Jim Sleeper

Those who celebrate the Rittenhouse verdict don't understand the chaos they've invited

Although I participated in the countercultural "revolutions," antiwar protests and racial conflicts of the 1960s, it wasn't until August 2016 that I had my first truly unnerving intimations of a full-blown American civil war: Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told a rally that if Hillary Clinton "gets to pick her judges, judicial appointments, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people — maybe there is. I don't know."

By June 1, 2020, Trump's seeming afterthought about "Second Amendment people" had metastasized into something truly scary. He and combat-fatigues-clad Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with Attorney General William Barr, strode from the White House to Lafayette Park, where a peaceful demonstration had been dispersed brutally by National Guard troops.

Trump's insistence only days earlier that the U.S. Army itself should be sent against the protesters — a demand echoed by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton in a now-infamous New York Times op-ed — reminded me of Julius Caesar leading Roman legions illegally across the river Rubicon from Gaul into Italy in 49 B.C. to subdue Rome's own citizens and, with them, their republic.

Kenosha, Wisconsin's closest approximation to the Rubicon is the tiny Pike River, which flows from Petrifying Springs into Lake Michigan. Its closest approximation to a military crackdown was the police mobilization against violent protests after a police officer shot and paralyzed an unarmed young Black man in August of last year. Those police failed to challenge Kyle Rittenhouse, the illegally armed, 17-year-old "Second Amendment person" who shot three men, killing two of them.

And when a Kenosha County jury failed to convict Rittenhouse on even a misdemeanor, sending what the parents of Anthony Huber — one of the men Rittenhouse killed — characterized as "the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street," I couldn't help but wonder what, if anything, will stop armed "Second Amendment people" from showing up near polling places a year from now, as a Republican National Ballot Security Task Force" has done intermittently since 1981, although without brandishing guns.

More unnervingly and urgently, I wonder why a jury of ordinary citizens, along with thousands of others who approved and even celebrated the Rittenhouse verdict are walking themselves across a Rubicon to deliver the message I've just cited, even though they haven't been "demagogued" into doing it by a Caesar or driven to do it by a military force.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow has noted that Rittenhouse was the same age as Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black youth shot dead in Florida by George Zimmerman, who considered himself a "protector" of his neighborhood and who was acquitted of murder. Blow notes that although Trayvon Martin "was thugified" by Zimmerman and the judicial process, Rittenhouse was "infantilized" by the defense argument that a 17-year-old may be excused for misjudging dangers that he himself has provoked illegally. It's hard to imagine a similar jury accepting similar excuses for a young Black man with an assault rifle, even if he never fired it.

I've contended for years that swift, dark undercurrents are degrading and stupefying Americans in ways that most of us try not to acknowledge. More of us than ever before are normalizing our adaptations to daily variants of force and fraud in the commercial groping and goosing of our private lives and public spaces; in nihilistic entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment; in the "gladiatorialization: and corruption of sports; in home-security precautions against the prospect of armed invasion; in casino-like financing of unproductive economic activities, such as the predatory lending that tricks millions out of their homes; and in a huge, ever-expanding prison industry created to deter or punish the broken, violent victims of all these come-ons, even as schools in the "nicest," "safest," neighborhoods operate in fear of gunmen who, from Columbine to Sandy Hook and beyond, have been students or residents there themselves.

Stressed by this republican derangement, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves. All those vials, syringes, home-security systems and shootings reflect the insinuation of what Edward Gibbon, the historian of ancient Rome, called "a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire" until Roman citizens "no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army."

Is it really so surprising that some of the stressed and dispossessed, too ill to bear their sicknesses or their cures, demand to be lied to instead, with simple but compelling fantasies that direct them toward saviors and scapegoats — into cries for strongmen to cross a Rubicon or two and for "Second Amendment people" to take our streets?


Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

How our nation's blindness to history could lead to Trump's comeback

In March 2016, when few political consultants, pollsters, data-jockeys, psy-ops masterminds or media maestros thought that Donald Trump could or would ever win the White House, I assessed his rise differently in a long Salon essay that few can read now because Americans barely glance into what we always call "the rear-view mirror."

History is more than a rear-view mirror. It enables people who give it more than a quick glance to know that someone like Trump surfs a tsunami of ressentiment — a public psychopathology in which gnawing insecurities, envy and hatred, nursed by many in private, converge in scary social eruptions that present themselves as noble crusades but that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big.

"Ressentiment's gloves really come off once there are enough angry 'little-big men' to step out en masse, with a Sarah Palin or a Glenn Beck," I warned nearly five years ago, adding:

Trump is leading them across the Rubicon, signaling that he'll mow down anyone and anything in his way. Legitimate grievances that fuel ressentiment sometimes drive its eruptions to a fleeting brilliance, as when Palin tapped currents of thwarted love and hope in her speeches in the 2008 campaign. But, like her public persona, such gestures soon curdle and collapse, tragicomically or catastrophically, into their own cowardice, ignorance and lies.

But how "soon" do they collapse? Trumpian ressentiment lasted for four years, which is more than just the blink of an eye in the short history of our republic. During those years I found myself elaborating my warning in many venues, including again here in Salon in 2018 (when I reported reactions to the 2016 essay) and, more recently, in Democracy Journal.'

But now that those predictions have been book-ended suitably by Susan Glasser's "Obituary for a Failed Presidency" in the New Yorker, her summary of Trumpian ressentiment prompts me to a couple of quick observations.

