Friday, February 19

Perils of lies


Donald Trump delivered thousands of errors, exaggerations and outright delusions during his four years as president, and political strategist Stuart Stevens blames the Republican Party for going along. "Republicans are linked to a vast life-support system of lies, terrified that the truth will unplug the machine,” he writes. “American history has never seen a party so unified in perpetuating a massive fraud.” Trump is “the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party became over the last fifty or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception, and anger that became the essence of the Republican Party.” 

Stevens worked for Republican candidates, but his book It Was All a Lie will delight Democrats.    

The Republican Party rejects dissent, critical thinking and questions, eroding personal responsibility and courage while weakening party leadership. Groveling for money from lobbyists supporting policies rejected by a majority of US voters also weakens party leadership: Special interest groups are like terrorists, explains Stevens, as “they test for weakness and exploit fear.”

The party shelters its most compliant politicians and turns against those who dare to think for themselves, such as Justin Amash, the first Republican congressman to call for Trump’s impeachment. Cracks in Republican unity have widened with Trump’s refusal to concede to President Joe Biden in the 2020 race and his role in the January 6 US Capitol riots. The party balks at allowing members to vote their conscience, and state Republican officials swiftly condemned the ten Republican congressional representatives and seven senators who voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment and conviction. The quest for ironclad unity – with no room for critical thinking or individual reflection – is treacherous as the party repeatedly embraces problematic policies and candidates. Stevens blasts the party for endorsing candidates like Roy Moore of Alabama, despite multiple sexual misconduct allegations, while ignoring effective, popular, moderate governors in blue states like Larry Hogan of Maryland, Phil Scott of Vermont and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. 

Republicans lose major voting blocs such as black Americans, maintains Stevens, not because of how they communicate but on how they govern once elected: “The fact that the Republican establishment is so invested in the myth that their problems are a matter of language is revealing and self-damning. “

If anything, Republicans are superbly skilled at communicating and framing issues, as long pointed out by George Lakoff, cognitive scientist and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant. “There’s a language war here that Republicans have been winning for decades,” Stevens writes. Republican political leaders label programs meant for the poor as “welfare,” yet reserve terms like “tax breaks” and “incentives” for agriculture subsidies and other corporate handouts. The real description, he suggests, should be “corporate blackmail.” 

The 1987 FCC decision to stop enforcing the fairness doctrine, allowing constant partisan attacks, “supercharged conservative media into a billion-dollar industry,” according to Stevens. The left lacks the equivalent of the right-wing media strongholds – instead cooperating with leading media outlets and research institutions that strive to question, test, criticize and debate. “Republicans have built a political ecosphere that thrives on deceit and lies,” Stevens writes. “It is an industrialized sort of deceit that is unique to the Republican Party.” In a civil society, he explains, a “shared reality, that truth, is the core energy that drives the functioning of society,” yet Republicans find it easier to maintain that their opponents lack “the correct information on which to base decision.”

Amid shrinking support, Republicans hunt for ways to reduce support for Democrats: 

Misinformation – Hypocrisy and lying go hand in hand. Republicans have long campaigned on “fiscal conservatism” and the need to tame US debt. Stevens points to Trump, who instead of decreasing national debt, as promised increased it by $2 trillion in two years. That was before the Covid-19 pandemic. Republican candidates refuse to admit the need to increased taxes in addressing the massive debt load, and Stevens points out how a “simpleminded conspiracy of silence that is a central tenet of Republican politics” will force future generations to shoulder the burden.

Discourage the opposition – Black Americans steadfastly support Democrats, and no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 15 percent of black votes since 1964. A 1971White House memorandum conceded “there was little Richard Nixon could do to attract black voters” – representing about 11 percent of US registered voters – “so the focus should be on utilizing black voters’ support of Democrats to alienate white voters.” So Republicans insist that city leaders are incompetent and Democrats are elites who have no interest in the concerns of black communities.    

Divide opponents – The major parties are gleeful when they can introduce issues or third-party candidates that siphon votes from the other side. For example, news reports suggested that some state Republican Party officials supported singer Kanye West’s efforts to run for president. 

Fuel culture wars – Republicans depend on support from the religious right even though speechwriter Michael Gerson, writing for the Atlantic in 2018 and quoted by Stevens, points to the Trump presidency as a disaster for norms:  “It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise.” But that support is dwindling, too. Polls by the Pew Research Center suggest that evangelical Protestants totaled about 25 percent and Catholics 21 percent in 2014, down from 26.3 percent and 23.9 percent in 2007, respectively. Those describing themselves as non-affiliated increased from 16.1 percent in 2007, 22.8 percent in 2014 and 26 percent in 2019.

