American history · Politics · Uncategorized

“Presidential” is nothing to aspire to

On Sunday, ahead of the President’s Day holiday, the editorial board of the Raleigh News and Observer implored Donald Trump to “contemplate what it means to be presidential.”

“Sometimes, it seems, America has just been lucky,” they wrote of America’s history. Lucky with George Washington, lucky with Abraham Lincoln, and lucky with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In an attempt to provide hope even for a miserable dipshit like Trump, they cited Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush as presidents whose legacies were tarred when they left office but have become more highly-regarded as time has passed.

That asking Trump to be more like FDR came on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans for the rest of World War II, was probably an unfortunate coincidence. But in asking the new president to be more like a conventional president, it accepts a framing that Trump himself used to great effect during the election. Making America “great again” means returning to the leaders of yore: a white man, usually coming from the upper-class to ascend to power and then wield it to the ruin of the working class, people of color, and immigrants.

This ideal of the American presidency, as it has existed until now, is nothing to aspire to. As Mother Jones‘ Shane Bauer covered in this Twitter thread, even those presidents we generally remember as great did absolutely depraved things, some of which have provided cover for Trump.

Eisenhower is just one example of many. “Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him,” Trump said in November 2015 during a Republican debate. “Moved a 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them again beyond the border, they came back. Didn’t like it. Moved them way south. They never came back.”

The plan Trump was referring to was Operation Wetback. As Slate’s Louis Hyman and Natasha Iskander wrote of the program:

Papers also ran photos of apprehended men held in crude holding pens set up in city parks and in the parking lots of processing centers, of men marched as captives through border towns, of men packed onto charter buses and of lines of those buses waiting to cross the border. In movie theaters across the nations newsreels showed Mexican immigrants rounded up and made to stand in the hot sun as their bodies and their belongings were searched.

What the newsreels didn’t show were those same detainees, now with shaved heads, crammed onto trains or trucks bound for the middle of the desert, where they were left 15 miles across the Texas border on the highway. A leader with the largest Mexican labor organization (Confederación de Trabajadores de México) described the transportation of these deportees as being like “truckloads of cows.” In one instance, near Mexicali, across the California border, 88 deportees died of exposure in the 112-degree heat. Others—about a quarter of those deported—were shipped to Mexico by boats from Port Isabel, Texas. Congressional investigators, historian Mae Ngai has written, likened the boats “to an ‘eighteenth century slave ship.’ ” The press coverage also failed to capture the many instances in which immigrants were roughed up, detained, and summarily deported without due process, often with no chance to notify their families that they had been swept up in raids on factories, fields, boarding houses, and even the same movie theaters that showed the newsreels. Mexican Americans had to prove that they belonged. INS agents dismissed the legitimacy of draft cards or Social Security cards, insisting on birth certificates, which few people carried around on their person. Mexican Americans who couldn’t produce birth certificates quickly enough were deported.

What the N&O means, obviously, is that Trump should be a steady hand in the time of crisis, something he is obviously incapable of doing. But historically, what it means to be an American president is to be inhumane, from the earliest days of Washington’s republic to mass deportations and support for Saudi Arabia’s potential war crimes in Yemen in Obama’s empire. Idolatry of past presidents, even those who did great things throughout their tenure, won’t save us.

Trump, of course, is a lost cause; the only limits to his monstrosities will be the ineptitude of himself and those in his inner circle. But looking to the first forty-four presidents for guidance does more harm than good. It provides justifications for Trump’s hatred of dissent, his nativism, his authoritarianism and his cronyism.

Making America great means making it a free, inclusive, equitable, and humane society the likes of which we’ve never seen. That requires a shift from our present circumstance greater than what any one president, or maybe even generation, is capable of. Remote as they seem now, however, these ideals give us a better roadmap than the actions of past presidents for the kind of leaders and society we should aspire to have.


“I’m not being paid to be here”



Not many people would blame Karen Holliman if she stayed home in Durham and enjoyed an unseasonably beautiful Saturday. She didn’t.

“I’m here with stage-four cancer, and it’s in every vertebrae in my back. I just really wanted to be apart of this,” Holliman says, as singing and chanting echoes off of the buildings in downtown Raleigh. “Every day is crazy…. I just really worry about the future of our children, our environment, our schools. All of it.”

Holliman, along with her friend and neighbor Heidi Hannapel, joined an estimated 80,000 others and nearly 200 groups at the 11th annual Forward Together Moral March, led by North Carolina NAACP president Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. And despite the political circumstances that surrounded the march—chiefly, the new Trump administration and a state legislature that still has two veto-proof Republican majorities—Barber is optimistic about the future. “I think we’re seeing the adolescent growing pains of a third Reconstruction,” he says.

I wrote about the eleventh annual Moral March, the largest yet according to the NAACP, at the Nation. The march itself was incredibly hopeful, I’m a huge fan of the Nation, and I’m happy with how the piece turned out. I have a couple of cool opportunities in the hopper, too.

Considering how down in the dumps I was just a month ago, things ain’t half bad.


The Practicality of Raising Hell

Note: This was originally published on Medium.