First, Americans need to do more than glance into rear-view mirrors as they speed to nowhere. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," wrote William Faulkner, novelist and interpreter of the American South. meaning not that we should impose the past upon the present but that we should learn from it as we see it at work in our lives. Non-historians should acquire the pleasing habit of checking History News Network summaries and links to op-eds and magazine essays by historians and occasional interlopers.

Trump couldn't have conned as many of us as he did if our schools had taught more of us about this country's dalliances with demagogues like Huey Long and Joe McCarthy. The invaluable program "Facing History and Ourselves" now guides thousands of students in doing what its name commends. We need more of it.

Second, we need to recognize that people who feel stressed and dispossessed often demand to be lied to about their history because they want easy answers and scapegoats. By stoking ressentiment and algorithmically-driven marketing that pressures deliberating citizens to become impulse-buying consumers, Trump ushered millions into a political twilight zone where democracy is suspended by strongmen.

A good liberal democracy strides on two feet: a "left" foot of public provision — public schools, health care and other resources, without which conservatives' cherished familial and communal values could never flourish — and a "right" foot of irreducibly personal conscience and responsibility, without which even the best-intentioned "liberal" social engineering would turn persons into cogs, clients or worse.

Finding and keeping a balanced stride is an acquired art and a discipline. History must inform it, but only wise parenting, teaching and, yes, political engagement — all of which require public as well as private resources — can teach young Americans the art and discipline of self-government instead of driving them to be "little-big men" all too likely to surrender to the next Trump who comes on to our now-badly-frayed civic culture. If something like Trumpism persists, as I believe it will, that won't simply be because his followers will remain more loyal to him than he will to them. It will be because our society's growing moral bankruptcy and injustices will stoke more ressentiment, whose bearers will look for — and find — a new and potentially more dangerous iteration of Trump.

Some of us saw this coming

If nothing else, Wednesday's insurgency-cum-riot on Capitol Hill should serve to sidelines a few insouciant, above-it-all pundits who quietly enjoyed Donald Trump's upstaging of liberals, even as they assured us that ultimately we had little to fear from him.

"He Won't Concede, but He'll Pack His Bags" was the headline on Atlantic writer Graeme Wood's pre-election column of Oct. 15, which informed us that although Trump "has signaled that he's willing to plunge America into chaos in an effort to remain in the White House … we should remember that Trump had a vision of the presidency that began with extreme laziness, and that the end of his presidency could go roughly the same way. … [A]ll evidence suggests that he would run from the responsibility … of overseeing the violent fracture of America."

Well, maybe. And maybe New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was right to assure us, on Oct. 10, that "There Will Be No Trump Coup." Douthat offered us a "final pre-election case for understanding the president as a noisy weakling, not a budding autocrat. Across the last four years, the Trump administration has indeed displayed hallmarks of authoritarianism. … But it's also important to recognize all the elements of authoritarianism he lacks. He lacks popularity and political skill, unlike most of the global strongmen who are supposed to be his peers. … Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like 'plotting' implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks."

Well, maybe. But Douthat — whom I've characterized as a casualty of Ideological Displacement Syndrome — worries that "[w]ith American liberalism poised to retake presidential power, it … has become a more dominant force in our society, with a zealous progressive vanguard and a monopoly in the commanding heights of culture. Its return to power in Washington won't be the salvation of American pluralism; it will be the unification of cultural and political power under a single banner."

Again, maybe. But begging Douthat and Wood's pardon, what I think we've witnessed on Capitol Hill is pretty much what I predicted in March of 2016, as Trump was rampaging through that year's Republican presidential primaries, demolishing both that party's and the Democratic Party's establishments:

Armed, racist American goons and drooling fools who are circling liberal democracy's proverbial town meetings in our nightmares … weren't born to do what they're doing now, nor were they all disposed to do it back on the playground. The quiet little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt that accumulated in tiny increments in their young lives as their parents lost jobs, pensions, homes, mutual respect, and public moral standing have blossomed into open resentment seeking the right target.

How many of us remember that when Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017, his transition team had discovered that the president has complete command of the National Guard unit of the District of Columbia, and that it informed that unit's commander, Errol Schwartz, that his dismissal would be effective precisely at noon on Inauguration Day, in the middle of the ceremony, so that he wouldn't even be able to welcome back the troops he'd sent out that morning. Two days before the inauguration, that decision was reconsidered, and Schwartz was granted enough time to finish the ceremony and wrap up his affairs. I warned about all this in a long essay entitled, "The Die Is Cast: Why Trump Can't Help but Try Dictatorship."

Well, Trump is indeed unequal to Vladimir Putin in orchestrating tyranny. Yet his impulses resemble what 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon described, in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," as the formation of the Roman emperor Augustus' Praetorian Guard after an enfeebled, terrified Senate granted him "an important privilege. :.. By a dangerous exception to the ancient maxims, he was authorized to preserve his military command, supported by a numerous body of guards, even in time of peace, and in the heart of the capital."

So far, what I and many of us feared years ago hasn't quite happened. But Trump's inaugural denunciations in 2017 of "politicians who prospered as jobs left and factories closed" — coupled with his vow that the "American carnage" caused by the hiring and buying of foreign people and products and deepened by crime, gangs and drugs "stops right here, stops right now" — left him no choice but to humble or destroy all "politicians" who resist him.

Just look now at the Republicans, as well as Democrats, whom he's thrown under the bus. Let's hope we can look at this moment as a historic one in which, once again, most Americans told Trump and the tens of millions of their fellow citizens who have indulged his armed goons and drooling fools that, as President-elect Biden said during the upheaval: "Enough is enough."

Are the Trumpers headed for history's dumpster?

