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American Zeitgeist

Mobile, Alabama, August 21st (photo credit: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Mobile, Alabama, August 21st (photo credit: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

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The above photo, of Donald Trump’s rally in Mobile on Friday, is making the rounds on social media. It’s a breathtaking image. Laleh Khalili of the University of London-SOAS, sharing the photo on Facebook, thus commented: “I pray to god that this picture is real, not pieced together, as it needs to hang in a gallery for conveying an utterly horrifying mood, a moment of terror, in these super-saturated colours and its manic absurdity.” Laurie King of Georgetown U. added: “If Norman Rockwell came back from the dead, smoked some crack, and had some Southern Comfort on the rocks with Coca Cola, this is what he’d paint.”

As we know, Trump has no chance whatever of being the GOP nominee, let alone POTUS. Of course not. No way. But then, crazier things have happened in the history of the world… Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who incarnates a serious, level-headed, centrist/center-right leaning sensibility that has all but disappeared from the Republican party (it’s striking he’s still at AEI), has a piece in The Atlantic (August 21st) in which he wonders if “Maybe this time is really different.” The lede: “Historical precedents augur against Donald Trump—but perhaps the old rules no longer apply.” Ornstein knows American politics—and particularly the US Congress—better than just about anyone, so his analyses are to be taken seriously. Money quote

…I am more skeptical of the usual historical skepticism [in regard to the staying power of insurgent populist candidacies like Trump’s] than I have been in a long time. A part of my skepticism flows from my decades inside the belly of the congressional beast. I have seen the Republican Party go from being a center-right party, with a solid minority of true centrists, to a right-right party, with a dwindling share of center-rightists, to a right-radical party, with no centrists in the House and a handful in the Senate. There is a party center that two decades ago would have been considered the bedrock right, and a new right that is off the old charts. And I have seen a GOP Congress in which the establishment, itself very conservative, has lost the battle to co-opt the Tea Party radicals, and itself has been largely co-opted or, at minimum, cowed by them.

As the congressional party has transformed, so has the activist component of the party outside Washington. In state legislatures, state party apparatuses, and state party platforms, there are regular statements or positions that make the most extreme lawmakers in Washington seem mild.

Egged on by talk radio, cable news, right-wing blogs, and social media, the activist voters who make up the primary and caucus electorates have become angrier and angrier, not just at the Kenyan Socialist president but also at their own leaders. Promised that Obamacare would be repealed, the government would be radically reduced, immigration would be halted, and illegals punished, they see themselves as euchred and scorned by politicians of all stripes, especially on their own side of the aisle.

Of course, this phenomenon is not new in 2015. It was there in 1964, building over decades in which insurgent conservative forces led by Robert Taft were repeatedly thwarted by moderates like Tom Dewey and Wendell Wilkie, until they prevailed behind the banner of Barry Goldwater. It was present in 1976, when insurgent conservative Ronald Reagan almost knocked off Gerald Ford before prevailing in 1980 (and then governing more as a pragmatist than an ideologue). It built to 1994, when Newt Gingrich led a huge class of insurgents to victory in mid-term elections, but then they had to accept pragmatist-establishment leader Bob Dole as their presidential candidate in 1996. And while John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 were establishment figures, each had to veer sharply to the radical right side to win nominations; McCain, facing a possible revolt at his nominating convention if he went with his first choice for running mate, Joe Lieberman, instead bowed to the new right and picked Sarah Palin.

So is anything really different this time? I think so. (…)

To read Ornstein’s analysis—in which he does not exclude the possibility that Trump could make it to the GOP convention in Cleveland next July and with a sizable contingent of delegates—go here.

This is neither here nor there but Maureen Dowd, whose perspectives I give rather less weight to than Norm Ornstein’s, has a column in today’s NYT on (surprise!) Trump, in which (surprise!) she takes note of his full head of presumably natural blond hair. This immediately brought to mind this well-known blond French politico—whom Trump resembles in a number of respects, politically and personally—who, like Trump, remained a (presumably) natural blond into his 70s. Just saying.

Some GOP politicians and right-wing commentators have tried to establish a symmetry between Trump and Bernie Sanders, with the latter being the Democratic party mirror image of the former, if not even more of a political outlier on account of his self-proclaimed “socialism.” I’m sorry but that won’t fly. Bernie’s attachment to the socialist label is folklore, signifying nothing in concrete reality. Bernie’s “socialism” is Western European/Canadian-style social democracy; in America he’s on the left-wing of the Democratic party (though with some exceptions, notably on gun control; and, pour mémoire, he has always run for office as an independent and not a Democrat, which is one reason, among others, as to why he has zero chance of being the Democratic party’s presidential nominee). In his rhetoric, Bernie has been eminently sensible. And his announcement last week that he will introduce legislation to abolish privately owned prisons is the smartest, most sensible policy proposal I’ve heard during this campaign season. When it comes to policy and general seriousness, between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders il n’y a pas photo…

UPDATE: Two articles on Trump’s supporters, one in the NYT (August 22nd), “Why Donald Trump won’t fold: Polls and people speak,” another on Reuters’ The Great Debate blog (August 23rd), “Strange bedfellows: Donald Trump and the white working class,” this one by George Mason U. public policy prof Justin Gest. It is striking how the Trump base, as it were, is almost identical to that of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Front National over the years, politically and sociologically.

