chicago and Boston.

Another possibility was to take the industry that we owned, and hand it over to the workforce and the community, and ask them to alter it in ways that were more beneficial. They might have developed an efficient mass transit system. If we start doing that, we undercut the institutions that work for profit, and transform them into democratic institutions that work for public needs. This isn't nationalization, putting it into the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats. It is giving it to workers and community members who can use it for their own needs. That is radically undermining capitalist institutions.

I'm sure you know the Next System Project. One of their proposals that makes great sense is to expand the postal service into general services for people, like banking. It is a perfect way to do banking — not commercial banking, JPMorgan Chase giving someone $2 billion — but the kind of banking we all do. It would be easy to do it through the post office. There are post offices everywhere, the staff is already there, the infrastructure is there. Much of what we do can happen through socialized institutions, which people are surprisingly favorable to. And it would improve our lives. It is a good part of life to have a postal carrier who you get to know. You trust him. You can ask him to feed your dog when you are away. It makes life better.

This is one of the reasons why the rich and powerful want to destroy public institutions, like the Post Office. Public institutions show people that there is an alternative to individualism and consumerism that is possible.

There is so much that it is possible if we only escape the rigid doctrinal assumptions that say, to quote Ronald Reagan, "government is the problem." It is a problem for the rich. It isn't a problem for the rest of us.

Forgive me for closing with what is by now an obligatory and predictable question, but I think I am forever banished from journalism if I don't ask. How do you respond to the irresponsible leftist purity that discourages voting for Biden because of his limitations as a candidate, and the troubling aspects of his record?

My position is to vote against Trump. In our two-party system, there is a technical fact that if you want to vote against Trump, you have to push the lever for the Democrats. If you don't push the lever for the Democrats, you are assisting Trump. We can argue about a lot of things, but not arithmetic. You have a choice on Nov. 3. Do I vote against Trump or help Trump?

It is a simple choice. He's the worst malignancy ever to appear in our political system. He is extremely dangerous.

All of this for the left shouldn't even be discussed. It takes a few minutes. Politics means constant activism. An election comes along every once in awhile, and you have to decide if it is worth participating. Sometimes not — there were cases when I didn't even bother voting. There were cases when I voted Republican, because the Republican congressional candidate in my district was slightly better. It should take roughly a few minutes to decide, then you go back to activism, which is real politics.

There is a new phenomenon on the left. I had never even heard of it before 2016, which is to focus, laser-like, on elections. That's where you get these crazy ideas like condemnation of "lesser-evil voting." Of course, you vote against someone dangerous if it is necessary, but that is not serious political activity. Serious political activity comes out of commitment to educational and organizational work.

Somehow parts of the left within the past few years have unconsciously accepted establishment propaganda. The establishment view of politics is that the public are spectators, not participants in action. Your function is to show up every few years, push a lever, go back home, leave the rest to us. You shouldn't have "democratic dogmatisms about people judging what's in their best interest" — I'm quoting Harold Lasswell, one of the founders of political science. The establishment view is that we have to provide people with, to quote Reinhold Niebuhr, "necessary illusions" and "emotionally potent simplifications." We'll handle the real work.

To see the left buy into this is astonishing. If you don't buy into the establishment picture, you don't talk about "lesser-evil voting." You talk about activism and strategy. Every once in awhile, you decide whether or not it is worth the effort to push a lever. Sometimes it is so obvious, as it is now, that it shouldn't take two minutes to decide.

There's only one political party in the US — the other one has descended into madness

There is only one political party in the United States.

The first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump demonstrated with hideous clarity that the Democratic Party is currently running against not a conservative public policy agenda or a coherent philosophy of governance, but a collective psychotic episode, channeled through an authoritarian demagogue who is equally propelled and crippled by his own neuroses.Gore Vidal, one of America's best chroniclers of empire, once provided instruction to a British interviewer expressing confusion over the radical hostility Republicans showed toward Barack Obama, and the former president's inability to react with equal aggression: "Obama believes the Republican Party is a political party when in fact it's a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word 'conservative' you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They're not, they're fascists."

That mindset is now threatening to devour everything in its path, while its current figurehead, Donald Trump, provides encouragement to violent extremists, giving the Proud Boys — a militant far-right organization whose members have committed hate crimes — the chilling order, "Stand back and stand by."

The president's refusal to reject white supremacist movements elicited almost no clear condemnation from Republican commentators in the immediate aftermath of the debate. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate (and one of only two in Congress), pathetically speculated that Trump "misspoke," and the few Republican members of Congress who spoke out against Trump's dangerous remarks equivocated by drawing comparisons to antifa, the right wing's favorite phantom hallucination.

Observers of political debate can now expect journalists and analysts to fall into the familiar pattern of throwing their arms in the air, articulating incredulity at Trump's malevolence and the Republican refusal to object, and conclude they are merely making a "political calculation," proceeding with caution so as not to alienate Trump's rabid base.