Now, even as they find themselves voting against Donald Trump's ballyhooed call to send $2,000 to desperate Americans, most congressional Republicans, from Louie Gohmert and Jim Jordan to Mitch McConnell, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, are finally suffering the Trumpian contempt and public humiliation that executive-branch saps such as Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr suffered as they set themselves up for and squirmed under Trump's all-devouring narcissism.

And so another raft of Trumpsters — this time including a majority of Republican lawmakers — is thrown into history's dumpster. Or so we might wish.

But let's not set ourselves up for embarrassment. It's not yet clear that Trump's millions of diehard believers are learning anything from watching politician after politician bite the dust.

Even in the unlikely event that Democrats win control of the Senate by defeating Perdue and Loeffler in Georgia's Jan. 5 Senate runoffs, potential victors Jon Ossoff and/or Raphael Warnock will inherit, along with Joe Biden, a mess even more dreadful than the awful one that George W. Bush's Republicans bequeathed to Barack Obama and Biden in 2009.

And, once again, Democrats will have to survive a tsunami of unrepentant, unending poison and unquenchable rage.

We can anticipate this because it's happened so often in American history that we, no less than the congressional Republicans, would be setting ourselves up for shock and despair if we didn't take steps to counter it.

Too many Americans who voted for Trump and who crave easy answers and scapegoats for their distress are following the New England Puritans who hunted witches; the masses of desperately poor who swooned in revival rallies and Great Awakenings across the 18th and 19th centuries, prompting the satirist H.L. Mencken to lampoon preachers who dammed brooks by baptizing the faithful; and the lynch mobs and Klansmen and believers who followed such demagogues as Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Sen. Joe McCarthy.

The journal Democracy has just posted my essay warning that it's happening again. (Salon posted my similar warning in greater detail four years ago, when Trump was rampaging through the Republican primaries and demolishing both parties' establishments.) Many others have issued similar warnings: Chris Lehmann's "The Money Cult" nails more Protestant theologians and preachers than I like to acknowledge as "court poets" of the vulturous capitalism that has deluded Americans throughout our history.

Trump's demagoguery, I write in Democracy, has "enlarged and exploited a social and moral vacuum that was already swallowing faith in the republic and a corporate-capitalist economy that has driven countless little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt into our lives":

These forces have been dissolving our freedoms for decades now, not out of malevolence but out of mindless, routinized greed. Trump has focused free-floating, inchoate rage against these material and cultural assaults into a syndrome that substitutes Authority for democracy by feigning populist indignation and by scapegoating women and people of color. His true believers' growing violence won't recede or be reversed even if it's set back. ...
[S]omething like Trumpism will outlast him because the fabric of liberal-democratic and civic republican norms and institutions was weakened long before his presidency: Leaders who weakened citizens' trust in public initiatives and assets were market-fundamentalist economists such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan (both of whom died before Trump even ran for President), and Arthur Laffer, who advised Trump's 2016 campaign; businessmen who've long meddled in politics, such as the brothers Charles and David Koch and private-equity baron Stephen Schwarzman; and media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and demagogues Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson.

What differentiates Trumpism from the mass delusions I've mentioned is that we longer have even the ghost of an establishment that, for all its flaws, was credible enough to enough Americans — as, for instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt was — to buy off, deflect and sometimes educate enough stampeding witch-hunters, creationists, race rioters and rabid anti-Communists to give democracy another chance. Even conservative Republicans such as John McCain sometimes accomplished that. Where are they now?

This time, they — and liberal Democrats — have let torrents of casino-like financing and consumer bamboozling, which seem harmless and anodyne but are in fact unprecedentedly powerful and intimately intrusive, turn millions of potentially thoughtful citizens into impulse-buyers who demand to be lied to because they're desperate for easy answers. And so we find today's congressional Republicans, locked in a blind, swooning embrace of delusions about how wealth is created and about how it escapes from the working people who actually create it.

Trump's war on democracy is bad for business — but corporate leaders are getting what they paid for

The latest news out of Michigan — in which the current occupant of the White House has not only summoned Republican legislative leaders to meet with him but pressured two members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers into attempting to rescind their votes to certify the election outcomes, potentially disenfranchising thousands of legitimate votes — makes clear that Donald Trump and his minions have opened a trap door in the foundation of democracy and are diving into an abyss of raw power and violence that none of us may escape. Joe Biden's administration will have to grow brass knuckles to deal with what's coming. Business and civic leaders, in the large corporations and the elite universities, should grow some brass knuckles, too. Other news of recent weeks makes one wonder if they will.

Thirty important CEOs of major corporations logged into an early morning, off-the-record Zoom meeting on Nov. 6 to explore responses to Donald Trump's defiance of democracy. One of those was Robert Iger, the 69-year-old executive chairman of the studiously apolitical Walt Disney Company. He and the other chief executives, including three former U.S. cabinet secretaries, convened with Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the peripatetic maestro of confidential executive conclaves and business-leadership programs who is a professor of management at Yale and a founder of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute.

The virtually assembled CEOs had been shaken by Trump's delusional White House briefing room pronouncements about the election. So they listened intently as Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a scholar of 20th-century authoritarianism and the author of "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century," explained how business elites' inaction and prevarications about rising fascism in Weimar Germany and other countries had wound up facilitating Nazi and other fascist coups whose tactics Trump has been emulating, with eerie if somewhat loopy fidelity.