Politico reporter Ben Schreckinger has a “A tale of two rallies: My summer with Bernie and Trump” (August 23rd). The lede: “One is a political revolution with a mellow vibe. The other feels more like a professional wrestling match.” No need to say which is which. The Bernie and Trump phenomenons, though reflecting a similar frustration of many voters with established politicians, are quite different, as are the two candidates, obviously.

2nd UPDATE: Reinforcing the parallel of Trump, Le Pen, and their respective supporters is Evan Osnos’s lengthy, must-read article in the August 31st issue of The New Yorker, “The fearful and the frustrated.” The lede: “Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape—for now.”

3rd UPDATE: Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia, who specializes in European populist movements, has a post (August 26th) on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog on “The Trump phenomenon and the European populist radical right.” Mudde notes the American specificities of Trump as politician—of some differences between The Donald and European right-wing populist personalities—but observes, as do I, the close similarities of their respective political bases

Contrary to the man (Trump) and the ideology (Trumpism), the supporter of Trump (the Trumpista) is almost identical to the populist radical right voter in (Western) Europe. First studies show that Trump is particularly popular among young, lower educated, white males. This is exactly the same group that constitutes the core of the electorate of populist radical right parties in Western Europe. The gender gap is particularly striking. Just as European populist radical right parties have a much larger gender gap than mainstream right-wing parties, attracting roughly two men for every one woman, Trump has the largest gender gap among the GOP candidates, particularly among likely Republican primary voters.

A clarification on one thing Mudde says

However, [Trump’s] general views on immigration and integration are much more in line with U.S. conservatives than with European far right. For instance, Trump singles out illegal immigration and does not attack the status of the U.S. as a multicultural immigration country. And while he has been speaking about “the Muslim problem” at least since 2011, he is much more nuanced in his views of Islam and Muslims than people like Marine Le Pen and, certainly, Geert Wilders. In fact, his views on Muslims really don’t stand out much from many other prominent Republicans – a majority of the main candidates in the 2012 GOP primary made Islamophobic statements.

Setting the record straight in regard to the French FN, its anti-Islam rhetoric is a recent phenomenon, dating from Marine Le Pen’s assumption of the party leadership in 2011. Jean-Marie Le Pen never targeted Islam or Muslims qua Muslims in his discourse. His fire was aimed at immigration from the former colonies, in particular the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. The Islamophobia in the FN in the 1980s and ’90s came specifically from the Mégret group, which quit the FN in the party’s 1998 split, forming the MNR (now moribund). As it happens, Marine LP’s anti-Islam rhetoric coincides with the reintegration of a certain number of Mégretistes into the FN (and in Marine’s inner circle).

4th UPDATE: Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has a spot on piece (August 28th) on how “The conservative establishment is in deep denial about Donald Trump’s appeal.” In a nutshell, the Trump phenomenon is showing up an important disconnect between the GOP elite and the party’s donor class, on the one hand, and the GOP rank-and-file, on the other. The latter is further to the right than the former on immigration but well to its left on the economy, notably on social insurance programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and even Medicaid. In short, regular Republican voters don’t care about the size of government.

There is a similar disconnect in the Democratic party, BTW, but that’s for another post.

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#BlackLivesMatter

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Van Jones, the founder/president of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream—and President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009—has an important commentary on the CNN website on the Black Lives Matter movement and the “5 lessons” Democrats should draw from the recent disruptions of Bernie Sanders’s rallies. Now I had a negative reaction to the spectacle of the two BLM women disrupting Bernie’s Seattle event last Saturday—I hate hecklers and in almost all circumstances, as I wrote some four years ago—though Van Jones specifies that BLM is a decentralized, unstructured movement and that not all actions of those claiming its name—who may, in fact, have nothing to do with BLM—are to be defended. Regardless of what happened in Seattle, though, there are primordial issues for Black Americans—specific ills that require specific remedies—that are not being adequately addressed by liberal Democrats and their progressive economic agenda—issues that national Democrats would prefer not to dwell on, as these have to do with the police and the functioning of the criminal justice system. But, as Jones writes, “[i]n case anyone missed the memo after Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston, here it is: the Obama era of black silence on issues that matter to us is over.” And the Dems must address these issues head on.

