Rick Perlstein

The Republican Plan for a One-Party State

In September 2015, two months after Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, I asked in these pages if he could accurately be described as a fascist. I decided against the designation. The true fascist states, I concluded—Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile—“suffered weakness in their institutions that are just about unimaginable in the United States. For instance, it is hard to imagine a President Trump turning America into a one-party state.”

I was looking in the wrong place. Donald Trump’s insults to democracy compound daily. But he’s far too incompetent to accomplish the big prize—a single-party state, I mean. The Republican Party that elevated and abetted him, however: They’re on that path with a vengeance.

David Daley, the former editor of Salon, nails part of the case with excruciating clarity in a book released last year, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, now out in paperback with an epilogue for the era of Trump. In 2008, a Republican operative named Chris Jankowski had an idea. Others, including Republicans, in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidential victory, concluded demography might soon afford Democrats a realignment to rival Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. Jankowski instead saw an Icarus flying too close to the sun. The important election, he realized, would come two years later, for seats in state legislatures across the United States. He began making a presentation to corporate and conservative donors: Fund my new “Republican State Leadership Committee” (a title he had intentionally chosen to be nondescript, as befitted a stealth guerilla campaign), and I will give you the world.

He called his plan “Project REDMAP.” It would work like this. Through assiduous research, his group would pinpoint a handful of vulnerable Democratic seats in states where control of state legislatures was close—Pennsylvania, for example, where Democrats controlled the lower chamber by a single vote—identifying the tipping points that could flip those bodies for the Republicans. They would then control the drawing of U.S. congressional maps after the 2010 census. At the time there were an estimated 25 true “swing” congressional districts. By deploying state-of-the-art software to devise maps to capture the greatest number of U.S. House seats with the fewest number of votes, the party could move every one of them safely into Republican hands for at least the next 10 years. All, he promised, for the low, low price of $30 million—about a tenth of what people are estimating the candidates will spend in the upcoming 2018 Illinois governor’s race alone. Karl Rove ducked in on one of the pitch meetings: “People call us a vast right-wing conspiracy, but we’re really a half-assed right-wing conspiracy. Now it’s time to get serious.”

The United States Chamber of Commerce was convinced; they chipped in $4 million. A group aligned with the American Legislative Exchange Council gave $2.5 million. Rounding out the list of top donors: Walmart, Anthem Health Insurance, two tobacco companies, AT&T, and an Indian tribe that an internal Republican memo suggests served as a money-laundering conduit for gambling interests in the state of Alabama.

REDMAP’s targets were politicians such as David Levdansky, the dedicated and principled chairman of the Pennsylvania House’s Finance Committee. Via focus groups, they’d divined a made-up issue by which to smear him: a $10 million appropriation out of the state’s $600 million capital budget to build a new wing at a college library to house Arlen Specter’s papers. Like the troops pounding Omaha Beach after D-Day, new, breathtakingly deceptive full-color flyers flooded the mailboxes of the Keystone State’s 39th district in the last three weeks of the campaign. One depicted Levdansky as the mastermind of a “$600 million” Arlen Specter “Taj Mahal”; another as a maniac gun-grabber because, back when he had been a township supervisor, he had supported a police chief’s recommendation to ban the carrying of concealed weapons in the police station.

Levdansky lost by 151 votes. As a result, the Republicans now control both chambers of the legislature. And along with states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina, they followed a plan laid out by Republican redistricting guru Tom Hofeller to steal Americans’ democratic birthright via gerrymander—and to do it in secret. Advice included: Never communicate by email, the better to cover your tracks. (“Emails are the tool of the devil.” “Make sure your computer is in a private location.” Thus the Ohio Republican Party’s command post, in a hotel across from the statehouse, was labeled “the Bunker.”) In Wisconsin, Republican legislators were only allowed to look at maps for their own districts, and then only after signing nondisclosure agreements, and they were advised, “Public comments on this map may be different from what you hear in this room. Ignore the public comments.” Democrats were only allowed to look at them when it was time to approve the maps in the legislature. The corporate law firm that ran the show claimed the deliberations that produced them were protected from public scrutiny by attorney-client privilege.

The basics of Hofeller’s advice, in short, was to follow the law to the letter and pulverize its spirit. “Never travel without counsel,” he advised. A judge might call this “mens rea”: a guilty mind, proof of an intent to deceive. We know how it worked in practice because some conspirators honored Hofeller’s advice about email in the breach. In one of Ratf**ked’s most astonishing revelations, after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved two “Fair District” constitutional amendments banning partisan attempts to gerrymander, Republican consultants still drew maps to disenfranchise Democrats—only they introduced them through fake email accounts to make it look as if they were submitted by disinterested members of the general public. Unwitting young party activists, the sort who might wish to court favor with their elders, were then instructed to recite, verbatim, testimony written for them in support of the maps. (One such script: “Senate District 20 is an excellently drawn State Senate district. . . . Very smart work from the committee on this district. I approve!”) In Wisconsin, the hard drives belonging to two key operatives “failed”; even more suspiciously, both operatives produced identical 24-word explanations for their computers’ convenient memory lapse in court depositions.

The upshot of the national campaign? In Pennsylvania, after the 2012 election, Republicans ended up controlling 13 of 18 U.S. House seats. In a democracy, a party should occupy 72 percent of a given state’s House seats if it wins something like 72 percent of votes in an election. But in Pennsylvania, it only won about 49 percent. The diabolical computers, however, were programmed to pack the Democrats’ 51 percent of the votes into the smallest number of districts statistically possible. (What’s that old computer programmers’ saying? Garbage in, garbage out.) And Ohio, American electoral history’s most famous swing state, swings no more: “The mapmaker did such a good job that it’s hard to imagine anyone in Ohio politics who thinks it can be reversed for perhaps two decades to come.” All told, Daley concludes, Democrats might not take back Congress in 2018 even if they receive a vote bonanza that, in an actual democracy, would constitute a landslide.

Then there were the consequences in the 2016 cycle. In states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, legislatures that REDMAP turned Republican immediately responded with radical voter suppression bills. In the Badger State, the one signed by Governor Scott Walker helped ensure the lowest voter turnout in two decades. In Milwaukee, home to more than two-thirds of the state’s African Americans, some 52,000 fewer blacks cast a ballot than in 2012. Hillary Clinton received 43,000 fewer votes in Milwaukee than Barack Obama did in 2012. Donald Trump won the state by 27,000 votes.

Right-wing political organizing often centers upon strategizing around an awkward fact: A majority of Americans don’t want what they’re selling. That goes back as far as the antebellum period, when Southern slaveholders knew they could not control enough votes in Congress to preserve the peculiar institution without creating new slave states in the West. (Some also wanted to expand farther south, annexing Cuba and parts of Mexico and Central America.) Or, in the next century, consider the insurgents who conspired to defeat the moderates who made up the vast majority of the Republican base in order to nominate Barry Goldwater. A decade earlier, calling themselves “the Syndicate,” they had conspired to take over the Young Republican National Federation via a “rotten borough” strategy, setting up dummy conventions in places where there were few Republicans, to elect delegates to take over national conventions.

A cadre of 28 Syndicate veterans, including a lobbyist for Standard Oil of Indiana, met secretly in a Chicago hotel room to parcel out the tasks to pack the precinct and county meetings that began two years before the presidential year. It was “nothing less than a long-term political guerrilla operation,” their leader, Clifton White, wrote in a memoir; but one as easy, he also noted, as “pushing on an open door.”

Much easier, that is to say, than actually winning the loyalty of voters. This was how Goldwater was able to win the Republican nomination with 67.5 percent of the delegates despite a Harris Poll that showed the public disagreed with him on eight out of 10 issues. And the general election? To win that, a memo advised Republicans to “shake off the fiction of the idea that they are engaged in a national plebiscite.” It was the theory, in other words, that George W. Bush and Donald Trump later carried out in practice: no shame in claiming a mandate for radical-right governance, even if you don’t win the most votes.

Among libertarians, meanwhile, Milton Friedman infamously observed that since “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change,” the intellectual’s task is to keep policies “alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” Edmund Meese, then of the Heritage Foundation, made a secret 2005 presentation to the House Republican Study Committee to bring what then-Rep. Mike Pence called “conservative free-market ideas to the Gulf Coast” to exploit the panic in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (The proposals included cutting funding for the Public Broadcasting Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.) PayPal founder and Donald Trump campaign surrogate Peter Thiel argued in 2009 that developments like “the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women . . . have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”

Operation REDMAP midwifed diabolical plans to end the Democratic Party on the national level once and for all. On the level of the presidency, post–Operation REDMAP, there came state legislative proposals such as the one introduced in Pennsylvania in 2011 to apportion the state’s electoral college votes by congressional district. (It failed, and, via the traditional means, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes went to Barack Obama, because he beat Mitt Romney by 51.95 to 46.57 percent. If it had succeeded, Obama would have only won six of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, despite his decisive margin of victory.)

Then there is the lively movement to gerrymander the Senate. Republicans never put the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment quite in those terms. Before the amendment was added to the Constitution in 1913, members of the U.S. Senate were elected by state legislatures, not by citizens’ votes. You first began hearing calls to return the election of senators to the backrooms of state capitols during the Tea Party election of 2010. In 2013, prominent conservatives including Justice Antonin Scalia, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Senators Mike Lee of Utah, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Ted Cruz joined the call. So did the very important right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who pours out his anti-democracy preachments to some 7.75 million listeners a week. His 2003 book The Liberty Amendments argued that the 17th “serves not the public’s interest but the interests of governing masterminds and their disciples.”

Then this July, after the Republicans’ crusade to toss tens of millions of their fellow Americans off health insurance failed the Senate, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, evangelical hero, and father of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new White House press secretary, took to Twitter: “Time to repeal the 17th Amendment. Founders had it right—Senators chosen by state legislatures. . . . Direct election of Senate is major cause of #swamp.”

“Draining the swamp,” apparently, now means turning America into a single-party state. Thanks to Project REDMAP, Republicans control both chambers of 32 state legislatures. If they came to control six more, they could indeed repeal the 17th Amendment—and would automatically control 72 senate seats, adding automatic control of the Senate to REDMAP’s automatic control of the House of Representatives.

Can it happen? At its annual convention in Denver in July, ALEC’s Federalism and International Relations Task Force held a debate on whether to recommend a model bill to state legislatures to repeal the 17th, thereby starting the process of single-party rule. It would be interesting to know how that debate went. But we’ll never know. ALEC meetings are secret. Sinclair Lewis supposedly said when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. But maybe we won’t know how it came. It will happen in secret debates at conferences closed to the press, and in “bunkers” across the street from state capitols, guarded by two-factor encryption and attorney-client privilege, abetted by computer programs with the power to turn citizens into subjects.