But after Snyder signed off, Stephen Schwarzman, billionaire CEO of the Blackstone private equity group, a key Trump confidant and mega-donor, and a Yale College alumnus whose $150 million gift to his alma mater prompted it to rename and repurpose its semi-sacred civic complex for him, defended the president's legal right to challenge the election outcome. Schwarzman urged the CEOs to be patient, and not publicly critical of Trump's refusal to concede defeat.

Although Disney's Iger and most others at the meeting had no connections to Yale, the university's background role in these conflicted reckonings isn't a coincidence. It's an emblem of the crisis itself.

First things first: Iger, born in Brooklyn and raised as a Democrat on Long Island — he co-chaired a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign — switched his voter registration to independent soon after Trump's victory. In a videotaped interview on Nov. 10, 2016, Iger praised the smooth transition then underway from Obama's presidency to Trump's, noting his hope for "a new tax policy" with lower corporate rates and better incentives to competition. "I think it's too soon to say" whether Trump would deliver it, he added, but on Dec. 2, 2016, he joined the president-elect's Strategic and Policy Forum, a business advisory council led by Schwarzman.

Yet Iger resigned from that group only six months later, when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, and expressed discomfort with Trump more generally after the Las Vegas massacre (in which a Disney employee was killed), saying that, "In this day and age, we get outraged when an athlete doesn't stand for the national anthem — where's the outrage here?" This year, he donated more than $250,000 to Joe Biden's campaign.

Having worked for 25 years at Disney's helm to expand its entertainment offerings and media properties, Iger and other CEOs were "alarmed," Jeffrey Sonnenfeld told the Financial Times, by Trump's duplicitous, nearly deranged remarks in the White House briefing room just after the election. Such behavior, compounding the COVID crisis, endangered corporate efforts to expand their markets and profits "intelligently," by their lights, as demagogue-addled mobs destroyed the consumer-friendly, democratic comity that steady profit-making requires. CEOs "don't want fractured communities. They don't want hostile workplaces," Sonnenfeld told the FT, and, the very next day, Nov. 7, the influential national Business Roundtable, some of whose members had logged into the Yale meeting, congratulated the Biden-Harris ticket on its clear victory.

But, echoing Schwarzman's sinuous advice, the Roundtable statement also commended Trump "for a hard-fought campaign that has garnered over 70 million votes. We know the outcome is disappointing to his millions of supporters. While we respect the Trump campaign's right to seek recounts, to call for investigation of alleged voting irregularities where evidence exists and to exhaust legitimate legal remedies, there is no indication that any of these would change the outcome."

That statement exemplifies the tension between business leaders' need to acknowledge democracy's challenges to their tax-cutting, wage-cutting, public deregulatory and private surveillance agendas, on the one hand, and the public's need to limit the dangers those agendas pose to democracy, on the other. The Roundtable's statement certainly didn't illuminate what executives like Iger have worked so hard to finesse: the cold reality that top-down political derangement such as Trump's has been rising in America — at the hands of big business itself — since well before he emerged as a fake businessman on "The Apprentice" and in his many real but casino-like ventures. The Trumpism that has enveloped and devoured an entire political party is the result not only of his own pathologies but of systemic relations between the happy, confident consumerism that companies need and the accelerating decay of democratic legitimacy and comity that consumerism now promotes.

But, echoing Schwarzman's sinuous advice, the Roundtable statement also commended Trump "for a hard-fought campaign that has garnered over 70 million votes. We know the outcome is disappointing to his millions of supporters. While we respect the Trump campaign's right to seek recounts, to call for investigation of alleged voting irregularities where evidence exists and to exhaust legitimate legal remedies, there is no indication that any of these would change the outcome."

That statement exemplifies the tension between business leaders' need to acknowledge democracy's challenges to their tax-cutting, wage-cutting, public deregulatory and private surveillance agendas, on the one hand, and the public's need to limit the dangers those agendas pose to democracy, on the other. The Roundtable's statement certainly didn't illuminate what executives like Iger have worked so hard to finesse: the cold reality that top-down political derangement such as Trump's has been rising in America — at the hands of big business itself — since well before he emerged as a fake businessman on "The Apprentice" and in his many real but casino-like ventures. The Trumpism that has enveloped and devoured an entire political party is the result not only of his own pathologies but of systemic relations between the happy, confident consumerism that companies need and the accelerating decay of democratic legitimacy and comity that consumerism now promotes.

The attempt by Yale's Sonnenfeld to reconcile or at least mediate between the conflicting assessments of Trump by Yale historian Snyder and Yale alumnus and mega-donor Schwarzman reflected a crisis in Yale's and other universities' mission to temper their students' preparation for capitalist wealth-making with commitments to scientific (originally, Puritan religious) truth-seeking and to the arts and disciplines of civic-republican governance. Although Schwarzman has lavishly funded, served and defended Trump's deranged politics since 2016, Sonnenfeld defended Schwarzman's attempt to steer the CEOs away from condemning Trump. He assured student reporters at the Yale Daily News that, in the meeting, "Schwarzman never defended President Trump's assertion that this was an unfair election. … There was no parochial self-interest, no corporate strategic angles that [Schwarzman and the other CEOs] were arguing. This was 100 percent a spirit of patriotism and common concern that alarmed them." A Blackstone spokesman assured the FT that "As an American, Steve believes the electoral system is sound and that the democratic process will play out in an orderly and legal manner, as it has throughout our nation's history."

But Sonnenfeld's fervent defense of Schwarzman as a disinterested citizen, standing like Horatio at the bridge to defending the republic, can't be reconciled with Schwarzman's fervent support for and collaboration with Trump, his powerful beneficiary and benefactor. Although Schwarzman has now acknowledged that "it looks like Joe Biden" has won the election, his years-long collaboration with Trump accelerates the unraveling of Yale's and other universities' mission to balance their students' (and some professors') assiduous wealth-making with liberal education's truth seeking and its great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.