One issue, e.g., is the subject of an article by Mother Jones contributing writer Jack Hitt in the September-October 2015 issue, “Police shootings won’t stop unless we also stop shaking down black people,” on the dependence of many municipalities with poor populations—and thus a low local tax base—on fines in order to finance city government—and particularly police departments—thus turning the police into predatory extortion rackets.

A case in point is Ferguson MO, which criminology professors Richard Wright and Richard Rosenfeld—respectively of Georgia State U. and the U. of Missouri-St. Louis—explain in a piece (August 11th) on “Why Ferguson erupts,” on the website/blog The Conversation: Academic Rigor, Journalistic Flair. Money quote

Today, many of these [poor] municipalities [in St. Louis county] rely heavily on traffic fines and court fees to stay afloat.

This patchwork of speed traps is a bad joke among more affluent inhabitants of St Louis County.

But it is no joke for those who accumulate traffic fines they cannot afford to pay, miss court dates and are jailed on outstanding arrest warrants. As the Washington Post’s Radley Balko has documented, that is an all-too-frequent experience for the county’s disadvantaged black residents, convinced they are harassed by the police and abused by uncaring white prosecutors.

Another issue is the subject of an article by freelance journalist Nick Pinto, “The bail trap,” in the latest NYT Magazine. The lede: “Every year, thousands of innocent people [in their great majority black and brown] are sent to jail only because they can’t afford to post bail, putting them at risk of losing their jobs, custody of their children — even their lives.”

Van Jones, in his article, reminds the Democrats that their presidential candidate will need 90 to 95% of the black vote in order to win next year. But not only will blacks need to vote in this percentage range for the Democrat—which is near certain—but, more importantly, they’ll need to vote in the same proportion as whites, which they did for the first time ever in 2008, and then again in 2012. If black turnout drops next year and relative to that of whites, the Dems will have a tougher road to victory. For this reason alone, it is essential that the Democrats address the issues raised by Black Lives Matter, elaborate concrete policy responses, and pledge to act on them.

BTW, on The Conversation blog is an interesting comment (August 10th) by U. of Washington political science professors Christopher Parker and Megan Ming Francis, “Why the silence of moderate conservatives is dangerous for race relations.”

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Trump’s triumph

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That’s what freelancer Mike Whitney, writing on an ultra-gauchiste website I do not habitually consult, called Donald Trump’s performance in the Fox News GOP presidential debate the other day—a debate that, Whitney opined, “featured the most riveting two-minute political exchange ever heard on national television.” I didn’t see the debate myself but, based on the transcript, Whitney could well be right

FOX News Brett Baier (talking to Trump): Now, 15 years ago, you called yourself a liberal on health care. You were for a single-payer system, a Canadian-style system. Why were you for that then and why aren’t you for it now?

TRUMP: As far as single payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland. It could have worked in a different age, which is the age you’re talking about here.

What I’d like to see is a private system without the artificial lines around every state. I have a big company with thousands and thousands of employees. And if I’m negotiating in New York or in New Jersey or in California, I have like one bidder. Nobody can bid.

You know why?

Because the insurance companies are making a fortune because they have control of the politicians, of course, with the exception of the politicians on this stage. (uneasy laughter) But they have total control of the politicians. They’re making a fortune.

Get rid of the artificial lines and you will have…yourself great plans…

BAIER: Mr. Trump, it’s not just your past support for single-payer health care. You’ve also supported a host of other liberal policies….You’ve also donated to several Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton included, and Nancy Pelosi. You explained away those donations saying you did that to get business-related favors. And you said recently, quote, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

TRUMP: You’d better believe it.

BAIER: — they do?

TRUMP: If I ask them, if I need them, you know, most of the people on this stage I’ve given to, just so you understand, a lot of money.

TRUMP: I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. And that’s a broken system.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did you get from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi?

TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding. You know why?

She didn’t have a choice because I gave. I gave to a foundation that, frankly, that foundation is supposed to do good. I didn’t know her money would be used on private jets going all over the world. It was.

BAIER: Hold on…..We’re going to — we’re going to move on.”

Mike Whitney: “There it is, two glorious minutes of pure, unalloyed truth on national television. How often does that happen?”

Now truth does get told on television but Trump did indeed make two noteworthy truthful statements—on single-payer health insurance and the outsized role of rich donors in politics—that are remarkable for a top-tier GOP presidential candidate.

Matthew Yglesias was particularly impressed by what Trump had to say on health insurance, saying that “Donald Trump had the best policy idea of anyone in [Tuesday] night’s debate.” Yglesias thus began

Donald Trump offered the single best, most original policy idea in the Republican Party debate Thursday night. He also demonstrated by far the greatest understanding of a complicated area of public policy. There, I said it.