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Pry Your Eyes Away From Sean Spicer for a Moment and Look Hard at Some of His Supporting Buffoons

With so many garish spectacles to feast your eyes on at the 33-ring Trump circus, some clowns are easy to miss. Especially the ones performing in proximity to Sean Spicer. Pry your eyes away from the Pagliacci of the Pressroom for a moment, however, and look hard at some of his supporting buffoons. They may not have attracted the notice of Saturday Night Live yet. But now that the White House is blocking outlets like The New York Times, BBC, and Politico from some press briefings, the ones who are still there are becoming an increasingly important part of the story.

Meet “Trey,” for instance—Trey Yingst, Washington correspondent of the “One America News Network,” a cable channel begun in partnership with the Unification Church’s Washington Times, which has since gone independent. One America owner Charles Herring explained why he started the venture: “There’s nothing wrong with Fox. The problem is that if you take the [standard cable] channel lineup, the sources of national news tend to lean to the left . . . and all we have is Fox.” One America’s Foxier-than-Fox programming includes “Jihad: The Grand Deception,” “Escape from Iran,” “Target America,” and an interview show, “On Point,” once hosted by Sarah Palin. One America was included in the press briefing from which The New York Times and BBC were banned.

And Spicer sure likes One America’s man in Washington. During Trump’s first month in the White House, Spicer called on Trey four times. The third time, after he answered Trey’s stumper—“What is the President willing to do to investigate further to determine where these leaks are coming from?”— and the press gaggle started shouting out their own questions, Spicer sounded for all the world like a wounded first-grader. “Hold On! Trey gets a follow up! Everyone else got one!”

Lars Larson is a better-known figure. He’s the top conservative talk radio host in Portland, Oregon, and an occasional fill-in for Rush Limbaugh. Larson was the second person called upon via webcam the day the White House Press Room’s “Skype seat” was inaugurated. Lars first thanked “Commander Spicer” for taking his questions (Spicer has never served in the active-duty military, but he has a commander rank in the Navy reserves), then said, “Thanks for your service to America.” Next came the probing questions. “Does President Trump want to start returning the people’s land to the people? … Can he tell the Forest Service to start logging our forests aggressively again to provide jobs for Americans, wealth for the Treasury, and not spend $3.5 billion a year fighting forest fires?” These stinging queries surely came as welcome relief for Spicer, who had just got through dodging dagger thrusts from Kristen Welker of NBC, about what the White House meant when it claimed to have put Iran “on notice.”

And on February 14—Valentine’s Day—when Spicer found himself in a sweat keeping his stories straight about the firing of General Flynn, he went to the Skype seat for a save from “Jason Stevens of the Federalist Paper in Ashland, Ohio.” It turns out to be nearly impossible to identify this particular media juggernaut via Google, but your humble correspondent’s embarrassingly boundless knowledge of right-wing institutions is helpful. I recalled that there is a small right-wing college in Ashland, Ohio, which is how I learned that Professor Stevens’ “Federalist Papers Project” fulfills its mission of purveying “The History & Civics Schools Don’t Teach”—not only by giving away free e-books about the Founding Fathers but via articles like “WATCH: Maxine Waters UNHINGED; Goes Insane on Live TV” and “BREAKING: Feds Stop Nightmare Scenario ISIS Style Attack,” all underwritten by pop-up ads for survivalist meal plans with “25-Year Shelf Life, ‘Disaster-Proof’ Packaging.”

Another Spicer favorite is Katie Pavlich. Don’t know Katie? She’s the extremely blond Fox News regular and Townhall.com correspondent who authored such timeless classics as Fast and Furious: Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and Its Shameless Cover-Up and Assault and Flattery: The Truth About the Left and Their War on Women. Pavlich was called on three times within a fortnight to confront Spicer with riddles like: “Is President Trump planning to ask the Senate to expedite legislation allowing for the swift firing of bad VA employees?” And, concerning “a declared genocide by ISIS against Christians and other minority and religious groups . . . what specifically is the administration planning to do to comply with the legal obligations of protecting these groups under the U.N. 1948 treaty?”

Returned Spicer: “That’s a great question!” They always are, when Sean’s valentines are doing the asking.

When a former male escort named Jeff Gannon (né James Dale Guckert) began popping up in George W. Bush’s White House press room during the Iraq War, representing a not-quite-legitimate news organization called “Talon News,” which turned out to be operated by the Republican National Committee, and asking questions that sounded suspiciously like plants —“How are you going to work with [Senate Democrats] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?”—it was a minor scandal. Regarding most matters Republican and scandalous, our concerns from a dozen years ago almost seem quaint.

Now the ones routinely asking the questions are “news organizations” like The Daily Signal, published by the Heritage Foundation; Breitbart News, which White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon used to run; and the London Daily Mail, which was banned as a source by Wikipedia for its “reputation for poor fact-checking and sensationalism.” Now, we have a Gannon-league loon as press secretary.

When Sean Spicer’s college newspaper printed his letter to the editor complaining about campus smoking regulations over the name “Sean Sphincter,” he complained, “The First Amendment does uphold the right to free speech, however, this situation goes beyond the bounds of free speech.” Then he more or less sued the paper, attempting to bring it up on charges before college authorities.

Today, Spicer has opened the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room to “journalists” who have made their reputations “beyond the bounds of free speech.” The now-disgraced alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos, whose defense of pedophilia cost him a book contract and a speaking gig at CPAC, once got credentials to attend a White House press briefing. The aggressively incorrect hate site Gateway Pundit has a permanent seat, which is occupied by serial doxxer Lucian Wintrich. He has no previous journalistic experience, though he curated a “Twinks4Trump” art exhibit that included homoerotic photos of shirtless men wearing “Make America Great” caps. The Twinks exhibit included works by Yiannopoulos, James O’Keefe, and indicted “Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, I kid you not.

But we should focus on more than just the personalities, because there is method behind this madness. The “Skype seat,” for example. The people representing major news organizations in the White House press room, whatever their faults, are at least seasoned media veterans whose professional amour propre depends on their willingness to follow up when the answer is evasive. Spicer often finds the questions asked by these White House reporters challenging.

On February 2, for example, in the wake of the massacre at a Quebec City mosque, Spicer was asked what Trump would do to make sure “homegrown violence doesn’t happen within our country.” His loopy response began, “Well, there’s a lot of things. Number one, he’s talked cyber — I mean, he’s looking at it from every angle. I think the first thing is to make sure that we look at our borders.”

He continued, “I mean, so there is a holistic approach to both immigration and there’s a direct nexus between immigration and national security and personal security that he has to look at.” Then he promised the administration would be “working with the NSA and FBI to be ahead of the curve”—either ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the National Security Agency is (for now) legally enjoined from spying on Americans.

“If I may,” came the follow-up, “these are homegrown—Oklahoma was an American kid.”

Non-sequitured Spicer, “That’s what I’m saying…”

Quicksand like that is why it’s handy to have on tap the cream of the nation’s crop of blow-dried Ron Burgundies. The Skype seat opens White House press briefings to representatives of local network affiliate news organizations, whose business model is fundamentally compromised and corrupt. As John Nichols and Robert McChesney document in Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, the rapidly dwindling number of conglomerates that own network affiliates earn staggering windfall profits selling ads to political campaigns, as much as 35 percent of their revenue in election years. Senator Bill Bradley once described election campaigns as “collections agencies for broadcasters. You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations.” In 2012, for example, Fox’s Washington, D.C., affiliate added a half hour to its newscast—not to report more campaign news, but to accommodate more campaign advertising.

It’s worth noting, too, that local broadcast outlets receive their licenses to use the public airwaves (and to print money) from the Federal Communications Commission. If they fall too far afoul of the Trump administration, they may be putting their licenses at risk.

So the Skype seat is not exactly a formula for hard-hitting accountability journalism. It’s more likely a clever ruse to crowd it out.

To be fair, some of the local folks have given it the old college try. Kim Kalunian of WPRI in Providence, Rhode Island, and Courtis Fuller of WLWT in Cincinnati asked tough questions about what Trump’s promise to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities” will mean for their cities. John Huck, of what Spicer called “WKVVU,” asked how rolling back financial regulations would not expose Las Vegas homeowners once screwed by lending practices that led to the 2007 crash “to the risky behaviors that tanked our economy last time.” Joyce Kaufman of WFTL-West Palm Beach (home to Mar-a-Lago) zeroed in on Trump’s lax security at dinner there with the Japanese prime minister.

And if the outlet is a station like WMUR of Manchester, New Hampshire, well, no worries there. Can you imagine what a license to blast campaign commercials day and night in election years is worth to its owner, the Hearst Corporation? “Hey, Sean, thanks for taking the question,” opened a friendly February 3rd colloquy with WMUR’s Josh McElveen. “I know you’re looking forward to the Patriots coming down in a couple of months. . .”

And don’t expect Skype seaters from Sinclair Media regional outlets to challenge Spicer. The second largest owner of television stations in the United States, Sinclair’s consistent history of attempts to sabotage Democratic (and democratic) campaigns goes back at least to October 2004, when it was announced that all 62 Sinclair stations (it now owns 154) would preempt primetime programming to air Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s anti-John Kerry propaganda documentary Stolen Honor. The Democratic National Committee sued, and the show never ran. Sinclair’s CEO David Smith, in an article on how his company was tripling investor expectations in 2012, gushed, “the political business . . . is an ever-expanding business . . . I don’t see any evidence that it’s ever going to go away.”

Not, certainly, with Smith laundering influence directly through the president. As I wrote here in January, a fact not reported anywhere else, Smith’s yeoman work on behalf of the Trump campaign was rewarded with a guest of honor slot in the inaugural parade, which the network CEO used to promote a new Sinclair-financed cable station. Less than a month later, Trump called Scott Thuman, of Sinclair’s Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate by name for the first question in his press briefing with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada. That was the one where Trump suspiciously did not entertain a single question regarding the resignation General Mike Flynn. (Jonathan Karl of ABC shouted one out. “He sure seemed to hear the question but did not answer,” he tweeted later.) Reported AdWeek’s “TVSpy” column, “It’s rare that a local TV news reporter would be called on during such an event. In fact, other White House reporters wanted to know if Thuman had been told he was going to be called on. He says he wasn’t, but that he was advised to attend.”

Next it was Kaitlan Collins, of the right-wing site the Daily Caller, who brought the heat: “What do you see as the most important national security matter facing us?” Kaitlan’s been another Spicer valentine, though possibly not for long. After the White House blocked the New York Times, CNN, and Politico from a press gaggle in Sean Spicer’s office, but allowed in Breitbart News, she publicly posted everything Spicer had said in the closed-door briefing.

Love sours sometimes, Mr. Spicer. Nobody loves a lying sad clown. When you’ve lost Kaitlan Collins, Mr. Spicer, what’s next: Breitbart News?

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I had an interesting experience on the radio this past weekend. It might have been a telling one�I'm not sure.

On Friday I went to Chicago's public radio station WBEZ to tape a discussion on the week's news for American Public Media's show Weekend America. My co-panelists were comedian Dana Gold and comedianconservative congressional staffer Tara Setmayer. We were asked about the financial collapse. I said it was the fault of the conservative ideology of deregulation. She said it was the fault of Jimmy Carter. Because he passed what she misidentified as the "Community Reinvention Act."

