Biden's agenda on China needs a reality check

Like his immediate predecessor, Joe Biden is committed to a distinctly anti-China global strategy and has sworn that China will not "become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world… on my watch." In the topsy-turvy universe created by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was, however, Jamie Dimon, the CEO and chairman of JP Morgan Chase, a banking giant with assets of $3.4 trillion, who spoke truth to Biden on the subject.

While predicting an immediate boom in the U.S. economy "that could easily run into 2023," Dimon had grimmer news on the future as well. "China's leaders believe that America is in decline," he wrote in his annual letter to the company's shareholders. While the U.S. had faced tough times in the past, he added, today "the Chinese see an America that is losing ground in technology, infrastructure, and education — a nation torn and crippled by politics, as well as racial and income inequality — and a country unable to coordinate government policies (fiscal, monetary, industrial, regulatory) in any coherent way to accomplish national goals." He was forthright enough to say, "Unfortunately, recently, there is a lot of truth to this."

As for China, Dimon could also have added, its government possesses at least two powerful levers in areas where the United States is likely to prove vulnerable: dominant control of container ports worldwide and the supplies of rare earth metals critical not just to the information-technology sector but also to the production of electric and hybrid cars, jet fighters, and missile guidance systems. And that's only a partial list of the areas where China is poised to become dominant in the foreseeable future. Here's a likely scenario.

The Digital Yuan Versus the (Missing) Digital Dollar

Within the broad headline of the globe's "second-largest economy," China has already either surpassed the United States or is running neck-and-neck with it in certain specific sectors.

With a global smartphone market share of 20% in the second quarter of 2020, China's Huawei Technologies topped the charts, marginally exceeding South Korea's Samsung, and well ahead of Apple, according to the International Data Corporation. This happened despite a concerted drive by President Donald Trump's administration to damage Huawei that culminated, in May 2020, with Washington barring companies worldwide from using U.S.-made machinery or software to design or produce chips for that company or its entities from that September on. Nonetheless, with a 47% share of China's booming 5G smartphone market, Huawei topped the list there while it kept up its investment in future-oriented, cutting-edge technologies and basic research to the tune of a striking $3 billion to $5 billion annually.

Broadly speaking, China continues to make impressive strides when it comes to developing its information and communications technology sector. Its Fintech (Financial Technology) report, published in October 2020, showed that an estimated 87% of Chinese consumers used fintech services. With a vast mobile-payment system that hit $29 trillion (200 trillion yuan) worth of payments in 2019, China is shaping up to become the globe's first "cashless society" and its largest financial-technology ecosystem by the end of this decade.

Less than 10% of Americans use mobile payments, which means a similar scenario for the United States is nowhere on the horizon. With mobile transactions in China already accounting for at least four out of every five payments and more than half the value of all non-cash retail payments, that country is poised to leave the U.S., a comparative laggard in fintech, shackled to a cash-dominated system.

In their relentless drive for innovation, the Chinese authorities started pushing the development of a digital currency in certain regions in August 2020. Their specific goals were to make daily life easier for citizens and digital payments more secure. While non-bank payment platforms like Alipay and WeChat Pay required users to link to bank accounts, a digital wallet with an e-currency deposit could be opened with a unique personal identification — a driver's license or a mobile phone number — enabling the un-banked population of China to embrace the digital world.

As a result, the People's Bank of China became the first major central bank to issue a virtual currency. A broader roll-out is expected for the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February 2022, which will give the digital yuan international exposure.

This has alarmed the Biden administration. Officials at the Treasury Department, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council are frantically trying to comprehend the potential implications of a virtual yuan system. They are particularly eager to understand how it would be distributed, and whether it could be used to bypass Washington's international sanctions as applied to Iran. What distresses some American officials and experts is the notion that someday China's virtual yuan could replace the U.S. dollar as the world's dominant reserve currency.

At the Federal Reserve, Chairman Jerome Powell insisted that the central bank was involved in a large-scale research and development project on a possible future digital dollar, though pointing out that such a project could only be launched via a law that would have to be passed by a deeply divided Congress. In short, irrespective of the future of China's virtual currency, a digital dollar is not likely, not in the near future anyway.

Building Infrastructure (or Not)

As for recent economic history, even a cursory look at the performances of the United States and China in combating the 2008 financial meltdown tells a striking tale.

China made an indelible mark in meeting that financial challenge. Its government sharply increased its infrastructure spending, resulting in higher imports that helped counter flagging global demand. While this move increased Beijing's debt, it also helped build a foundation to further transform the country's economy into a productivity-led growth model. A decade after that great recession, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, China's infrastructure ranking jumped from 66th place to 36th place out of 152 countries.

Although infrastructure building on a large scale requires significant upfront investment, it's guaranteed to yield productivity gains in the long run. Time and cost savings for commuters, improved market access, healthier competition, increased exchange of ideas, and enlarged innovation capacity, all aided by modern infrastructure, are a springboard for economic development.

During the decade following the 2008 crisis, the number of Chinese cities with metro services jumped from 10 to 34 and 1.1 million kilometers of highways were built, raising the total to 4.8 million kilometers. The length of its high-speed rail system shot up by 52,000 kilometers to 132,000 kilometers. Introduced on the eve of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, it's now by far the world's longest system, accounting for two-thirds of the globe's high-speed rail. Its advances in information-and computer-technology were equally impressive. On average, mobile-phone subscriptions came to exceed one per person — about the same as in the United States.

High-speed rail (of which the United States has none) reduces journey times, while linking dense urban areas with less crowded cities. In doing so, it allows for a more balanced distribution of labor and business development without sacrificing the benefits of an increasingly urbanized economy. Economies of scale in turn mean that productivity rises as rail usage increases.

Little wonder, then, that President Barack Obama and his team promoted the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as an infrastructure-building program in response to the 2008 economic crisis. In reality, however, only $80 billion, a tenth of the money Congress sanctioned, would be devoted to actual infrastructure. Of that, about a third was spent on roads and bridges, improving about 67,600 kilometers of roads and 2,700 bridges. The program also included investment in modern infrastructure like smart grids and broadband development.

In 2010, Obama announced what was to be the "largest investment in infrastructure since the Interstate Highway System," the creation of a high-speed rail network that would rival China's. More than a decade later, the only visible progress is a much-delayed and still incomplete 275-kilometer Central Valley California line from Bakersfield to Merced. And in the Trump years, when essentially no government money went into such projects, "infrastructure week" became a standing joke. President Biden seems determined to rectify this, but how successful he'll be with his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal in the face of a rigidly divided Congress remains to be seen.

For its part, the Chinese government combined its program of rapid infrastructure development with upgrading of the labor force. It did so by implementing an educational system that stressed science, technology, engineering, and math, known as STEM. By achieving higher productivity in this way, the government planned to compensate for a projected shrinkage in its work force.

To promote STEM, the government issued guidelines in 2016 to create a national development strategy aimed at advancing China to the forefront of innovative countries by 2030. In February 2017, the Ministry of Education officially added STEM education to the primary-school curriculum. Since then, encouraged by official policies, schools in both the public and private sectors have implemented such programs.

In 2019, the government allocated 100% of its research funding to top universities to the ones that concentrated on STEM disciplines. By comparison, South Korea allocated 62% of such funding that way. By contrast, U.S. universities ranked in the top 100 maintained a greater balance in funding among STEM fields, humanities, and social sciences.

In October 2019, three of China's biggest mobile-phone carriers launched advanced 5G services, giving it the world's largest 5G mobile network. A year later, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had more 5G subscribers than the U.S., not just in total but per capita.

Given the ubiquity of smartphones, the news that America seemed to be losing the tech race to China was widely noted. Mostly ignored, however, was the extent to which the U.S. had become vulnerable to Chinese pressure in international trade.

