Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist, founding editor of the online news journal “The Intercept,” and author of books on Blackwater and the America’s drone wars, has posted “American Mythology,” a seven-part assessment of the Trump administration on the Intercept’s website, theintercept.com. Its basic conclusion is that Trump, an aspiring dictator and a blatant racist, is guilty of excesses, but most of what he’s done is built on a foundation laid by his predecessors and has been approved by both his own party and that of the Democrats. The details and analysis are important to review, however, both because we’re on the eve of a presidential election (or reelection) and because in order to make desired changes in the future, we need to understand that Trump is a product of our twisted history rather than something out of the blue. We need to grapple with that, no matter who’s president, no matter which party controls Congress, and no matter how many conservatives sit on the Supreme Court.
Below is my edited (and much shortened) version of “American Mythology.” It’s still long, but I think worth reading.
Part 1: Manufacturing the Carnage
In the premiere episode of “American Mythology,” we examine the ways in which Donald Trump has proven to be a dangerous autocrat who doesn’t believe in any semblance of a democratic process. But that story can’t be told without also exploring how various U.S. systems and the policies of Trump’s predecessors paved the way for many of his actions. Featuring interviews with lawmakers, journalists, and others who’ve battled the Trump administration, this episode offers an overview of how the Republican Party embraced Trump as a Trojan horse to ram through its most extreme – and long-standing – policy agendas. It also probes the role of Democratic Party leaders in facilitating some of Trump and the GOP’s most dangerous policies and lays out the stakes of the 2020 presidential election.
The Trump presidency began on January 20, 2017, when he gave his infamous American Carnage inauguration speech in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. But the story of his presidency doesn’t begin on that day, with the 2016 campaign, or even with Trump’s offhand threats to run for president over the decades. Beyond his inflammatory rhetoric, his systematic lying, and crude nature, Trump is most relevant because of the incredible opportunities he gave to some of the most radical right wing forces in U.S. politics. As Naomi has said, “Trump ran as the champion of the working man, saying he would stand up to the corruption and billionaires in Washington. And then he filled his administration with them. What scares me is that as the economic facade falls away, the racism, the weaponizing of race and gender become more important, because that’s all they have to offer their base.”
The policies the administration began fast-tracking from its first moments in power had long been high on the wish list of the leaders of the Republican Party, and Trump — more than any of his predecessors — dared to shout the quiet parts out loud, broadcast them on Twitter, and proudly embrace them at every opportunity. As Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr. put it, “Donald Trump represents an exaggerated version of the rot that’s at the heart of this country; he’s a reflection of something that was already here. The contradictions of our economic order, a deepening sense of precarity, and the exploitation of white fear made Trump possible.”
In assessing the Trump presidency, we’ll explore two tracks. The first covers the ways in which Trump is a particularly dangerous autocrat who doesn’t believe in any semblance of a democratic process, and the second deals with the ways in which various U.S. systems and the policies of Trump’s predecessors paved the way for many of his most dangerous actions. NYU Professor Nikhil Pal Singh argued early on that understanding these dynamics was essential to confronting what was to come: “The idea that we somehow kind of flipped a switch and got Trump doesn’t address a longer story taking us through some of the failure of reckoning of the Obama years, and the pathway that the Iraq war put the country on. Even before the Iraq war, the pathway that the Clinton-era mass incarceration project put us on helps us understand the forces Trump’s has been able to mobilize.”
Journalist and writer Chris Hedges agrees: “We’ve personalized the problem we face in Trump, not realizing that he’s the product of a failed democracy. You can get rid of Trump, but you’re not going to get rid of what the sociologist Émile Durkheim called the ‘anomie’ that propels societies to engage in deeply self-destructive behavior.”
Upon taking office, the Trump administration immediately dispensed with any effort to make serious legal or moral arguments when issuing policy edicts. It was also clear that Trump and his team intended to assert sweeping executive powers while at the same time subverting Congressional oversight in every way. Employing this strategy, Trump has proven remarkably effective at ramming through an extremist agenda – one developed for generations by powerful factions within the Republican party, even though from the beginning of Trump’s presidential run, many establishment Republicans laughed at and denounced him, failing to take his prospects for winning the nomination of their party seriously. Trump defeated the establishment elite of the Republican Party though, from the dynasty candidate Jeb Bush, to popular Republican governors and senators, enabling him to claim that he wasn’t of the establishment or a typical corrupt politician.
As journalist Allan Nairn pointed out, “Trump dragged a rightist revolution into power – the Paul Ryan agenda that could never have gotten elected in its own right because it’s anathema to most Americans. But Trump, with his genius for unleashing the beast in white America, touching deep chords of racism, succeeded in turning a crucial number of previous white Obama voters into Trump voters, and now this is a Republican Party that’s one of the most radical mainstream political parties in American history, with control of Congress and the Supreme Court. They’ve rigged the system so that a diminishing minority can hold power and continue to govern, just as Trump was elected with a minority of the votes. They’re setting it up so that through a long list of tactics, including purging voter rolls, voter suppression shortly before Election Day, gerrymandering, et cetera, et cetera, smaller and smaller numbers of people can win elections and retain power.”
While Trump overtly appeared incompetent and boorish, consumer advocate and former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader warned that it was a mistake to underestimate the way his strengths work in concert with the radical GOP agenda: “People who think Trump is stupid may be right in terms of his understanding reality and history and the things we’d like presidents to be alert and smart about, but when it comes to street smarts and timing and the jugular? You can’t find anybody more proficient.”
It’s difficult to overstate what’s been accomplished during this presidency. The consequences of the sweeping re-molding of the federal courts with hundreds of lifetime appointments and the extreme right-wing stacking of the U.S. Supreme Court under Trump will reverberate for generations to come…At this moment, the most lethal aspect of Trump’s presidency has been his colossal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic…
Trump’s financial policies and tax cuts have showered money and profits on powerful corporate interests and the wealthy, while the already abysmal U.S. healthcare system has been further gutted and simultaneously oiled up for record profits, as millions suffer from inadequate or no health coverage and massive health-related debt. Journalist Juan Gonzalez said Trump had kindled a small-business movement already developing within the country before his election: “I look at Trump as one of the biggest small businessmen in America. Because the right-wing populism always comes out of the small business community. Trump as a protectionist represents the small business groups within the society, except that he’s a billionaire small businessman. He’s tapped into the tremendous insecurity among the great sectors of the American population over the impact of unfettered globalism on their lives. This is how he’s created his form of populism and ‘America first’ policies, and in that sense, he’s been able to use patriotism as a way to further ensnare some sectors of the working class as well.” Another significant sector of Trump’s base was inspired by his nativist rhetoric and the causes he claimed to be championing – all the greatest hits from locking up Hillary Clinton to the birther conspiracy to old fashioned racism. He depicted America as a place that undocumented immigrants, Muslims, liberals, and Black people have ruined, promising to end all that and “Make America Great Again.”
Yale historian and fascism scholar Jason Stanley said Trump’s embrace of the police and law enforcement as a class, while also cultivating support among militia-type groups, is a common tactic in authoritarian political movements: “The fascist state’s refusal to condemn extrajudicial violence licenses it by not explicitly condemning it. At the same time, the state uses its extrajudicial nature to say, ‘Look, we’re not the extremists. The extremists are out there.’” It’s important to the white nationalist movement to have people in ties and suits in government. You can spot the links because of the clear overlap in language, minus a few words. Instead of “white nationalist,” the suits say “nationalist.” Instead of adding “Jew” to “globalist,” or saying, “It’s the Jews that control the press,” they say it’s “the globalists.”
Trump’s administration has taken a chainsaw to the very concept of the rule of law. Under Jeff Sessions, and even more so under William Barr, the Justice Department has simultaneously served as Trump’s private law firm and been wielded as a judicial howitzer aimed at weakening and ultimately destroying the notion of checks and balances at the core of constitutional democracy. This is how Representative Barbara Lee described the threats when I spoke to her days into Trump’s administration: “I’m terrified with regard to what we see taking place: shutting down the media, putting out alternative ‘facts,’ banning dissent and opposition, criticizing people exercising their First Amendment rights, and trying to get people to believe the distortions they’re putting out.”
Trump’s war against journalism began on the 2016 campaign trail, as he railed against “fake news” and sought to stir up anger and potentially violence against journalists. His rhetoric was a dangerous escalation, but at the same time there was a tendency in media coverage of these attacks on the press, to ignore the records of Trump’s predecessors. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist James Risen fought a multi-year battle with the Bush and Obama Justice Departments, which sought to force him to testify against an alleged source. “The Obama administration was by far the most anti-press administration we’ve had since Nixon. They conducted more leak investigations and did more leak prosecutions than all the previous administrations combined, and they targeted journalists in ways that no other administration ever has. What Obama did makes it easier for Trump to do what he wants on leaks. Trump can now subpoena a reporter and force him to testify. All a reporter can do now to protect his sources is go to jail.”
On questions of war and national security, Trump has often spoken in contradictory directions: On the one hand, he lambasted the Iraq war and the unending nature of the so-called war on terror. DJT: “The Iraq war was a disaster, a mistake. We spent $2 trillion and thousands of lives, and what do we have? Nothing. Iran is taking over Iraq as sure as you’re sitting there.” On the other, Trump vowed to bring back torture, murder the families of suspected terrorists, steal the natural resources of other countries, and ignore international law. DJT: “Bomb the oil, take the oil. Just take it. We should have kept the oil.” When he took power, Trump inherited a multi-decade, at times bipartisan, campaign to undermine Congressional oversight of the executive branch while expanding the unilateral powers of the presidency. This was one of the major career missions of people like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Henry Kissinger. It’s also true for the current attorney general, William Barr. Building on the programs of his predecessors, Trump gave the U.S. military and the CIA expanded and secretive lethal authorities across the globe, while loosening or removing the minimal restraints that existed, including the killing of civilians. He placed at the helm of the CIA Gina Haspel, a key player in the CIA’s secret black site torture program. Democrats have voted to give Trump sweeping powers of war and surveillance while simultaneously calling him the most dangerous president in history, accusing him of being a Russian asset, and claiming that he’s destroying democracy as we know it.
For most of Trump’s time in office, Democrats prioritized the Trump-Russia investigation over anything else, even while New Yorker journalist Masha Gessen consistently warned that this strategy was distracting from other dangers and would likely backfire. “My basic problem with the Russia conspiracy theory,” Gessen said, “is that it’s a one-size-fits-all theory that tells us that we got Trump because he’s a Russian agent. That gets us out of the frightening and complicated task of understanding how Americans voted for Trump, and creates the idea that we can get rid of him by impeaching him on charges of collusion with Russia.” The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives under Nancy Pelosi ultimately did impeach Trump, but only on a narrow set of charges related to Ukraine. As Shahid Buttar, a progressive constitutional law advocate and attorney, said, “Pelosi took all the strongest charges against the president – his human rights abuses, incitements to violence, lies, andself-enrichment at public expense – off the table. Why? Because many of these are bipartisan offenses.”