If Trump weren’t such a bombastic, megalomaniacal, male chauvinist pig—i.e. if he weren’t Donald Trump—he could be a halfway interesting GOP candidate—and definitely more so than most of the other clowns who were on the stage with him Tuesday night.

But there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that he’ll go the distance, at least not with the Republican party. Nate Silver gives Trump a 2% chance of winning the GOP nomination, which seems generous to me. And with Fox News now out to take Trump down and knock him out of the GOP race, his chances are lessened that much more, as both Silver and Ezra Klein confidently argue.

But Trump continues to influence the GOP debate, e.g. on immigration, as TNR senior editor Jeet Heer observes

Trump’s impact is most clearly seen in Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who during the earlier “undercard” debate among low-polling candidates made this startling pronouncement: “We must insist on assimilation—immigration without assimilation is an invasion…. They need to learn English, adopt our values, roll up their sleeves and get to work. I’m tired of the hyphenated Americans and the division.”

Jindal’s comments are startling because they go against the grain of most of the last century, when ethnic diversity was seen as perfectly compatible with membership in American society.

If Jindal pronounced his words en français, one could take him for Nicolas Sarkozy. Or Marine Le Pen.

On French analogies, I’ve already written that Trump is a mix of Sarkozy, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Bernard Tapie. Three of the most loathsome, despicable persons in French political/public life.

Back to the Fox debate, Slate’s Fred Kaplan had a commentary on how shockingly ill-informed the Republican candidates were on foreign policy.

And on the general subject of Fox News, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution strongly recommends a paper (July 27th) by Jackie Calmes, a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and national correspondent for The New York Times, “‘They don’t give a damn about governing’: Conservative media’s influence on the Republican party.”

À suivre très certainement.

UPDATE: It looks like I may have been a bit off on who will win a Trump vs. Fox News bras de fer.

2nd UPDATE: Jacob Weisberg has a smart op-ed (August 13th) in the FT, “An alpha-male fantasy that trumps reality.” The lede: “Billionaire [Trump] is the only 69-year-old white guy in the US who lives like a rap star…” In his conclusion, Weisberg notes the rather obvious similarities of Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, with “[their] key difference [being] that Mr Trump does not take himself all that seriously as a demagogue, lacking the self-discipline and long-range calculation. He is essentially a narcissist taking his ego out for a joyride.”

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On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act—one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history—here is a lengthy article, ICYMI, by NYT political correspondent Jim Rutenberg, in the August 2nd NYT Magazine, on the underhanded campaign of Republicans to undermine the Act, “A dream undone: Inside the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act.”

It’s quite something: The US Republican party is the only major party in an advanced democracy—and, I emphasize, the only such party—that seeks to effectively disenfranchise part of its electorate; to render it more difficult for its citizens to participate in the political system and cast their ballots. Such would be inconceivable in any polity in Europe or North America, or, for that matter, in any even halfway democratic one worthy of the name outside of Europe or North America. Just saying.

ADDENDUM: On the image in the postage stamp—which was part of this series issued by the USPS—it was taken by photographer Bruce Davidson at the March 7, 1965, march in Selma, Alabama.

UPDATE: From Jenée Desmond-Harris at Vox, here are “13 things you need to know about the fight over voting rights.”

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I have a post on the Iran nuclear deal in the works but, in the meantime, have to put up this piece by TNR senior editor Elspeth Reeve, which is the most succinct, on-target take on Donald Trump and the GOP I’ve seen: “Donald Trump is Fox News incarnate: Why Republicans can’t disown their presidential frontrunner.” Money quote

Donald Trump is not some twisted, deformed version of the Republican Party. He’s the purest version of the Fox News-Tea Party incarnation of the GOP. And one of the most amusing things about watching him on the campaign trail is that he obviously is a fan of Roger Ailes’s creation. He repeatedly paused during an interview with Washington Post reporter Robert Costa to gaze at Fox News, muttering about an “animal” undocumented immigrant accused of murder. “Look at that guy, look at what he did, killing that beautiful girl. [Expletive] animal,” Trump said. It is exactly what the audience is supposed to think after watching a Fox News segment on undocumented immigrants.

Donald Trump=Fox News=the Republican party base. That’s it. (Pour lecteurs français: Donald Trump est un mélange de Nicolas Sarkozy de très mauvaise humeur, Jean-Marie Le Pen et Bernard Tapie).

Conservative blogger Keith Koffler, writing in Politico Magazine (July 15th), has a commentary on “Donald Trump and the angry GOP,” in which he explains that “The appeal is real [and h]is anger connects with conservatives.” Hopping mad right-wingers. They’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. It’s like that on the French right as well these days. And what are they mad about? Or, rather, who are they mad at? It’s not just the incumbent government and its policies, but entire portions of their societies. They’re mad at a part of the population—and a sizable one—of their respective countries. Thankfully we’re not in the 1930s, that’s all I can say.