America's Vulnerabilities

In testimony before Congress in October 2019, Carolyn Bartholomew, chairwoman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, revealed that at least two-thirds of the world's top 50 maritime container ports were directly owned and managed by the Chinese or supported by that country's investments (up from roughly 20% a decade ago). These included terminals at major American container ports in Los Angeles and Seattle. When it came to such ports, it led the world with seven of the 10 largest ones.

A year earlier, officials at the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company, one of the globe's largest container shipping lines, acknowledged that the company had connected its routes along what was officially called the Maritime Silk Road, linking regional markets in West Africa, Northern Europe, the Caribbean, and the U.S. to form a more comprehensive and balanced globalized trading network. "By owning and/or operating a network of logistical nodes across Asia, Europe, and Africa, China can control a significant portion of its inbound supply chain for essential commodities and outbound trade routes for its exports," Bartholomew explained. "In the event of conflict, China could use its control over these and other ports to hinder trade access to other countries."

In the manufacturing sector, China finds itself in a privileged position by virtue of its special mineral deposits, called rare earth elements. A group of 17 rare earth metals, including lanthanum, cerium, yttrium, europium, and gadolinium, often called "industrial gold," are critical components of such high-technology and clean-energy products as wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars, because of their magnetism, luminescence, and strength. They are also used in a wide variety of weapons from jet fighters to nuclear submarines.

Unsurprisingly, in recent years, there has been a rapid rise in the demand for these minerals in advanced economies. They are dispersed in low concentrations and are costly to extract from ore, an industry in which China has invested a great deal since the 1970s.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2020, China accounted for 58% of rare earth minerals production, down from around 90% four years earlier, as the United States and Australia boosted their own mining of them. Still, as of 2018, the United States imported 80.5% of its rare earth metals from China. In May of that year, the Trump administration added these to a list of minerals deemed critical to American economic and national security. And in July 2019, it declared them "essential to the national defense," which freed up resources for the Department of Defense to take action to secure a domestic rare earth production capability.

Even if the mining of these ores increased in the U.S., refining them requires specialist technology and trained personnel as well as high upfront investment. Due to the lack of these in the U.S. so far, China continues to enjoy a near monopoly in processing the ore, with the raw material containing the prized metal mined outside China shipped to the Chinese sites. The refining process also generates large amounts of radioactive waste and pollutes the environment. As a result, developed countries usually opt for getting the refining done in emerging economies.

All in all, when you view the globe in the throes of a once-in-a-century pandemic, you find an authoritarian state, wedded to centralized planning, initiating programs with long-term benefits for its citizens and seeing them through. You also see a politically riven democratic republic operating primarily on an ad hoc basis.

The stark truth is that an American president cannot even bet on his policies, however laudable or otherwise, surviving his four-year term. Trump's succession after the Obama era illustrated this dramatically, as has that of Trump's successor, Biden. When judged purely on the basis of final results, centralized planning clearly beats short-term programming, even if it is viewed with a mixture of derision and condemnation by the Western governments that Biden is attempting to coopt to challenge China. The reality of our moment: that country is now rising on a distinctly wounded planet.

Copyright 2021 Dilip Hiro

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Why cops get away with killing

For most Americans, the murder trial of Derek Chauvin would seem to be an open-and-shut case. There's a video of the Minneapolis police officer kneeling down on George Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes until Floyd suffocated to death. All viewers were witness to the crime. At the same time, most of us believe justice is blind. Put these together—the evidence and the principle—and surely the jury, which is now deliberating, will deliver a guilty verdict in keeping with what most Americans expect.

Except the odds are in Chauvin's favor. Police are almost never convicted of serious crimes. That's despite the ubiquity of cellphone and body cameras. Juries, meanwhile, almost never second-guess the split-second decisions of cops on duty. According to the Times, about 1.1 percent of police officers who kill civilians are charged with murder or manslaughter. Over a 15-year period, only 140 state and local police officers were arrested after shooting incidents. Only 44 were convicted on lesser charges.

That may be because shootings are legally justified, Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University, told the Times. Or it may be because "the legal system and laws themselves are overly deferential to the police. That deference, he added, protects the status quo in the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country." Stinson said: "Culture eats policy, as the saying goes. We have a police subculture whose core elements in many places include fear of Black people."

Most of us believe the reason we have police officers in the first place is providing public safety and peacekeeping. That's certainly what most of us want from state and local cops. Given this expectation, most are shocked when they murder people. Most are doubly shocked when they get away with it. But what if we're wrong? What if our presumptions are off? What if cops are doing what they think they're supposed to do?

That's certainly what the data suggests. Police officers deal out death so frequently you'd justified in thinking that's what normal, acceptable policing looks like. Since 2013, around than 1,100 people have died annually at the hands of law enforcement, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit. (These numbers include unarmed victims, like George Floyd.) Since the end of last month, at the start of Derek Chauvin's murder trial, police officers have killed more than three people every day over a span of 20 days. The data might not show policing as anomaly so much as policing as intended.

I don't mean to be cheeky. I do mean, however, to shake up most people's thinking—by which I mean most white people's thinking. Black people and people of color are on the receiving end of state coercion far more than white people are. They might be deeply disappointed if Chauvin's jury finds him not guilty. They might be despondent. They won't be surprised, though. It's white people who will be stunned. It's white people who will be outraged! It's white people who will struggle to accept the truth, and it's white people—many of us anyway—who won't. We will instead think of Chauvin's getting away with murder as the exception to the rule instead of the rule itself.

I think Philip Stinson, the criminal justice expert, is mistaken. It's not that subcultures in police departments fear Black people. It's that subcultures have come to understand for themselves, quite rationally, that their true mission, however unpopular it may be, is doling out legal and extralegal state violence to people who are deserving of state violence in the name of public safety and peacekeeping. These subcultures understand that even when white people complain about police brutality, white people benefit from it. They know what they have to do. They only need a reason for doing it. And because, in their view, Black people act criminally by existing, there's reason aplenty.

Attributing irrational fear to what is, I think, rational thinking actually deepens the problem. It makes changing the status quo more difficult. For many white people, perhaps most white people, being scared of Black people, due to the fact that Black people exist, is understandable. Therefore, second-guessing a cop seems unreasonable. Such compassion therefore contributes to the idea that most cops are good, while only some are bad, a mindset that blinds white people to what the data is telling us. Good or bad has nothing to do with it. Cops deal out so much death, because it's their job.

The real reason Republicans are throwing a fake tantrum about Rep. Maxine Waters

Republican leaders really want to maintain the ridiculous myth that they aren't the party of white supremacy, even as they send out fundraising emails full of winking praise for Tucker Carlson's embrace of what can only be described as a white nationalist conspiracy theory. Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona recently unveiled plans for a new Republican caucus called the "America First Caucus," using overtly white nationalist rhetoric like "uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions" and "the progeny of European architecture." The failure to wrap their racism up in slightly more subtle coding drew immediate tut-tutting from GOP leadership, with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R.-Calif., tweeting that the GOP is not about "nativist dog whistles."

This is a neat trick McCarthy is pulling. He is redefining the bullhorn that Gosar and Taylor Greene were using as a "dog whistle," setting the subtlety bar so low for racism that anything but a Klan hood and a burning cross is considered "debatable." As Heather "Digby" Parton warned at Salon on Monday, this is "an old strategy by right-wingers that inexorably mainstreams their beliefs in a way that allows many of them to escape responsibility." Republicans let the loudmouths take the heat of public backlash, but exploit the space that the extremists opened up to move ever more in the far-right direction.

Proving Parton's theory almost immediately true, McCarthy then threw a massive fake tantrum over comments made by Rep. Maxine Waters. The California Democrat was in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on Saturday to support protests against the killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a police officer, and was asked by reporters what people should do if the jury failed to convict Derek Chauvin, a former police officer accused of murdering George Floyd only miles away.

"We've got to stay on the street, and we've got to get more active. We've got to get more confrontational," Waters answered.