Democrats often blame Ralph Nader for George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, and the same thing happened to Green Party Candidate Jill Stein in 2016. Nader, a tenacious Trump critic, argues that the Democrats must be held responsible for Trump’s ascent. He asks why the Democratic Party “couldn’t landslide the the most ignorant, corporate-indentured, warlike, corporate welfare supportive, bailout-prone, anti-worker, anti-consumer, and anti-environment Republican Party in history. The Democratic Party is the main scapegoater in American politics. It’s never their fault. It’s never Hillary’s fault. It’s always the Green Party’s fault. It’s always an independent candidate’s fault. They’ve lost two presidential elections since 2000, even though they won the popular vote, because each time the Electoral College took victory away from them. There’s a major national citizen effort to ablish the Electoral College, but the Democratic Party doesn’t support it.” [Rather than a two-party system, we have a one-party corporate system of “good cop/bad cop.” We need one or more third parties to challenge this system, as has happened historically, changing the dominant two parties.]
It’s easy, and these days accepted as common sense, to view Trump as an aberration of U.S. history: an uninvited guest who somehow cheated everyone to take power from the real adults. But it’s a mistake to divorce the ascent of Trump and the policies of his administration from the corporate-dominated electoral process in the U.S. and the myths of American exceptionalism. Historian Greg Grandin notes that “Trump talks about Andrew Jackson as his favorite politician, and he echoes Jackson’s settler colonial racism. But Trump’s presiding over a country turned inward. Andrew Jackson came to power as the United States was moving out into the world on the back of Indian removal, the expansion of chattel slavery, war with Spain and Mexico, and an enormous amount of violence. Trump’s presiding over, in some ways, the end of the project.” In other words, Trump’s presidency has its roots in the unvarnished story of United States empire, and is the product of that history.
As election day draws near, Trump’s taken his attacks on the democratic process to unprecedented levels – calling the election results a fraud, waging a voter disenfranchisement campaign, and openly encouraging violence from neo-Nazi and white supremacist paramilitaries and official law enforcement. He’s openly threatened to remain in office even if he loses the election, suggesting he might even “negotiate” a third term. But dire threats to the democratic process weren’t invented by Trump; nor are they just the results of Russian interference. As constitutional law expert Shahid Buttar has said, the groundwork for this has been laid over many years. “You don’t need a computer or a Russian state intelligence agency to hack an election. All you need is a right-wing Supreme Court inviting right-wing state legislatures around the country to start attacking voting rights, and that happened in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act.”
Part 2: Administration of Xenophobia
In the nearly four years that Trump has been in office, his administration has transformed U.S. immigration at a breakneck pace, governing with an overtly xenophobic posture toward immigrants. But to portray the extremism of this administration on immigration as an entirely radical departure from decades of policy under Democrats and Republicans is inaccurate. While Trump’s new policies and their implementation express his signature cruelty, they’re just extremes of the agendas of his predecessors: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, who constructed an authoritarian deportation machine.
Trump’s xenophobia began with his being the most famous so-called “birther,” staging publicity stunts purporting to prove that Barack Obama wasn’t actually born in Hawaii, wasn’t a “real” American, and was possibly some sort of Muslim Manchurian Candidate. He clearly viewed the fact that a Black man had ascended to the presidency as an abomination and rightly assessed that there were a lot of other racists who saw the eight years the Obamas spent living in the White House as a crime against the real, white America.
As far back as 2016, Trump was also focusing xenophobically on international trade, saying that various countries to whom the US had lost its “manufacturing base” were also “ripping the U.S. off” trade-wise. By his seventh day in power, he’d also issued an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, claiming he was “keeping radical Islamic terrorists out of the U.S.” By February 2017, the Trump administration had issued memorandums to increase expedited removal proceedings, expand detention, and broaden who qualifies for priority deportation. Journalist Aura Bogado says that “now, anyone who’s not only been convicted, but done something for which they could be convicted, falls under the category of a person who’s detainable and deportable. This is nothing short of a war on immigrants. You can be picked up in your home, near your church, or in a hospital. I can definitely critique the Obama administration, but the hatred with which some of this is being thought out and implemented, is scary. It’s different.”
Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that shielded about 700,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation was rescinded, and under “zero tolerance,” the Department of Homeland Security began separating thousands of families seeking asylum in the U.S. According to the ACLU, the Trump administration has separated more than 4,200 families, but the true number remains unknown and the administration has found loopholes to continue the practice. The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux said border patrol agents are given a lot of discretion, deporting parents before the process of reunification can be initiated. “The parents are gone, and there are kids – I mean, little kids; I’m talking about a six-year-old blind girl separated from her mother, preverbal kids, nonverbal kids, indigenous kids – who suddenly are on their own legally, completely overwhelmed and terrified.” Journalist Juan Gonzalez has written several books dealing with the history of U.S. immigration policy, and he says, “They want a whole different type of migration into the United States – a whiter and more affluent migration.”
Trump’s cruel policies have been constructed on the foundation laid by President Bill Clinton, who ushered in a new era of border militarization. Clinton’s “prevention through deterrence” didn’t address the reasons people might be trying to cross the border or sway people from coming; it just made their journeys more dangerous. According to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), more than 7,000 people died trying to cross the border in remote locations between the years 1998 and 2017. Advocacy groups say the real number is much higher.
In 2008 President George W. Bush increased the number of border patrol officers by 6,000, more than doubling the force. He also ordered the construction of “high tech” fences in urban corridors and new patrol roads and barriers in rural areas. Trump has also utilized and expanded the architecture of repressive agencies created under Bush, among them the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
Under Clinton, 800,000 people were formally deported, while Bush deported more than two million. During Obama’s two terms in office the number of deportations soared to more than three million. Obama said his administration’s policy was focused on “felons, not families,” but the Marshall Project examined more than 300,000 of his deportations and found that roughly 60% either had no criminal conviction, or their only crime was immigration-related. In 2014, the Obama administration also expanded the use of family detention to deter an increasing number of women and children arriving at the border, including unaccompanied minors.
Since the implementation of “prevention through deterrence” in the 1990s, border patrol spending has increased from $363 million to more than $4 billion annually. Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, ICE’s budget has grown from $3.3 billion to $8.4 billion. The number of immigration enforcement officers has also spiked over the decades, from around 4,000 border patrol agents in the 1990s to more than 19,000 in 2019. Trump has used this growing immigration apparatus to not only increase the powers of agents to target not only migrants at the border, but also undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of whom have long-standing ties in their communities, including children who are citizens. His administration has also taken actions to decrease legal immigration while narrowing humanitarian relief for refugees and asylum seekers. In early September of this year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Trump administration’s termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Some 300,000 immigrants in the U.S. can now be deported – people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, people who came here after experiencing civil unrest, violence, natural disasters, and other humanitarian crises. Many people with TPS status have been in the U.S. for years, some of them decades, without the ability to apply for green cards or citizenship.
U.S. authorities are now processing less than a hundred asylum applications a day, and the Trump administration is mandating that asylum applicants remain outside the country, most of them in squalid and dangerous refugee camps near the Mexican border. Suyapa Portillo Villeda, a Pitzer College Professor of Chicano/Latino Transitional Studies, characterizes this assault on asylum as “a violation of international rights under the Refugee Convention of 1961. People have a right to ask for asylum. This’s not something that’s up for grabs. If people come to our borders and seek asylum, they have a right to do that, as they do anywhere else.” In 2019 the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s rule that bars asylum seekers from traveling through another country to apply for asylum in the U.S. – effectively disqualifying Central American asylum seekers. The Trump administration has used the Covid-19 pandemic to further limit immigration. DJT: “It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor.” Trump has effectively ended asylum at the southern border. Despite federal laws requiring acceptance of children there, Customs and Border Protection turned away more than 2,000 unaccompanied child migrants between March and June of this year.
Trump and his senior advisor Stephen Miller, the architect behind the administration’s immigration policies, often frame their anti-immigration rhetoric around protecting American workers, claiming that immigrants depress wages. However, there are conflicting studies on the effects immigration influxes have on wages, and the decline in unionization, globalization, automation, and the erosion of workers’ rights and bargaining power have had a tremendous effect on wages, particularly for blue-collar jobs. Also, from day one, according to analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, Trump has rolled back worker protections and rights. This includes preventing workers from earning overtime, attempting to take away workers health care, and stacking agencies and the Supreme Court with anti-worker appointees.
Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and attacks on immigrants are a racist shield that enthralls Trump’s base by signaling that he’ll end immigration from non-white or Muslim countries. At this moment, tens of thousands of migrants, many who are asylum seekers, remain in ICE custody in jails, prisons, and detention centers across the country, with the pandemic adding another layer of inhumanity. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for abolishing ICE, reminding us that beginning with “the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1800s, the very seed, the bedrock, of U.S. immigration policy, was based on racial exclusion.”
Part 3: The Neo-Confederate-in-Chief
On the campaign trail and as president, Donald Trump has worked hard to resurrect the George Wallace strand of U.S. politics, consistently using racist and bigoted language. In part three of “American Mythology,” we examine the ways Trump has used racialized fearmongering and incitement in both word and deed, from his Muslim ban to his denigration of immigrants to his attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump has openly encouraged police to act extrajudicially, brutally, and with impunity, while simultaneously emboldening violent white nationalists and militias.
From calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, to sparking a crazy right-wing troll operation dedicated to claiming that Barack Obama wasn’t really an American, Trump’s racism and targeting of Black people have been publicly documented. DJT: “I think today that a well-educated Black person, male or female, has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white person…Of course I hate these people. And let’s all hate these people. Because maybe hate is what we need if we’re going to get something done.” After Trump’s election as president, white nationalist groups, militias, and everyday racist Americans felt emboldened to act out in the open, with more impunity. Hate crimes spiked, and anti-immigrant rhetoric led to attacks against minority groups. One gunman massacred 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh because of its support for Central American migrants. Trump had previously stated that “No nation can allow its borders to be overrun. That’s an invasion. I don’t care what the fake media says. That’s an invasion of our country.”