Although Yale recently renamed its John C. Calhoun College to cease honoring that champion of white supremacy and Black slavery, it just as recently repurposed and renamed its civic center as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, honoring the man who bankrolls and counsels the current champion of white supremacy and, sotto voce, of Black death at the hands of rogue police officers and COVID.

The hypocrisy isn't confined to private universities like Yale. Christopher Newfield, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a trenchant critic of misguided business policies that undermine higher education, showed recently in his authoritative blog Remaking the University that liberal Democrats capitulated decades ago to business leaders' worst priorities and practices. The universities did little to offset their own growing sense of themselves as corporations in an education industry that incentivizes students to become self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers instead of deliberating citizens. That sea-change in liberal Democrats' own priorities is symbolized by Yale's renaming of Commons, but it's also devastating to the public universities fiscally and ideologically, as Newfield makes strikingly clear.

* * *

Democracy's genuflection to plutocracy isn't hard to detect in convergences among participants in Sonnenfeld's meeting. He and Schwarzman grew up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s, albeit seven years apart, both attending public school in the Abington township, both working in their fathers' small businesses (the Sonnenfelds' men's clothing store, the Schwarzmans' dry goods store). Both sons went on to the Ivy League, Sonnenfeld to Harvard College and then to the Harvard Business School, which Schwarzman also attended after graduating from Yale. Both emerged as fanatical self-promoters, not only in business but also in education and public life. Schwarzman's "edifice complex," as egregious as Trump's, has driven him to put his name on countless public institutions, as I reported in Dissent magazine.

Sonnenfeld, an effusive business pundit on MSNBC and in many other venues, is almost infamously ravenous for public attention and respect from business elites. "He's the Oprah Winfrey of business schools," the late political scientist Robert Pastor told Philip Weiss, a Harvard College classmate of Sonnenfeld who profiled him for The New York Observer. Although Sonnenfeld is acutely skeptical of Trump — in 2004, he disparaged "The Apprentice" for teaching wrong lessons about business leadership — it takes one to know one. Trump's compulsive attention-getting rides more on combat than on connecting, but both he and Sonnenfeld have had to fight maniacally to restore and embellish almost-ruined careers — Trump through bankruptcy after bankruptcy, and Sonnenfeld owing to an incident at Emory University in 1997 that ended with his vindication only after an excruciatingly long fight that impels him to advise CEOs on how to stage comebacks from career disasters. It's worth noting that Trump got his B.A. and MBA in Sonnenfeld's native Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton Business School.

* * *

Historian R.H.Tawney characterized the hypocrisies of leaders who try to put a righteous face on their uncontrollable power-lust and greed:

"Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the naïve psychology of the business man, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert," Tawney wrote in 1926. "That individualist complex owes part of its self-assurance to the suggestion of Puritan moralists that practical success is at once the sign and the reward of ethical superiority. … The demonstration that distress is a proof of demerit, though a singular commentary on the lives of Christian saints and sages, has always been popular with the prosperous. By the lusty plutocracy … roaring after its meat and not indisposed, if it could not find it elsewhere to seek it from God, it was welcomed with a shout of applause."

Plutocrats and their apologists don't exactly "roar" after their meat at redoubts such as Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival and Sonnenfeld's Chief Executive Leadership Institute. Surveying the degradation and ruin of the democratic public that their own practices and premises have demoralized, they sigh sagely and wonder piously how "the people" might return to self-government, even as plutocrats like Trump show that they can barely govern themselves, let alone anyone else.

Democracy benefits only fleetingly when some plutocrats oppose others who've gotten out of hand: The historian Snyder, writing recently in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal, contends that Trump is driven now by desperation to escape the legal and economic ruin that awaits him when he loses presidential immunity against civil and criminal indictment. Trump has come very close indeed to derailing the election with more than a little help from his Republican Party, thanks to which even Congress won't uphold the rule of law unless public resistance to current arrangements moves beyond episodic looting and assaults and beyond tweeting, texting, signing petitions and writing articles like this one.

Ultimately there's no substitute for disciplined, humane democratic movements such as those led by Mahatma Gandhi, Adam Michnick, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and the founders of the American republic. They've reconfigured and sometimes replaced national-security states and regimes built on grinding inequality and corruption. Often, as in Eastern Europe and the American South, they've done it without perpetrating violence: Even the American Revolution "was effected before the War commenced ... in the Minds and Hearts of the People," wrote John Adams.

Perhaps the clearest assessment of such movements is the late Jonathan Schell's "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People." He recounts how leaders of such movements discovered that power flows ultimately not from the few who are daunting, dazzling or wealthy but from seemingly powerless masses who stop obeying and who reconfigure their lives together without official permission or reward, through disciplined non-cooperation that's nonviolent but all the more effectively coercive. Time and again, Schell wrote, rulers driven by power-lust and greed respond to such movements "with refreshed ignorance": A state that militarizes its police and floods its streets with soldiers, surveillance and thugs ends up displaying its impotence before massive but principled non-cooperation.

There's no revolutionary thrill in discovering that America has come to this. Elites, too, must act, but in ways that heal and empower others, not just by pouring money into Democratic Party coffers. And universities that fund institutes and programs for elite leadership and grand strategy-making should fund more courses like the one on nonviolence and power that Schell taught at Yale for years, along with programs that prepare organizers for the movements that democracies everywhere need now.