To be excruciatingly clear, no one actually believes that by "confrontational," Waters was speaking about anything but peaceful confrontation. Unlike her Republican colleagues, whose only remaining languages are "bad faith" and "dog whistles," Waters is someone who says what she means and rarely means anything but what she plainly said.

But McCarthy, despite his false claims to believe that his is "the party of more opportunity for all Americans," rushed excitedly to flip out on Waters for genuinely supporting real equality. He falsely accused Waters of "inciting violence in Minneapolis" and demanded that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi punish Waters. His freakout came one day after Taylor Greene released a letter insisting that Congress expel Waters, demonstrating once again that McCarthy and Taylor Greene are really on the same page about most things.

It's not a huge mystery what's going on here, of course. Republican leaders know that their base is hungry for justifications for racism, especially when the news headlines are currently dominated by stories of senseless police violence. Bashing an 82-year-old Black woman and insinuating that she needs to sit down and shut up is plain old racist pandering.

It's also right-wing projection. After all, it was just a few short months ago that Donald Trump quite literally incited what really should be understood as white nationalist insurrection, sending thousands of redhats to storm the U.S. Capitol after spending over two months unsubtly arguing that Black voters in cities like Philadelphia and Detroit were illegitimate. But most Republican voters support the insurrection and Trump's reasons for inciting it, so their leaders are eager to find some kind of excuse for minimizing what happened there. And pretending that "both sides" are equally violent is the preferred method, even though a big difference between Waters and Trump is that the former never has and never would incite a violent mob to overthrow a legitimate election.

Chauvin's lawyer, Eric Nelson, also disingenuously pounced on Waters' comments, falsely accusing the congresswoman of "intimidation" of the jury and demanding a mistrial. This fits in with his larger defense strategy, which is focused not on trying to prove his client's innocence but instead throwing out a bunch of random race-baiting rationalizations and hoping at least one of the white jurors is shameless enough to grab at it. Whining about Waters is about distracting a potentially Fox News-addled juror and convincing them to focus on their white grievance and not on the evidence against Chauvin. It's a version of what all right-wing media is doing right now. Figures on the right from Tucker Carlson to Ted Cruz are busy pretending that Black anger, not police violence, is the real problem.

The good news is Pelosi is not foolish enough to indulge McCarthy's racist temper tantrum, instead calmly telling reporters, "I don't think she should apologize" and that Waters — as literally everyone knows, even if Republicans pretend otherwise — "talked about 'confrontation' in the manner of the civil rights movement."

Waters was also unperturbed, telling the Grio, "I am not worried that they're going to continue to distort what I say." When it comes to Republicans, Waters added, "this is who they are and this is how they act."

Waters is, of course, right. Republicans, like Chauvin's defense attorney, don't have legitimate arguments and they certainly don't have the facts on their side. All they have left is whining, feigning outrage, and trolling — anything to avoid engaging in rational debate over the issues because that is always a losing space for conservatives. The only way to deal with these bad faith gambits is to minimize engagement (remember the maxim about wrestling with pigs) and instead focus energies on calling out what they are doing and why.

What they are doing: Racist pandering. Why: Because they know full well that they can't win the debate on the merits.

Racist conservatives desperately want to talk about anything but the real issue, which is the continuing problem of police violence and the role that racism plays in fueling it. And if they can paint a Black woman demanding justice as a villain, so much the better for their base that endlessly wants to hear fairy tales about why their ugliest bigotries are justified.

Marjorie Taylor Greene crossed a line for the GOP — but that's all part of the strategy

If you had any doubts that the Republican Party had a full-blown white nationalist faction ready and willing to let their freak flags fly, the last few weeks have to have disabused you of them. From Fox News' highest rated prime time host Tucker Carlson endorsing the far-right "great replacement" theory on national television to Kevin Williamson of the National Review, following in the tradition of its founder William F. Buckley, theorizing that we need "fewer — but better — voters," it seems as if right-wing extremism is getting a whole lot of airtime.

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene put the white icing on Republican's racist cake last week when she floated the idea of the new Trump-supporting American First Caucus, which caused even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to issue a mild rebuke for its obvious references to white power. Among those who said they were part of the project were far-right Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas. The rock has been turned over and all the white supremacists are crawling out, eyes squinting, ready to seize their rightful place in the Republican Party.

Greene's plan was reported by Punchbowl News last Friday as a new group dedicated to following in "President Trump's footsteps, and potentially step on some toes and sacrifice sacred cows for the good of the American nation." This is defined as preserving "Anglo-Saxon political traditions" with a goal of limiting legal immigration "to those that can contribute not only economically, but have demonstrated respect for this nation's culture and rule of law." It's unclear exactly how such "respect" can be demonstrated but it's not too hard to imagine. Being a huge Trump supporter certainly wouldn't hurt. It's also interesting that they have moved on from the "Judeo-Christian ethic" trope they used for the last few decades to this weird colonial throwback term "Anglo-Saxon culture," but it's no mystery as to why they would have done that, is it?

One aspect of the agenda that got a lot of attention was its support for infrastructure "that reflects the architectural, engineering and aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture." There were plenty of chuckles over that one, imagining what Greene and Gohmert would consider appropriate architecture. After wondering for a bit who they would consider to be their Albert Speer, I realized it was right in front of our nose: the great builder and designer of ostentatious, gold-plated kitsch himself: Donald Trump.

But really, it's less hilarious than it sounds. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the Third Reich knows how much importance they attached to the "classical aesthetic" and in recent years there has been a movement among various alt-right types, including Neo-Nazis and Identity Evropa, to take up a new aesthetic as the perfect expression of white culture. Hettie O'Brien of The New Statesman wrote about the trend in 2018:

While the Nazis thought neoclassical architecture an authentic expression of German identity, today's far right updates this doctrine for the social media age. As Stephan Trüby, an architectural historian at the University of Stuttgart, told me, right-wing populists have begun to sharpen their focus on architecture. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland party has spawned a revivalist movement of far-right isolationists who revere folk mythology and Saxon castles. Trüby writes that, "Filled with disgust at any kind of metropolitan multicultural way of life," these settlers retreat to rural Germany to rehearse the "preservation of the German Volk". [...]
As Trüby noted, in Germany certain terms camouflage far-right identity politics. "Words like 'tradition' and 'beauty' are used to establish ideas of a unified people and nation, which excludes migrants and many parts of the population." Beauty is infused with connotations of blood, soil and a Volk.

It's not just a European thing. You may recall the marchers in Charlottesville in 2017 were chanting "blood and soil."

Within 24 hours, Greene and Gosar had backtracked on their caucus plan, suddenly claiming that it wasn't really their thing and that a staffer was responsible for an early draft they hadn't approved of. Greene went hysterical on Twitter over the controversy:

Greene's spokesman, Nick Dyer, had issued a statement on Friday saying to "be on the look out for the release of the America First Caucus platform when it's announced to the public very soon." By Saturday he was saying Greene would not be launching anything. In the interim, some members of the most far-right caucus in the House, the Freedom Caucus, which counts Greene and the others as members, had publicly expressed their disapproval.

It's tempting to see that as a sign they were truly appalled by Greene's overt white nationalism. But that's unlikely. This is actually an old strategy by right-wingers that inexorably mainstreams their beliefs in a way that allows many of them to escape responsibility. They do it every few years. Some rump right-wing group organizes itself within the party, attracts some attention for its extremism and then ends up being the tail that wags the dog — at least until another even more right-wing rump group organizes itself and does the same thing, moving the previous group into the mainstream. They usually tend to gain steam when the Democrats are in power.

This goes way back but, as with so much else, it has accelerated since the early 1990s when Newt Gingrich and his backbench wrecking crew took over the GOP after rabble-rousing through the previous decade. They were once the loudmouthed extremists and then suddenly were the mainstream and elected their rabble-rousing leader to be the Speaker of the House. (Listening to former Speaker John Boehner bemoan the rightward surge of the GOP is laughable. He was among those original Gingrich revolutionaries.) Later came the Freedom Caucus, a group known for its obstructionism and "burn the house" down purity. Trump raised them up into the corridors of real power, spawning such GOP superstars as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Devin Nunes, R-CA, Jim Jordan, R-OH, and Matt Gaetz, R-FL all of whom are current or former Freedom Caucus members.