Trump’s narrative about the Obama era was often fired off like buckshot, with an array of fallacy-laced pellets. Obama was corrupt. He wasn’t a real American. He depleted the U.S. military. He wanted to take away the guns of white people while offering support for “Black Identity Extremists.” Trump also frequently used Obama’s home city of Chicago in his speeches in order to attack Black Americans as violent criminals who needed to be put in their place. DJT: “What the hell is going on in Chicago? It’s embarrassing to us as a nation. All over the world they’re talking about Chicago. Afghanistan is a safe place by comparison.” Chicago-born educator and author Eve Ewing saw this rhetoric from Trump as preparing the battlefield for justifying state-sanctioned violence wrapped in the cloak of restoring law and order. She said, “It’s convenient to use Chicago as a dog whistle, like ‘welfare queens’ and ‘crack babies’ – racialized images meant to inspire fear and loathing in the hearts of Americans and to make them feel as though there’s justification for any kind of extreme crackdown that might happen. It has nothing to do with an actual desire to help or care for, uplift or support or nurture or even listen to people who actually live here.”
This year, the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis ignited a new and revolutionary chapter in the Black Lives Matter movement. Millions of Americans, Black and white, have taken to the streets to protest across the country, from major cities to rural towns.
Trump has used his massive online platform and the office of the presidency to make the situation as incendiary and violent as possible. DJT: “Every night we’re going to get tougher and tougher. And at some point there’s going to be retribution, because there has to be. These people are vandals, they’re agitators, they’re terrorists. These are professional anarchists, people that hate our country.” Instead of recognizing the validity of what so many activists and ordinary citizens have been saying about the state of racial injustice in this country, Trump’s done what he’s always done: appealed to so-called “real” [white] Americans with the language of hate, violence, threats, and historical revisionism. DJT: “The radical left wants to uproot and demolish every American value. They want to wipe away every trace of religion from national life. They want to indoctrinate our children, defund our police, abolish the suburbs, incite riots, and leave every city at their mercy.”
Trump’s reelection campaign includes the notion of a civil race war trumpets law and order against socialism. He’s regularly encouraged brutality and extrajudicial action among police and law enforcement agencies, as well as actions by indivduals and fringe paramilitary groups. Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., who saw Trump’s rise as a victorious revival of the George Wallace strand of U.S. politics, says, “That particular strand of politics has become mainstream. The fringe, white identity nationalists living in the mountains in Washington and western Pennsylvania are now at the the center of the political party controlling the country. I grew up when dog whistles, racial code words, had to be use politically. Now it’s foghorns. People just say it, activating all sorts of fears.” DJT: “You’re going to see a backlash the likes of which you haven’t seen in many years. Because people aren’t going to take it. A lot of people on the right are sitting home watching a television set looking at Kenosha and looking at Chicago where they shoot people and kill people by the dozens every week. They look at it and say, ‘I’m not going to allow that to happen in my country.’” Having railed against self-identified anti-fascists, Trump has presided over kidnappings and even killings of activists, including a Portland man connected with the shooting of a white supremacist gunned down by U.S. Marshals at the request of the president.
Racial opportunism in presidential politics isn’t unique to Donald Trump – it’s been deployed by Democrats and Republicans alike throughout U.S. history. It was used effectively by people now denouncing Trump, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and the so-called New Democrats, all of whom have used racialized propaganda and attacks to appear tough on crime. It was a favorite tactic of Ronald Reagan. Donald Trump is just a lot more intense and much less subtle about it. Eve Ewing: “In no way do I want to undercut what I think have been some of the uniquely awful aspects of this administration, but I think it’s important for folks to remember that Trump isn’t like the man in a laboratory conjuring up these racist people like Frankensteins, who had never existed before. Rather it’s him giving a voice and a platform for an energy behind white supremacy and hatred that has a long history in America and that actually, in my opinion, constitutes the very fabric of the nation. I think that’s important to realize, because it makes you understand that in order to conquer or change or transform the kind of hatred and vile evil that we’re seeing right now, it’s not just about these particular voters, and it’s not just about this particular election – we have to be brave enough to confront and understand a history that’s much deeper.” [And, if we do, hopefully, we can finally make “Black lives matter.”]
At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, the esteemed UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley addressed this history and sought to give context to the destruction of property during times of rebellion: “What the police do is protect capital – property, including, historically, slaves. Similarly, jails were designed to hold runaways slaves until the master could come and get them. If the whole system of policing is organized around property, we shouldn’t be surprised that qualified immunity and violent acts by the police are supported by capital. Capital needs a force that can terrify people, and that’s what the police do.”
Trump has used his attacks on the Black Lives Matter protests and antifa as a distraction from his colossally incompetent and cold-hearted response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that’s disproportionately impacted Black, Latino, and Native American people, as well as the poor and workers. Native American historian Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He writes, “When somebody like Trump says, ‘We’re here to protect our national monuments,’ he’s invoking the language of heritage, like the ‘it’s heritage, not hate’ speech around Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag. He’s not including indigenous people in this rhetoric, because our monuments, our history as Indigenous people, is under constant erasure.”
As in Charlottesville, cars have emerged as one of the preferred weapons of white supremacists. This summer, there were at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protestors – 96 of those drivers were civilians, and eight were cops. Trump’s rhetoric once again manifested into real world violence, as armed militias took to the streets, looking to commit violence under the banner of “Making America Great Again.” Historian Dr. Keisha Blain, author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, explained the roots of this well-worn authoritarian strategy of using both official and unofficial forces to terrorize already victimized and vulnerable populations. “I think about the era of lynching and the reasons why we saw, in the late 19th century, even in the early 20th century, so many lynchings taking place across the country. People asked at the time, as we’re asking now about police violence, why are so many Black people being lynched? One of the answers to that question is that white racists were emboldened by the state and by the support of local police. They recognized that they could do it and they could get away with it. Already there are videos of groups of white men, some carrying bats, walking through the streets, emboldened and encouraged to harm protestors, because they feel like Trump gave them the green light.”
Part 4: “You Think Our Country’s So Innocent?”
On war policy, Trump has so far proven both less murderous than George W. Bush and more of a war criminal than Jimmy Carter. On matters of war, he’s consistently spoken and acted in contradictory and unorthodox ways. He campaigned in 2016 with a mixed message of attacking the legacy of the Iraq War and U.S. military adventurism, while simultaneously pledging to commit war crimes and promote imperialism as a matter of policy. He escalated drone strikes in Somalia and Afghanistan, authorized troop surges and massive bombings in Iraq, launched cruise missile strikes in Syria, and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” On the other hand, he signed a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces, negotiated with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and claims to have fired John Bolton to avoid starting “World War 6.” In many ways, Trump has represented a continuity of U.S. policy with tactical differences from his predecessors.
From the beginning of his campaign and throughout his presidency, Trump’s rhetoric on war would weave between denouncing past U.S. military operations and vowing to end wars with an occasional tweet threatening nuclear war or the wiping out of a country’s cultural heritage sites. Mohammad Javad Zarif: “He is showing to the international community that he has no respect for international law, that he is prepared to commit war crimes, because attacking cultural sites is a war crime, and disproportionate response is a war crime.”
Even as Trump authorized the expansion of some wars and the continuation of others, as president he suggested that he was weighing the toll of the nation’s foreign wars. DJT: “Nearly 16 years after September 11th attacks, after an extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure, the American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history – 17 years. I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly, lives trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”
Less than a month into his presidency, in a Fox News interview with Bill O’Reilly before the Super Bowl, Trump revealed a truth about the nature of the American Empire. “Will I get along with him? I have no idea.”
Bill O’Reilly: “He’s a killer though. Putin’s a killer.”
DJT: “There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
While what Trump said is indisputably true, he had just taken the helm of that U.S. killing machine. Just three months into his presidency, Trump launched 59 cruise missiles in Syria, in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack that reportedly killed 70 civilians. That same month, he authorized a massive strike in Afghanistan using a 20,000-pound munition known as the Mother of All Bombs. That strike was supposedly aimed at Islamic State fighters, but mostly it seemed that Trump just wanted to show off his war toys. In August of 2017, Trump announced a new strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan: escalate the killing. In 2018, documented civilian casualties in Afghanistan continued to top over 10,000 for a fifth year in a row, according to the United Nations, which reported more than 3,000 deaths and 7,000 injured. 2018 saw the largest increase in airstrikes since the U.N. began documenting civilian deaths in 2009, and again in 2019, airstrikes accounted for 10% of civilian casualties. DJT: “We’re not nation-building. We’re killing terrorists.” While Trump expanded air-strikes in Afghanistan and the civilian death toll skyrocketed, the administration simultaneously opened direct negotiations with the Taliban. And on February 29th, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban to begin withdrawing significant numbers of U.S. troops from the country.
Earlier this month, as Trump returned to the White House after his hospitalization at Walter Reed following his coronavirus diagnosis, Trump tweeted that he would be bringing almost all U.S. troops from Afghanistan home by Christmas. The announcement seemed to take even his own military advisors by surprise, including the chair of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley.
In other wars started by his predecessors, Trump authorized a series of both covert and overt military operations that would endure throughout his presidential term. Among the first was a deadly military raid in Yemen just nine days into his presidency that resulted in the deaths of several dozen people, among them ten children and a U.S. Navy SEAL. Trump portrayed it as a leftover operation from Obama’s presidency. As under Obama, it isn’t possible to tally the number of drone strikes carried out by the CIA under Trump, but one drone war specialist told us Agency strikes have been significant. In terms of military operations, Trump expanded drone strikes in both Somalia and Afghanistan. Amy Goodman: “A U.S. drone strike killed five people after it struck a car that was rushing a mother to the hospital after she experienced complications from a home birth. The strike killed the 25-year-old mother Malana, three of her relative’s and the car’s driver in southeastern Afghanistan.” Hina Shamsi of the ACLU spent eight years fighting the Obama administration over its drone strikes and excessive secrecy. “It’s no longer in the front pages the way it used to be and still should be. The lethal strikes are happening under Trump without even the kind of weak safeguards that Obama put in place at the end of his administration, and with ever greater secrecy.”
In Iraq and Syria, Trump authorized scorched earth bombing runs and troop surges in the name of defeating ISIS. When Trump entered office, there were already sizable numbers of U.S. Special Operations Forces on the ground battling ISIS in Mosul and other cities. War reporter Mike Giglio said that by the time Trump took the oath of office, half of Mosul was already under the control of Iraqi forces backed by U.S. Special Operations teams. “Trump followed the blueprint that the Obama administration had set out for him, but loosened rules and restrictions intended to prevent civilian casualties. For that and other reasons, including the fact that western Mosul is a much denser terrain, and had been a stronghold for ISIS and al-Qaeda, it was a hellscape. They were pulling the bodies out of the rubble for months after victory had been declared. And the rebuilding efforts there have been halting. I think when we look at Trump’s imprint on the war, the most obvious one is the level of destruction that came with it.”