À propos of this, I came across an opinion piece (July 19th) by Joel Kotkin—the R.C. Hobbs Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University—on current Democratic party presidential candidate James Webb, whom Kotkin approvingly labels “an old-time Democrat.” Kotkin is dismayed, though not surprised, that Webb is receiving almost no media attention, and has zero chance of winning the Dem nomination. His commentary thus begins

Will Rogers famously stated, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” And he was not so far from the truth. The old Democratic Party was a motley collection of selected plutocrats, labor bosses, Southern segregationists, smaller farmers, urban liberals and, as early as the 1930s, racial minorities. It was no doubt a clunky coalition but delivered big time: winning World War II, pushing back the Soviet Union and making it to the moon while aiding tens of millions of Americans to ascend into the middle class.

Only one Democratic candidate in the 2016 presidential race, James Webb, represents this old coalition. A decorated combat veteran, onetime Reagan Navy secretary and former U.S. senator from Virginia, Webb, 69, combines patriotism with a call for expansive economic policies to help the middle class. He speaks most directly to white working-class voters, particularly in places like Appalachia, the South and in rural hamlets and exurbs across the country, precisely where Democrats are now regularly thrashed in elections.

And a little further down there’s this

Today’s Democratic Party is heading where Barack Obama has pushed it – a full-throated program of statist gentry leftism. This position relies on a narrow geography that produces huge, almost Soviet-style majorities in the big cities on the two coasts and in the Midwestern basket case Chicago. Rather than a party of unity and diversity, it is dependent largely on lock-step support from minorities, rich liberals, single women and prefamily millennial voters.

Typical right-wing stigmatizing, if not denigrating, entire portions of society. And as if being a member of a “minority” (i.e. black) or a “rich liberal” (i.e. a person with a university degree who earns an income that one would expect for someone of his or her level of education) is somehow less legitimate than lesser educated white persons who don’t live in large cities. But in the right-wing Weltanschauung, the latter are “real Americans” (in France: “les vrais gens”), unlike those who vote for the Democrats (or Socialists in France), who are whatever (in France, they’re “bobos” and “assistés”). Pardon my French but Kotkin’s piece is le degré zéro, i.e. the rock bottom, of political analysis.

Monsieur Kotkin, a reminder: Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008 with the votes of 69.5 million American citizens, then re-elected in 2012 with the votes of 65.9 million Americans. Those citizens were every bit as equal—politically and otherwise—to those who voted for other candidates, and deserving of the same consideration. And, BTW, no Republican candidate in a high participation national election, i.e. with 60% of the eligible electorate turning out, could ever dream of attaining such numbers. As for Dems getting “thrashed” in the South, rural hamlets, and the exurbs, well, Republicans and conservative Dems (the few that are left) get thrashed in cities and inner suburbs; and more voters live in the latter than the former. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

UPDATE: John Hudak, a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, has a post (July 22nd) on Brookings’ FixGov: Making Government Work blog, “Donald Trump, brought to you by 20 years of Republican politics.”

2nd UPDATE: TNR senior editor Brian Beutler has a spot on commentary (July 23rd) on “Why Donald Trump truly terrifies Republicans” (and it’s not just the threat of a third-party challenge).

3rd UPDATE: Timothy Egan nails it in an NYT op-ed (July 24th), “Trump is the poison his party concocted.”

4th UPDATE: Bruce Bartlett has a nice essay in Politico Magazine (July 27th), “The moderate Republican’s case for Trump.” The lede: “Only Trump can make the GOP sane again—by losing in a landslide to Hillary Clinton.”

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Obama’s great week

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The world—or least Europe and MENA—looks like it’s going to hell in a hand basket these past few days, with the terrorist massacres in Sousse, Kuwait, Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, Kobanî, and other places we’ve heard less about. And then there’s the Greek-Eurozone crisis, which looks to be headed toward a debacle of proportions I can’t begin to imagine—and for which both parties bear their share of responsibility (though today at least, I think the Greek government and its not-ready-for-prime-time prime minister are more at fault). But the news from the US has been good, if not excellent, with the SCOTUS rulings on King v. Burwell—which has all but confirmed the permanence of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare haters out there: it’s game over)—and Obergefell v. Hodges, on gay marriage, and the post-Charleston change in GOP attitudes toward the Confederate flag. And then there was President Obama’s eulogy in Charleston yesterday in honor of Clementa Pinckney. Obama has delivered some great speeches over the years but this one may well be his greatest (if one has not seen it—and it should be seen and heard in full—watch here). WaPo’s Chris Cillizza is saying that “this was the best week of Obama’s presidency.” And Slate’s John Dickerson calls it “the remarkable week that roused the president from dejection and inspired a stirring call to action.” I’m feeling better about Obama than I have in a long time, and, judging from what I’ve been seeing by friends and others on social media, many other lefties feel likewise.