Yes, well, that would be the right-wing smear du jour: the Community Reinvestment Act caused the meltdown, not greedy bankers and the oily politicians who love them. As regular readers at OurFuture.org know, we've called the idea a modern day equivalent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion�a Big Lie narrative that blames a despised, outcast social group for problems they had nothing to do with, in order to aggrandize the ability of the dominant group to hate and oppress.

Smirk of the Union

A small and beaten man spoke to Congress and the nation last night, convinced in his own mind he's a hero. Snoopy battling the Red Baron. Walter Mitty, imagining himself dying bravely before a firing squad.

For those who missed it, here's the Big Con run-down. Let me start with the facial expressions. Because, more than any of the words, they told the sad story.

The entrance: He raises both eyebrows puckishly, like the frat boy he is. Introduced by Speaker Pelosi, he reacts curiously to the wave of applause: he blushes. He actually thinks this applause is for him--they love me!!--and not a perfunctory gesture of respect for the office. He still thinks he is a great man, and that others think he is a great man. He looks about a thousand years old. He begins: "Seven years have passed since I first stood before you at this rostrum." Or that's what the transcript says he said. If you missed it live, what he actually said was, "...stood before yuh at this rostr'm...."

John Wayne taking on the desperadoes.

Then, the arrogant bastard, he makes a joke: "These issues"--he's named "peace and war, rising competition in the world economy, and the health and welfare of our citizens"--"deserve vigorous debate. And I think history will show we've answered the call." He gives the chamber that famous smirk, to let them know it's OK to laugh, even amid all the pomp: get it? These people keep insisting on debatin' with me. Washington! Bicker, bicker, bicker.

Then, he obliquely announces the speech's theme, also with a smirk: Bush's greatest hits. A golden trip down memory lane. He says, of public servants' job to "carry out the people's business," that "it remains our charge to keep." Dog whistle: this is the Methodist hymn that by which entitled his campaign book. Because remember: George Bush is a Christian Unleashing the "armies of compassion." Or it it this "army of compassion"?

Which brings up one of the creepiest features of the speech: "more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our Nation's Capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other non-public school. Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America's inner cities." I didn't know--and perhaps the Constitution has something to say on this--it was the job of the U.S. government to fret over the disappearance of "faith-based" institutions. Well, our president now proposes we shore them up with "Pell Grants for Kids." Senator Clayborn Pell, a great man, now unfortunately suffers from Parkinson's disease, and probably lacks the wherewithal to slap the president in the face for the insult to his great progressive legacy.

I suppose we should also attend to the words, because this pathetic washout happens to be the most powerful man in the world, so the words he uses are important.

He repeated the Great Republican Lie of 2007, implying that the Democrats in the 110th Congress is obstructionist--"Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time," he piously intoned.--when it's really himself and the Republican minority who are willfully obstructing, with an aggressiveness unmatched in modern history. He still trumpets his own disastrous Ownership Society rhetoric (How disastrous? See here) and barely acknowledges the massive economic pain Americans are feeling and our about to feel -- and only then to issue one more obstructionist threat, on the stimulus package: "The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it." Mafia words: my way, or else.

But back, again, to the facial expressions. The most fulsome smirk came, I think, winding up to his promise, "If any bill raising taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it." He said something interesting, perhaps referring to the remarkable poll results consistently showing a majority of Americans believe Bush's tax cuts were not worth it, or that they would be glad to pay higher taxes if it meant healthcare for all Americans. Such national maturity--indeed any occasion to call Americans to some higher sacrifice--can only but be mocked by the smug bastard running our country. He said this: "Others have said they'd be happier to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm. The IRS accepts both checks and money owners."

Cheney joins his smirk.

What else? There was his promise of an executive order canceling earmarks not voted out in the open--because, of course, now that the Democrats run Congress, procedural irregularity and pork-barrel spending has suddenly become a national crisis.

There was some fairy dust about making "health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans. The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control." The Republicans' barks of approval at that one are guttural. He add that medical decisions must be "made in the privacy of your doctor's office, not in the halls of Congress."

About medical decisions made in callous insurance company cubicles, of course--which is to say, most medical decisions--he has nothing to say.

"Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results." No one can deny they suck. Read this.

"To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow"? Only if those breakthroughs accord with conservative dogma. Read this.

Perhaps later, I'll give you more on the fairy tales he's propounding our nation on its place in the world. I'll leave you with this one peace of jargon: "protective overwatch mission." That's the new Bushism for "We're staying in Iraq for ever." You'll be hearing it much more in the days ahead.

Will the Progressive Majority Emerge?

For as long as I can remember, there's been a generally accepted story about the recent history of Democratic Party fortunes, a neat little morality tale that goes something like this: The New Deal majority fell apart when the party was taken over by forces outside the mainstream of American life. Getting blindsided by Reaganism was the party's just deserts. And if Democrats wanted the country back, they would just have to learn to become mainstream again.

For as long as I can remember, liberals have been complaining about awkward, self-conscious attempts to recover this "mainstream" sensibility and how they have paradoxically weakened the party. They forced Democratic politicians to become obsessed with polls. That, in turn, boxed Democrats into an identity the public -- the mainstream -- found the most off-putting of all: Democrats became timid. They couldn't pursue a bold public agenda because they were too hemmed in by polls. Very recently, among progressives, a new dictum has emerged: Hug close to the polls, worship the polls, be the polls.

Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007, a massive twenty-year roundup of public opinion from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, tells the story. Is it the responsibility of government to care for those who can't take care of themselves? In 1994, the year conservative Republicans captured Congress, 57 percent of those polled thought so. Now, says Pew, it's 69 percent. (Even 58 percent of Republicans agree. Would that some of them were in Congress.) The proportion of Americans who believe government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep is 69 percent, too -- the highest since 1991. Even 69 percent of self-identified Republicans -- and 75 percent of small-business owners! -- favor raising the minimum wage by more than $2.

The Pew study was not just asking about do-good, something-for-nothing abstractions. It asked about trade-offs. A majority, 54 percent, think "government should help the needy even if it means greater debt" (it was only 41 percent in 1994). Two-thirds want the government to guarantee health insurance for all citizens. Even among those who otherwise say they would prefer a smaller government, it's 57 percent -- the same as the percentage of Americans making more than $75,000 a year who believe "labor unions are necessary to protect the working person."

It's not just Pew. In the authoritative National Election Studies (NES) survey, more than twice as many Americans want "government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending" as want fewer services "in order to reduce spending." According to Gallup, a majority say they generally side with labor in disputes and only 34 percent with companies; 53 percent think unions help the economy and only 36 percent think they hurt. A 2005 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 53 percent of Americans thought the Bush tax cuts were "not worth it because they have increased the deficit and caused cuts in government programs." CNN/Opinion Research Corp. found that only 25 percent want to see Roe v. Wade overturned; NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard found the public rejecting government-funded abstinence-only sex education in favor of "more comprehensive sex education programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives" by 67 percent to 30 percent. Public Agenda/Foreign Affairs discovered that 67 percent of Americans favor "diplomatic and economic efforts over military efforts in fighting terrorism."

Want hot-button issues? The public is in love with rehabilitation over incarceration for youth offenders. Zogby/National council on Crime and Delinquency found that 89 percent think it reduces crime and 80 percent that it saves money over the long run. "Amnesty"? Sixty-two percent told CBS/New York Times surveyors that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to "keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status." And the gap between the clichés about what Americans believe about gun control and what they actually believe is startling: NBC News/Wall Street Journal found 58 percent favoring "tougher gun control laws," and Annenberg found that only 10 percent want laws controlling firearms to be less strict, a finding reproduced by the NES survey in 2004 and Gallup in 2006.

You suspected it all along. Now it just might be true: Most Americans think like you. Nearly two-thirds think corporate profits are too high (30 percent, Pew notes, "completely agree with this statement ... the highest percentage expressing complete agreement with this statement in 20 years"). Almost three-quarters think "it's really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer," eight points more than thought so in 2002.

If only there was an American political party that unwaveringly reflected these views, as a matter of bone-deep identity. You might think it would do pretty well. Which leads to the aspect of the Pew study that got the most ink: "Political Landscape More Favorable to Democrats," as the subtitle put it. When you compare Americans who either identify themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democrats with Republicans and Republican leaners, our side wins by fifteen points, 50 percent to 35, the most by far in twenty years. As recently as 2002 it was a tie, 43 to 43.

Plunge below the surface, however, and this stirring tale becomes disconcerting. Yes, again and again, the views of independents track the views of Democrats -- more so, in fact, with every passing year. Pew says it's "striking" that 57 percent of independents think government should aid more needy people even at the price of higher debt. In 1994 it was only 39 percent. When asked their opinion of statements like "Business corporations make too much profit," independents answer the same way as Democrats: about 70 percent agree. On questions like "Are you satisfied with the way things are going for you financially?" the chart is amazing: Republicans, independents and Democrats clustered together at 65 and 64 percent in 1994. But Republicans have increasingly answered that question in the affirmative -- 81 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, the lines for independents and Democrats headed down, down, down, nearly in lockstep, to 54 percent today.

Pew says independents are thinking like Democrats, and that fewer and fewer want much to do with the Republican Party. In 1994 independents gave the GOP a 68 percent approval rating; now only 40 percent do. And the percentage of people who call themselves Republicans has dropped from 29 percent in 2005 to 25 percent today. But these people are not signing up as Democrats. The proportion of those who call themselves Democrats has held steady, in the lower 30s.

Here's a riddle: What's an "independent"? More and more, it's an American who holds positions we associate with Democrats but who refuses to call himself by the name. Why? Part of the reason is that people say to themselves, "If only there was a party that thought like me -- that was for harnessing the power of government to help the needy and protect the middle class; for reining in business excess; for fighting overseas threats through soft power instead of reckless force." But they don't find today's Democrats answering to the description. A Washington Post/ABC News poll published in early June proved it on Iraq: It heralded the emergence of what might be called "antiwar independents," who'd like nothing more than to find a party determined to end the war but don't see enough difference between Congressional Republicans and Democrats for the latter to earn their loyalty. Fueled, the Post suspects, by the failure of Congress to change course in Iraq, independents gave Congressional Democrats a 49 percent approval rating in April but only 37 percent in June.

The pattern -- Democrats losing because they don't look enough like Democrats -- is nothing new: During the 2002 election Democrats did such a poor job of selling themselves as better protectors of middle-class interests that Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found only 34 percent of voters saw a difference between Democrats and Republicans on prescription drug benefits to seniors. That year, when the party was handed a once-in-a-generation shot to prove itself as a protector against runaway greed (the corporate accounting scandals), DNC chair Terry McAuliffe called the swindling firm Global Crossing a "great company."

I suspect there's another reason, however, one much more easily fixed. There is a famous Washington story, perhaps apocryphal, about jovial, "all politics is local" Tip O'Neill. After his first run for local office, O'Neill was gabbing with a neighbor, perhaps someone he grew up with, with whose family his was entirely interlaced in that Boston, Irish Catholic way. He asked if she had voted for him. She answered, "No." Shocked, Tip demanded to know why. "Because you never asked," she replied.