Trump has consistently spoken threateningly about Iran, and proudly pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, a pledge he’d discussed obsessively on the campaign trail. But beyond the rhetoric, in terms of policy, Trump essentially picked up the mantle of the neocons from the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when George W. Bush accused Iran of being in a terrorist partnership with Iraq and North Korea. The Obama-era nuclear deal represented the most significant steps toward normalizing relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a fact that enraged neocons and other hawks advocating regime change. Days into Trump’s presidency, his National Security Advisor, General Mike Flynn, fired from a previous post by Obama, significantly escalated threats toward Iran, accusing it of facilitating attacks against US-backed forces in the Persian Gulf. But Flynn was forced to resign a month into his tenure after lying to the FBI and Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russian officials. A year later, in March 2018, Trump named John Bolton, one of the most belligerent figures in U.S. politics, to the post. Two months later, he not only pulled out of the Iran deal, but increased economic sanctions on the country. As Iranian author and analyst Hooman Majd pointed out, these had an immediate impact on the civilian population, “cutting Iran’s oil exports down to zero, which it relies on to feed its people and import medicine.” The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain said, “If we see a second Trump administration, I think that the odds of a military confrontation with Iran are very high.”
In September of 2019, Bolton was ousted from his post, reportedly because he was too much of a warmonger, even for Trump, who said if he’d listened to Bolton, “We’d be in World War 6 by now.” Even with Bolton gone, by late 2019, it seemed as though the Iran hawks might get their war. On January 3, 2020, in one of Trump’s single most dangerous acts as commander-in-chief, he authorized the assassination of top Iranian general, Qassim Suleimani, a man Trump described as “the world’s top terrorist.” The strike against Suleimani had reportedly been authorized months earlier when John Bolton was still Trump’s National Security Advisor. And Bolton cheered on the strike from the sidelines, calling it “the first step toward regime change in Iran.” But legal scholars had a different label for the strike: war crime. Law professor Marjorie Cohn said authorizing a state-sponsored murder of a high-ranking official of another country is a crime under both U.S. and international law. “What Trump did was to mount a crime of aggression, as defined by the International Criminal Court. There are two different ways that someone can commit the crime of aggression: first, by bombarding another state, and second by using its armed forces within the territory of another state without its agreement. Iraq and the United States have a joint military agreement that governs the stationing of U.S. troops in Iraq, and Iraq’s acting prime minister called the U.S. bombing a flagrant violation of the conditions of that agreement. In fact, the Iraqi parliament voted that the U.S. forces must leave. The U.S. refused, and that, in my book, is an illegal occupation. Congress could do its job using the war crimes statute, but guess how many times the war crimes statute has been used. Zero times.” If history and longstanding U.S. policy is any indication, however, Trump isn’t going to end up on trial at the Hague. In Washington, the Sulemani assassination was met with widespread support, if not celebration, among prominent Republicans. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “President Trump’s decision to remove Qassim Suleimani from the battlefield saved American lives.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham: “We killed the most powerful man in Iran short of the Ayatollah.” The Democratic reaction was a mixed bag. Senator Bernie Sanders labeled the strike an “assassination,” while other Democrats took a position that they didn’t like the strike but that they were glad that Suleimani was gone.
Much of the analysis of Trump’s most dangerous policies and actions have portrayed them as being uniquely Trumpian. And while some of them may be, failing to recognize the frightening and deadly powers built into the presidency by both Democrats and Republicans is not only dishonest, it leaves the door open for even greater abuses by future U.S. presidents. The U.S.-sponsored Saudi war against Yemen, for example, started under President Obama and is the product of decades of bipartisan U.S. support for the Saudi regime. As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at the University of California-Stanislaus, says, “I’ve always emphasized to my students that the ability of one man to make changes in the foreign policy direction of an empire is extremely small. They can only make stylistic changes here and there.” Only after the brutal murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey and Trump’s refusal to acknowledge or condemn the role of the Saudi government or Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in it, did a popular mobilization against Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen gain momentum in the U.S. Congress. The effort to cut the Saudis off was spearheaded in the House by Representative Ro Khanna of California, a Democrat who’d long advocated ending U.S. military sales and support for the Saudi regime. Legislation to cut off some military sales to Saudi Arabia passed the Senate in March of 2019, but Trump rejected it.
On Trump’s negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, journalist Allan Nairn has said, “he was willing to contemplate anything to seize the photo op and glorify his ego. It was nuts in terms of the motivation, but actually the right thing to do to avert a nuclear holocaust and work toward peace on the Korean peninsula. [It didn’t really accomplish anything, but a Biden administration will have our government resuming the ineffective, threatening stance of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.]
Donald Trump has been a militaristic president who has presided over the killing of civilians and has proudly celebrated and at times exonerated war criminals. His reckless public threats and open coddling of dictators and thugs is disturbing, but isn’t a presidential anomaly. The U.S. is the only nation on earth to use a nuclear weapon, twice. It’s waged wars that have killed millions of civilians across the world, backed genocidal death squads, and armed and funded ruthless human rights abusers and murderers. It’s engaged in coups and regime change the world over. It’s assassinated its own citizens, run secret prisons, and tortured detainees. These haven’t been Democratic or Republican policies. They’ve been the American way for a long time. Trump hasn’t fundamentally altered the trend, except perhaps in regard to Russia.
Part 5: Courting Corporate Theocracy
While all eyes remain on the presidential election in November, Donald Trump has already secured a multigenerational victory with his radical reshaping of the judicial branch of government. In part five of “American Mythology,” we look at how the Trump administration has outsourced hundreds of federal judicial appointments to the right-wing Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation. The appointments made during the past four years will impact almost every aspect of life in the U.S.: health care, marriage equality, worker’s rights, freedom of speech and press, guns, racism, women’s rights, war powers, and others. We dig into the ideologies and organizations at the center of Trump’s judicial strategy, the influence of the Koch brothers, and the corporate and social agenda the GOP wants new judges to impose. The stakes go well beyond the 2020 election: The impact of an extreme right-wing Supreme Court majority not only threatens reproductive rights, it could shut down any progressive attempts at lawmaking for decades to come. In some ways, confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett is more important to the GOP than Trump winning reelection.
When campaigning for president in 2016, Donald Trump vowed that if he won the presidency, he’d appoint judges to the courts who were staunchly pro-gun and anti-abortion, judges approved by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. And once elected, he kept that promise. The Federalist Society was established in 1982 by conservative law school students at Yale and the University of Chicago. It subscribes to a judicial philosophy of originalism and textualism, meaning that it’s the role of judges to interpret the Constitution only in its plain text, no more or less than those who originally wrote and ratified it. UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky once wrote, “Never in American history, thankfully, have a majority of the justices accepted originalism. If that were to happen, there would be a radical change in constitutional law. No longer would the Bill of Rights apply to state and local governments. No longer would there be protection of rights not mentioned in the text of the Constitution, such as the right to travel, freedom of association, and the right to privacy.”
In 2017 White House Counsel Don McGahn in keynote remarks at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in Washington, D.C., said, “The greatest threat to the rule of law in our modern society is the ever-expanding regulatory state, and the most effective bulwark against that threat is a strong judiciary. The edifice of the modern administrative state was constructed in the 20th century on the misguided notion that independent experts, rather than our elected representatives, are best suited to govern the nation’s affairs.” In the view of McGahn and his cohort, federal agencies have become an unaccountable, out of control “administrative state.” In other words, federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration don’t have the authority to interpret what are often ambiguous statutes unless Congress explicitly mandates it. This kind of libertarian commitment is what reportedly shot Neil Gorsuch to the top of the Federalist Society’s list of prospective nominees to replace arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch gained initial attention after publishing two judicial opinions that staked out radical originalist positions seeking to undermine federal agencies. In another notable appellate decision, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, Gorsuch argued that an individual’s faith could exempt them from Affordable Care Act mandates. Since joining the Supreme Court, Justice Gorsuch has been a reliable conservative. In Epic Systems v. Lewis, Gorsuch joined the conservative court majority to make it harder for victims of wage theft to sue employers collectively. He’s ruled in favor of a baker’s right to discriminate against a same-sex couple, and joined the conservative majority in allowing Ohio to purge its voter rolls of so-called “infrequent voters.” He upheld Trump’s Muslim ban, helped weaken labor unions, and favored allowing North Dakota to make it harder for Native Americans to use a P.O. Box to vote.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh was recommended by the Heritage Foundation, another conservative think-tank that believes judges shouldn’t attempt to interpret the Constitution beyond what the original drafters intended. When he was nominated to the Supreme Court, the White House wrote a one-page brief extolling his record of overruling “federal regulators 75 times on cases involving clean air, consumer protections, net neutrality and other issues.” In short, Kavanaugh views independent agencies as a threat to individual liberty and executive authority. That includes regulations intended to protect individuals from corporations. In gripping congressional testimony, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her 30 years ago. Despite her incendiary testimony and Kavanaugh’s behavior at the hearing, he was confirmed, 50 to 48.
Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch have already helped roll back hard-won rights protecting workers, consumers, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and voters. Now Trump and the GOP are trying to rush through a third Supreme Court Justice, wanting to make sure the court is stacked in their favor in the event of a contested election and that it’s dominated by radical right-wing ideologues if a Democrat becomes president. Just 45 days before the 2020 election, and one day after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Donald Trump announced plans to replace the liberal justice with an arch conservative. In the mad rush to fill Ginsburg’s seat, Trump held a gathering of more than 100 people in the White House Rose Garden to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. The gathering would turn into a Covid super-spreader event, but, undeterred, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “We’re full steam ahead with the fair, thorough, and timely confirmation process that Judge Barrett, the Court, and the nation deserves.” This is the same McConnell, who eight months before the 2016 election, successfully blocked President Obama’s nomination of the moderate Judge Merrick Garland after Justice Scalia died. If Barrett is confirmed, the Supreme Court would be solidified as a right-wing entity, with conservative justices holding a decisive 6-3 majority. Barrett could provide a crucial vote on cases winding their way up to the Supreme Court, including those on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade.