Why tens of millions surrendered their independence of mind and body to Trump

Financier and philanthropist George Soros must have seen Trump coming as early as 2011. He certainly saw where a disturbingly large proportion of American voters were going. "The United States has been a democracy and open society since its founding. The idea that it will cease to be one seems preposterous; yet it is a very likely prospect," he wrote in the New York Review of Books in June of that year.

George W. Bush's reelection in 2004 had convinced Soros "that the malaise in American society went deeper than incompetent leadership." The public had proved "unwilling to face harsh reality and was positively asking to be deceived by demanding easy answers to difficult problems."

Will the American public now reconfirm Soros' observation? This year's campaign has given us plenty or reasons to worry.

By the end of Bush's second term in 2009, few Americans denied the harsh realities of the Iraq war fiasco and of failed federal responses to Hurricane Katrina's devastation and to tsunamis of predatory financing that were throwing millions of people out of their homes and jobs. Yet Soros insisted that much of the public, reluctant to face other realities, grasped at vague, easy hopes that Barack Obama's 2008 campaign offered but that his presidency proved sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to fulfill, especially against a Republican Congress after 2010.

The ongoing public flight from reality only accelerated with Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, when millions of voters sought scapegoats to blame for rising dangers and craved simplistic directions to safety and salvation.

Soros proposed that Americans' reluctance to face reality had been "coupled with the refinement in the techniques of deception" by Rupert Murdoch's and other right-wing media and by sundry impresarios and invaders of internet social media. But he also warned that democracy can be undone by a much older danger, inherent in human nature, that discredits the Enlightenment "assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality." That assumption "is valid only for the study of natural phenomena," not of politics, Soros wrote. Instead of standing "apart from reality, acting as a searchlight illuminating it," reason and rational analysis were of little help in understanding how even prosperous, well-educated people think and act in society.

That disturbing proposition has been reinforced by Trump ever since 2016 and by the public distempers he stoked on the eve of this election. Those distempers won't abate even if Joe Biden wins. American history offers ample reasons why. Whenever the republic's civil society has been under great stress, defenders of its traditional values, joined by opportunistic free riders like Trump who are driven only by power-lust and greed, have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies whom they've blamed for the crises.

In the 1690s, the enemy was witches, hysterical women and girls said to had been taken by Satan. In 1619 and ever since, it has been African Americans and other people of color, said to be inferior and therefore all the more dangerous to their oppressors. In the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, said by a presidential candidate to be besotted with "rum, Romanism and rebellion." In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds and pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960s, it was hippies, inner-city rioters, and opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 9/11, it has been American Muslims.

Trump drew some of his inspiration from another such paroxysm in 2015, when a yet another scapegoat was conjured up by another cohort of self-avowed civic champions, propagandists, opportunists and keyboard-pounding alarmists (including more than a few sensation-hungry journalists). Civil society, they warned the public, was endangered by fragile, college-student "snowflakes" and petulant, censorious "cry-bullies," obsessing, with their coddling, over-controlling parents, counselors and deans, about "safety." According to this account, their perverse culture of "safetyism" censures all who don't follow its rules.

This was all well before the real threat to safety posed by COVID-19, which certainly does require that we follow strict rules. Yet public response to safety-obsessed college snowflakes and cry-bullies society was almost as intense as it had been in response to Puritan alarms about witches and alarms about domestic Communist spies. A 7,300-word article in the September, 2015 Atlantic magazine, "The Coddling of the American Mind," garnered more than half a million Facebook shares with its claim that a new "movement" on American campuses was demanding protection from even stray phrases uttered in conversation or offending sentences in textbooks that might frighten or discomfit students and their mentors.

Introducing readers to preoccupations with "trigger warnings," "micro-aggressions" and "safe spaces," Atlantic authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warned that "safetyism" and "vindictive protectiveness," driven by "generally left-leaning campus sensibilities," was spawning "pathological thinking," such as "catastrophizing," a malignant pessimism that turns "commonplace negative events into nightmarish monsters."

Keyboard-pounding culture warriors, many of them older white men, including some of my own college classmates, responded, often anonymously but with alacrity, raging from internet "safe spaces" at videos of black students demanding apologies for racism and sexism. Some students' demands were histrionic and destructive to civility, but residential undergraduate college campuses, at least before COVID, have been civil societies on training wheels, where young adults sometimes experiment in a politics of self-discovery through moral posturing. Some act like hypersensitive barometers or canaries in a coal mine, registering tremors of a much larger civic implosion that they can't help but carry but certainly haven't caused.

The same can't be said of their angry elders, presumably more mature but nostalgic for visions of their own youth (which they might wince to recall accurately). They exhibit "a distinctive attitudinal structure" that the political theorist Peter F. Gordon, in "The Authoritarian Personality Revisited," reminds us has a "tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values." In 2015, conservative provocateurs, editors and reporters obliged these keyboard authoritarians by prowling campuses, notebooks and video-cams at the ready to catch the "cry-bullies" in action.

Necessary though it is to challenge wayward students' and mentors' affronts to free inquiry and expression, it's just as important to understand what's driving them. But well-funded orchestrators of grand-inquisitorial takedowns of leftish "social justice warriors" and "safetyism" developed a strategy that was embraced and adapted by then-candidate Trump: Knowing a successful marketing gambit when he saw one, he promised his followers "safety" from "political correctness" in colleges and, soon enough, from urban anarchists, feral invaders of suburbs and other "nightmarish monsters."