Religious affiliation with Protestantism and Catholicism and rates of religious attendance is declining while the numbers of religiously unaffiliated are growing (Source: Pew Research Center)


Republicans’ intense desire for lockstep unity, combined with a stubborn refusal to admit Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential campaign, has weakened the party. Numerous Republican officials hope to run for president and have little choice but to court Trump’s most fervent supporters. Expect the former president to delay anointing a successor, keeping would-be candidates guessing while extracting promises and favors along the way. 

Another problem for future Republican candidates: Trump confronts multiple criminal investigations, and if authorities file charges, the candidates struggle to disconnect.

The book is direct, witty and a fast read, yet rambles in parts, skipping about decades. Notably, Stevens dodges analyzing the messaging around a key issue dividing Democrats and Republicans - abortion. He briefly mentions the topic five times, mostly referring to candidates’ policy positions. 

Stevens goes beyond expressing scorn and fury over Republican methods in which he participated and calls for party members to reassess and revive individual personal responsibility and integrity. Republicans failed a moral test by twice promoting Trump’s candidacy and Stevens argues that the party must adapt to a changing society: “history tells us that once those in power legitimize hate, it is difficult to manage.”                               

To win without gerrymandering, vote suppression and misinformation, Republicans must serve an increasingly diverse America. But to suggest that the party under its current leadership might rise to the challenge, “would be a lie," Stevens concludes, "and there have been too many lies for too long.” 

Instead, Republicans turn on one another with greater ferocity. 

Friday, February 5

Point of view

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation does not officially name domestic terrorist organizations – but Canada is doing a favor for its neighbor. 

After the violent riots at the US Capitol on January 6, Canada is taking steps to add Proud Boys to its Criminal Code list of terrorist entities along with three Al Qaeda affiliates, five Islamic State affiliates, a militant Kashmiri liberation group, two neo-Nazi groups founded in the US and a Russian nationalist group. “These extremist organizations newly added to the terrorist list join the ranks of Boko Haram and the Taliban, among many others,” reports Rachel Aiello for CTV News.

The United States does not designate domestic groups as terrorists to avoid infringing "on First Amendment-protected free speech" because "belonging to an ideological group in and of itself is not a crime in the United States,” notes a US Congressional Research Service report. FBI Director Christopher Wray has pointed out in congressional hearings that the FBI investigates violence, not ideology.

Canada's Public Safety Minister Bill Blair maintains that "there is a threshold” when freedom of speech and freedom of association transform into violence, criminality and terrorism. Canada’s list now includes 73 groups. "This update hopefully sends a strong message that Canada will not tolerate ideological, religious or politically-motivated acts of violence," explained Canada's Blair. Supporting activities associated with groups on Canada's watch list, even making purchases from their websites, can result in criminal charges and revocation of passports. 

The United States focuses on foreign threats. The country has designated more than 70 foreign groups as terrorist organizations - but not homegrown groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the Proud Boys.

Societies struggle to agree on a definition for terrorism, and that may be why it’s easier to detect terrorists from other cultures rather than those in our midst. Oxford Languages defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” - a definition that surely captures the essence of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

“While the participants’ actions on January 6 may be consistent with the definition of domestic terrorism, it is important to note that domestic terrorism is not a chargeable offense on its own,” explains the US Congressional Research Service report. The federal definition of domestic terrorism covers those who commit “ideologically driven crimes in the United States but lack foreign direction or influence” and involves “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population… in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The United States lacks criminal penalties for US domestic terrorism.

Authorities continue to make arrests, about 200 so far, and file charges daily. USA Today and other news organizations keep a running list of charges that include obstructing or impeding an official proceeding; aiding and abetting; knowingly entering or remaining in restricted building or grounds; violent entry and disorderly conduct; assault on a federal officer with a dangerous or deadly weapon; destruction of government property over $1,000; possession of an unregistered firearm; and conspiracy.

Some of the arrests were easy with suspects bragging and posting photos on Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts. Many participants at the rally claim that they were doing the bidding of former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly and falsely insisted that he won the 2020 presidential election while berating former Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers who did not support his claims: "we’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated. I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard." 

Authorities warn that terrorism and extremism are growing threats with active recruitment online. During a September 2020 US House of Representatives hearing on Homeland Security, FBI Director  Wray pointed out that combating terrorism is a top FBI priority, with more than 1,000 investigations and more than 120 arrests for domestic terrorism that year. "What I can tell you is that within the domestic terrorism bucket category, as a whole racially-motivated violent extremism is I think the biggest bucket within that larger group and within the racially-motivated violent extremists bucket, people subscribing to some kind of white supremacist-type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that," Wray said in response to questions from Michigan Representative Elissa Slotkin. 