Part 6: The Looting of the Nation
Donald Trump has run the White House like his family business with one primary aim: to enrich his brand, his family, and his cronies. In part six of “American Mythology,” we examine how Trump and the GOP, at times with help from the Democrats, have widened the gates to the federal feeding trough for corporate greed and unaccountability. Throughout the 2016 campaign Trump claimed that, unlike Hillary Clinton, he was not beholden to corporate or special interests and that he would uplift the working class. Once in power, he appointed record numbers of Goldman Sachs veterans to his administration, passed sweeping tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, attacked organized labor, and chiseled away at an already abysmal health care system. Unprecedented inequality and stagnant wages have persisted. Fewer Americans currently have health insurance than when Trump was sworn into office. These sharp economic injustices have come into clear focus during the Covid-19 pandemic: corporate robber barons like Jeff Bezos have increased their wealth by billions while 40% of Americans say they couldn’t withdraw $400 in the event of an unexpected emergency. Eight million more people have descended into poverty in recent months, as the wealth of billionaires grew by $845 billion.
During his campaign, Trump claimed that unlike Clinton he was not beholden to corporate or special interests, and that he’d wouldn’t abandon the working class. In his inaugural address, reportedly written by Steve Bannon, Trump described an economic hellscape that, for many Americans, was a reality. DJT: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation. This American carnage stops right here, and stops right now. America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work – rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.” Claiming he would spur economic growth and bring back manufacturing jobs, Trump promised to end NAFTA, pull out of the TPP, close trade deficits, pass a massive tax cut, and invest in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. But the looting began on day one.
In November 2017, Trump signed into law the innocuously-named Tax Cut and Jobs Act. The largest tax overhaul in three decades, it cut the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21%. While Republicans claimed that this $1.9 trillion cut would “pay for itself,” the Congressional Research Service has found that it had “a relatively small (if any) first-year effect on the economy,” other than, according to the Congressional Budget Office, worsening economic inequality. Job and wage growth have plateaued, and when some cuts expire in 2025, the poorest Americans will see an increase in their taxes. Meanwhile, 91 of the top Fortune 500 companies paid $0 in corporate income tax in 2018.
Donald Trump has presided over the worst job losses in U.S. history, and only about half of the 22 million jobs lost are because of coronavirus. Countries that were better able to control their outbreaks haven’t suffered as much economic pain, according to analysis by the Financial Times. Former Goldman Sachs executive Nomi Prins says, “Trump connects everything to the stock market because it’s the one thing with a number that’s gone up. Why? Companies have been able to receive cheap money, because interest rates have been close to zero since the 2008 financial crisis, in order to subsidize the money that was lacking at the time for the banking system. Well, that money’s gone to the banks, the banks have bought back their own shares, and they pay themselves dividends on those shares, pumping the stock market up.”
Many of these factors, while intensified during this administration, have persisted through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Both parties are beholden to corporate interests, even if one’s more brazen and successful at producing dividends for the ultra-rich. The hard truth is that the political and economic system Trump has exploited and utilized will continue on in perpetuity unless the people of this country muster the collective will to challenge its existence. [Capitalism, baby.]
Part 7: Climate Carnage
In his denial of science, Donald Trump has guided the U.S. far past the tipping point of mitigating the existential threat of the climate crisis. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations over decades, U.S. climate policy has fallen far short of the urgent action scientists have demanded. But in crucial ways, Trump’s been more dangerous than his predecessors, seeming to revel in his denial of fundamental and scientifically indisputable realities. In part seven of “American Mythology,” we examine how the Trump administration has catapulted the corporate-fueled deregulation crusade dramatically forward. In the past four years, Trump has undone or weakened up to 70 rules and regulations aimed at protecting the environment, while another 30 policy changes are still underway. The majority of these 100 changes are happening at the Environmental Protection Agency, currently headed by a former lobbyist for the coal industry who fought the Obama administration’s attempts at environmental regulations. Trump’s overseen the largest rollback of federal land protection in U.S. history, opening environmentally-sensitive areas for corporate and industrial development (mining and extraction freeing of government protections).
As he campaigned for president, Trump often celebrated his vow to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord as part of his broader onslaught on the record and person of Barack Obama. Set aside the fact that the Paris agreement falls far short of what the scientific community believes is urgently needed. On a strictly policy level, Trump has made it very clear that his decision wasn’t motivated by concern for the planet or because he had an alternative plan. It was singularly focused on ripping up what he believed was an impediment to the rights of corporations to pillage and pollute the earth for profit. Political dissident Noam Chomsky says, “Trump’s pulling out of the Paris negotiations leaves the United States as the only country in the world officially refusing to take even small steps towards dealing with the climate crisis, and that’s combined with domestic programs rapidly increasing the use of the most dangerous fossil fuels, cutting back regulations on economy for automobiles, eliminating safety protections for workers, and so on. All of that is a race to disaster.”
A recent New York Times analysis found that up to 70 rules and regulations aimed at protecting the environment have been officially undone or weakened by the Trump administration, and another 30 policy changes are underway. The majority of these 100 changes are being made at the Environmental Protection Agency, currently headed by Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry who fought Obama’s attempts at environmental regulations. What Trump’s done at the EPA represents a committment to destroy rather than protect the environment. It’s deregulation, supposedly in order to create more jobs, but really to increase corporate profits.
Peter Wright, a lawyer who represented Dow Chemical in the cleanup of toxic Superfund sites, and “repeatedly failed to hold polluters accountable for the damage they’ve done to the drinking water across the country,” according to Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown (Ohio), now oversees the EPA’s Superfund cleanup program. David Fischer, who helped chemical companies circumvent chemical safety laws, now oversees federal implementation of those laws. [The tradition of placing the wolf in charge of the hen house goes back decades in both Republican and Democratic administrations, but, as is so often the case with Trump, his actions are more open and glaring.]
According to the Center for American Progress, the Trump administration has removed, or attempted to remove, protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands. Stripping protections from Bears Ears National Monument, along with the Grand Staircase-Escalante amounted to what CAP called the largest rollback of federal land protection in US history.
The Trump administration has opened up federally-protected lands for development in 12 states, and at this point, Alaska’s long-preserved lands have taken the biggest hit. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, has been opened for oil extraction. Trump openly bragged about rolling back protections that not even Ronald Reagan could achieve.
When Trump took office, the environmental protection wins of the Obama administration were systematically dismantled. Trump reversed the hard-fought pipeline victories during the Obama era, backing private companies to resume construction of both the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline. (The former is going ahead, despite court challenges, and the latter is still pending.)
In the big picture in the U.S., corporate negligence and greed, cultivated by corporate-friendly bi-partisan policy-making and Republican-led deregulation is to blame for polluting our air, water, land, and food, as our earth becomes uninhabitable. A national conversation around the Green New Deal was begun by first term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but the Green New Deal is hardly being enthusiastically embraced by the elite rulers of the Democratic Party – not Joe Biden, not Nancy Pelosi, and, famously, not longtime Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. Besides, even a Green New Deal enacted under a Democratic administration with a Democratic-controlled Congress, wouldn’t resolve decades of inaction about mitigating global warming or addressing issues of climate justice for Black and indigenous people in the US and poor countries that don’t emit carbon at high levels but are disproportionately affected by climate change.
What the controversy over Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” reveals about the “green” economy and the “Green New Deal”
On April 21, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, at the same time as a global pandemic was exposing the human toll of the growth-obsessed capitalist economic model, Michael Moore released “Planet of the Humans,” a documentary revealing the many inconsistencies in the supposed “green” energy movement. In particular, the film revealed the links between many elements of the movement and big capital itself. On 9-7-20, Max Blumenthal published an article on thegrayzone.com showing how, as its title indicates, “‘Green’ billionaires [were] behind [the] professional activist network that led [the temporary] suppression of [the] ‘Planet of the Humans’ documentary.” Below the title, Blumenthal wrote: “The Michael Moore-produced ‘Planet of the Humans’ faced a coordinated suppression campaign led by professional climate activists backed by the same ‘green’ billionaires, Wall Street investors, industry insiders and family foundations skewered in the film.” Below this is a quote from Jeff Gibbs, the director of the documentary, exhorting is to “take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on Planet Earth.”
The rest of this blog post contains my edited version of Blumenthal’s piece, as shortened as I can make it. It may be long, but it’s important reading, because it shows how mainstream thinking on climate change and what we need to do to stop or curtail it defeats the purpose by, as always, putting profits for big corporations and the 1% ahead of what the earth and the 99% need. (For more on this, read anything recent by Richard Heinberg, and by all means watch the film, still available in its entirety on YouTube.)
Blumental asks what “Planet of the Humans” “to inflame so much opposition from the faces and voices of professional climate justice activism? First, it probed the well-established shortcomings of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power marketed as a green panacea.” No truly green technology or combination of technolgies will allow us to continue current species-destroying, resource-depleting, and carbon-intensive Western lifestyle, especially as practiced in the United States, and “Planet,” indicates this. Its also portrays current solar and wind technologies “as anything but green, surveying the environmental damage already caused by solar and wind farms, which require heavy mining and smelting to produce, destroy swaths of pristine land, and sometimes need natural gas to operate. While major environmental outfits have lobbied for a Green New Deal to fuel a renewables-based industrial revolution, and are now banking on a Democratic presidency to enact their proposals, ‘Planet of the Humans’ put forward a radical critique that called their entire agenda into question. As the director of the documentary, Jeff Gibbs, explained, ‘When we focus only on climate change as the thing destroying the planet, and demand solutions, we get used by forces of capitalism that want to sell us the disastrous illusion that we can mine and smelt and industrialize our way out of this extinction event.’
‘Planet of the Humans’ crossed another bright green line by taking aim at the self-proclaimed climate justice activists themselves, painting them as opportunists willingly co-opted by predatory capitalists. The filmmakers highlighted the role of family foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in cultivating a class of professional activists that tend toward greenwashing partnerships with Wall Street and the Democratic Party. Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and guru of climate justice activism, is seen throughout the film consorting with Wall Street executives and pushing fossil fuel divestment campaigns that enable powerful institutions to reshuffle their assets into plastics and mining while burnishing their image.” Big capital, “green tech billionaires, and Wall Street investors are determined to get their hands on the whopping $50 trillion profit opportunity that a full transition to renewable technology represents,” and the documentary urges us not to take the “gestures of environmental concern of oligarchs like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Michael Bloomberg, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Tesla founder Elon Musk been at face value.
For years, leftist criticism of professional climate activism has been largely relegated to blogs like Wrong Kind of Green, which maintains an invaluable archive of critical work on the co-optation of major environmental organizations by the billionaire class. Prominent greens might have been able to dismiss scrutiny from such radical corners of the internet as background noise, but once Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore put his name on ‘Planet of the Humans’ as executive producer, alongside those of his longtime producer Jeff Gibbs and the scholar-researcher Ozzie Zehner,” they had to try to squelch it. Even though they failed to get the film off YouTube permanently, they’ve succeeded in overshadowing its message about “the corruption of environmental politics by the 1% with a debate about its credibility, especially the part, as Zehner told me, about the dangers of a consumption-based economic model.