With the help of Fox News, Marjorie Taylor Greene is taking that same strategy to the next level. It works out well for all concerned. By parroting the emergent white nationalist rhetoric being mainstreamed by Tucker Carlson, she manages to raise a lot of money. And by delicately distancing themselves from her, the Freedom Caucus get to appear to be safe to establishment Republicans (just like John Boehner was when he became speaker) who can in turn appeal to the suburban voters who abandoned the party.

I think you can see the problem here.

This latest iteration of far-right wingnuttia is going in a very dangerous direction. I don't think we'll see Marjorie Taylor Greene elected speaker of the House but there's every chance that at some point someone with her toxic ideology will be seen as such a mainstream Republican that he or she is a perfectly viable candidate. Trump already came very close. I honestly don't know how much lower they can go from there.

Biden's bait and switch in Afghanistan

On Thursday, April 15, the New York Times posted an article headed, "How the U.S. Plans to Fight From Afar After Troops Exit Afghanistan," just in case anyone misunderstood the previous day's headline, "Biden, Setting Afghanistan Withdrawal, Says 'It Is Time to End the Forever War'" as indicating the U.S. war in Afghanistan might actually come to an end on September 11, 2021, almost 20 years after it started.

We saw this bait and switch tactic before in President Biden's earlier announcement about ending U.S support for the long, miserable war in Yemen. In his first major foreign policy address, on February 4, President Biden announced "we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen," the war waged by Saudi Arabia and its allies since 2015, the war he called "a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe." Biden declared "This war has to end."

As with last week's announcement that the U.S. war in Afghanistan would end, "clarification" came the following day. On February 5th, the Biden administration dispelled the impression that the U.S. was getting out of the business of killing Yemenis completely and the State Department issued a statement, saying "Importantly, this does not apply to offensive operations against either ISIS or AQAP." In other words, whatever happens in regard to the war waged by the Saudis, the war that the U.S. has been waging in Yemen since 2002, under the guise of the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by congress authorizing the use of the U.S. Armed Forces against those responsible for the September 11 attacks, will continue indefinitely, despite the fact that neither ISIS nor Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula existed in 2001. These other "offensive operations" by the U.S. that will continue unabated in Yemen include drone strikes, cruise missile attacks and special forces raids.

While what President Biden actually said regarding the war in Afghanistan last week was "We will not take our eye off the terrorist threat," and "We will reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent re-emergence of terrorist threat to our homeland," the New York Times could not be far off as they interpreted those words to mean, "Drones, long-range bombers and spy networks will be used in an effort to prevent Afghanistan from re-emerging as a terrorist base to threaten the United States."

It appears from his statements and actions regarding the war in Yemen in February and regarding the war in Afghanistan in April, that Biden is not so much concerned with ending the "forever wars" as he is with handing these wars over to drones armed with 500 pound bombs and Hellfire missiles operated by remote control from thousands of miles away.

In 2013, when President Obama promoted drone wars claiming that "by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life" it was already known that this was not true. By far, most victims of drone attacks are civilians, few are combatants by any definition and even those targeted as suspected terrorists are victims of assassination and extrajudicial executions.

The validity of Biden's claim that U.S. "counter terrorism capabilities" such as drones and special forces can effectively "prevent re-emergence of terrorist threat to our homeland" is taken for granted by the New York Times- "Drones, long-range bombers and spy networks will be used in an effort to prevent Afghanistan from re-emerging as a terrorist base to threaten the United States."

After the Ban Killer Drones "international grassroots campaign working to ban aerial weaponized drones and military and police drone surveillance," was launched on April 9, I was asked in an interview if there is anyone in the government, military, diplomatic or intelligence communities who supports our position that drones are no deterrent to terrorism. I do not think that there is, but there are many people formerly holding those positions who agree with us. One example of many is retired General Michael Flynn, who was President Obama's top military intelligence officer before he joined the Trump administration (and was subsequently convicted and pardoned). He said in 2015, "When you drop a bomb from a drone… you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good," and "The more weapons we give, the more bombs we drop, that just… fuels the conflict." Internal CIA documents published by WikiLeaks document that the agency had similar doubts about its own drone program—"The potential negative effect of HVT (high value targets) operations," the report states, "include increasing the level of insurgent support […], strengthening an armed group's bonds with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group's remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and escalating or de-escalating a conflict in ways that favor the insurgents."

Speaking of the effect of drone attacks in Yemen, the young Yemeni writer Ibrahim Mothana told Congress in 2013, "Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants." The drone wars the Biden administration seems hell bent on expanding clearly damage and set back security and stability in the countries being attacked and increase the danger of attacks on Americans at home and abroad.

Long ago, both George Orwell and President Eisenhower foresaw today's "forever wars" and warned of nations' industries, economies and politics becoming so dependent on the production and consumption of armaments that wars would no longer be fought with an intention of winning them but to ensure that they never end, that they are continuous. Whatever his intentions, Joe Biden's calls for peace, in Afghanistan as in Yemen, while pursuing war by drone, ring hollow.

For a politician, "war by drone" has obvious advantages to waging war by ordering "boots on the ground." "They do keep the body bag count down," writes Conn Hallinan in his essay, Day of the Drone, "but that raises an uncomfortable moral dilemma: If war doesn't produce casualties, except among the targeted, isn't it more tempting to fight them? Drone pilots in their air-conditioned trailers in southern Nevada will never go down with their aircraft, but the people on the receiving end will eventually figure out some way to strike back. As the attack on the World Trade towers and recent terrorist attacks in France demonstrate, that is not all that hard to do, and it is almost inevitable that the targets will be civilians. Bloodless war is a dangerous illusion."

The war is never the way to peace, the war always comes home. With the exception of four known "friendly fire" casualties, every one of the many thousands of drone attack victims has been a person of color and drones are becoming another military weapon passed on from war zones to urban police departments. Technical advances and proliferation of drones as a cheaper, more politically safe way for many countries to make war on their neighbors or across the globe make forever wars more intractable.

Talk of peace in Afghanistan, Yemen, the streets of the U.S., is not coherent while waging wars with drones. We must urgently demand a ban on the production, trade and use of weaponized drones and an end to military and police drone surveillance.

Brian Terrell is an Iowa-based peace activist who has spent more than six months in prison for protesting targeted assassinations at U.S. military drone bases.

How the Saudi lobby wields power in Washington

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., was on the hot seat. In early March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world, oil prices collapsed and a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia, leaving American oil and gas companies feeling the pain. As oil prices plummeted, Republican senators from oil-producing states turned their ire directly on Saudi Arabia. Forget that civil war in Yemen — what about fossil-fuel profits here at home?

To address their concerns, Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud agreed to speak with a group of them in a March 18th conference call — and found herself instantly in the firing line, as senator after senator berated her for the Kingdom's role in slashing global oil prices. "Texas is mad," Senator Ted Cruz bluntly stated. As the ambassador tried to respond, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan retorted, "With all due respect, I don't want to hear any talking points from you until you hear from all [of us], I think there's 11 or 12 on the call."

The Saudi lobby in Washington was similarly flailing in its reaction to the anger on Capitol Hill. Hogan Lovells, one of the Kingdom's top lobbying firms in the nation's capital, was spearheading the response, emailing staffers in the offices of more than 30 members of Congress. Its message couldn't have been clearer: "Saudi Arabia has not, and will not, seek to intentionally damage U.S. shale oil producers."