Trump being Trump, he couldn't stop accusing his conjured-up adversaries of sins that he himself and his Republicans are guilty of: fear-mongering and craving the "safety" he supposedly defies; fomenting violence and the swamp of corruption that submerges his own family and supporters. In this year's campaign, "Make America Great Again" became "Make America Safe Again," outdoing the obsessions about safety that the anti-"coddling" crusade had ascribed to college scapegoats.

"In Joe Biden's America, you and your family will never be safe," Trump told a Tampa audience in July. In a perfect instance of "catastrophizing," he warned that under Biden, "rioters and criminals will be totally protected, law-abiding citizens will be totally disarmed, and American families will be at the mercy of the violent left-wing mob that you've been watching on television."

Adopting a more coddling tone, Trump assured senior citizens in Fort Myers, Florida, in August that "our groundbreaking therapies have significantly ... improved our outcomes for elderly patients, but I'll not relent until all American seniors are safe. You're going to be safe — 100 percent safe." Losing his train of thought in the midst of that talk, he added, "Suburban women want security, they want safety, they want law and order. They want their homes to be protected…. You know why they like me? Because I'm saving their homes."

In a tweet reported by the Boston Globe, Trump added, revealingly, "They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood."

The biggest irony in Trump's "safety" gambit is that it doesn't really copy the campus left as much as it picks up a strong current in conservative thought that generated campus "safetyism" in the first place. In 1972, conservative activists David and Holly Franke wrote a book identifying towns — including Holly's hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts — that they deemed safe from the social upheavals and maladies of that time. Catastrophizing that 50 percent of Americans felt "afraid to walk the streets of their own communities at night" and that 47 percent predicted "a real breakdown in this country," the Frankes commended "only one rational route possible for the law-abiding citizen: escape."

Their book — "Safe Placessold well through several iterations ("Safe Places West" and "Safe Places for the '80s"). But to revisit the book's fear-driven, fear-inducing assessments of American society now is to uncover some instructive ironies.

The first involves the conservative turn from demanding safety for suburbs that, in 1972, weren't truly threatened by inner-city invaders, to condemning the more-recent demands for "safe places" by students and mentors, many of whom were raised in precisely the "safe places" defended so ardently by the Frankes.

A second irony lies in David Franke's history, since his student days in the 1950s, of mobilizing campus conservatives against leftist radicals. In 1970, two years before publishing "Safe Spaces," he edited "Quotations from Chairman Bill: The Best of William F. Buckley Jr." He co-founded the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to train college students to counter "liberal betrayals" of "our nation's founding principles — limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy ... ideas that are rarely taught in your classroom."

So when Trump rails against political correctness on campuses and danger in the suburbs, he's forgetting or denying that imaginary escapes from nightmarish monsters have been peddled successfully for decades by conservatives to millions of people burdened by harsh realities they were reluctant to face honestly. Huge, swooning crowds followed evangelical impresarios such as George Whitefield in colonial times, Billy Sunday in the early 20th century, and a swarm of opportunistic preachers since the 1980s. Earthbound salvation was promised by demagogues such as Louisiana Gov. Huey Long (fictionalized memorably by Robert Penn Warren in his novel "All the King's Men") and the Communist-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Trump is outdoing them all. Tens of millions of Americans have surrendered their independence of mind and even of body and property to him, mortgaging their liberties and material security for the dubious satisfactions of wreaking imaginary vengeance on false targets. Forgotten or excused are the greed and power-lust that drive both the coolest and the most impassioned dealers of such delusions.

If there's been little news lately about coddled, safety-obsessed campus "snowflakes" and "cry-bullies," it's because Trump's marketing of fear and false solutions has shifted public attention from political censure to political violence, not only by a relatively few looters, anarchists and antifa militants, but by uniformed murderers of unarmed young Black people, by militias with assault rifles converging on state capitols, by militarized riot cops, by military itself in Lafayette Square and by mysterious federal agents yanking peaceful protesters off the streets in Portland.

Eruptions of "unsafety" have also come from financialized, market-mad distortions of civil society and governance since long before COVID exposed as much devastation as it has caused directly. Trump has ridden and compounded these distortions. His efforts to project responsibility and blame for the damage onto those who are protesting it — including some protesters who, yes, have been damaged by it — were parodied unintentionally by Rudy Giuliani in his speech to this year's Republican National Convention about New York City's supposedly riotous crime and anarchy.

A better American response to Trump and his Republican Party came in the NBA coach Doc Rivers' almost-plaintive, at one point tearful, lament after he'd watched the Republican convention:

All you hear is … all of them talking about fear. … We're the ones getting killed. … [We] protest. … They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns. … Nothing happens [to them]. … My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. … It's amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It's really so sad. [I]f you watch that video, you don't need to be Black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged.

This election has shown that many Americans love the country as Doc Rivers does and that they're determined to keep the republic and all that's been redemptive in its political culture. They have voted to safeguard a pluralist, economically sane, civically rich society against its real enemies, who include Trump himself. Whatever Joe Biden's weaknesses, he said rightly that that kind of civic love really was on the ballot.

It sure seems like Trump is gearing up to blame McConnell for for blocking a new stimulus

In Thursday night's debate, President Trump skirted Joe Biden's observation that it's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican Senators — not House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who are blocking the "go big" stimulus package that Trump recently decided to promote before the election.

Trump kept on blaming Pelosi. But suppose that, with Nov. 3 in sight but unable to see beyond his immediate self-interest, he shoots himself in the foot by lambasting the Republican senators for blocking the stimulus he wants, thereby prompting some of his base to "punish" them at the polls, very possibly helping to hand the Senate to Democrats.