This is wrong.

It's certainly true that Republican officials are afraid of the bloodlust of the Trump cult. But it is also true, and more important to recognize, that Trump's hatred for democracy — which critics and commentators view as a liability is largely an asset for his supporters. Many of those who hold office at the national level, as evident from the ghoulish statements of Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and others, along with the voters who applaud Trump's every act of cruelty, are glad to see him waging war on a system designed to give representation and power to a diverse group of citizens.

If Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr, and their enablers in Congress can succeed in subverting the presidential election, and "making America great again" by enshrining the minority rule of white Christians, the average Republican will celebrate. There is no other reasonable conclusion to draw from the fact that between 80 and 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump's performance in office.

Among Democrats, there is an ongoing, interesting and important argument between moderate figures like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, and progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez regarding the expansion of the social welfare state, federal regulation of economic activity and the extent of measures necessary to curb inequality and climate change.

The Republican Party offers nothing to the American people. They have no policy agenda. Despite Trump's meaningless and inane boasting of nonexistent "plans," they articulate no agenda to address the converging crises of American life.

An American without health insurance, or who pays a high monthly premium for inadequate coverage, can expect nothing from the Republican Party. Working parents who cannot afford child care and have no disposable income after paying each month's bills can expect nothing from the Republican Party. A young college graduate unable to qualify for a mortgage because he has tens of thousands of dollars in student debt can expect nothing from the Republican Party. Poor children suffering through hunger and struggling to learn basic skills in a dysfunctional school can expect nothing from the Republican Party.

Finally, no one on planet Earth can expect anything from a Republican Party that is still in denial about climate change, even as it threatens to end all livable ecology within the next hundred years.

The Republican Party is actively anti-human. It does not qualify as a political party according to any definition of politics, no matter how elementary or esoteric.

In ancient Greece, politics roughly translated into "matters pertaining to the city." Aristotle wrote about the city as synonymous with "community," and posited that all communities are established for the sake of the good life. The ultimate end and ambition of the community is for happiness. It was this Aristotelian conception of politics that influenced the American founders to write the words "the pursuit of happiness," in the Declaration of Independence.

Absent from the Republican National Convention was any mention of anything — save for occasional references to the mysterious issue conservatives call "school choice" — that might remotely assist people to live happier or better lives. To the contrary, much of the Republican agenda is the obliteration of potential for happiness and the imposition of suffering on masses of immigrants, the poor, the sick, the disabled and anyone in a position outside the ownership class.

Even to the overwhelming majority of white Americans, the Republican Party offers nothing with the sole exception of rhetorical massages for their atrophied egos — the ignorant insistence that they are the "real Americans." Only white Republicans are satisfied with this sad recognition in place of an actual politics that might actually give them more opportunities for security, prosperity and dignity. Beyond the myth of white supremacy, Republican politicians on the national level give America various keys in which to scream the word "freedom," and instructions on how to fit as many flags as possible on one small stage.

The Democratic Party should accelerate its drive toward progressive policies, and champion candidates and officials who are fighting to pull their country into the more humane and civilized world, alongside the countries of Western Europe, Canada, Japan and other social democracies, which for all of their current struggles with xenophobia, escalating inequality and populist revolt still provide their citizens with basic social services. Even the moderates, while too meek in their advocacy for fairness and equality, and too cozy with multinational corporations, offer a political program responsive to the problems of ordinary citizens. The Affordable Care Act, as an example, provided 18 million Americans with health coverage for the first time, and protects anyone with a pre-existing condition.

For all their disappointments, the moderates in the Democratic Party are committed to the laws and norms of the democratic system of governance. Studies show that the Republican Party, on the other hand, is far off the spectrum of mainstream conservative parties in comparable countries. The Trump and McConnell-led GOP is more extreme, more authoritarian and more hostile toward democracy than any right-leaning party with significant power in other free societies, even as anti-immigrant nationalist parties gain popularity in Italy, France and other European countries.

It isn't as if there are no longer competing ideologies of governance. One could easily imagine George Will debating an advocate of progressive economics. It is that national Republicans have abandoned any connection to previous notions of "conservative" politics, as Will himself has argued in recent columns.

Trump was unable to debate Joe Biden, and could only interrupt, mock and descend into a tantrum familiar to anyone with teaching experience at a middle school, because the Republicans have nothing to debate. Through their multi-decade commitment to shrinking government down so small that it can "drown in a bathtub," to use the words of Grover Norquist, what was once a reasonably coherent pro-business conservative party has arrived at its logical endpoint — a fascist power grab under the guise of an incoherent personality cult.

The late Stanley Crouch warned Republicans of their trouble in the late 1990s, explaining to Charlie Rose that you "cannot assemble a group of lunatics" to follow you without eventually following them into lunacy.