Democrats make a similar mistake these days: They rarely ask the public to vote for them as Democrats. The trend was obvious by the 2006 season, for those who cared to see: The same Pew numbers that now show a 50-35 Democratic/Democratic-leaners advantage over Republicans had the advantage at 47-38 in 2006. Candidates would have earned a premium just slapping the label "Democrat" on their TV ads, but most didn't do it. That fall writers and readers of the website MyDD.com ran an ad watch. Some Democratic commercials failed to mention any of the issues. Bush's war was a disaster; Bush's government was a crony-infested sinkhole; under Bush, the middle class was having a hard time -- these would have been immense burdens for GOP candidates. Other ads, though, were even more frustrating: They mentioned those issues -- but never used the label "Democrat."

It could have been a virtuous circle, a matchless teachable moment: Voter identification with the positions articulated could have translated into a party identification that independents hadn't been inclined to feel before -- a crucial party-building function. But that's just not how the Democratic consultancy class thinks. Their habits were set when they were blindsided by the Reagan presidency and the rise of popular conservatism ("It helped convince me that the national Democratic Party drag was such that good candidates were carrying an albatross around their necks with the words Democratic Party written on it when they went into elections," Will Marshall of the Democratic Leadership Council once said). Democratic leaders, scarred by the 1980s and frozen in the strategies of the 1990s, have repeatedly squandered the opportunities presented by the increasingly liberal sympathies of voters.

Of course, slapping a graphic reading "Democrat for Congress" on ads or reforming the vague shame some powerful Washington Dems feel toward their party -- or even turning Democratic Congress members overnight into tough advocates for bringing the troops home from Iraq -- may not be enough to bring election day tallies in line with the party's fifteen-point advantage in lean and identification. It's a problem with many moving parts. The stubborn oxen on TV and in the establishment media who tell the American people how to think are part of the problem too.

The commentariat tells itself a little fairy tale. As a new report from the Campaign for America's Future (my employer, though I'm solely responsible for the ideas in this essay) and Media Matters for America points out (The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America Is a Myth), when the GOP took over Congress in 1994, the New York Times front page claimed, "The country has unmistakably moved to the right." It hadn't; for an excellent study showing this wasn't so, see Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone's Three's a Crowd, which shows how Newt Gingrich's Contract With America was tailored as an appeal to Perot voters, then retroactively spun as a mandate for conservatism. Ten years later, when Bush beat Kerry by three points, Katie Couric asked on Today, "Does this election indicate that this country has become much more socially conservative?" It was a rhetorical question, for the establishment had set the conclusion in stone long before. Three weeks before the 2006 election Candy Crowley of CNN said Democrats were "on the losing side of the values debate, the defense debate and, oh yes, the guns debate." After election day, Bob Schieffer of CBS said, "The Democrats' victory was built on the back of more centrist candidates seizing Republican-leaning districts." (Tell that to my favorite Democratic House pickup, Carol Shea-Porter, a former social worker who won a New Hampshire seat after getting kicked out of a 2005 presidential appearance for wearing a T-shirt reading Turn Your Back on Bush.) John Harris of the Washington Post, now of The Politico, said, "This is basically not a liberal country." Concludes the Media Matters/Campaign for America's Future report, "Democratic victories are understood as a product of the Democrats moving to the right, while Republican victories are the product of a conservative electorate."

The media have always been this stubborn, even when the conclusions they reached were 180 degrees reversed. In 1964, after Lyndon Johnson swamped Barry Goldwater, pundits said conservatism was dead as a force in American politics, and continued in that arrogant vein for years, ignoring plentiful evidence of the conservative upsurge. They were no less empirically impaired after they were shocked into making the pivot, and they won't turn again until they're forced, kicking and screaming, when the evidence finally becomes overwhelming and undeniable.

An important corollary of the media fairy tale is that the Democrats can't embody the will of the people. As an editorial in the Los Angeles Times explained in 2004, Kerry lost because of his party's "God gap." Once more, the data won't cooperate: A declining constituency -- the devout -- is treated as if it were booming. Pew shows that the number of people who "completely agree" that "prayer is an important part of my daily life" is down six points in the past four years. The number who "never doubt the existence of God" is down eight over the same period. The Barna Group likewise reports, "There has been a 92% increase in the number of unchurched Americans in the last thirteen years" -- a population of 75 million, which is growing: According to the Pew report, "This change appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one." America, of course, is a religious country -- but 19 percent born after 1976 are either atheists, agnostics or claim no religion, compared with 5 percent born before 1946. Yes, social conservatives are a loud component of our body politic. But the numbers peaked long ago. Pew measures social attitudes via six questions, such as whether schools should have the right to fire gay teachers and whether AIDS is God's punishment for sexual immorality. In 1989 about half of respondents answered at least four of those six questions conservatively. Now, a mere 30 percent do.

Just who are these iniquitous citizens? People who identify themselves as secular or unidentified with a religious tradition represent about 5 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Democrats. They are a downright heathenish 17 percent of independents. The Pew report has a chart of three descending trend lines of those who answer the social-values questions conservatively. The line for independents is less socially conservative than for Democrats. DLC types love to talk about "swing voters," a group often taken to largely overlap with "independents." Say party centrists, they just don't trust the Democrats -- that "God gap." So Democratic candidates are supposed to wear their piety on their sleeve if they ever hope to creep over 51 percent in an election. The centrists are wrong. Independents are the most secular portion of the electorate.

Of course, the media business also has interests. Those interests happen to coincide with those in our party -- the Democratic Leadership Council is the most notorious -- who have been fighting since the 1980s to make the party more friendly to corporations. The two ostensibly nonconservative cable news channels look more and more like loss leaders for giant corporations eager to signal to other giant corporations that they won't do anything to harm them. There is little other rational explanation for why a network like CNN Headline News keeps on a spittle-flecked right-wing ranter like Glenn Beck (he got less than 60,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic one recent Tuesday); or in a gentler, more culturally mediated way, why cable news gravitates toward ostensibly nonconservative commentary that posits an ineluctable social conservatism of the electorate as the reason the GOP is the country's natural governing party.

We may not be able to get the media to understand that this is the most favorable climate for liberalism in a generation. But I do know a class of people we might have a better chance of influencing: Democratic politicians -- especially Democratic presidential candidates. But what I'd like to say is a paradox, given what I've been arguing above: Don't pay too much attention to polls, no matter how favorable they may be to the kind of politics you'd like to see. Not just because it keeps you from leading but because it can keep you from winning.

More and more I find myself telling a story I consider the key to understanding modern American political history: that of Ronald Reagan's 1966 California gubernatorial campaign. His expensive, top-drawer consultants had hired a company formed by psychology PhDs who promised that Reagan's would be the first campaign run "as a problem in human behavior." Many liberal interpreters of Reagan's career have pointed to this to suggest that he was plastic, or a pawn, or a manipulator of voters. Not so. In fact, he was the opposite. One of the first things he did was tell all these fancy pollsters to shut up. In his early, exploratory campaigning, he'd been attacking the insolence of insurgent Berkeley students -- who "should have been taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the university once and for all." His consultants told him to knock it off, pointing to their data: Berkeley didn't even show up as an issue. Reagan threw the polls back in their faces: "Look, I don't care if I'm in the mountains, the desert, the biggest cities of the state, the first question is: 'What are you going to do about Berkeley?' And each time the question itself would get applause."

Reagan followed his heart, of course, made Berkeley his signature issue and thumped Edmund Brown in one of the greatest upsets in modern political history (even though the establishment media hated his conservatism then more than they hate our liberalism now, and even though Republican elites were more unmistakably ashamed of the GOP "brand" than DLCers are of the Democratic one now). The technical lesson in this story is that longitudinal polls like Pew's are inherently incomplete. They derive their value from asking exactly the same questions over time, even though the banquet of issues people care about always changes. A politician who goes into battle believing polls can teach him "the issues" is fighting in a static world, which is not the world we live in.

But the more profound lesson is that the greatest politicians create their own issues, ones that no one knew existed. Was the mood in California favorable for Reagan's conservative message in 1966? Obviously, or else Reagan wouldn't have won; he wasn't a magician. But he was -- yes -- a great communicator, confident of his gifts. By listening and interacting with ordinary people, and sniffing out where his own sense of right and wrong dovetailed with what he heard, he divined a certain inchoate mood. It had to do both with a fear of breakdown of the social order and resentment of liberal elites. Finding those frequencies sounding via the trope of "Berkeley," he was able to turn that mood into a political appeal. In that regard, his pollsters could only hurt him. All they knew was that Berkeley wasn't an "issue."

That's the danger of even the best polling: its power to smother intuitive leaders in the cradle. The Pew poll and all the others can only point to the modern electorate's anxieties -- anxieties that have something to do with a sense of breakdown in the economic order, and with resentment of conservative elites. But what story can Democratic politicians weave to repair them? None that they are telling yet. All I know is that to sound the right frequencies, we need candidates who know when to tell their pollsters to stuff it.

Conservative Policies Are Ruining Your Health

First, they came for the spinach.

I remember the day last September. The supermarket had a new kind of salad dressing, one that looked like it would taste good with spinach. I went to the produce section to buy a bag. But they all had been recalled. Three people had died from E. coli contamination from eating spinach. I decided I could live without the spinach.

Next they came for the peanut butter, and I didn't pay much attention. I don't much like peanut butter.

The Big Con: Join the conversationThen they came for the tomatoes. Then the Taco Bell lettuce. Then the mushrooms, then ham steaks, then summer sausage. I started worrying. Then, they came for the pet food.

I remember the sinking feeling, hearing that dogs and cats had died eating contaminated food. Then the flash of guilt—had we poisoned our dogs? I remember hearing the name of the manufacturer, my wife searching the web frantically for a catalogue of its products, the stab of fear when we found the name of the food our own dogs eat. Then the wave of relief—it was only canned food; our dogs eat dry.

I began investigating more. One of the things I learned was that the Food and Drug Administration hasn't been able to confirm "with 100 percent certainty" that the offending agent didn't go into human food. Then it neglected to reveal the name of the tainted product's U.S. distributor.

It is time to get to the root of the problem. I blame the conservatism.

I've been studying the conservative turn in American politics pretty much fulltime since 1997. I never was a conservative. But I admired conservatives. The people then running the Democratic Party just did not seem to me strong people. They were "triangulators"—splitting every difference, selling out any principle, in the ever-illusive quest to divine the American people's fickle beliefs at that particular moment. They did not lead. They followed—Chamberlains, not Churchills.

I wrote a book that came out in 2001 about the conservatives who took over the Republican Party in the early 1960s. Whatever my differences with them ideologically, I didn't write a single negative word about the conservative movement for nearly seven years. Until then, I considered them honorable adversaries. They inspired me. They took risks for a cause. They were principled. They were endlessly determined.