Although that would be a self-defeating strategy for Trump, it might not be bad for hundreds of thousands of his followers who are small businesspeople or self-employed in other ways and who, along with their customers and clients, need the stimulus as desperately as Trump does, albeit for "gut" economic reasons, not his narrow political ones. A Democratic Senate would probably join with the House (and a President Biden) to pass a stimulus package even more ambitious than whatever Pelosi and Mnuchin find possible.

Trump's self-absorption and opportunism have spotlighted not only philosophical divisions between Senate Republican hawks who can't stomach a $2 trillion stimulus and the office-holders who want only to hold on to their offices; Trump's pro-stimulus move also spotlights the economic canyon that yawns between our high-rolling con man of a president and millions of hard-working people whom his Republican Party has betrayed.

McConnell, currently in his own re-election fight, assumes that enough Kentucky voters are anti-government ideologues who will keep on shooting themselves in the foot by backing him and other Senate Republicans in blocking a stimulus. (Recent polling has him leading his challenger Amy McGrath statewide across income brackets and education levels.) He may be right to believe he can count on the support of the slice of Kentucky voters who believe "a wildly misleading image of recipients of public aid as thieves bleeding taxpayers dry," as New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter put it in his book "American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise":

"'Welfare queens' and other racial stereotypes peddled over the years by the political foes of redistribution… convinced white Americans that people of color are undeserving moochers from the public purse," Porter writes. "White voters marginalized by the same economic forces … could not figure out that they were shooting themselves in the foot" by cutting programs they imagined were serving only non-whites.

Thus many of McConnell's supporters have embraced "welfare reform" and Medicaid rules that culled 100,000 people from the rolls in recent years, even as the state, Porter writes, has "the most cancer deaths in the nation, and the most preventable hospitalizations" and is near the top in its death rate from diabetes. (Kentucky's Medicaid program has been a rollercoaster over the last several years; one of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's first orders of business last December was to roll back the work requirements his Republican predecessor Matt Bevin put on Medicaid recipients in an effort to derail the expansion enacted under the Affordable Care Act.)

A Kentucky friend of mine shared with me the phrase "shame-natured" to describe the mixture of "low self-esteem and fierce pride, independence, and a sense of honor," as she puts it, which some conservative white working-class Southern voters have long carried with them into the booth. But the pandemic has up-ended much in their lives, and a parsimonious response could put McConnell on thinner ice with GOP reliables whose incomes have shriveled due to the virus. Perhaps McConnell hasn't yet heard the concerns of Republican voters like the Corbin truck driver who told the Washington Post back in August that he's "scared to death of losing everything" and angry at GOP leaders for failing to authorize another round of stimulus payments.

Or perhaps McConnell is hoping that party-line voters who are hurting economically will give him a pass, especially in the rural parts of his state, or at least let him ride Trump's coattails as the President rails against "Democrat-led cities" and other dog whistles in his rallies and tweets. McConnell knows that whites' anger and resentment can shift easily, with a little prompting from the right, into blaming minorities for the many little increments of humiliation and loss that have accumulated in their own lives. The more obvious it becomes that their racism is hurting not only Black people but also themselves, the more furiously some people deny it, like philosopher George Santayana's fanatic, who redoubles his energy when he has forgotten his aim. Trump's demagoguery channels their hurts into cravings for scapegoats — not only Black people, but also the "elites" — and for revenge.

We have to hope that COVID is bringing a different set of priorities and calculations home to Trump's and McConnell's bases. The state's recent election of Beshear may signal the beginning of a slow shift in that direction (though recent polls suggest that approval of Beshear isn't necessarily boosting McGrath's chances in her race against McConnell, and Trump is projected to win Kentucky handily, if by a slimmer margin than 2016).

Opportunist that Trump is, he seems poised to seize on a shift in the wind if he deems it advantageous. McConnell may not sense it, or he might have too much invested in his own image as the power-broker and conservator of right-wing ideals to switch lanes now. With or without a big pre-election stimulus announcement, we'll see soon enough how much of the national Republican base is shifting and fragmenting as COVID cases rise and economic destitution sets in, and how much of it still resembles Santayana's fanatics after this election.

The die is cast — can the republic be saved?

Demagogue that he is and that he’s toyed with becoming since well before he ran for president, Donald Trump used his June 2 rant against looting and thuggery after George Floyd’s murder to bang the drum for a civil war that he’s been toying with starting ever since he took out full-page newspaper ads in 1989, calling for the death penalty and greater police presence even after the charges against young black men in the Central Park jogger attack were soon found to be  baseless. As a candidate in 2016, he toyed with civil war again by musing that “Second Amendment people” might thwart Hillary Clinton’s prospect of appointing judges.

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I have doubts about Bernie Sanders. Here's how he can win me over

Last week I argued here on Salon that Bernie Sanders isn't "trying to burn [the Democratic Party] down," as Pete Buttigieg charged in the Nevada debate; the party's own establishment burned it down decades ago, capitulating to finance capital and business-corporate lobbyists and subverting a sustainable balance of labor and capital as eagerly as Republicans were doing it. An old friend in Massachusetts has written me very movingly about his and other progressives' worries about Sanders' candidacy — worries that I have too. He writes:

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White supremacist violence is a dangerous symptom. But our corrupted and corroded public life is the disease

Whenever American civil society has been under great stress, if not indeed falling apart, self-appointed champions of conventional wisdom and traditional values have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at internal enemies who politicians, propagandists, and pundits leap to blame for the crisis.

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