However, its efforts were apparently falling on deaf ears, as some of Washington's most-lobbied policymakers remained furious at Riyadh for slashing oil prices. Even after being personally phoned four times by Hogan Lovells lobbyists between March and April, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing made by the firm, Senator Sullivan called for the Trump administration to place tariffs on Saudi oil imports. Other Republican senators, who had previously supported billions of dollars in arms sales to the Kingdom, now threatened to upend the entire American alliance with Saudi Arabia. North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer, for instance, warned that the Kingdom's "next steps will determine whether our strategic partnership is salvageable."

That spring oil dispute was far from the first setback the Saudi lobby had faced in Washington in recent years. From the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen to the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Congress had ample reason to turn its back on that country. Perhaps not so surprisingly, then, in a series of bipartisan bills that passed the House and the Senate, Congress sought to end America's military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition's brutal war in Yemen and halt arms sales to the Kingdom. Fortunately for the Saudi lobby, it had President Donald Trump, long wooed by the Kingdom's royals in the most personal of ways, as a safety net to veto those bills and protect them from punishment for their many misdeeds.

Yet, in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged America, it became increasingly clear that Trump's reelection prospects were dimming and, with them, that guarantee of eternal protection.

And so, the question arose: What was an authoritarian government with oodles of lobbying money but dwindling influence in Washington to do as the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency and a Democratic Congress rose? The answer, it turned out, was to move its influence operation from the Beltway to the heartland.

The Saudis Shift to the States

Since becoming ambassador in February 2019, Princess Bandar Al-Saud found herself spending ever more time with people outside the Beltway, particularly in states that were reputed to have deep ties to Saudi Arabia. From Maine to Iowa to Alaska, the Saudi ambassador began a campaign of courting Main Street America.

In July 2020, she spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Des Moines International Trade Council, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority. In attendance were many prominent local business leaders like Craig Hill of the Iowa Farm Bureau and Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The event also included some modest star-power, featuring a speech by Hall Delano Roosevelt, the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the CEO of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council. (He would soon after publish an op-ed in a Maine newspaper urging local lobstermen to build ties with the Kingdom.)

Not surprisingly, the main focus of Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud's speech was "the importance of the 75-year relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States." She also highlighted major changes she claimed were underway in Saudi Arabia, thanks to that country's "Vision 2030," a plan sponsored by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, the son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the power behind the throne there. At least in theory, Vision 2030 was aimed at modernizing and diversifying Saudi Arabia's oil-based economy.

Such presentations by the ambassador would soon become a pattern. She would, for instance, make a similar argument later in 2020 to Iowa's Siouxland Chamber of Commerce's Women Mentoring and Networking Committee.

And it wasn't just Iowa. She began giving similar speeches across the country. In July, she spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Maine World Affairs Council. It would be attended by more than 70 members of the Maine business community and former Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud. In early October, again virtually, she addressed the Wyoming Global Technology Summit and more than 80 business and political leaders. They included Governor Mark Gordon (whom she even gifted with two pieces of art) and Cynthia Lummis, who, the next month, would be elected to the Senate. Later in October, the princess would speak to more than 50 local business leaders at the Alaska World Affairs Council.

Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud's road show would only sweep on, right past the election and inauguration of President Joe Biden. In late January, she would be at the World Affairs Council in Dallas/Fort Worth and, in March, the Houston World Affairs Council. As always, attending would be business leaders from the area, including (you won't be surprised to learn) prominent oil executives. Whatever local issues she might focus on in such talks, the ambassador always kept the main focus on the splendors of MBS's Vision 2030 plan and just how important it was to strengthen the decades-long relationship between the two countries.

Oh yes, and each of these events had one other thing in common: they were all organized and promoted by Saudi Arabia's registered foreign agents.

Despite appearances, such events weren't the product of meticulous planning by Saudi diplomats or Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud herself. Instead, the Saudis have done what many foreign governments do here to make their message heard. They hired lobbyists and public relations firms. In this case, one firm has largely been responsible for the way the Saudis have gotten the word out so far beyond the Beltway: the Larson Shannahan Slifka Group.

Also known as LS2, Larson Shannahan Slifka describes itself as a "bipartisan public relations, government affairs, public affairs, and marketing firm headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa." It boasts an impressive collection of clients, including Walmart and the Ford Motor Company. Absent from its website, however, is any hint of the extraordinary amount of work it's done to boost the Saudis nationally since signing a contract with the Kingdom in November 2019 worth $126,500 a month. In its FARA filings, that firm has reported conducting more than 1,600 political activities on behalf of the Saudis — more, that is, than all the other firms working for the Saudis combined in 2020, according to a soon-to-be-released report on the Saudi lobby from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, where we work.

Add in one more factor: unlike other firms that lobby for Saudi Arabia, LS2's work has taken place almost exclusively outside of Washington, D.C. They've reached a remarkably sweeping set of state and local influencers on behalf of the Saudi royals, including small businesses, local politicians, nonprofit companies, small-town media outlets, synagogues, and even high-school students.

And whether any of those Americans realized it or not, they were being swept up in a campaign to give the Saudis local clout nationally and so pave the way for a Saudi public relations rehabilitation campaign in Washington, D.C., itself.

Creating American Grassroots for a Gulf Monarchy

There's a fairly simple pattern to the way the Saudi lobby has been wooing the states to woo Washington. First, Larson Shannahan Slifka launches a local campaign, including hundreds of calls and emails to state legislators, chambers of commerce, university professors, small businesses, and just about anything or anyone you can imagine in between. Some of those ties, in turn, create opportunities for influential media moments such as, for example, when Saudi embassy spokesman Fahad Nazer — a former FARA-registered Saudi agent — conducted interviews with South Dakota Public Radio last October and Michigan's Big Show this February.

Other lobbying activities have led to crucial Saudi outreach events, filling the seats (or Zoom invites) at think-tank discussions, business forums, or even interfaith dialogues. For example, when Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud delivered a keynote "fireside chat" at the annual Wyoming Global Technology Summit, John Temte, who leads the business network that hosts the forum, introduced the princess and moderated the question-and-answer discussion, a role likely arranged in the course of LS2's six calls and emails to him over the preceding two weeks. Five days later, addressing the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce's Women Mentoring and Networking Committee, the ambassador was introduced by Linda Kalin, the director of the Iowa Poison Control center, and another frequent LS2 contact. In this way, the firm effectively continues to turn local entrepreneurs and public-health officials into community ambassadors for the Kingdom.

And understand this as well: such events aren't just a way for Saudi bureaucrats to meet local business leaders. They also provide the perfect opportunity for Saudi-backed lobbyists to begin rebuilding ties in Washington hurt by those falling oil prices, the devastating civil war in Yemen, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Consider this the second part of the Kingdom's faux-grassroots campaign and, for this, one of the Saudis' key lobbying groups in Washington, Hogan Lovells, took over.

Its relationship with Saudi Arabia can be traced back at least to 1976 when the firm's predecessor, Hogan and Hartson, first signed a contract with the Kingdom. Now, in addition to spinning a Saudi narrative about the disastrous war in Yemen, that firm has been working to convert LS2's state and local efforts into political capital in Congress. Armed with glowing one-page summaries of such dialogues from Maine to Alaska, the firm has been promoting a vision of grassroots American support for the U.S.-Saudi relationship inside the Beltway. The event descriptions it sends around highlight many of the same people that Larson Shannahan Slifka had first contacted.

Its emails are tailored to each Congressional office it contacts, mentioning issues and local stakeholders relevant to the intended senators and House members. For example, an email to the staff of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine touted Bandar Al-Saud's July forum at that state's World Affairs Council, described the ambassador's interest in a Saudi contemporary art exhibit displayed by local Bates College, and noted that former Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud attended the event. This February, after Bandar Al-Saud addressed the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston, Hogan Lovells emailed Republican Senator John Cornyn's office to underscore her remarks on U.S.-Saudi cooperation on energy, technology, and space exploration in his home state.