The ringleader of the push to suppress ‘Planet of the Humans’ was Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director of the film ‘Gasland,’ which highlighted the destructive practices inherent in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fox launched the campaign with a sign-on letter calling for the documentary to be retracted by its producers. Then, in an incendiary takedown published in The Nation magazine, accused Michael Moore of being a racist and ‘eco-fascist.’ The relentless push by Fox and others eventually triggered a striking statement by PEN America, the free speech advocacy group: ‘Calls to pull a film because of disagreement with its content are calls for censorship, plain and simple.’
As the attacks on ‘Planet of the Humans’ snowballed, director Jeff Gibbs tried to defend his film. A few left-wing journalists also pushed back on the attacks, but in almost every case, they were spiked by editors at ostensibly progressive journals. Christopher Ketcham, author of This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West, was among those unable to find a venue in which to defend the documentary. ‘I’ve come across few editors radical enough to have the exceedingly difficult conversation about the downscaling, simplification, and the turn in the developed world toward diminished affluence that a 100% renewable energy system will necessarily entail,’ Ketcham told me. ‘They want to believe that they can keep their carbon-subsidized entitlements, their toys, and their leisure travel – no behavioral change or limits needed, and it will all be green and “sustainable.”’
Naomi Klein, perhaps the most prominent left-wing writer on climate-related issues in the West, not only didn’t weigh in to defend ‘Planet of the Humans,’ she was an early participant in the campaign to suppress it, calling it ‘demoralizing’ on Twitter, and promoting a ‘fact check’ of it by Ketan Joshi, a former communications officer for the Australian wind farm company Infigen Energy. Like most of the film, Joshi painted the documentary as ‘a dumb old bull in the china shop that is 2020’s hard-earned climate action environment.’ Along with other critics, he accused the film’s co-producers, Gibbs and Zehner, of wildly misrepresenting the efficiency of renewables. To illustrate his point, he referenced a scene depicting the Cedar Street Solar Array in Lansing, Michigan with flexible solar panels running at 8% efficiency, purportedly enough to generate electricity for just 10 homes. Because that scene was part of a historical sequence filmed in 2008, Joshi dismissed it as an example of the film’s “extreme oldness.”’ However, this February, the solar trade publication PV Magazine found that Tesla’s newest line of flexible solar shingles had an efficiency rate of 8.1% – almost exactly the same as those depicted in ‘Planet of the Humans.’” The more expensive mono-crystalline solar panels have an efficiency rate of 15% to 18% in commercially available form, but they still have the problem of imtermittency common to all forms of solar energy.
Was the presentation of renewable energy sources in ‘Planet of the Humans’ false? Ecological economist William Rees has claimed that ‘despite rapid growth in wind and solar generation, the green energy transition isn’t really happening, perhaps because it’s chasing energy growth rather than curtailing it. The surge in global demand for electricity last year exceeded the total output of the world’s entire 30-year accumulation of solar power installations.’ A September 2018 scientific study also found that solar power installations are dependent on mined minerals. [See a link to the study online.]
The negative impact of massive wind farms on the environment and marginalized communities, an issue highlighted in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ is also a serious concern, especially in the global South. Anthropologist and Renewing Destruction: Wind Energy Development, Conflict and Resistance in a Latin American Context author Alexander Dunlap published a peer-reviewed 2017 study of wind farms in the indigenous Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, Mexico, marketed as one of the most ideal wind generation sites in the world. Dunlap found that the supposedly renewable projects ‘largely reinforced income inequality, furthered poverty entrenchment, and increased food vulnerability and worker dependency on the construction of more wind parks, which cumulatively has led to an increase in work-related out-migration and environmental degradation.’
When wind turbines reach the end of their life cycle, their fiberglass blades, which can be as long as a football field, are also impossible to recycle. As a result, they’re piling up in rural dump sites across the US. Meanwhile, the environmentalist magazine Grist warned this August of a ‘solar e-waste glut’ that will produce ‘megatons of toxic trash’ when solar panels lose efficiency and die.
Already devastated by coups and neocolonial exploitation, swathes of the global South from Bolivia to Congo – home to massive reserves of cobalt hand-mined in ‘slave conditions’ for electric car batteries and iPhones – are being further destabilized by the minerals rush. Evo Morales, the indigenous former president of Bolivia, was driven from power in 2019 by a military junta backed by the United States and local oligarchs, in what amounted to a lithium coup. Bolivia is estimated to hold as much as half of the world’s lithium reserves, and when Morales’ government passed a law that only state-owned firms could mine it, multi-national corporations supported his right-wing domestic opponents in order to get their hands on the mineral, an essential element in electric batteries. This July, Tesla CEO and electric battery kingpin Elon Musk appeared to take partial credit for the 2019 military coup that forced Bolivia’s Evo Morales from power, asserting that big tech billionaires like him could ‘coup whoever we want.’ Electric batteries are also heavily reliant on cobalt, most of which is mined in the Congo, often by child labor in illegal and dangerous conditions. In December 2019, over a dozen Congolese plaintiffs sued Apple, Google’s Alphabet parent company, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, accusing them of ‘knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt.’
In his piece hammering ‘Planet of the Humans’ in The Nation, Fox touted “the proliferation of 100% renewable energy plans put forward by Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson” as one of the most important pieces of evidence refuting the film’s grim narrative. Jacobson’s study, according to National Geographic, was ‘a foundation stone’ of the Green New Deal proposal put forward by Democratic Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was also central to the energy plan advanced by the presidential campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders, who co-authored an op-ed with Jacobson that calling for a full transition to ‘clean’ energy by 2050. Jacobson helped Fox found the environmental advocacy organization the Solutions Project, alongside actor Mark Ruffalo and the banker and former Tesla executive Marco Krapels in 2011. Besides his working relationship with Jacobson, Fox failed to acknowledge that the professor’s all-renewables projection was strongly challenged by 21 leading energy scientists in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. The scientists concluded Jacobson’s paper was rife with ‘invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.’ A survey of the debate by Scientific American scoffed at Jacobson’s assumption ‘that U.S. hydroelectric dams could add turbines and transformers to produce 1,300 gigawatts of electricity instantaneously…or the equivalent of about 1000 large nuclear or coal power plants running at full power.’
The tactic of fossil fuel divestment is at the heart of the so-called climate justice movement’s plan to defeat the fossil fuel industry. Launched by Bill McKibben’s 350.org and a coalition of professional activists soon after the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012, the campaign has resulted in institutions like Oxford University and Goldman Sachs supposedly divesting their holdings in oil and gas companies. Campaigners like McKibben encouraged their constituents to invest in funds whose portfolios were supposedly free of fossil fuel companies. ‘Planet of the Humans,’ however, demonstrated that investment funds endorsed by 350.org have engaged in a shell game in which fossil fuel assets are replaced with investments in plastics, mining, oil and gas infrastructure companies, and biomass. In one of the most controversial scenes in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ Bill McKibben was seen inaugurating a wood-burning biomass energy plant at Middlebury College in 2009. McKibben and his allies have attacked the scene as an unfair representation of his current position, yet less than a week after The Nation published Josh Fox’s attack on Michael Moore and ‘Planet of the Humans,’ Nation editor-in-chief D.D. Guttenplan hosted an event with McKibben that was sponsored by Domini Impact Investments, a fund with major investments in several wood-to-energy biomass companies. One Domini holding is a wood-to-energy company called Ameresco, which builds ‘large, utility-scale biomass-to-energy plants,’ according to its website. Domini Impact also has supposedly sustainable timber holdings, including Klabin SA, a company with logging operations spanning 590,580 acres in Brazil. Klabin SA manufactures pulp and paper products and operates a 270-megawatt on-site black liquor biomass plant. This May, just days after Domini sponsored McKibben’s talk, the company purchased a second biomass plant. (Fabio Schvartzman, the former CEO of Klabin SA, was charged with 270 counts of homicide in Brazil this January, after allegedly concealing knowledge of an imminent dam burst to protect the share price of his current company, Vale. The 2019 Mariana dam collapse has been described as Brazil’s worst environmental disaster.) While introducing the Domini-sponsored event with McKibben, The Nation’s Guttenplan stated, ‘By investing in the Domini Funds, you can help build a better future for the planet and its people, and be part of a movement working to address a wide range of social and environmental issues including human rights, climate change mitigation and forest stewardship.’ Neither McKibben nor Guttenplan responded to email requests for comment from The Grayzone.
Domini Funds is hardly the only investment fund that McKibben has partnered with to promote fossil fuel divestment and which has engaged in the shell game exposed in ‘Planet of the Humans.’ In what was perhaps the film’s most devastating scene, narrator Jeff Gibbs detailed how McKibben has advised 350.org members to direct their money into the Green Century Fund, an investment portfolio that boasts of being ‘wholly owned by environmental and public health nonprofit organizations,’ and free of fossil fuel stock. As ‘Planet of the Humans’ revealed, however, the Green Century Funds’ portfolio has contained heavy investments in mining companies; oil and gas infrastructure companies, including an exploiter of tar sands, the biofuel giant Archer Daniels Midland; McDonald’s; Coca Cola (the world’s leading plastic pollution proliferator); logging giants; and big banks from Bank of America to HSBC. Asked about this section of the film, Josh Fox dismissed it as out of date. He claimed that ‘the entire idea of what constitutes a divested fund has changed radically over the last eight years, starting at first from just oil, coal and gas investments, to then encompassing things like plastics and the meat industry.’ However, a probe of the 2019 Securities and Exchange Commission filings by Green Century Funds showed the fund held thousands of shares in meat giant McDonald’s and Royal Caribbean Cruises, among other mega-polluters. The latter company’s Harmony of the Seas ship is the most environmentally toxic cruise liner on earth, relying on three massive diesel engines burning 66,000 gallons of fuel a day. By the end of one voyage across the Atlantic, the ship has expended the same amount of gasoline as over 5 million automobiles traveling the same distance. Green Century’s SEC filing boasted that it elicited a pledge from Royal Caribbean ‘to make its food waste management and reduction strategies more public.’ It also claimed to have ‘helped convince McDonald’s, the largest purchaser of beef in the world, to restrict the use of antibiotics in its beef and chicken supply chains.’ These are classic cases of greenwashing, in which corporate behemoths burnish their reputation among progressives by embracing cosmetic reforms that do little to challenge their bottom lines.