As for the reactions from the right, bof. Certains font la gueule, d’autres pètent les plombs. C’est normal. I like this commentary by TYT Network host Cenk Uygur, on GOP candidates and their hypocritical rants against the Supreme Court. Drôle.

UPDATE: Robert Reich has this commentary on his Facebook page

Overall, it’s been a good week for America — and for President Obama. Confederate flags were taken down; the Supreme Court saved the Affordable Care Act and equal marriage rights; Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was one of the most moving and powerful addresses he’s given (including his singing of “Amazing Grace” at the end, which I’ve posted below).

I haven’t agreed with Barack Obama on everything he’s done. I don’t like his record on civil liberties. He’s been far too close to Wall Street, and demanded too little from the banks in return for bailing them out and did too little for homeowners. I profoundly disagree with the Trans Pacific Partnership.

But Barack Obama has had some extraordinary successes – not just the Affordable Care Act (which is working even better than I expected it would) but also in using every available means to achieve racial justice, immigration reform, to protect voting rights, fight climate change, and beat back Republican threats. Rather than stooping to the nasty belligerence of the right, he has elevated our national deliberations. When I think back on the avid determination of Republicans to wreck his presidency from the very beginning – as well as the economic free-fall he inherited from George W. Bush and the chaos Bush’s foreign policy had generated in the Middle East – I’m even more impressed by his steadiness and steadfastness.

He still has a year and a half to go, but my sense is he’ll go down in history books as one of America’s greatest presidents. What do you think?

I think Monsieur Reich is entirely correct, needless to say.

2nd UPDATE: On the Republicans and their reaction to events of the past week, Politico has a piece by reporters Glenn Thrush and Kyle Cheney on “The Grand Old Party’s future shock.” The lede: “Friday’s Supreme Court ruling shows Republicans fumbling for answers in an America changing faster than they are.”

3rd UPDATE: James Fallows has a commentary in The Atlantic on “Obama’s grace,” in which he says that “The president deliver[ed] his single most accomplished rhetorical performance, and it’s one you should watch rather than read.” And Politico senior White House reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere has a piece on how “After [a] momentous week, Obama’s presidency is reborn.” The lede: “He sang. He wept. He cheered. And many say they finally saw the man who inspired them in ‘08.”

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Dylann Roof (Photo via lastrhodesian.com)

Dylann Roof (Photo via lastrhodesian.com)

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Did you, dear reader, see Jon Stewart’s monologue—sans jokes—last Thursday on the Charleston massacre? If you didn’t, watch and/or read it here now. It’s brilliant, possibly Stewart’s best ever.

Along with many others, Stewart emphasizes that it was a terrorist attack. Obviously. Now I happen to agree with the sensible proposal of this conservative pundit—a well-known commentator, and with specialized knowledge, on matters having to do with Islam and Muslims—who argues that the “terrorism” label has become so imprecise that it best be dropped altogether. In other words, let’s eliminate the term from our vocabulary. Right, but still. If Dylann Roof had been named Mohammed Sath and shot up a synagogue—or a Burger King, or anything—the entire media and every last politician of both the major parties would be calling him a terrorist. There would be no disagreement on this whatever. So all those who are loudly insisting that the Charleston massacre was an act of terrorism are correct to do so.

On the subject, the NYT’s Charles Blow had a column yesterday on Dylann Roof as “a millennial race terrorist.” And in the current NYT Magazine is a reflection by writer Brit Bennett, who, looking back in history, observes that “White terrorism is as old as America.” Her conclusion

In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown. Those terrorists do not have complex motivations. We do not urge one another to reserve judgment until we search through their Facebook histories or interview their friends. We do not trot out psychologists to analyze their mental states. We know immediately why they kill. But a white terrorist is an enigma. A white terrorist has no history, no context, no origin. He is forever unknowable. His very existence is unspeakable. We see him, but we pretend we cannot. He is a ghost floating in the night.

Very good commentary, though Bennett is not totally correct on the “not trot[ting] out [of] psychologists to analyze [the] mental states [of foreign or brown terrorists],” at least not in France. In reading about Dylann Roof I am reminded of Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old Franco-Algerian terrorist who murdered seven people—Jewish children and off-duty soldiers—in Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012. In committing his acts Merah was driven by a jihadist ideology but was clearly a psychopath in addition. As the Paris-based Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama thus wrote at the time

La courte trajectoire de sa vie montre qu’il s‘agit de ce qu’on appelait auparavant «un psychopathe», c’est-à-dire une personne qui a de puissantes pulsions anti-sociales, dont il va recycler le penchant criminel dans des idéologies salvatrices folles, idéologies qui servent de niche à ce genre de personnes, afin de les capter et de les utiliser.