Welcome to America in 2020.

The president wants you dead

The president of the United States wants you dead.

Throughout the dystopian horror of the past four years, critics of the Trump administration have speculated, with persuasive evidence and analysis, that Donald Trump and his gaggle of ghouls — Jared Kushner, Bill Barr, Stephen Miller, et al. — are both incompetent to prevent death and indifferent to the onslaught of death if the victims, whether they lose their lives in a largely preventable pandemic, a natural disaster caused by climate change, or at the hands of police or right-wing terrorists, are not white, rich and Republican.

Recent revelations should force Americans to consider an even darker reality, and gather insight into the malevolence of humanity that is typically accessible only in barbaric episodes of history and frightening stories of literature. The most powerful man in the federal government delights in the infliction of pain, misery and grief.

To understand Trump as a sadist, it is helpful to use Occam's razor. The 14th-century Franciscan friar William of Ockham submitted that in order to solve problems, a theorist should begin by cutting away the hypotheses that contain unnecessary complications. The fewer assumptions against reason one makes, the likelier one will stumble upon the truth. (He didn't actually invent this principle, but used it so often his name was attached to it.)

Bob Woodward recently released recordings and his new book have demolished Trump's last remaining defense of ignorance or delusion regarding COVID-19. As Trump made clear to Woodward in numerous conversations over a period of months, he always understood that the virus was easily transmissible and, in his own words, "deadly stuff."

Mike Lofgren, a longtime Republican congressional aide who worked as a staffer on both the House and Senate budget committees, recently wrote, "The stupidest leader imaginable randomly might have gotten something right; Trump's one hundred-percent record of failure was carefully calculated to achieve a specific result: mass death and a ready-made scapegoat."

Jared Kushner, according to a recent story in Vanity Fair, made the evil calculation early in the pandemic that it would only hurt Democratic states, and thereby cause more political harm to Democratic candidates for office than to Trump. It is now inarguable, as polls show Trump failing to gain on Joe Biden in the presidential race, with senior citizens moving toward the former vice president, that Trump has exacted no benefit from the ongoing failure to impose widespread testing and tracing measures, or to fully supply health care workers with personal protective equipment.

Sharpening Occam's razor, it is important to note that Trump's cruelty surpasses indifference. He is not only refusing to help — he is actively promoting the spread of the virus with his mockery of masks and packed indoor rallies.

Any biographer of Trump will explain that he is a hedonist. This is a man born into wealth and luxury who rarely, if ever, does anything that does not satisfy his ego, bring him pleasure or enhance his profits. As hundreds of thousands of Americans die, and the pandemic causes considerable damage to Trump's re-election campaign, what hypothesis remains other than the horror that Trump derives gratification from presiding over widespread death and chaos?

Perhaps it is the single most satisfying stroke of his ego to realize that he has the ability to save people's lives, but chooses not to do so. It is by now common to compare Trump to a cult leader. As Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, the Order of the Solar Temple and many other cults have demonstrated, the leaders of especially destructive cult movements eventually turn on their own people, ordering mass suicide as the ultimate exercise of power.

Before Trump's recent indoor rally in Nevada, a television reporter asked whether he was concerned about the event increasing infections of COVID-19. The president laughed, explaining that he wasn't worried because he'd be on a stage, standing "very far away" from his unmasked supporters. Trump voters are willing to risk their lives for the glorification of their leader, and that is thrilling — even fun — for him to watch.

Trump's tendency to laugh at inappropriate moments is particularly chilling and revealing.

He has shown little or no concern for the Pacific Northwest, where the worst wildfires in the history of the country are destroying countless homes, incinerating ecosystems and wildlife, and have killed more than 30 people.

When Wade Crowfoot, head of California's Natural Resources Agency, challenged Trump on his refusal to act on climate change during a meeting to discuss the fires, the president turned his head and began to laugh. He chuckled again when he told Crowfoot, in reference to irrefutable evidence that the planet is warming due to human activity, "The science doesn't know."

It's all fun and games for Trump.

Americans can gain similar insight into Trump's homicidal philosophy of political power by observing him defend Kyle Rittenhouse, a self-deputized right wing vigilante who shot three Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last month, killing two of them. Trump also brazenly calls for extrajudicial assassinations from law enforcement, recently declaring in an interview that "There has to be retribution" when reacting to the news that federal forces had killed Michael Reinoehl, the left-wing activist accused of shooting a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer in Portland, Oregon.

Edgar Allan Poe has a story about a man under the spell of the "imp of the perverse." He kills only for the rush of doing something he knows he should not. Poe writes that when "we peer into the abyss, we grow sick and dizzy." The normal human instinct is to turn away in retreat of danger and evil. There are those, however, who "unaccountably remain," guided by a thought that "chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height."

Donald Trump has descended into the abyss. He is attempting to take America with him. It is for us to decide whether we will follow.

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