While describing audiences in such local forums as responding with "overwhelmingly positive feedback" to the Kingdom's messaging, one key fact is always omitted: that the events themselves were orchestrated by the Saudi lobby. Reading the glossy accounts of them, members of Congress and their staff normally have no idea that the meetings — and not just the press releases they're receiving — were products of that very lobby. In other words, by omitting such details, the Saudi lobby has effectively launched an astroturfing campaign to influence Congress when it comes to future relations with the Kingdom.

The Consequences

Of course, there's nothing new about such lobbyists hired by foreign countries touting trade with the U.S. or anything necessarily unethical about promoting such ties. However, even as the Saudi lobby has eagerly peddled a rose-tinted story of the Kingdom's increasingly diversified economy, expanding women's rights, and exciting tourism opportunities (despite the pandemic moment), policymakers and the media that cover them should remember that such a narrative is, at the very least (and to put the matter as politely as possible), incomplete.

While, in the context of Prince Salman's Vision 2030 plan, selling future economic opportunities to Iowa farmers, South Dakota manufacturers, and Maine lobstermen, LS2, Hogan Lovells, and other such firms ignore the most crucial aspects of the U.S-Saudi relationship in the present moment: the staggering levels of U.S. arms sales to the Kingdom, the devastating war in Yemen that Prince Salman and crew continue to fight, the targeting of Saudi dissidents and women's rights groups, and MBS's complicity in the brutal murder of Khashoggi (as laid out recently in an intelligence report released by the Biden administration). These are real-world consequences of a partnership that has often escaped serious scrutiny, shielded by past presidents of both parties more concerned with protecting access to cheap oil and combating their definition of terrorism.

By enlisting trusted community members across the U.S. to help peddle the best possible version of the Kingdom, the Saudi lobby has given its brand a homegrown, American-as-apple-pie shine. At a moment when the Biden administration and Congress are weighing the future of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, the value of such an image shouldn't be underestimated. As lawmakers look more skeptically at claims that American and Saudi security interests are still aligned, the Saudi lobby promises shared future profits in factsheets and emails that hail the historic trade ties between Michigan and Saudi Arabia or characterize the Kingdom as "South Dakota's fastest growing export partner."

In reality, however, even if a promised future economic boom between the two countries were to materialize, it would hardly ameliorate the Kingdom's many negatives, from the catastrophic famine it continues to stoke in Yemen to its blatant human rights violations. Members of Congress and local public servants alike should beware. What may seem like a spreading grassroots show of support for the Kingdom could, in fact, be just another mirage in the desert.

Copyright 2021 Brian Steiner, Leila Riazi, and Ben Freeman

Ben Freeman is the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy (CIP) and author of a report on the Saudi lobby that will be released in early May 2021.

Brian Steiner is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy.

Leila Riazi is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy.

Immigrants aren't the real threat in the United States — ICE and the Border Patrol are

President Joe Biden has been lauded for his empathetic comforter-in-chief responses to the ravages of the coronavirus, economic pain and gun violence. But anyone worried about the fate of non-citizens in the US, or at the border, has observed not empathy but a toxic mix of indifference and willful commitment to pointlessly punitive policies.

From a failure to rescind the former president's Title 42, causing almost all recent asylum-seekers to be expelled from the US, to his equivocation on the 2021 refugee cap, it's almost impossible to find good news about immigration policy in 2021.

Biden isn't exceptional. For Democrats, "border security" is a familiar posture, whether or not immigration reform is on the table. Bill Clinton presided over the creation of a legal architecture leading to mass immigrant incarceration. Barack Obama pushed the limits of the deportation infrastructure that was built in the interim, deporting more people from this country than any president to this day.

But the very phrase "border security" is misleading, training our minds on ominous-sounding but imaginary threats from outside the US and distracting us from the very real threat posed by an enormous militarized force charged with policing immigration.

In fact, much of the devastation causing people to flee triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) is the direct result of the deportation of gangs formed in the US (notably, MS-13 and Barrio 18) as well as American interference with those three countries dating back to the early 20th century. Today, we're told we need border security forces to prevent trafficking, among other crimes. Too often, though, it is the border police themselves engaging in trafficking and related criminal activity.

Two agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), are responsible for policing immigration. They decide who gets arrested, who gets hearings, who is deported, and who will be jailed indefinitely. They are huge, awash in cash, poorly supervise and incentivized to be maximally cruel.

CBP alone constitutes the largest federal law enforcement agency in the US. Together, the two agencies consume nearly $20 billion a year, a non-trivial portion of which goes to shadowy private companies like Geo Group and Core Civic for incarceration and, increasingly, for so-called e-carceration that can transform any home or neighborhood into a penal outpost, often with very little protection for anyone's data privacy.

Even when they don't outsource their work, we underestimate the dangers posed by ICE and CBP. ICE is reported to generate thousands of sexual and physical abuse complaints each year. CBP agents are more famous for indifference to law. They are five times more likely to be arrested than other law enforcement agents. They have been found illegally cooperating with citizen militias that dress in police costumes and "patrol" areas where they think they'll encounter people they can harass and abuse.

CBP's lawless culture is likely in part an outcome of the fact that the US Congress and the US Supreme Court have affirmed a distinct interpretation of the 4th Amendment that gives CBP leeway, in many instances, to stop, search and question people without warrants or the kinds of suspicion required of all other law enforcement agents. Last year, CBP drones were seen flying over protesters in Minneapolis. ICE has also targeted and harassed journalists and lawyers who specialize in immigration issues.

Deportation and detention may sound like problems for only non-citizens and mixed-status households, but as long as deportation forces have existed, those same forces have arrested and sometimes expelled US citizens. In the case of ICE, the number of citizens targeted for deportation is quite high. The Cato Institute estimates that over the course of 11 years, it is likely that more than 20,000 citizens were issued ICE "detainers" (i.e., requests from ICE or DHS to local law enforcement to keep people incarcerated who would otherwise be released so that ICE agents can pursue them).

There are many reasons that we find ourselves living with two sprawling immigration police forces that each year encroach further on the basic civil rights and safety of everyone in the US. But one important reason is that their very existence implies threats from outsiders that do not exist. For all the money, weapons and power that CBP and ICE have claimed, they have not reduced crime rates, ended the illegal narcotics trade, prevented the flow and use of deadly weapons, or in any other way made people safer. To the contrary, all too often is the immigration police who are committing crimes, trafficking illegal substances and compromising our security.

How the right wing invented a fictional 'migration crisis' — and tricked us into believing it

Most people seem to have accepted the truth about the so-called war on drugs. By that, I mean it was never about drugs. Its true target was non-white people, especially Black people. Its goal was social control. Slavery gave way to Jim Crow, which gave way to the mass incarceration of "undesirables." Illegal drugs were merely a pretext. These days, states are legalizing drugs. Some are even releasing people convicted of drug crimes. In all, we seem to be experiencing a new age of drug enlightenment.

I hope it does not take most people as long with "border security." Like the "war on drugs," it's not about security. It's about social control. It's about having a legal reason to put non-white people in jail, kicking them out or just acting barbarously toward them. Drugs did not threaten the national interest until the government said they did. Same with the southern border. People used to pass freely, wherever the seasonal work took them. It did not threaten the national interest until the government said it did.

If it isn't already, please permit me to make it clear. When the Republicans talk about "illegal immigrants," they're not talking about illegal action. They're giving voice to their real objectives. They want to punish immigrants for who they are. They can't outlaw them outright, of course. The Congress, the law, the courts and popular opinion would prevent that from happening. But they can expand the scope of political conflict so that legal behavior seems illegal, thus forcing the government to respond. The result is billions spent every year on securing a border that will never be secure. The result is billions wasted annually on punching down on the poor, the weak and the brown.