I've come to different conclusions now. They were, yes, endlessly determined. It was over 35 years ago, in "Conscience of a Conservative," when Barry Goldwater wrote these stirring words: "I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size." Twenty years after that, President Reagan intoned at his first inaugural address, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

But Barry Goldwater lost his 1964 presidential race in a landslide. Reagan was inaugurated, and we began seeing headlines like "Wide Spectrum of Regulations Set for Reagan Team's Scalpel." But actually, the Reagan team wasn't able to deregulate all that much, or nearly as much as they wished; the political obstacles, in the 1980s, were just too great.

For these brief four years, however, between the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2002 under President Bush and the recent return of Congress to Democratic control, the scalpel has become a machete. We've been able to witness a natural experiment: What would have happened if Goldwater and Reagan had been able to get their way?

Surveying the results, what once looked to me like principle now looks to me now like mania. Conservatism has been killing Americans. The recent food safety crisis is only one case study.

Let's start connecting the dots.

The Associated Press studied the records and found that between 2003 and 2006 the Food and Drug Administration conducted 47 percent fewer safety inspections. FDA field offices have 12 percent fewer employees. Safety tests for food produced in the United States have gone down by three quarters—have almost ground to a halt—in the previous year alone. What does that mean, in practical terms? Consider the peanut butter.

Factories producing the foods most susceptible to contamination, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are supposed to be inspected every year. (That's cold comfort to those who ate this year's bad batches of spinach, lettuce, cantaloupes and tomatoes.) Since the last known outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter was in Australia in the 1990s, that puts it in the "low-risk" category; peanut butter factories are inspected only every two to three years.

People started getting sick in February. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control traced the illnesses back to a single plant in Sylvester, Ga. The next day, the FDA arrived for a post hoc inspection (by then 425 people in 44 states had been sickened). Then they covered their own back : "What you saw with the spinach and certainly what you saw with the peanut butter, is when we see those signals, we're going to act to protect the public health," a spokesman promised.

He was saying: The system worked. In a sense, he was right. This was the system working as it is presently designed. Barn door: closed. Cow: already long gone. That, basically, is as good as it gets in the modern FDA.

As Dr. Phil would say: How's that working out for you?

Not so well, it turns out. It was months later before we learned the eminently preventable reason our peanut butter had been poisoned: a leaky roof and a faulty sprinkler provided the culture for the salmonella bug at the Georgia plant. How did we find that out? Not from the FDA inspection. We had to rely on the company's own investigation. They had a public relations crisis on their hands. They want to return Peter Pan Peanut Butter to shelves in the middle of July. So they undertook their own belated, two-month investigation. The Georgia plant will open in August—with the new roof the FDA never noticed they needed in February.

Public relations has a lot to do with the way you've been learning about the Third Worlding of America's food safety system. The Georgia source of the bad peanut butter was discovered in the middle of February. The very next day Dole recalled several thousand cartons of cantaloupe that their own "routine" inspections suggested might be carrying salmonella. Four days later, B.J.'s Wholesale Club recalled packaged fresh mushrooms: more routine inspections, this time coming up with E. coli. They always say the inspections are " routine." But they also always manage to somehow come in clusters.

Connect the dots, and you suddenly notice a lot of these ...coincidences. Last month the FDA abruptly announced new rules for fresh-cut produce. They claim it's a huge step forward. "We've never before formally recommended that the industry adopt such regulations," said a spokesman. But, oops: he's hustling you. Meat inspections are mandatory. Produce inspections will remain voluntary.

George Bush's Food and Drug Administration—and our other major food-inspection arm, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan's noble words made flesh. But don't let your family get too close to the flesh. They might get sick and die.

I'll be writing a lot more about this on The Big Con. A lot more. I'll leave you, for now, with this quote from a disgruntled FDA inspector on this "huge step forward"—voluntary inspections. "Let's be honest," he said. "The plant people are not going to slow down the lines for something they find wrong. How often do you hear of a highway patrolman giving himself a ticket for speeding?"

I'd love to provide a link for the quote but it's too old. It's from an Atlanta Journal Constitution article on May 26, 1991.

"I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size."

"Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

"How often do you hear of a highway patrolman giving himself a ticket for speeding?"

This con's been in the works for some time now. Check back frequently. I'll be filling out the story in all its rancid particulars.

The Eve of Destruction

You might wonder – were you someone unfamiliar with or in denial about the ways of the Karl Rove Mafia – how George W. Bush could blunder into nominating someone as attorney general so obviously implicated in the most legally questionable and morally indefensible practices of his administration. You might wonder, too, how the administration seemed to be caught unawares by the bottomless pit of scandal in the past of its initial nominee for Homeland Security secretary.

Or you could realize that such nominations were not blunders, but intentional: that they were made not in spite of Alberto Gonzales' and Bernard Kerik's unsuitability for high office but precisely because of them. Keeping embarrassing facts on file about confederates is the best way to grip them into loyalty like a vise.

It would seem an incredible notion to contemplate, until you examine who it was Bush chose to replace Kerik once his nomination fell through: Michael Chertoff, who as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division engineered the plan to preventively detain immigrants of Arab descent after 9/11. In 2003, the Justice Department's own inspector general warned that the program raises serious legal liability questions, and Justice Department officials apparently recommended that Chertoff hire a lawyer. Now he's been promoted. Sopranos fans will recognize the maneuver: Taking someone with skeletons in his closet close to your breast is just like Tony's embrace of the apparently upstanding suburban New Jersey sporting goods dealer with the secret gambling addiction, specifically to have someone to pick clean when the necessity arose.

Forcing a guy who knows he's dirty but knows his bosses are dirtier to sweat out a congressional hearing is a perfect way to test his loyalty. It's also a great way to test Congress's mettle – to probe just how atrophied the opposition party's willingness to oppose has become. What's more, once you've got them through the ordeal, you've stockpiled one more scapegoat to toss into the fire in case Congress ever gets hot on the trail of the higher-ups who issued the orders. And it establishes a record for a future defense: Once Congress has confirmed a Gonzales or a Chertoff, how can it then turn around and call the things done by a Gonzales or a Chertoff unlawful?

Then there's the implicit dare, which frames the issue in the administration's favor whether they "win" or "lose" the proximate fight: Go ahead, Democrats, make our day. Vote against them. Then we can show you up as the obstructionists to America's national security you are.

The administration may even have made plans for when the bottom drops out – for when the inevitable indictable offenses see the light of day. That's where Alberto Gonzales, White House über-loyalist, comes in. Formally, any investigation of a federal criminal offense is conducted by the Justice Department, and no indictment can go forward without Gonzales' say-so. Under the old set of rules, we might have been able to count on political pressure to force the appointment of a special prosecutor, as occurred in the investigation of the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to the media. But that's exactly the set of rules this gang has set its sights on upending.

Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea, welcome to the Next Four Years: to George Walker Bush's revolutionary second term, where nothing is done by accident, and no sin can be too brazen.

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Tribal Warfare in America

In the fall of 1974, in Kanawha County, W. Va., Christian fundamentalists enraged at the imposition of "blasphemous" textbooks in the public schools demolished a wing of a school board building with fifteen sticks of dynamite. When the board insisted on keeping the books in the curriculum, homes were bombed and school buses shot at. "Jesus Wouldn't Have Read Them," read one of the slogans of a movement whose leader, a preacher, would soon face charges of conspiracy to bomb two elementary schools.

Into this whirlwind stepped Paul Cowan, a shaggy-haired, bespectacled, left-wing New York Jew, trying to make sense of why he felt sympathy for the side that was laying the dynamite.

For people like Cowan, a 34-year-old staff writer at The Village Voice, it was a boon time for existential drift. In 1970 he published "The Making of an Un-American," the memoir of a raw and arrogant new-left punk who had taken a one-year leave from the Voice in 1966 for a stint in the Peace Corps that was supposed to be broadening, but ended up being wildly disillusioning. "When I read that the Viet Cong had attacked the American embassy in Saigon during the Tet offensive," Cowan concluded in Un-American, "I was almost able to imagine that I was a member of the raiding party." But by the time Cowan began his next project, in 1971, life inside the new left had become an emotional burden for him: diminishing returns, dashed certitudes, "intellectual claustrophobia." That was how, "gradually, half-consciously, without any theory or any plan, I decided to cross the sound barrier of dogma and test my beliefs against the realities of American life." The twelve chapters of "The Tribes of America" (1979) were the felicitous result.

A person of Cowan's inclinations and background was supposed to know exactly what to think about a howling mob gathered around a crucifix-emblazoned flag and expectorating demands to burn books of the sort the reporter would want his kids to study, books with chapters by Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and test questions asking students to interpret rather than parrot what they had read. It would have been easy to record the scenes of bonfires and leave it at that; certainly that would have satisfied Cowan's readers back in Greenwich Village. Instead, Cowan took the riskier step: wondering whether these criminals didn't also have a point.

The people responsible for the textbooks were bureaucrats who wrote blithely of pedagogy's power to "induce changes ... in the behavior of the 'culturally lost' of Appalachia," and identified teachers as state-designated "change agents" and schools as "the experimental center, and the core of this design." Nowadays the arrogance of this formulation is as grating to us as a chalkboard screech. Not then. It was an era when the language of universally applicable liberal enlightenment flew trippingly off cosmopolitan tongues. Which was why it came as such a shock when the "culturally lost" proved to have ideas of their own – that their culture had inherent dignity and value, and that textbooks suggesting that Christian revelation was on a par with Greek myth were, as protesters put it, "moral genocide."

It took a keen eye and an open mind to recognize that the cosmopolitans were pursuing a form of class warfare. Cowan noticed how urban and suburban professionals in Kanawha County – "Hillers," in local parlance – spoke nervously in private of how familiarity with names like Mailer and Baldwin would get their precious darlings into Harvard and keep them out of West Virginia Tech. The Hillers weren't about to risk having their upward climb impeded by the "Creekers," poor residents in the hollows who wanted "to protest corruption," as one suburbanite told Cowan, but didn't "even know how to spell that word." But some Creekers were motivated by similar dreams of upward mobility. Their version of it was just incompatible with the Hillers' impositions – like the kid who told Cowan "he wanted to go to West Virginia Tech, to be an engineer," and he felt he needed "a good basic education" to do it.

Dynamite wasn't the answer. But neither was a kind of cultural imperialism indifferent to the fact that 81 percent of the district opposed the textbooks. It was, in a word, complicated. Certainly more complicated than the portraits other journalists were creating for sneering consumption back home: death threats, double-barreled shotguns, Onward Christian Soldiers. The futile last stand of yokels against the inevitable march of progress.

It was at a time when, certainly to the left, local cultures were of keenest interest as obstacles federal judges eradicated in order to deliver social justice. But what Paul Cowan understood long before anyone else was that there was a new kind of story to tell about such conflicts: that attempts to "coax people into the melting pot" had costs as well as benefits, and campaigns to replace "our periods with your question marks," as one Creeker put it with aphoristic intelligence, must not simply be imposed by fiat. Cowan understood how "often, people I might once have written off as reactionaries were fighting to preserve their culture and their psychological and physical turf," and that this new argument over the meaning of democracy was defining the next frontier of political conflict itself. That America had tribes, and that sometimes – often – they would come to blows.