The climate ‘warriors’ criticized in the film are sponsored by many of the ‘green’ billionaires seeking to cash in on the renewables rush, as well as by the network of family foundations that help set the agenda for groups like 350.org. In perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ McKibben was shown visibly squirming as an interviewer asked him about Rockefeller Family Foundation support for his 350.org. ‘We’re not exactly Big Greens,’ McKibben insisted during a 2011 interview with climate journalist Karyn Strickler. ‘I’m a volunteer, and we’ve got seven people who work full time on this 350.org campaign.’ When Strickler asked McKibben how his group sustained itself, he said, ‘To the degree that we have any money at all it’s come from a few foundations in Europe and the US. A foundation based in Sweden, I think it’s called the Rasmussen Foundation, has been the biggest funder.’ After some prodding by Strickler, a visibly uncomfortable McKibben admitted that ‘the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave us some money right when we were starting out. That’s been useful too.’ In fact, the Rockefeller Brothers were instrumental in establishing 350.org and guiding the organization’s agenda. It began when the foundation incubated a group called 1Sky with a $1 million grant, and McKibben immediately joined as board member. As documented by radical environmentalist Cory Morningstar, 1Sky’s launch was announced at a 2007 gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative by former President Bill Clinton, who stood on stage beside Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Stephen Heintz. Four years later, the Rockefeller Brothers announced “the exciting marriage of 1Sky and 350.org – two grantees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Sustainable Development program.’ Why McKibben was so uncomfortable about discussing his relationship with Rockefeller was unclear. Perhaps he was concerned that the organization he once described as a ‘scruffy little outfit’ would be seen as a central node in the donor-driven non-profit industrial complex. Whatever his motives were, since the testy exchange with Strickler, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has contributed over $1 million to McKibben’s 350.org.
Alongside a network of foundations and ‘green’ billionaires, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and its $1.2 billion endowment serves as a primary engine of the network of self-styled ‘climate justice’ activists that sought to steamroll ‘Planet of the Humans.’ These interests have cohered around the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), located in the New York City offices of the Rockefeller Family Fund. The EGA enables elite foundations and billionaire donors to cultivate a cadre of professional ‘doers’ during retreats in scenic locations like Napa Valley, California, and the Mohonk Mountain House resort in New York’s Hudson Valley.
In accordance with its relationship with the EGA’s network of environmental cadres and outfits like 350.org, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund embraced their fossil fuel divestment campaign, shedding its stocks in oil and coal while increasing assets in other industries that can hardly be described as green. A look at the most recent publicly available financial filing of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, from 2018 [PDF link online], offered a clear glimpse at the shell game that divestment has entailed. According to the filing, while the Rockefeller Brothers foundation freed itself of fossil fuels, it remained invested in companies like the oil services giant Halliburton, the Koch-run multinational petroleum transportation partnership Inter Pipeline Ltd, and Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are familiar at scenes of deforestation and Palestinian home demolitions. The foundation also padded its portfolio with stock in financial industry titans like Citigroup and Wells Fargo, as well as Newcrest Mining, Barrick Gold, Wheaton Precious Metals Corporation, and Agnico Eagle Mines.
Since the Rockefeller Brothers Fund answered 350.org’s call to divest from fossil fuels in 2014, the foundation’s wealth has increased substantially. As the Washington Post reported, ‘the Rockefeller Brothers fund’s assets grew at an annual average rate of 7.76% over the five-year period that ended December 31, 2019.’ The outcome of the Rockefellers’ widely praised move established a clear precedent for other elite institutions: by allowing organizations like 350.org to lead them by the hand, they could greenwash their image, offload stocks in a fossil fuel industry described by financial analysts as a ‘chronic underperformer,’ and protect their investments in growth industries like mining, oil services, and biomass. McKibben, for his part, has marketed fossil fuel divestment as a win-win strategy for the capitalist class: ‘The institutions that divested from fossil fuel really did well financially, because the fossil fuel industry has been the worst performing part of our economy. Even if you didn’t care about destroying the planet, you’d want to get out of it because it just loses money.’
In another move apparently intended to burnish its green image while padding its assets, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund invested over $100 million in Generation Investment Management’s Generation Climate Solutions Fund II and Generation IM Global Equity Fund. These entities are jointly managed by Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president who negotiated a notorious carbon offsets loophole at the 1997 Kyoto Climate Protocol that’s been blamed for the release of 600 million tons of excess emissions. Gore launched the fund alongside David Blood, the ex-CEO of asset management for Goldman Sachs, in order to promote climate-friendly capitalism. In a 2015 profile of Blood and Gore’s Generation Investment Management fund, The Atlantic’s James Fallows described their investment strategy as ‘a demonstration of a new version of capitalism, one that will shift the incentives of financial and business operations’ toward a profitable ‘green’ economy. Blood himself admitted, ‘We’re making the case for long-term greed.’
The banker Blood and the green guru McKibben shared a stage together at the 2013 conference of Ceres, a non-profit that works to consolidate the mutually beneficial relationship between Big Green and Wall Street. The event featured a cast of corporate executives from companies like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and GM. Sponsors included Bank of America, PG&E, Bloomberg, Citi, Ford, GM, Prudential, Wells Fargo, TimeWarner, and a collection of Fortune 500 companies. During their conversation, the investor Blood pledged to mobilize ‘something in the order of $40 to $50 trillion of capital’ in renewables, underscoring the massive profit center that a transition to ‘green’ energy represents.
As noted above, Naomi Klein, a longtime critic of elite family foundations and the billionaire class, was among the most prominent figures to join the campaign to censor ‘Planet of the Humans.’ Her opposition to the film was surprising given the views she’s expressed in the past on mainstream environmental politics. In 2013, for example, she bemoaned the ‘deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups [on how to fight climate change]. To be very honest with you,’ she continued, ‘I think it’s been more damaging than right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost.’ Klein was appointed to 350.org’s board of directors in 2011, and published This Changes Everything, her book on climate change in 2015. The book was initially launched as a project called ‘The Message,’ supported with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the same who’s who of major family foundations that help sustain McKibben’s political apparatus. In one of several grants to the book and film project, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund contributed $50,000 to ‘The Message’ via a non-profit pass-through called the Sustainable Markets Foundation. Susan Rockefeller served as a co-executive producer of the documentary version of This Changes Everything. Her husband, David Rockefeller Jr., is the son of tycoon David Rockefeller, a U.S. government-linked cold warrior who co-founded the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and helped back the U.S.-managed coup that put Pinochet and the Chicago Boys in power in Chile, something Klein railed against in her 2008 book The Shock Doctrine. In 2014, the Ford Foundation chipped in with $250,000 for Klein’s project.
In April 2019, Klein released “A Message From The Future,” a video collaboration with Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and artist and pundit Molly Crabapple, which promoted the Green New Deal as a pathway to a renewable-powered economic utopia. Crabapple is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Democratic Party-linked think tank substantially funded by Google’s Schmidt, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. State Department. In a recent Intercept column, Klein took aim at Schmidt, describing him as one of the billionaires exploiting ‘a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine’ to begin ‘building a high tech dystopia.’ She noted that Schmidt is closely aligned with the national security state as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which consults for the Pentagon on the military’s application of artificial intelligence. Schmidt also happens to be a proponent of a ‘smart’ energy grid, which he says will ‘modernize the electric grid to make it look more like the Internet.’ Such a model would not only benefit tech companies like Google which make their money buying and selling data, but the U.S. national security state, whose partnerships with big tech companies increase the capacity of its surveillance apparatus. The Senate version of the Green New Deal calls for the construction of ‘smart’ power grids almost exactly like those Schmidt imagined. Klein and other high-profile Green New Deal proponents have neglected to mention that this seeming benign component of the well-intentioned plan could represent a giant step on the way to the ‘high tech dystopia’ of Silicon Valley barons and their national security state partners.
In May 2018, Klein became the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. The position was created ‘following a three-year, $3 million campaign including a dozen foundations,’ including the Ford Foundation. Contributions also poured in for the endowment from tycoons like Sheryl Sandberg, the billionaire chief operating officer of Facebook and advocate of corporate ‘Lean In’ feminism; and Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who was sentenced this March to 23 years in prison for first degree criminal sexual assault. According to Rutgers, Weinstein provided ‘a gift of $100,000 in honor of his late mother, who shared Gloria Steinem’s hopes for female equality.’
I had hoped to have a conversation with Klein, a former colleague at the Nation Institute, about her opposition to a documentary that advanced many of the same arguments that appeared in her past writings. Was the exclusive focus on carbon emissions by professional climate warriors not a blinkered approach that ignored the environmental damage inherent in producing still-unproven renewable technology? Did ‘cleantech’ tycoons not have a vested interest in advancing a global transition to the renewable products their companies manufactured? When she had clearly articulated the problems with billionaire-backed Big Green advocacy, why had Klein cast her lot with a political network that seemed to epitomize it? My emails were met with an auto-reply informing me Klein was ‘off grid,’ and referring me to her personal assistant. According to Fox, high-profile climate warriors like McKibben and Klein had no interest in speaking to me about their opposition to the film because ‘it’s like four months ago, man, everybody’s moved on.’
By August, members of the professional climate advocacy network that saw its interests threatened by ‘Planet of the Humans’ were preparing for a much more elaborate on-screen production that promised new opportunities. In the weeks ahead of the Democratic National Convention, climate justice organizations like the Sunrise Movement 501 c-4 which emerged in the shadow of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run and condemned former Vice President Joseph Biden as a tool of the establishment suddenly changed their tune. Flush with dark money from Democratic Party-aligned billionaires, Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash stated on July 14th, the day Biden released his clean energy plan: ‘It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of Vice President’s Biden’s plans and commitments in the past. Today, he’s responded to many of those criticisms: dramatically increasing the scale and urgency of investments. Our movement, alongside environmental justice communities and frontline workers, has taught Joe Biden to talk the talk.’ While it brands itself as a grassroots movement that’s organized anti-establishment stunts putting centrist figures like Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on the spot, the Sunrise Movement was incubated with a grant from the Sierra Club, the Mike Bloomberg-backed juggernaut of Big Green organizing, and today, offices of the two organizations are located a floor apart in the same building in downtown Washington DC.
Ahead of the DNC, the Biden campaign introduced a $2 trillion plan pledge to invest heavily in renewable technology to achieve ‘a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.’ The plan promised to erect 500 million solar panels in the next five years alongside 60,000 new wind turbines. With the demand for solar plummeting due to the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of gigantic government subsidies was music to the ears of the ‘cleantech’ tycoons who sponsor Democratic Party-aligned climate advocacy organizations. Many of these green millionaires and billionaires had feasted at the trough of Obama’s stimulus package, which was directly responsible for powering the rise of America’s solar industry. After promising upon his inauguration to invest $150 billion in ‘a new green energy business sector,’ Obama doled out an eye-popping $4.9 billion in subsidies to Tesla’s Elon Musk and a $1.2 billion loan guarantee for Tom Dinwoodie’s SunPower US to construct the California Valley Solar Ranch. In June 2019, an ‘avian incident’ caused a fire at the SunPower Solar Ranch project, impacting over 1200 acres and knocking out 84% of generating capacity for several weeks.