For instance, "unlawful entry." That's the offense of crossing the border without proper authorization. It's a misdemeanor. (I'm serious.) So is overstaying your work or student visa. These are crimes, to be sure, but hardly serious crimes. They don't rise to the level of a felony. They are not deserving of being ripped from one's family or community—presuming the point of the law is justice. It isn't for the Republicans. The point is dominance. So for a decade and more, they have expanded the meaning of a minor criminal offense so that it looks like a dangerous way-of-life threatening crime.

The same thing is being done to "refugees." Fact: Anyone traveling to the southern border to request political asylum is a temporary legal immigrant. Full stop. That's the law. Indeed, the statute requires US Customs and Border Protection to open a process by which the agency tries reconnecting refugees with family in the US. But what began with the Trump administration is being continued by the GOP. Anyone traveling to the southern border is being called "illegal," even if they're children. Another fact: Every one of those 22,000 migrant children in government custody is here legally.

The same thing is happening with respect to the "open border." Fact: There is no such thing. It is a complete fiction. The border is tightly regulated. The Democrats in the Congress are not trying to open it. The Biden administration wants nothing to do with the idea. What it does, however, is follow laws entitling asylum-seekers to a legal process. But because the Republicans have defined refugees as "illegal," that gives the impression the administration, which is following the law, is opening the border.

If 22,000 children are refugees, if they're entitled to ask for asylum and if the government is required by law to try connecting eligible refugees to family if possible, why is everyone talking about a "migration crisis"? Great question! There is currently no such thing as a migration crisis. Yet our national discourse is dominated by this fiction.

Partly, it's because the press corps is laundering right-wing talking points in order to get a reaction out of a Democratic administration. Partly, it's out of genuine concern about "social cohesion."1 But mostly, it's because the Republicans have expanded the scope of conflict by way of nonstop lying. It has made legal action seem illegal. Which brings us back to "border security." It's not about security. It's now about forcing a Democratic administration into acting in ways preferred by the Republican Party.

It nearly worked. The White House said last week it would cap the number of refugees allowed into the country at the same level established by the previous administration, at 15,000. This is almost certainly the result of the Republicans making it seem like the Biden administration was opening the border even as it was merely following the law. Fortunately, there was an enormous reaction from not just liberals but moderates like Dianne Feinstein. By Friday, the White House reversed course and did so in a hurry.

This seems to be the first step in a process that might bring "border security" to a similar level of awareness that the war on drugs has achieved. That first step is refusing to give liars the benefit of the doubt. Drugs were never a threat to the national interest. Immigrants will never be either. What is a national threat, however, is the harmful Republican pursuit of "border security" that just makes everyone less free.

A 'lifetime member' of the Oath Keepers just sealed a cooperation deal in Capitol insurrection case

A self-described "lifetime member" of the Oath Keepers has become the first defendant in the Jan. 6 insurrection cases to enter a guilty plea as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Friday morning.

The plea bargain for Jon Schaffer, 53, a heavy-metal guitarist from Indiana who was photographed assaulting officers with bear spray and entering the U.S. Capitol, was approved by Judge Ahmit Mehta. Schaffer engaged in a long conversation with Mehta acknowledging that the deal requires him to "cooperate fully with the United States," which included providing evidence of known crimes and sitting for interviews with investigators.

Schaffer's guilty plea to two charges—obstructing an official proceeding and illegally entering the Capitol grounds—makes him the first participant in the insurrection to agree to provide evidence against his fellow rioters. Schaffer, who originally faced six felony charges, will enter the government's witness protection program as part of the deal.

According to an earlier filing, which was mistakenly made public, Schaffer in March began engaging in "debrief interviews." As The Washington Post notes, the plea bargain marks a critical step forward in the prosecution of the cases, as other defendants face similar choices in terms of providing evidence for prosecutors, particularly when it comes to the activities of the two key paramilitary organizations involved in the insurrection, the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.

"Whenever you have a large group of people arrested," criminal defense attorney Martin Tankleff told CNN, it's common for prosecutors to pressure defendants to flip on each other. "They're going to start talking. They're going to start sharing information."

Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, who was present in Washington on Jan. 6 but did not enter the Capitol, is one of the key figures being drawn into the net prosecutors are creating with conspiracy charges involving other members of his group. Though federal indictments handed down against his Oath Keepers and Proud Boys cohorts have not named him personally, he is referenced in several of them as "Person 1," a central player in what prosecutors are describing as a conspiracy to "stop, delay, or hinder Congress's certification of the Electoral College vote."

"I may go to jail soon," Rhodes recently told a right-wing rally in Texas. "Not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes. There are some Oath Keepers right now along with Proud Boys and other patriots who are in D.C. who are sitting in jail denied bail despite the supposed right to a jury trial before you're found guilty and presumption of innocence, were denied bail because the powers that be don't like their political views."

Proud Boy Dominic Pezzola's attorney wrote in court filings that he believed a so-called "cooperating witness" was sharing information about the Proud Boys. An earlier filing by prosecutors had revealed that this witness heard Proud Boys members claim that "anyone they got their hands on they would have killed," including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and that they would have also killed then-Vice President Mike Pence "if given the chance." The men—who all had firearms or access to them—also talked about returning to Washington for Inauguration Day, and that "they plan to kill every single 'm-fer' they can." That witness, prosecutors noted, has not been charged with a crime.

Most of the defendants, as a New York Times piece recently explored, are facing substantial evidence of their crimes culled from videos and photos both in mainstream media and on social media. Indeed, a large portion of that evidence was provided by the insurrectionists themselves.

America's minority rule problem is deadly

Friday morning, Americans awoke yet again to another round of headlines about a senseless mass shooting, this time with 8 people dead at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. After a year of an unimaginable amount of death from COVID-19, it appears Americans are returning to our regular pre-pandemic cycle of trauma, which is the random mass murder of people interspersed between an unending stream of street violence stemming from a country steeped in guns. We had barely started to embrace hope of the pandemic ending when these high profile shootings began again: Atlanta. Boulder. Southern California. South Carolina. Now Indianapolis.

The frustrating thing is the majority of Americans know what needs to be done to curtail these murders, and they support doing it.

Polling from Morning Consult released just the day before the Indianapolis shooting shows that 2 out of 3 Americans want stricter gun control. This follows polling showing that 84% of Americans want background checks for gun buyers. Arguments in favor of gun control are winning the public debate. About 40,000 Americans die a year from gun violence. Voters want Congress to do something about it.

But Republicans barely bother to offer more than perfunctory arguments against gun control anymore. They know they don't need to, because no matter what happens at the ballot box, no matter how many Americans reject them and their views, they are the ones who will control the country, especially on matters such as gun control. Adam Jentleson, the former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who served as Senate Majority Leader for some time while Barack Obama was president, has dubbed it the "minority rule doom loop." As Jentleson describes it, the "doom loop" is one "by which predominantly white conservatives gain more and more power, even as they represent fewer Americans."

The doom loop consists of four interlocking components. Candidates who represent white conservatives—Republicans, in our ideologically sorted era—begin every election cycle buoyed by a sluice of voter suppression and gerrymandering (what I call electoral welfare), which makes it easier for them to win. Then antidemocratic features of the American system that have always existed but never benefited one party over the other in any systematic way help those same candidates take control of institutions such as the White House and the Senate, despite winning fewer votes and representing fewer people than their opponents. Once in control of these institutions, these newly elected officials use them to entrench their power beyond the reach of voters. If they are eventually voted out of power, they retain a veto over the agenda of the majority, which they use to block change and feed the conservative case that the government is "broken." This hastens their return to power—along the very path they greased with voter suppression.

Right now, we're in stage three, where Democrats were able to marshal enough forces to overcome the significant structural barriers to majority rule to win technical control of the government. But Democratic helplessness to pass gun control legislation is a cold reminder that Republicans, despite being walloped at the ballot box, retain most of the power in this country.