For my posts on Mohamed Merah, go here, here, and here.

Dylann Roof is, as was Mohamed Merah, clearly a psychopath but is also, rather clearly, driven by an ideology and to the same degree as was Merah. On Roof’s ideology of white supremacy, the “Reflections on the murders in Charleston, South Carolina” by U Mass-Amherst emeritus professor Julius Lester, posted on his Facebook page, are worth the read.

Among other things, Lester asks Republican politicians and others seeking to change the subject to stop talking about this being a “time for healing.” No, this is no time for “healing” but rather for a national reckoning—and particularly on the American right—of America’s history and present reality of racism, and of the consequences of this. And one of the consequences of America’s persistent racial question is the strength of the increasingly far right-wing Republican party, which, as Paul Krugman reminded us in his column yesterday, is largely due to the defection of white Southerners from the Democrats, with the civil rights movement and enfranchisement of the South’s black population.

À propos, we have learned over the past few days (e.g. here and here) that Dylann Roof drew particular inspiration from the Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC; founded in the 1950s as the White Citizens’ Council). Now the CofCC may be considered a fringe hate group in Washington and by the national media but it is not seen as such by the Republican party in the South, as I learned in my brief encounter with the CofCC delegation at the French Front National’s annual festival some seventeen years ago (see here; scroll down after the photo of Jean-Marie Le Pen shaking hands with Ronald Reagan). It is a secret de Polichinelle that the GOP in the deep South maintains an informal relationship with the white supremacist, Jim Crow-nostalgic group with which Dylann Roof identified.

The CofCC’s presence at the FN’s festival was noteworthy, reminding one that far right groups—ultra-nationalist by definition—do have relationships with kindred groups in other countries. On this, Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, have an op-ed in the NYT on “White supremacists without borders.”

On white supremacists, a film opened here in France two weeks ago, Un Français (English title: French Blood), whose subject is neo-Nazi skinheads. It’s the first-ever cinematic treatment of this species of humanity in France, indeed of the extreme right (see Raphaëlle Bacqué’s full-page article on the film in the June 10th Le Monde). I hesitated on seeing it—the trailer put me off—but, with the Charleston massacre, decided that it was sufficiently topical, so checked it out this past weekend at a local theater. The opening scene was akin to that of the 2011 German film ‘Combat Girls’, which was about neo-Nazi skinheads in that country (go here and scroll down): graphically depicting gratuitous violence inflicted by these dregs of society on dark-skinned or leftist-looking people minding their own business. The violence of the opening scenes in the two films was such that I couldn’t even watch, wondering why I had even come to see the film in the first place—like, who needs this?—but then both settled into a more serious story. I’ll let Screen Daily’s fine critic Lisa Nesselson, whose review was just posted (and is the only one I’ve seen in English), describe the pic

It’s hard staying true to your youthful convictions when they would have fit well in Nazi Germany but it’s the mid-1980s-and-after in France where Marco Lopez (the excellent Alban Lenoir) is a ferocious young skinhead from the lower class Paris suburbs who carries a meat cleaver and is happy to wield it if anybody objects to him and his buddies stomping on the ‘faggots’, ‘Arab scum’ and ‘filthy Negroes’ they see as polluting the pure and proud meant-to-be-white landscape of their beloved France.

As a rare attempt to address an enduring strain of xenophobic thought in French society (and that, as hate-crime headlines sadly show, is by no means limited to France) this compact, unsettling tale deserves to be seen beyond local borders. Drawing respectable admissions on 11 screens in Paris proper and 50 additional screens throughout France since its June 10th release, French Blood managed to land the second spot in terms of ticket buyers per print for new releases on opening day — with Jurassic World in first place.

In his second feature, writer-director Diastème (who, as a film critic, director, screenwriter and playwright uses only one name) follows Marco — a fictional character drawn from the director’s own birthplace and youthful environment — from 1985-2013. It’s a convincing portrait of blind ignorance and lethal anger as Marco gradually evolves toward a more reasonable approach to living among others in a multi-cultural society. The melancholy truth that gives the film its power is that initially reprehensible Marco manages to become an infinitely better person but, in real life, the Extreme Right thinking he embraced in his twenties hasn’t dimmed and may have grown stronger for many of its French followers.

The trio of male friends at the heart of Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate (La Haine) circa 1995 were an Arab, a Jew and a black guy. They wouldn’t have wanted to cross paths with Marco and his three brawling buddies as portrayed in the opening reels here. Fights are convincing and miles removed from Fast and Furious-style silliness in that punches hurt, knives slice and bullets cripple. Diastème captures a restless, angry, violent vibe.