‘Planet of the Humans’ presented viewers with the disturbing story of the Ivanpah solar plant, a signature initiative in Obama’s green energy plan co-owned by Google. Gifted with $1.6 billion in loan guarantees and $600 million in federal tax credits, Ivanpah was built on 5.6 square miles of pristine public land close to California’s Mojave National Preserve. In its first year, the massive plant produced less than half its of its planned energy goal while burning over 6,000 birds to death. Because of the intermittency inherent to solar power, the gargantuan energy project has had to burn massive amounts of natural gas to keep the system primed when the sun’s not shining. Despite its dependence on fossil fuel, Ivanpah still qualifies under state rules as a renewable plant. ‘The bottom line is the public didn’t expect this project to consume this much natural gas,’ David Lamfrom, California desert manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the local Press-Enterprise. ‘We didn’t have full knowledge that this was what we were signing up for.’
Even after the Obama administration poured billions of dollars into solar projects, solar energy output increased between 2008 and 2016 by just .88% as a total of American energy production. Meanwhile, across the country, many new wind projects remain stalled due to community concerns about land destruction. In the home state of Green New Deal advocate Senator Bernie Sanders, the only remaining wind project was canceled this January. For raising questions about the efficacy and environmental cost of renewable projects like these, and proposing an explicitly anti-capitalist solution to the corporate destruction of the planet, the makers of ‘Planet of the Humans’ were steamrolled by a network of professional climate activists, billionaire investors and industry insiders. Now, with the Biden campaign promising a new flood of renewable subsidies and tax breaks under the auspices of a ‘clean’ energy plan, the public remains in the dark about what it’s signing up for. Even if the ambitious agenda fails to deliver any substantial environmental good, it promises a growing class of green investors another opportunity to do well.
In 2019 Matthew Desmond wrote an article for the New York Times “1619 Project” that attributed the brutality of American capitalism to cotton-plantation slavery. There are many types of capitalist societies around the world, Desmond said, “ranging from liberating to exploitative, protective to abusive, democratic to unregulated.” America’s is what University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Joel Rogers calls “low-road. In a capitalist society that goes low, wages are depressed as businesses compete over the price, not the quality, of goods; so-called unskilled workers are typically incentivized through punishments, not promotions; inequality reigns; and poverty spreads.” The US ranks at the bottom in terms of trade union membership, regulation of temporary work arrangements, and ease of firing workers, often without severance pay. Desmond: “Those searching for reasons the American economy is uniquely severe and unbridled have found answers in many places (religion, politics, and culture). But recently, historians have pointed persuasively to slave-labor Southern cotton plantations as the birthplace of America’s low-road capitalism.
Slavery was a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not other parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s willingness to use violence to extract land from Native Americans and labor from African-American slaves. Slavery helped turn a poor, fledgling nation into a financial colossus and created specific economic methods still used today.
Before the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, enslaved workers grew more cotton than they could clean. The gin broke the bottleneck, making it possible to clean as much cotton as you could grow. The other problem with cotton, its quick depletion of soil, was solved by expropriating millions of acres from Native Americans, often with military force, acquiring Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida, then selling the land cheaply to white settlers. As slave labor camps [otherwise known as “plantations”] spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the US was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who built textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an ‘unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.’ Cotton planters, millers, and consumers fashioned a new global economy whose beating heart was slavery.
Everything you do at work these days is tracked, recorded, and analyzed. This quantification feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques were first developed by and for large Southern plantations during slavery. Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker, using both precise systems of record-keeping and the threat of vicious punishment for slacking. Overseers recorded each enslaved worker’s yield, not only after nightfall, when cotton baskets were weighed, but throughout the workday. Northern factories wouldn’t begin adopting these techniques until decades after the Civil War. During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3% a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked 400% as much cotton as his or her counterpart did in 1801. The technology that accompanies modern workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic, but it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought utmost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force. In most cases punishments were authorized by the higher-ups – it was the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was rational, capitalistic, part of the plantation’s design. Punishments were the worst when the price of cotton was high.
The cotton trade and the earlier trade in slave-produced sugar from the Caribbean accelerated worldwide commercial markets in the 19th century, creating demand for innovative contracts (including ‘futures’), novel financial products, and modern forms of insurance and credit. Enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America. In colonial times, when land wasn’t worth much and banks didn’t exist, most lending was based on human property. Enslavers weren’t the first to securitize assets and debts in America; the land companies that thrived during the late 1700s relied on this technique, too. But enslavers made use of securities to such an enormous degree for their time, that they created a globalized financial market. As America’s cotton sector expanded, the value of enslaved workers soared. Between 1804 and 1860, the average price of men ages 21 to 38 sold in New Orleans grew to from $450 to $1,200. Because they couldn’t expand their cotton empires without more enslaved workers, ambitious planters needed to find a way to raise enough capital to purchase more hands. Enter the banks. The Second Bank of the United States, chartered in 1816, invested heavily in cotton. In the early 1830s, the slaveholding Southwestern states represented almost half the bank’s business.
When seeking loans, planters used enslaved people as collateral. Thomas Jefferson mortgaged 150 of his enslaved workers to build Monticello. People could be sold much more easily than land, and in multiple Southern states, more than eight in 10 mortgage-secured loans used enslaved people as full or partial collateral. As the historian Bonnie Martin has written, ‘slave owners worked their slaves financially, as well as physically from colonial days until emancipation’ by mortgaging people to buy more people. Global financial markets got in on the action. When Thomas Jefferson mortgaged his enslaved workers, it was a Dutch firm that put up the money. The Louisiana Purchase, which opened millions of acres to cotton production, was financed by Baring Brothers, the well-heeled British commercial bank. A majority of credit powering the American slave economy came from the London money market. Years after abolishing the African slave trade in 1807, Britain, and much of Europe along with it, was bankrolling slavery in the United States. To raise capital, state-chartered banks pooled debt generated by slave mortgages and repackaged it as bonds promising investors annual interest. During slavery’s boom time, banks did swift business in bonds, finding buyers in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Some historians have claimed that the British abolition of the slave trade was a turning point in modernity, marked by the development of a new kind of moral consciousness when people began considering the suffering of others thousands of miles away. But perhaps all that changed was a growing need to scrub the blood of enslaved workers off American dollars, British pounds, and French francs, a need that Western financial markets quickly found a way to satisfy through the global trade in bank bonds. Here was a means to profit from slavery without getting your hands dirty. In fact, many investors may not have realized that their money was being used to buy and exploit people, just as many of us who are vested in multinational textile companies today are unaware that our money subsidizes a business that continues to rely on forced labor in countries like Uzbekistan and China and child workers in countries like India and Brazil. Call it irony, coincidence or maybe cause – historians haven’t settled the matter – but avenues to profit indirectly from slavery grew in popularity as the institution of slavery itself grew more unpopular.
Banks issued tens of millions of dollars in loans on the assumption that rising cotton prices would go on forever. Speculation reached a fever pitch in the 1830s, as businessmen, planters and lawyers convinced themselves that they could amass real treasure by joining in a risky game that everyone seemed to be playing. If planters thought themselves invincible, able to bend the laws of finance to their will, it was most likely because they’d been granted the authority to bend the laws of nature to their will, to do with the land and the people who worked it as they pleased. Du Bois wrote: “The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, kinglets.” What are the laws of economics to those exercising godlike power over an entire people?
In 1799 the state of New York passed the first of a series of laws that would gradually abolish slavery over the coming decades, but the investors and financiers of the state’s primary metropolis, New York City, invested heavily in the growth of Southern plantations, catching the wave of the first cotton boom. Southern planters who wanted to buy more land and black people borrowed funds from New York bankers and protected the value of bought bodies with policies from New York insurance companies. New York factories produced the agricultural tools forced into Southern slaves’ hands and the rough fabric called “Negro cloth” worn on their backs. Ships originating in New York docked in the port of New Orleans to service the trade in domestic and (by then, illegal) international slaves. As the historian David Quigley has demonstrated, New York City’s phenomenal economic consolidation came as a result of its dominance in the Southern cotton trade, facilitated by the construction of the Erie Canal. It was in this moment – the early decades of the 1800s – that New York City gained its status as a financial behemoth through shipping raw cotton to Europe and bankrolling the boom industry that slavery made. (In 1711, New York City officials decreed that ‘all Negro and Indian slaves that are let out to hire be hired at the Market house at the Wall Street Slip.’ It’s uncanny, but perhaps predictable, that the original wall for which Wall Street is named was built by the enslaved at a site that served as the city’s first organized slave auction. The capital profits and financial wagers of Manhattan, the United States and the world still flow through this place where black and red people were traded and where the wealth of a region was built on slavery.)
Speculation continued to drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it’s been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It’s the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs, and abusing the powerless. It’s the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929, and the recession of 2008 – the culture that’s produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism – a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs, and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but rewarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider – one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.”
People are still arguing over Michael Moore’s most recent film, “Planet of the Humans,” but the arguments are largely over technicalities compared with the fundamental truth, as I see it, that the way privileged Americans and others are living — a way of life that millions of others aspire to — is completely unsustainable and rapidly killing the planet (us) in multiple ways. Nor can or should it be approximated by trying to live the same way “greenly,” as “Planet of the Humans” tried to point out. The only way we can live cleanly and sustainably is to drastically simplify, giving up many of the things we’ve gotten used to, and getting rid of the competitive, war-mongering capitalist system that discourages us from doing that. This is what the corona virus pandemic, the western wildfires, and so many other things are trying to tell us. We fiddle while Rome burns…Step back, get a wider perspective, and you’ll see that we’re killing ourselves and many other beings with our addictions.
You may think you understand history, politics, and economics, but a lot depends on who you’re reading or listening to. I just finished reading David McNally’s 2020 book “Blood and Money,” and I heartily recommend it for a thorough shakeup of your previous concepts. Turns out money really is the root of all evil! (No, it’s treating others like “others,” ’cause then you need to do rude things like insist that the items you’re exchanging be absolutely equal in value — as measured in monetary units. You might even want to steal their land, their stuff, or their bodies (enslave them). Did you know that slaves were the first major “goods” traded, back in the 700s BC?) If you don’t want to buy the book and wade through it yourself (McNally takes us from those early days to the present, with war and cruelty connected to economics all the way), I’m about to post my notes on it on this site under Resources/Books (top menu).