We call those fights the "culture wars" now, and we have a more richly variegated vocabulary to describe the Hillers and the Creekers: red state and blue state. Redneck and yuppie. New Class and white working class. "Evangelical" and "liberal." We describe our nation's dueling dreads over such concepts with a casualness that once marked cocktail party chatter about the inevitability of consensus liberalism. Writing in the 1970s, however, Cowan had no such clichés to lean on. He had to figure it out for himself. He did so brilliantly – eyes open, with a courage I can scarcely believe. He traveled all over the country: to Boston during the busing wars; to Forest Hills, Queens, where he was shocked at the racism of immigrant Jews fighting the construction of a low-income housing project; to the southernmost border of the United States, where the sacrifices Mexicans were making to preserve their families looked like anarchy to the Americans patrolling the border with shotguns. Cowan's reporting from these places left him "with a profound respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life: of customs I'd once regarded as old-fashioned and bourgeois." His travels also found him realizing that "those same longings, translated into political terms, have produced the vicious fights I've witnessed for the past seven years and recorded in this book." His agonized sensitivity to battlefields then barely emergent makes for one of the most remarkable books I have ever read by any journalist.

It was courage that allowed him to achieve it, though courage of a certain sort. Paul Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind, and how many of us dare to do that? In the deeply humanizing portrait of illegal aliens, he notes how "I'd always included braceros" – Mexicans who traveled back and forth on legally sanctioned work contracts – "in my private litany of the oppressed." Instead, he found "they talked nostalgically, not bitterly, about their adventures" north of the border. He calls the chapter "Still the Promised Land" – a self-reproach to someone who once proudly called himself an "Un-American." In a profile of Jesse Jackson, he encounters a man on the verge of apostasy from the left: Jackson, who was then deeply opposed to abortion, was the keynoter at the 1978 meeting of the Republican National Committee. Cowan sat and listened, relegating his own voice to the background. That quiet and reflective voice may account for a mystery regarding Cowan, whom I had never heard of at all when I encountered this book by accident last year. Flashier contemporaries went on to greater fame. Cowan's willingness to play down his own ego – indeed, to mock his own ego – accounts for some of his obscurity.

The more famous names often seemed more macho; there is something about the male journalist and the trope of physical courage. Though Cowan was no chicken. Covering a nationwide transportation strike, he thumbs a ride with a trucker through Ohio where strike supporters are shooting scabs from overpasses. But then comes the characteristic Cowan move: the introduction of a discordant image. He describes a group of college students goofing around in a truck stop's game room, himself "oddly envious, as they chatted cozily about the plays they planned to see during a weekend in New York." He would rather be with them. It is a meditation on a deeper meaning of courage. What journalist, reporting a story, forcing yourself on strangers, attempting to convince yourself that you have something worth saying about a world not your own, hasn't felt the desire to be somewhere else – anywhere else? And what, really, is more difficult: admitting that to yourself (and the world: Cowan wrote of his "fear that I'll appear a fool"), or placing yourself in the way of a "dangerous" situation that renders moot the question of whether what you're doing is worth writing about? The latter course is a way to banish the real fear. Sometimes you realize, reading The Tribes of America, that physical courage and psychic courage are inversely proportional.

The book is not just a collection of published articles. Cowan revised and extended the articles by revisiting the places where he'd reported them. You want scary? Imagine catching up with the people you originally thought you'd turned into heroes with your stories, and who you now know think you've sold them out.

In 1974 Cowan was among the onslaught of outsiders – students, politicians, scribblers, filmmakers – who descended on Harlan County, Kentucky, to chronicle a coal miners' strike. He arrived bearing fantasies. The locale was legendary: "Bloody Harlan," site of the Depression-era strike that inspired the song "Which Side Are You On?" "Some of the journalists I admired most – Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and John Dos Passos – had been part of a committee that investigated working conditions in Harlan in 1931," Cowan explained. They had left as heroes, or so he thought. Why couldn't he? He overlooked the arrogance of some of those earlier reformers, who had distributed copies of the Daily Worker to miners and then stood by as those very possessors of the Daily Worker were removed to jails in remote hamlets reachable only by mule. In Harlan, Cowan partnered with a young miner with leadership ambitions, Jerry Johnson, who seemed more cosmopolitan than all the rest: "I began to fantasize that we were a latter-day version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, pledged to cleanse the mining town of its heritage of corruption." Sure, some of Jerry's values were different, such as his devotion to the land and his traditional marriage. His motivations were different, too. Jerry was moved less by abstractions of justice than by a passion to recover the folkways of his ancestors' Appalachia, before it was commandeered by the greedy overlords of coal. Cowan, the left-wing universalist, emphasized their commonality and romanticized the differences. "I began to think of them as the lost tribe of the working class," he wrote of the miners – arrogating himself, dangerously, a role as their anthropologist.

It couldn't end well.

Jerry hated the story that was meant to lionize him and ended up hating its author, too – who Jerry thought had rendered Harlan's traditionalism in the Voice as titillating local color incidental to the political struggle, when to many in Harlan their traditions as they understood them were the point of the political struggle. Only upon returning did Cowan realize that these friendly people "felt a smoldering resentment toward outsiders" – even, or especially, outsiders who parachuted in and styled themselves as saviors. He had made a terrible botch of things. "Harlan County: The Power and the Shame," he titled this chapter. Part of that shame, he suggested, was his own. He had "indicated a set of commitments – and an unquestioning acceptance of Jerry's view of the strike – that my articles didn't really reflect."

That, he says, "helped me distill the argument that was the genesis of this book": that the passions of reformers can sometimes betray a contempt for the common sense of ordinary people, leading in turn to a dangerous narcissism that could transform someone like him into a close kin of those arrogant school bureaucrats in West Virginia.

Cowan reckoned with that danger most explicitly in his book's concluding chapter. In 1972 "the urban journalistic and political elite" – a tribe in its own right – had flooded another parochial locale, the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where Richard Nixon's Justice Department had staged a politically motivated conspiracy trial designed to neutralize the bands of Catholic radicals trying to end the war in Vietnam by disrupting the draft system. Cowan's tribe came with "visions of jurors lifted from the pages of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street." So did the tribe of John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general, whose Justice Department was counting on these terrified Silent Majoritarians to sentence the defendants to an eternity underneath the jail.

Well, the yokels saw that the government's case was patently absurd, so the yokels had no trouble acquitting. "How stupid did those people in Washington think we were?" one juror later asked Cowan.

That was how Cowan ended the book. The Harrisburg experience, he concludes, "left me feeling that my attitudes toward that group of Americans (like the attitudes of most lawyers, reporters, and defendants – members of the urban elite who were connected to the case) were just as narrow and parochial as their attitudes toward us." He vowed to do better.

By the time I read that, around Christmas in 2003, I had an aching question I wanted to ask Paul Cowan. I wanted to know what had become of him ideologically. After all, in the mid-1970s, other writers were also raising criticisms about the urban journalistic and political elite and their self-serving condescension toward "heartland" people and their values. These writers were also discovering a newfound "respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life." They recognized the habits of a former radicalism as a set of blinds, just as Cowan had, and embraced what Cowan called "the more primal part of oneself" and the conviction – as Cowan wrote – that "cultures aren't clay that you can sculpt to your liking." These writers called themselves neoconservatives. Had Paul Cowan become one of them?

I couldn't ask him that question; he died of cancer in 1988. So I called Paul's widow, Rachel, his frequent companion in many of these chapters. What Rachel Cowan told me was that her husband was just as proud to write from the left at the end as he was at the beginning. He continued to work for The Village Voice; one of his last big stories was a profile of the victims of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, also in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Politically, the answer made sense to me. It shows in Paul Cowan's ultimate judgments – for example that the border guards whom he also deeply humanized in his portrait of illegal aliens, otherwise decent men and professionals, ultimately suffered from a racist inability to recognize the full humanity of the "wets" they hunted. It shows in his conclusion to the West Virginia chapter, in which he faces a moment of truth with the Creekers' charismatic leader: he has to grant her point that "maybe there is no school system that can provide for your kids and mine," but concludes, "I would like to think there is room for fundamentalists in my America. But I'm not sure there is room for me in theirs."

The answer also made sense to me as someone on the hunt for good writing. His ability to probe where those he disagreed with were coming from while still understanding why he disagreed with them – he knows which side he's on – was a token of his moral seriousness and his comfort with moral complexity. He was equally allergic to moral relativism as to moral dogma, which is exactly what made him a great journalist. I came to this realization while thinking of another book published in 1979. It was written by a bad journalist, who in his previous book had proved himself to me a very a good one. That previous book was called "Making It," and its descriptions of subterranean social forces that no one had described before – in this case those shaping the New York literary world – were in their way as astonishing as the journalism in Cowan's The Tribes of America. But Norman Podhoretz's next book, "Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir," one of the most famous and influential books of neoconservatism, was a very lame one. Podhoretz told "the whole story of how and why I went from being a liberal to being a radical and then finally to being an enemy of radicalism in all its forms and varieties." Podhoretz had picked the wrong side. So he rejected it root and branch, right down to its core principle: social solidarity: "The politics of interest," Republican-style: that, he wrote, was "the only antidote to the plague" of sixties radicalism.

You can agree or disagree with the politics. I think it's hard to disagree that Podhoretz became a much worse writer, much less skilled at describing the world. In Making It, self-examination was the taproot of social observation. In Breaking Ranks – and his subsequent work – Podhoretz recognized only demons that existed outside himself. The left left him; he always stayed the same. Podhoretz claimed a courage – he called it moral courage – that was inversely proportional to his actual courage, which was sorely lacking. For perhaps it wasn't the left that was dogmatic, but himself – and dogmatists make terrible journalists.

Paul Cowan took a different course, and that is the meaning of his work. He looked inside himself. He found sins – his own sins, not the sins of some abstraction called "the left," to be rejected as such – and he reckoned with them. Which is hard work. He tested his prejudices against reality, about as deeply as anyone could test them; he embraced new principles, cleaving to the ones worth keeping. He saw virtues in bourgeois virtue. But that didn't paralyze his conscience. He saw that America had tribes, and that the left-leaning Ivy League professionalism he inhabited was one of them, with its own characteristic inanities. That wasn't the end of the story for Cowan, but rather a new, richer beginning.

The Church of Bush

Here are some things that Christopher Nunneley, a conservative activist in Birmingham, Alabama, believes. That some time in June, apparently unnoticed by the world media, George Bush negotiated an end to the civil war in Sudan. That Bill Clinton is "lazy" and Teresa Heinz Kerry is an "African colonialist." That "we don't do torture," and that the School of the Americas manuals showing we do were "just ancient U.S. disinformation designed to make the Soviets think that we didn't know how to do real interrogations."

Chris Nunneley also believes something crazy: that George W. Bush is a nice guy.