The film’s most shocking episode — a black street sweeper being forced to drink drain cleaner — was inspired by an authentic crime against a man from the formerly French island of Mauritius. Although the film is a work of fiction, it follows a timeline inspired by real events particularly within Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right wing party the Front National. Diastème knows his subject — he hails from the same suburb where the first skinheads in France were born and he sang in a choir whose benefactors included fundamentalist Catholics. He first reported on the Front National as a young journalist in 1990.

Although he has certainly been hit on the head more than once, as Marco ages, he starts to question his own actions. In a series of ellipses marked by changing facial hair and authentic TV news snippets, Marco grows into leading an increasingly honest life of meagre satisfactions. Marco doesn’t have one shining moment of realisation that his behaviour is horrific but, rather, gradually comes to feel that it is neither right nor good to beat up — let alone kill — people because they’re “different.” When a panic attack leads him to a pharmacy where the pharmacist (Patrick Pineau) goes beyond the call of duty, Marco starts to think for himself in tiny but lasting increments.

Come 1998, Marco is living in Guadeloupe. He used to beat up dark-skinned people for sport but now has no problem serving them alcohol in the beachfront bar where he works. But his wife, who can pass for sleekly refined when she’s sober, scoffs at the about-to-triumph soccer World Cup team whose talented players are mostly of African and North African heritage and therefore unworthy to represent France whatever their athletic excellence.

Following another ellipse it seems unlikely Marco will be able to pass on what he has learned about acceptance and tolerance to his daughter since he isn’t permitted to see her. Ironically, that’s because he no longer shares his ex-wife’s hard core racist views. Adding to his loneliness, Marco’s former skinhead buddies don’t fare very well with passing time.

The film garnered attention before its release with media reports that certain exhibitors, spooked that hooligans might trash their theatres, cancelled sneak previews. If there’s any truth to this, now that the film is out it’s hard to fathom what today’s neo-Nazis might object to. If they’re misguided enough to think the Le Pen family has the right idea, those ideas are presented in an accurate context.

Nesselson’s review is comprehensive and gets it right, though she appears to rate the film higher than I do. Not that I didn’t like it—it’s pretty good overall—but I had a couple of issues. E.g. protag Marco’s transition from violent, hate-filled thug to nice, better person—and who abandons extreme right-wingism altogether as he grows older and wiser—which is depicted via body language but is not convincingly explained (cf. the neo-Nazi skinhead protag in ‘Combat Girls’, whose transition is more fully developed). Also the scène de ménage on the beach in Guadeloupe with Marco and his bleached-blond bourgeois chick, named Corinne (actress Lucie Debay), the latter’s words and general rhetoric ringing false IMO.

Mais peu importe. The film’s treatment of politics is on the mark, of the relationship of the skinheads to the Front National (not specifically named in the film—except in the televised footage—but more than obvious). The FN engaged the skins—notably in recruiting them into its security service (DPS), Marco in the film being part of it in the early phase of his better person transition—but sought to keep them at a distance at its public events (e.g. they were not in evidence at the FN festivals and rallies I attended in the late ’90s, likely having been asked to stay away). The FN’s relationship to the neo-Nazi skins is indeed akin to the southern GOP’s with the CofCC: the latter being a little extreme and not publicly fréquentable but still part of the family, to be engaged with discreetly.

Also notable in the film are the scenes toward the end, where Marco watches from a distance as Corinne—now his ex, whose personal convictions were as extremist and racist as his in his youth, but, in her case, did not change—, leaves Sunday mass in bourgeois banlieue, with bourgeois husband and Marco’s now teen daughter—whom he has not been allowed visitation rights in view of his police record—and then sees them on television marching in one of the big 2013 hard-right demos against the government’s bill legalizing gay marriage. Subtext: there are plenty of upstanding, respectable members of society not from the lower classes who share the world-view of the neo-Nazi skinheads—or, in America, of white supremacists—but, as they are upstanding and bourgeois, are not considered infréquentable on that side of the political spectrum.

As for Dylann Roof, he looks too physically wimpish to be a marauding skinhead. He wouldn’t have been allowed. Skinheads need to be physically strong. But who needs physical strength when you can go out and legally purchase a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol? Thank God—and the Republic—one cannot do that in France.

In case one missed it, Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, of UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, respectively, had an op-ed in the NYT the day before the Charleston massacre on “The growing right-wing terror threat” in America, which, they say, is of greater preoccupation to law enforcement than that from Muslim extremists.

And TNR’s Brian Beutler has a commentary on South Carolina GOP governor Nikki Haley’s announcement yesterday that she will seek to have the Confederate flag at the SC State Capitol removed, which, Beutler says, does not make her a hero; she’s just doing damage control for Republican presidential candidates too terrified to take a position on the issue themselves.

UPDATE: Watch here Jon Stewart go after Fox News for its coverage of Charleston. Excellent.

un français

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