Yes, President Joe Biden was able to get an important coronavirus relief package passed through Congress on a party-line vote. But on the vast majority of legislative priorities for Democratsgun control, climate change, voting rights, health careRepublicans have the final word, due to the filibuster. That word is consistently "nope," with a side dose of "f*ck you" to the majority of Americans who voted against the GOP. And with Republican-controlled state legislatures rapidly introducing a bunch of bills to disenfranchise voters further, it may very well be tha we're entering a new era when Democrats can't even technically win elections, despite having the majority support among Americans.

And it's even worse than that passage from Jentleson indicates, because Republicans also have captured the courts through sleazy means, holding judicial seats open during Barack Obama's presidency, only to rapidly fill them when Donald Trump got elected. As Ian Millhiser of Vox argued in a recent Salon interview, the result is Republicans can go around the legislative process entirely to force their agenda on Americans who keep haplessly voting against them.

The minority rule doom loop isn't just unfair and anti-democratic. It's also deadly.

Nearly 20% of people who died in the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic have been Americans, even though we have less than 4% of the world's population. Hundreds of thousands of Americans would be alive today, but for Donald Trump's reckless mismanagement. What adds insult to injury is that Americans didn't even choose Trump as their president. Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes and, in a truly democratic nation, would have been president when the pandemic hit. Even her fiercest critics on the left had to admit that hundreds of thousands more people would be with us today if the competent woman — the person who got the most votes — had been allowed to actually have her win, instead of letting the electoral college install a sociopathic buffoon.

Truthfully, the death toll we're looking at from our continued insistence on letting Republicans win even when they lose is going to be unfathomable, because we can add "lack of health care" and "climate change" to the growing pile of deadly problems that Americans keep voting to fix, to no avail. The situation is only getting worse, as Republicans dig deeper into the idea they have an absolute right to rule, no matter what the voters say about it.

There is still, for the moment anyway, a solution.

Democrats could strip the minority party of their nearly-absolute veto power but abolishing — or at least reforming — the filibuster, a pointless anachornism in the Senate that was mainly used in the past to defend white supremacy. When they were in power, Republicans didn't think twice about nuking the filibuster when it got in the way of their main priority, which was controlling the Supreme Court. Without Republicans being able to stop any bill before it even got to debate on the Senate floor, Democrats could strengthen gun control, improve health care, fight climate change, and, perhaps most importantly, bar state legislatures from passing laws to deny Americans the legal right to vote.

Unfortunately, this common sense move is being blocked by two Democratic senators who are weighed down by an ignorance that is only surpassed by the size of their egos: Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Both of these senators keep foolishly insisting that filibuster is somehow a tool encouraging bipartisan engagement and debate, even though the reality is that it's being used by Republicans to unilaterally end all Senate debate before it even happens. Whatever the real motivations of these two — likely an outdated belief that "doing nothing" is the safest possible political position — their actions are stunningly immoral. People keep dying pointlessly in this country. They have the power to do something about it, but they flat out refuse to use that power.

It's farcical, in an existentialist-novel sort of way. American voters have been cast in the role of Sisyphus, where we keep pushing that rock labeled "Democratic victory" up that ever steeper hill, only to see all the hard work and sacrifice tumble to the ground right on the precipice of actually getting anything done. Our once great nation is being brought to its knees because a couple of scatterbrained Democratic senators can't bring themselves to admit they are playing handmaiden to Republican plots to destroy the tattered remains of our democracy. Americans keep voting and voting and voting for the right not to be senselessly killed. That we can't even get that shows that this thing we call a "democracy" is anything but.

Why America needs to go big on infrastructure

Chris Sova and his coworkers at Bay County Medical Care Facility endured years of staffing shortages before COVID-19 made a grim situation even worse.

Workers sacrificed vacations and other personal time to keep the Essexville, Michigan, facility operating as patients and staff members fell ill to the coronavirus and management struggled to recruit reinforcements.

Just like a road can be patched only so many times before falling apart, America's battered health care system and other long-neglected infrastructure can no longer continue functioning with Band-Aids and stopgap fixes.

That's why President Joe Biden's $2 trillion American Jobs Plan not only earmarks money for crumbling highways and bridges but also makes much-needed investments in school buildings, education and training, hospitals and airports, water systems, utilities, broadband, manufacturing facilities and health care services that are strained to the breaking point.

All these sectors require attention now because they work together like cement to keep society functioning.

"If you don't have healthy people, you don't need roads," remarked Sova, a licensed practical nurse, third-generation nursing home worker and unit president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 15301-1.

The pandemic underscored America's need both to make major investments in infrastructure and to take the sweeping, holistic approach that Biden laid out.

For example, it's crucial to revitalize manufacturing supply chains to ensure the nation can produce sufficient supplies of face masks and other critical items, upgrade transportation systems to speedily move goods around the country, modernize school facilities to produce globally competitive citizens and build the communications networks that enable Americans to learn and work from anywhere.

And the pandemic, which so far has claimed more than 564,000 lives and infected more than 31 million people in the United States, showed the importance not only of providing affordable health insurance but also of creating a more robust health care system with the capacity to meet Americans' needs.

"It's collapsing right now," Sova said of the nation's health care infrastructure.

He noted that facilities and providers around the country need higher Medicaid reimbursement rates so they can recruit adequate numbers of workers, provide decent wages and benefits, combat understaffing, improve workplace safety, offer opportunities for advancement and put an end to the grueling overtime that's dangerous for both caregivers and the people they serve.

While health care workers received wide praise for their professionalism during the pandemic, the reality is that, even in normal times, they're fighting an uphill battle to ensure patients receive top-level care. It's essential to make improvements now because retiring waves of baby boomers will put more pressure on the system, increasing the risk of catastrophic failures.

"Pizzas are nice, but that's not what we need," Sova said, referring to gifts of food that workers at his facility and other nursing homes received for their heroic efforts during the pandemic. "We need money. We need funding. We need resources."

Other kinds of infrastructure are also in dire straits.

The nation's drinking water systems struggle with lead contamination and rely on pipes so old that, on average, one springs a leak every two minutes. Malfunctioning locks and dams create juggernauts on inland waterways, costing U.S. industry about $44 million in delays every year. Nearly half of all Americans have no access to public transit, and those who do often have to travel on aging vehicles and rickety tracks.

A smoothly functioning society cannot afford any of this. Because of its wide-ranging investments, the American Jobs Plan will modernize the country, prepare it for the next crisis and provide work to millions of Americans hurt by the COVID-19 recession.

But the plan also provides a historic opportunity to dream big and rebuild better, to ensure a more equitable distribution of the nation's resources and create a society that works for everyone.

That's why Americans already support every major facet of the infrastructure program, with some parts—such as renovating veterans' hospitals, extending broadband, improving health care and establishing new job training programs—scoring approval ratings of 70 percent or even higher. As Biden travels the country to explain his vision, he's finding that people from all backgrounds want a stronger, more tightly knit America.

And so far, Biden revealed only half of his plan. He's scheduled to roll out the remaining portions—to include additional investments in health care and child care, among other initiatives—in coming weeks.

"I think he's absolutely on the right track," said Joel Buchanan, a longtime USW member from Pueblo, Colorado, and the vice president of Chapter 38-3 of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR). "In my area, we will benefit from almost every aspect of his infrastructure plan."

Local mills will profit from road and bridge projects, Buchanan noted. Residents in outlying areas will welcome better access to broadband, he added, while disadvantaged schools need upgraded facilities, and Pueblo area retirees, many of whom lost family-sustaining manufacturing jobs many years ago, desperately hope for better access to health care.

"We're investing in America and American workers and American society," Buchanan said of the infrastructure program. "We're building for the future. I think people are starting to realize we can make some great change happen."

Because he holds his neighbors' lives in his hands, Sova always considered health care to be part of the nation's infrastructure.

He wants more Americans to see his work in the same light—and to realize the potential the nation has right now to make transformational, stem-to-stern changes that will help them "live their lives better."

"Everything's codependent," he said. "You need healthy workers. You need them to build roads. You need roads to provide access to health care."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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