It's a rather different conclusion than many liberals would make. When we think of Bush's character, we're likely to focus on the administration's proposed budget cuts for veterans, the children indefinitely detained at Abu Ghraib, maybe the story of how the young lad Bush loaded up live frogs with firecrackers in order to watch them explode.

Conservatives see it differently.

"He's very compassionate," says Chris, an intelligent man who's open-minded enough to make listening to liberals a sort of hobby. "If you look at the way he's bucked the far right: I mean, $15 billion for AIDS in Africa!" He speaks at the church services of blacks, and "you don't fake that. That's not just a photo op."

Of course, two years after Bush made his pledge, only 2 percent of the AIDS money has been distributed (in any event, it will mainly go to drug companies). And appearing earnest in the presence of African Americans has been a documented Bush strategy for wooing moderate voters since the beginning.

So what does a conservative say when such "nice guy" jazz is challenged? Say, when you ask whether a nice guy would invade a country at the cost of untold innocent lives on the shakiest of pretenses? Or, closer to home, whether he would (as Bush did in late 2000) go on a fishing trip while his daughter was undergoing surgery, and use the world's media to mockingly order her to clean her room while he was away? Doesn't signify with Chris. "If you're in one camp, the idea of being firm, 'tough love,' is very popular. If you're in another, you can say, 'Well, that's just mean!' On my side, well, I like the whole idea of 'tough love.' "

This is a journey among the "tough love" camp. The people who, even in the face of evidence of his casual cruelty, of his habitual and unchristian contempt for weakness, love George Bush unconditionally: love him when he is tender, love him when he is tough – but who never, ever are tough on him.

On July 15, the Bush-Cheney campaign organized 6,925 "Parties for the President" in supporters' homes nationwide. I chose to attend in Portland, Oregon. The right love to believe the whole world is against them. In a county where Ralph Nader got a quarter of the votes of George Bush and Al Gore well over double, the sense of martyrdom is especially fragrant: Portland's conservatives are like others anywhere, only more so. One leader told me that here, it's the conservatives who are oppressed by the gays.

They certainly love them some George Bush.

Twelve people gather on the houseboat of Bruce Broussard, a perennially failed candidate popular among local conservatives for, well, his race: He is African American. First the group hears Laura Bush on a conference call. ("All of us know what makes George a great president. He has the courage of his convictions, the willingness to make the tough decisions and stick with them.") Then, they get a bewilderingly disjointed address from their host (he hits some key points from his recent Senate platform: presidential terms of six years instead of four, a cabinet-level Department of Senior Citizens with himself as secretary). Finally, beef-and-cheese dip loading down a plateful of Mrs. Broussard's homemade tortilla chips, I open the floor to the question of why they personally revere George Bush.

Ponytailed Larry, who wears the stripes of a former marine gunnery sergeant on his floppy hat, bursts into laughter; it's too obvious to take seriously. "Honesty. Truth. Integrity," he says upon recovering. "I don't think there's any difference between the governor of Texas and the president of the United States."

Gingerly, I offer one difference: The governor ran for president on a platform of balanced budgets, then ran the federal budget straight into the red.

Responds Larry (of the first president since James Garfield with a Congress compliant enough never to issue a single veto): "Well, it's interesting that we blame the person who happens to be president for the deficit. As if he has any control over the legislature of the United States."

Larry's wife, Tami Mars, the Republican congressional nominee for Oregon's third district, proposes a Divine Right of Eight-Year Terms: "Let the man finish what he started. Instead of switching out his leadership – because that's what the terrorists are expecting."

Larry is asked what he thinks of Bush's budget cuts for troops in the field. He's not with Bush on everything: "I hope he reverses himself on that."

I note that he already has, due to Democratic pressure.

Faced with an existential impossibility – giving the Democrats credit for anything – he retreats into a retort I'll hear again and again tonight: Nobody's perfect. "I don't think we're going to find a situation in which we find a person with which we're 100 percent comfortable."

Then he reels off a litany of complaints about Bush. "Horrible underemployment situation . . . the big-business aspect of the Republican Party I have some issues with."

The next thing I hear is the last refuge of the cornered conservative: a non sequitur fulmination against the hippie Democrats.

"Having said that, what's your option? To have more bike trails?"

The vibe at my next stop is different. None of the people at Kitty and Tom Harmon's bungalow are stupid. Instead they are the kind of "well-informed" that comes from overlong exposure to conservative media: conservatives who construct towers of impressive intellectual complexity on toothpick-weak foundations. My hosts are Stepford-nice (Mom sports "Hello Kitty!" seat covers in her car and loads me down with shortbread for the flight home; Dad shows off the herb garden he'll use to season my eggs if I consent to stay the night). But everyone present shows a glint of steel when their man's character is challenged.

"One of the reasons I respect this president is that he is honest. I believe that after eight years, the dark years of the Clinton administration, we finally have a man in the White House who respects that office and who speaks honestly."

The speaker is Christina, an intense, articulate, and passionate publicist.

"Such a refreshing change for the country. People believe in the president."

I don't mention recent poll figures suggesting that more Americans believe John Kerry than Bush when it comes to terrorism.

After affirming "I still believe that there are weapons of mass destruction" – the commonplace is beyond challenge – Christina displays another facet of the conservative fantasy: Going into Iraq, she says, "is not the sort of thing one does if one wants to be popular. . . . He doesn't stick his finger in the wind." I don't challenge that point, either – though if I did I might ask why Bush scheduled the divisive debate over the intervention for the height of the 2002 campaign season, more certain of what Andrew Card called "new products" than his father, who held off deliberation on the first Iraq war until after the 1990 congressional elections.

Instead I challenge the grandmotherly lady sitting on the piano bench.

Says Delores: "There is an agenda – to get rid of God in our country."

Chirps the reporter: Certainly not on the part of John Kerry, who once entertained dreams of entering the priesthood.

I'm almost laughed out of the room.

I ask why Kerry goes to mass every week if he's trying to get rid of God. "Public relations!" a young man calls out from across the room. "Same reason he does everything else." Cue for Delores to repeat something a rabbi told her: "We have to stand together, because this is what happened in Europe. You know – once they start taking this right and that right. And you have the Islamic people . . . "

She trails off. I ask whether she's referring to the rise of fascism. "We're losing our rights as Christians: yes. And being persecuted again."

I ask why so many liberals believe the administration lies, if there might be anything to the suspicions. What about the report of the Los Angeles Times that morning, that the State Department dismissed 28 of the claims the White House demanded Colin Powell bring before the U.N. as without foundation in fact?

Delores: "You make mention of a paper in Los Angeles that made such and such a report; well, that doesn't mean it's accurate or complete or unbiased."

I respond that the report came from a memo reproduced in the recent report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican-dominated. I'm not sure whether she hasn't heard me or just has decided to change the subject. "John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language, bad humor, being evidenced in all quarters!" she cries. Kitty chimes in: "And Kerry said it reflects American values!"

I ask Tom what role he sees in America for nonbelievers. "Well, if people are of an opinion that their God is supreme and are willing to burn your house down to prove it or dismantle your car to prove it or make all sorts of loud noises, disturbing the peace, and say that they have a right to do that in the name of God. . . ." he begins, in his best Mr. Rogers voice. Later I parse out what the hell he was talking about. I was asking about atheists. But Tom understood "nonbeliever" according to the premise that God is exclusively Judeo-Christian. It wasn't about whether you believe in anything, but whether you dared diverge from his belief.

Walking me to my car (he insisted), Tom, who works for a construction conglomerate, reaches for a favorite metaphor to describe George Bush: linoleum. "You know: Usually you get a microfilm of the color, and if you drop a plate on it you discover it's an ugly-looking floor. Then linoleum came out – the pattern goes through the entire one-eighth of material. You can drop a plate on it, and the color is true all the way down!"

His face glows. He gets a far-off look in his eyes. That's his Bush.

It's like a scene from a John Waters movie.

What all does it mean? The right-wing website Free Republic is infamous for galvanizing harassment campaigns against ideological enemies, but it also has a lighter side: a robust culture of George W. kitsch. "Freepers" display and study the famous photograph of Bush embracing Ashley Faulkner, whose mother perished on 9-11, a woeful, iconic look on his face ("The protective encirclement of her head by President Bush's arm and hand is the essence of fatherly compassion," Freeper luvbach1 writes); the ladies exchange snaps of the president in resolute pose, rendering up racy comments about his sexiness; they reference an image of Bush jogging alongside a soldier wounded in Iraq like it's a Xerox of his very soul. "He's the kind of guy who's going to remember to call a soldier who's lost a leg," one citizen of the Free Republic reflects, "and go jogging with him when he gets a replacement prosthetic." Revering Bush has become, for people like this, a defining component of conservative ideology.

Once I interviewed a Freeper who told me he first became a committed conservative after discovering the Federalist Papers. "I absolutely devoured them, recognizing, my God, these things were written hundreds of years ago and they still stand up as some of the most intense political philosophy ever written."

I happen to agree, so I asked him – after he insisted Bush couldn't have been lying when he claimed to have witnessed the first plane hit the World Trade Center live on TV, after he said the orders to torture in Iraq couldn't have possibly come from the top, all because George Bush is too fundamentally decent to lie – what he thinks of the Federalists' most famous message: that the genius of the Constitution they were defending was that you needn't base your faith in the country on the fundamental decency of an individual, because no one can be trusted to be fundamentally decent, which was why the Constitution established a government of laws, not personalities.

"If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary . . . "

Conservatives see something angelic in George Bush. That's why they excuse, repress, and rationalize away so much.

And that is why conservatism is verging on becoming an un-American creed.

In Line for the Rapture

It was an e-mail we weren't meant to see. Not for our eyes were the notes that showed White House staffers taking two-hour meetings with Christian fundamentalists, where they passed off bogus social science on gay marriage as if it were holy writ and issued fiery warnings that "the Presidents [sic] Administration and current Government is engaged in cultural, economical, and social struggle on every level" -- this to a group whose representative in Israel believed herself to have been attacked by witchcraft unleashed by proximity to a volume of Harry Potter. Most of all, apparently, we're not supposed to know the National Security Council's top Middle East aide consults with apocalyptic Christians eager to ensure American policy on Israel conforms with their sectarian doomsday scenarios.

But now we know.

"Everything that you're discussing is information you're not supposed to have," barked Pentecostal minister Robert G. Upton when asked about the off-the-record briefing his delegation received on March 25. Details of that meeting appear in a confidential memo signed by Upton and obtained by the Voice.

The e-mailed meeting summary reveals NSC Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams sitting down with the Apostolic Congress and massaging their theological concerns. Claiming to be "the Christian Voice in the Nation's Capital," the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and Solomon's temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won't come back to earth.

Abrams attempted to assuage their concerns by stating that "the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph's tomb or Rachel's tomb and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace."