The investigations are not complete and more charges are sure to be filed. The FBI is also looking into whether foreign groups provided financial support to extremists behind the Capitol attacks, reports NBC News. And the Senate Intelligence Committee is examining the influence of Russia, China and other foreign powers. "By law, the most influential agencies, including the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, are not allowed to collect information domestically," report Julian E. Barnes and Nicholas Fandos for the New York Times. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security can collect such information.

Congress will likely consider new laws. Acknowledging the threat, pursuing accountability and swift consequences are the first steps in countering and defeating domestic terrorism based on so much misinformation. 

Photograph: CNN; map, Southern Poverty Law Center.

Thursday, February 4

Juggling criticism

The novel Homeland Elegies demonstrates how one individual’s patriotism, nationalism or even confusion over ideology might be viewed as extremism and terrorism by those of another culture. 

Criticism is how individuals discover new paths to improvement. Yet, criticizing one's country - any country and, perhaps, especially the United States - prompts resentment and all types of fury. Opinions are hastily dispensed in the United States, and even the most sincere or thoughtful comments can trigger angry reactions from even close, well educated family members or trusted friends. One enters dangerous territory by revealing feelings in a divided society.

The plot of Homeland Elegies is presented as a novel, but reads like confessional memoir. Despite the mix of genres, the reader trusts that the narrator did not merely change a few details, but employed imagination and connections in the stories about family and friends that reflect American materialism and angst of recent decades. This country is a place where money reigns as "our supreme defining value." Deep in the book, the narrator who shares a name with author Ayad Akhtar warns readers about trust: "point of view is always shaped by desire; if some part of you doesn't trust your desire, then you better not trust the picture of the world it's giving you."

The narrator, the child of Pakistani immigrants, begins by describing his father's medical practice and a meeting with Donald Trump in the early 1990s to offer an opinion on a potential heart condition. During this period, the father binges on debt, declares bankruptcy and eventually builds a successful practice. As a result of that chance meeting, the father is a fervent supporter of Trump's 2016 outlandish presidential campaign. Few Americans expected the man could win: "The improbable saga of this campaign, its whiplash reversals, its perverse pleasures - didn't a story this insane require an ending commensurate with the madness? The writer in me knew that stories are made of movement, not morality; demand conclusion not consonance; and often conjure into being the very terrors they are written to wish away."

The same could be said about the improbable stories of the family in this novel. The book details the allure of choices and excess for both father and son, including debt, speculative investments, sex, alcohol and gambling - activities prohibited in Pakistan's Islamic society.

The book, like Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, details how major economic and political events shape individual reactions and social policy. These events include the Iranian Revolution, a series of financial crises and, of course, the 9/11 attacks which posed a dilemma for the many Muslims, including those most successful and Americanized. Some Muslims, like a character in a play written by the narrator, remain guilt-ridden about feeling a momentary hint of pride about the attacks, but perhaps that was more about the new attention directed toward the culture and society's yearning for understanding rather than the actual event. 

The narrator describes his own quest for attention as a writer and playwright and coming to the realization that the source of his life's work was in part "the pursuit of something as simple as my mother's gaze, a gaze she gave happily to books. Was it a coincidence I, too, had sought the comfort of books as a child? Wasn't I seeking her attention? Isn't that what I really wanted as I would sidle up to her warm body on the couch as she read, a book of my own in hand?"

The connection between an unseemly yearning for attention tied to tragedy and the cherished memory of a mother and child reading together is jarring – and the book teems with such contrasts. I remember my own mother reading to me before bedtime on our living room sofa, and I repeated this ritual with my own son when he was young. I remember the texture of each sofa, the low light from lamps illuminating our pages, the warm skin in soft pajamas next to me. We didn't just read but talked about books, character motivation and some of the most difficult moments. There can be no more secure place in this world for posing questions and sharing opinions.

Akhtar is eloquent in describing his caution in answering questions from strangers after 9/11 and hiw awkward attempts to avoid suspicion: "if all this sounds somewhat paranoid, I am happy for you. Clearly you have not been beset by daily worries of being perceived - and therefore treated - as a foe of the republic rather than a member of it." He is subtle in how he compares the forces contributing to the rise of Trump and far-right extremism with the extremism in Pakistan: "...when you feed a monster, it grows. When it attacks you - because it always will - you have only yourself to blame."

Like the narrator, we may bristle at others' questions and criticism. Still, we should follow the narrator's lead as detailed on the final pages of the book, by hearing others out and trying to understand. We may not agree, but we can respond by telling our stories, again and again.