There’s an argument that’s existed for a long time against protesting unimportant people or groups like David Duke and the Westboro Baptist Church. This idea holds that protesting these people or groups gives them a megaphone to reach out to people that otherwise wouldn’t have heard their ideas, and that some people will sympathize with the person’s plight and think that their ideas are good.

The most recent iterations of this debate center around three stars of the ethno-nationalist/alt-right/hair Nazi movement: Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, white nationalist “intellectual” Richard Spencer, and Kenny vs. Spenny guest star Gavin McInnes. In recent weeks, all three have seen protests at various appearances, most notably when a Yiannopoulos appearance at UC Berkeley was shut down by protesters, potentially preventing him from narcing on undocumented students or outing and ridiculing trans students.

The Intercept’s Lee Fang and others argued that the protesters were being “played by the far right” in that the only result of protests against such a useless dipshit can be to give Milo a bigger platform. The hesitancy to get behind protests for that reason is somewhat understandable, but it lacks nuance around Americans’ opinions about overt white nationalism and fascism, as well as the potential for their platforms to grow if people just ignore them.

All three of these people are heavily involved in a huge undertaking to rebrand white nationalist, reactionary, fascist politics as a fresh idea. This plan all rides on the ability of the alt-right’s leaders to shed their connection to everything that’s previously make white nationalism broadly unpopular in the United States: Nazis, concentration camps, Klan robes, burning crosses, etc.

Now, the flip side of this is that it’s caused a lot of people to think that as long as they’re not putting on hoods or condoning goose-steppers, they’re not racist and aren’t implicit in a racist system. But because of this get-out-of-jail free card, even the right despises the label of fascism. Think about every time you’ve heard the charge “Feminazi” leveled at a woman, that Black people are the “real racists,” or how Frog Emoji Deplorables whimper “Maybe you’re the real Nazis” whenever they get pantsed in the diaper aisle. Even as American conservatives embrace some of the tenets of the European far right, most (Neil Gorsuch aside) are patently uncomfortable with being labeled as such.

Spencer and Milo are admittedly more media-savvy than most white nationalists, and accordingly, they want to avoid a serious association with the most obvious thing people associate with white nationalism. “Are you a neo-Nazi?” a woman asks Spencer while he’s giving the interview where he gets merked. “No, I’m not a neo-Nazi,” he responds. “Neo-Nazis don’t love me, they kind of hate me actually.”

Donald Trump, during the campaign, shied away from associations with this section of the far right, echoing what George Wallace and Strom Thurmond had done in “disavowing” Klan violence even as they fought for Jim Crow. Trump, for example, promised to “take care of our African-American people.” He disavowed David Duke (after being asked repeatedly), the campaign denounced its support from the KKK shortly before the election, and the day before election day, Eric Trump said Duke “deserves a bullet.” All of it was bullshit, of course, but it was bullshit that even Trump — who ran for president because he was tired of the War on Christmas — had to peddle.

The circumstances between Spencer, Milo, and Trump couldn’t be more different, of course. Trump’s four-decade reputation as a braggadocios, full of shit businessman with several wives and a television show helped obscure, at least for the people who voted for him, the real evil in his platform. Part of that also stems from the fact that Trump doesn’t pretend to be some Charles Murray-like psuedo-intellectual about his racism. He’s just a really dumb racist guy.

While Trump might outwardly reject their beliefs, the trio’s talent for getting press is apparent, and the potential is there — especially as Trump himself weighed in on the Berkeley protests by threatening to pull funding from the school — for these ethno-nationalists to become mainstream mouthpieces for Trumpism, the new “conservative public intellectuals.”

This is the best argument for protesting these relatively inconsequential figures: Every piece of coverage of protests has to mention why Yiannopoulos or Spencer is controversial in the first place, which — given the reasons why they are — only serves to undermine their pivot from the racists and fascists of yore. Only three generations removed from World War II and two generations removed from Jim Crow, the label of “white nationalism” is a good enough reason for a lot of people to be disgusted by these opinions or never take them seriously. It sabotages the whole project of making overt fascism and white nationalism, the logical successor to Trumpism, an accessible and mainstream and politically viable idea.

If you make Milo and Richard Spencer and Gavin McInnes into David Duke and the Westboro Baptist Church, if you reduce them to simply new faces and haircuts on the same old fascist, ghoulish trolls that have always been there, it forces them into the same frame as Duke: cartoon villains who aren’t much more than a complete joke, even among those on the right.

This much is apparent: the far right sees Trump as a start, not an end, in their effort to make the United States into a white nationalist, fascist state. They also see him as an opportunity to drag the conversation further to the right. “As with so much with Trump,” Spencer recently wrote in a spectacularly weird column praising Trump’s nomination of Gorsuch, “symbolism is more important . . . more powerful . . . more triggering . . . perhaps more lasting . . . than his actual policies.”

These people are clowns, and there’s an argument to be made that the focus should be on Trump administration figures. Maybe so. But we can’t afford for the conversation to be as far right as it is now, much less for it to be even farther right in the future. And considering how serious of a predicament we’re already in, organized dissent against the far right — in all its forms — is not only a moral action to defend trans people and undocumented people and other targeted groups, but a useful one as well.