Three weeks after the confab, President George W. Bush reversed long-standing U.S. policy, endorsing Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank in exchange for Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

In an interview with the Voice, Upton denied having written the document, though it was sent out from an e-mail account of one of his staffers and bears the organization's seal, which is nearly identical to the Great Seal of the United States. Its idiosyncratic grammar and punctuation tics also closely match those of texts on the Apostolic Congress's website, and Upton verified key details it recounted, including the number of participants in the meeting ("45 ministers including wives") and its conclusion "with a heart-moving send-off of the President in his Presidential helicopter."

Upton refused to confirm further details.

Affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church, the Apostolic Congress is part of an important and disciplined political constituency courted by recent Republican administrations. As a subset of the broader Christian Zionist movement, it has a lengthy history of opposition to any proposal that will not result in what it calls a "one-state solution" in Israel.

The White House's association with the congress, which has just posted a new staffer in Israel who may be running afoul of Israel's strict anti-missionary laws, also raises diplomatic concerns.

The staffer, Kim Hadassah Johnson, wrote in a report obtained by the Voice, "We are establishing the Meet the Need Fund in Israel--'MNFI.' . . . The fund will be an Interest Free Loan Fund that will enable us to loan funds to new believers (others upon application) who need assistance. They will have the opportunity to repay the loan (although it will not be mandatory)." When that language was read to Moshe Fox, minister for public and interreligious affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, he responded, "It sounds against the law which prohibits any kind of money or material [inducement] to make people convert to another religion. That's what it sounds like." (Fox's judgment was e-mailed to Johnson, who did not return a request for comment.)

The Apostolic Congress dates its origins to 1981, when, according to its website, "Brother Stan Wachtstetter was able to open the door to Apostolic Christians into the White House." Apostolics, a sect of Pentecostals, claim legitimacy as the heirs of the original church because they, as the 12 apostles supposedly did, baptize converts in the name of Jesus, not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ronald Reagan bore theological affinities with such Christians because of his belief that the world would end in a fiery Armageddon. Reagan himself referenced this belief explicitly a half-dozen times during his presidency.

While the language of apocalyptic Christianity is absent from George W. Bush's speeches, he has proven eager to work with apocalyptics -- a point of pride for Upton. "We're in constant contact with the White House," he boasts. "I'm briefed at least once a week via telephone briefings. . . . I was there about two weeks ago . . . At that time we met with the president."

Last spring, after President Bush announced his Road Map plan for peace in the Middle East, the Apostolic Congress co-sponsored an effort with the Jewish group Americans for a Safe Israel that placed billboards in 23 cities with a quotation from Genesis ("Unto thy offspring will I give this land") and the message, "Pray that President Bush Honors God's Covenant with Israel. Call the White House with this message." It then provided the White House phone number and the Apostolic Congress's Web address.

In the interview with the Voice, Pastor Upton claimed personal responsibility for directing 50,000 postcards to the White House opposing the Road Map, which aims to create a Palestinian state. "I'm in total disagreement with any form of Palestinian state," Upton said. "Within a two-week period, getting 50,000 postcards saying the exact same thing from places all over the country, that resonated with the White House. That really caused [President Bush] to backpedal on the Road Map."

When I sought to confirm Upton's account of the meeting with the White House, I was directed to National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones, whose initial response upon being read a list of the names of White House staffers present was a curt, "You know half the people you just mentioned are Jewish?"

When asked for comment on top White House staffers meeting with representatives of an organization that may be breaking Israeli law, Jones responded, "Why would the White House comment on that?"

When asked whose job it is in the administration to study the Bible to discern what parts of Israel were or weren't acceptable sacrifices for peace, Jones said that his previous statements had been off-the-record.

When Pastor Upton was asked to explain why the group's website describes the Apostolic Congress as "the Christian Voice in the nation's capital," instead of simply a Christian voice in the nation's capital, he responded, "There has been a real lack of leadership in having someone emerge as a Christian voice, someone who doesn't speak for the right, someone who doesn't speak for the left, but someone who speaks for the people, and someone who speaks from a theocratical perspective."

When his words were repeated back to him to make sure he had said a "theocratical" perspective, not a "theological" perspective, he said, "Exactly. Exactly. We want to know what God would have us say or what God would have us do in every issue."

The Middle East was not the only issue discussed at the March 25 meeting. James Wilkinson, deputy national security advisor for communications, spoke first and is characterized as stating that the 9-11 Commission "is portraying those who have given their all to protect this nation as 'weak on terrorism,' " that "99 percent of all the men and women protecting us in this fight against terrorism are career citizens," and offered the example of Frances Town-send, deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, "who sacrificed Christmas to do a 'security video' conference."

Tim Goeglein, deputy director of public liaison and the White House's point man with evangelical Christians, moderated, and he also spoke on the issue of same-sex marriage. According to the memo, he asked the rhetorical questions: "What will happen to our country if that actually happens? What do those pushing such hope to gain?" His answer: "They want to change America." How so? He quoted the research of Hoover Institute senior fellow Stanley Kurtz, who holds that since gay marriage was legalized in Scandinavia, marriage itself has virtually ceased to exist. (In fact, since Sweden instituted a registered-partnership law for same-sex couples in the mid '90s, there has been no overall change in the marriage and divorce rates there.)

It is Matt Schlapp, White House political director and Karl Rove's chief lieutenant, who was paraphrased as stating "that the Presidents Administration and current Government is engaged in cultural, economical, and social struggle on every level."

Also present at the meeting was Kristen Silverberg, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. (None of the participants responded to interview requests.)

The meeting was closed by Goeglein, who was asked, "What can we do to assist in this fight for these issues and our nations [sic] foundation and values?" and who reportedly responded, "Pray, pray, pray, pray."

The Apostolic Congress's representative in Israel, Kim Johnson, is ethnically Jewish, keeps kosher, and holds herself to the sumptuary standards of Orthodox Jewish women, so as to better blend in to her surroundings.

In one letter home obtained by the Voice she notes that many of the Apostolic Christians she works with in Israel are Filipino women "married to Jewish men -- who on occasion accompany their wives to meetings. We are planning to start a fellowship with this select group where we can meet for dinners and get to know one another. Please Pray for the timing and formation of such." Elsewhere she talks of a discussion with someone "on the pitfalls and aggravations of Christians who missionize Jews." She works often among the Jewish poor -- the kind of people who might be interested in interest-free loans -- and is thrilled to "meet the outcasts of this Land -- how wonderful because they are in the in-casts for His Kingdom."

An ecstatic figure who from her own reports appears to operate at the edge of sanity ("Two of the three nights in my apartment I have been attacked by a hair raising spirit of fear," she writes, noting the sublet contained a Harry Potter book; "at this time I am associating it with witchcraft"), Johnson has also met with Knesset member Gila Gamliel. (Gamliel did not respond to interview requests.) She also boasted of an imminent meeting with a "Knesset leader."

"At this point and for all future mails it is important for me to note that this country has very stiff anti-missionary laws," she warns the followers back home. [D]iscretion is required in all mails. This is particularly important to understand when people write mails or ask about organization efforts regarding such."

Her boss, Pastor Upton, displays a photograph on the Apostolic Congress website of a meeting between himself and Beny Elon, Prime Minister Sharon's tourism minister, famous in Israel for his advocacy of the expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled lands.

His spokesman in the U.S., Ronn Torassian, affirmed that "Minister Elon knows Mr. Upton well," but when asked whether he is aware that Mr. Upton's staffer may be breaking Israel's anti-missionary laws, snapped: "It's not something he's interested in discussing with The Village Voice."

In addition to its work in Israel, the Apostolic Congress is part of the increasingly Christian public face of pro-Israel activities in the United States. Don Wagner, author of the book Anxious for Armageddon, has been studying Christian Zionism for 15 years, and believes that the current hard-line pro-Israel movement in the U.S. is "predominantly gentile." Often, devotees work in concert with Jewish groups like Americans for a Safe Israel, or AFSI, which set up a mostly Christian Committee for a One-State Solution as the sponsor of last year's billboard campaign. The committee's board included, in addition to Upton, such evangelical luminaries as Gary Bauer and E.E. "Ed" McAteer of the Religious Roundtable.

AFSI's executive director, Helen Freedman, confirms the increasingly Christian cast of her coalition. "We have many good Jews, of course," she says, "but they're in the minority." She adds, "The liberal Jew is unable to believe the Arab when he says his goal is to Islamize the West. . . . But I believe it. And evangelical Christians believe it."

Of Jews who might otherwise support her group's view of Jews' divine right to Israel, she laments, "They're embarrassed about quoting the Bible, about referring to the Covenant, about talking about the Promised Land."

Pastor Upton is not embarrassed, and Helen Freedman is proud of her association with him. She is wistful when asked if she, like Upton, has been able to finagle a meeting with the president. "Pastor Upton is the head of a whole Apostolic Congress," she laments. "It's a nationwide group of evangelicals."

Upton has something Freedman covets: a voting bloc.

She laughs off concerns that, for Christian Zionists, actual Jews living in Israel serve as mere props for their end-time scenario: "We have a different conception of what [the end of the world] will be like . . . Whoever is right will rejoice, and whoever was wrong will say, 'Whoops!' "

She's not worried, either, about evangelical anti-Semitism: "I don't think it exists," she says. She does say, however, that it would concern her if she learned the Apostolic Congress had a representative in Israel trying to win converts: "If we discovered that people were trying to convert Jews to Christianity, we would be very upset."

Kim Johnson doesn't call it converting Jews to Christianity. She calls it "Circumcision of the Heart" -- a spiritual circumcision Jews must undergo because, she writes in paraphrase of Jeremiah, chapter 9, "God will destroy all the uncircumcised nations along with the House of Israel, because the House of Israel is uncircumcised in the heart . . . [I]t is through the Gospel . . . that men's hearts are circumcised."

Apostolics believe that only 144,000 Jews who have not, prior to the Second Coming of Christ, acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah will be saved in the end times. Though even for those who do not believe in this literal interpretation of the Bible -- or for anyone who lives in Israel, or who cares about Israel, or whose security might be affected by a widespread conflagration in the Middle East, which is everyone -- the scriptural prophecies of the Christian Zionists should be the least of their worries.

Instead, we should be worried about self-fulfilling prophecies. "Biblically," stated one South Carolina minister in support of the anti-Road Map billboard campaign, "there's always going to be a war."

Don Wagner, an evangelical, worries that in the Republican Party, people who believe this "are dominating the discourse now, in an election year." He calls the attempt to yoke Scripture to current events "a modern heresy, with cultish proportions.

"I mean, it's appalling," he rails on. "And it also shows how marginalized mainstream Christian thinking, and the majority of evangelical thought, have become."

It demonstrates, he says, "the absolute convergence of the neoconservatives with the Christian Zionists and the pro-Israel lobby, driving U.S. Mideast policy."

The problem is not that George W. Bush is discussing policy with people who press right-wing solutions to achieve peace in the Middle East, or with devout Christians. It is that he is discussing policy with Christians who might not care about peace at all -- at least until the rapture.

The Jewish pro-Israel lobby, in the interests of peace for those living in the present, might want to consider a disengagement.

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