Trump Is Gutting Our Democracy While We’re Dealing With Coronavirus


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By Noah Bookbinder

Mr. Bookbinder is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, on Capitol Hill last fall.
Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, on Capitol Hill last fall.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

When President Trump announced late on Friday that he would fire the government watchdog who told Congress about the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint, which ultimately led to his impeachment, it touched off one of the most acute threats yet to our democracy. But it didn’t even make the front page of most papers.

That’s understandable. Thousands of Americans are dying every day from the terrifying coronavirus pandemic. People are worried about their own safety and that of their families, as well as about their jobs and livelihood. Questions abound about how the crisis got to this point, whether the Trump administration took appropriate steps to address it and what steps are needed to minimize the devastation going forward; there is little bandwidth for anything else.

But we can’t afford to ignore the anti-democratic steps the president is taking while the American people are appropriately preoccupied with this outbreak. If we don’t respond to these outrageous abuses now, the damage may be done by the time anyone is the wiser.

The worst of the president’s latest round of steps to undermine checks and balances came not just in this time of crisis, but on a Friday night, the classic black hole for sweeping problematic actions in Washington under the rug.

First, the president announced that he would be firing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community. Mr. Trump said in a required letter to Congress that he no longer had “the fullest confidence” in Atkinson; there was not even an effort to disguise the fact that what caused the president to lose that confidence was Atkinson following the law and allowing the truth to come out about Mr. Trump’s lawless attempt to pressure a foreign power to announce politically helpful investigations. Mr. Atkinson will be fired 30 days after the letter went to Congress, the soonest he can be under law, but the president undercut even that law by putting Mr. Atkinson on immediate administrative leave.

Michael Horowitz, the respected inspector general of the Department of Justice and chairman of a council that coordinates inspectors general, went out on a limb to vouch for Mr. Atkinson, praising his integrity and his handling of the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint. Mr. Horowitz is right, and his affirmation that the inspector general community “will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight” is heartening.

But President Trump’s further action makes that claim questionable at best. The president compounded the Atkinson announcement on Friday night with his intention to nominate White House lawyer Brian Miller to be special inspector general for pandemic recovery, a key position for oversight of the just-passed $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, which is ripe for fraud and corruption without aggressive review. The position demands ironclad independence, particularly with the risk that the president’s company, relatives, customers and donors could seek to benefit from the stimulus package. Mr. Miller, who served for nearly 10 years as inspector general at the General Services Administration, but more recently played a role in the White House’s response to the impeachment inquiry, is precisely the wrong person to ensure independence. A former senior Senate staff member praised Miller’s “loyalty to the administration” in explaining why he’ll make a good choice, even though loyalty is the exact opposite of what is needed.

The one-two punch of Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Miller is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg of the president’s dangerous attacks on the independence of inspectors general. Mr. Trump will likely fire additional inspectors general because he and his allies view them as “deep state” operatives who undermine him. Indeed, the president seems to view any independence within the government and certainly any checks on him as intolerable disloyalty; that notion, of course, runs counter to our entire system of checks and balances.

Friday night’s actions came at the end of a week of scary departures from democratic practices. Reporting indicates that more and more power has gone to the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose coronavirus “shadow task force” of government allies and private sector connections may run afoul of federal law. Mr. Kushner is meanwhile also reportedly playing a significant role in the Trump re-election campaign from the White House, which may also violate federal law. Nepotism and disregard for the law have characterized this administration from day one, but the volume and brazenness of these anti-democratic tendencies is increasing.

Indeed, earlier Friday, the government changed its description on a federal website of the strategic national stockpile to correspond to Mr. Kushner’s description of it as being for the benefit of the federal government, not the states. Also last week, the Navy fired a captain who blew the whistle on the scope of a Covid-19 outbreak on his ship, another example of apparent payback for truthtelling, and the president reportedly wants to have his own signature on stimulus checks to Americans, which may also run afoul of law. All of these autocratic steps come on top of the president’s February purges of officials who testified in the impeachment trial and attempts to meddle in the sentencing of friends and allies convicted of crimes.

Here’s why this matters: times of crisis are when democracies are in the gravest danger of crumbling. We are seeing that play out in the world right now. Hungary, which has watched its hard won post-Cold War democratic reforms slipping away for some time, this week saw its Parliament give Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom Mr. Trump has praised, unlimited authority, effectively turning the country into a dictatorship. Dictators around the world are using the pandemic to tighten their control.

We’re not there yet. But the president’s attempts to rid the government of those who would provide appropriate oversight and accountability for abuses and speak truth to power, to put in place loyalists who will look out for him rather than providing independent checks, and to empower relatives and disregard laws sets us on a dangerous trajectory. Firing inspectors general and replacing them with loyalists is a serious threat to our democracy. The American people must register our outrage; Congress must investigate the firings aggressively and rigorously vet nominees. If we ignore the erosion of checks and balances because we are preoccupied with more immediate concerns, we may find that our democracy — when we need the institutions of this country the most — is disappearing. Just ask Hungary.

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Sweep of arrests hits US neo-Nazi group connected to five murders


Five senior members of Atomwaffen Division charged with federal crimes in recent weeks, including harassing journalists and activists

Jason Wilson @jason_a_w

US attorney Brian Moran stands next to a poster that was mailed earlier in the year to the home of Chris Ingalls, an investigative reporter with KING-TV in Seattle, during a news conference on 26 February. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

A sweep of arrests of a neo-Nazi group in the US has dealt a major blow to an organization associated with at least five murders and raised questions as to whether the extreme far-right movement the group is at the center of has been largely undone by pressure from law enforcement, journalists and anti-fascist activists.Five senior members of Atomwaffen Division (AWD) have been charged with federal crimes in the past weeks, including former leaders and a man who was concurrently a member of the similar neo-Nazi terror group the Base. The recent charges involve members in four states in connection with two separate criminal cases.

In Virginia, a Texas man, John Denton, 26, was charged over an alleged “swatting” conspiracy – a practice involving making false reports about a targets address in the hope police will stage an armed raid on the address.

Denton – reported by ProPublica in 2018 as “involved in nearly every aspect of the organization” as its leader – is known inside Atomwaffen by the alias “Rape”. He allegedly coordinated swatting attacks in 2018 and 2019 on journalists, Old Dominion University, and a historically black church.

Four more members were charged with conspiracy to threaten journalists and people associated with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Washington state.

One of those arrested, Taylor Parker-Dipeppe, 20, was a former Florida chapter co-leader under the alias “Azazel”. Recent social media materials given to the Guardian by Australian anti-fascist group the White Rose Society show a muscular, bearded young man with fresh neo-Nazi tattoos.

Two more of those charged lived in Washington. Kaleb Cole, 24, alias “Khimaere”, who was the Washington chapter leader, and Cameron Shea, 24, alias “Krokodil”,have long histories in the neo-Nazi movement.

Cole is described in court documents as a former co-leader of the group. He had guns seized last October under Washington’s so-called “red flag” laws. He and another Washington Atomwaffen member and close associate, Aiden Bruce-Umbaugh, 23, were apprehended in November by Texas police, who found several firearms, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and marijuana in their vehicle.

Bruce-Umbaugh was charged with and pleaded guilty to possessing weapons together with a controlled substance.

Cole visited eastern Europe with Bruce-Umbaugh in 2018, and the two made pilgrimages to sites associated with Nazism, posing for photographs with an Atomwaffen flag at the Auschwitz death camp. In 2019, he was detained for 42 days under Canada’s anti-terror laws and banned from the country.

Shea was described in court documents as a “high-level member and primary recruiter” for the group. Information obtained from confidential sources by the Guardian shows he was also a member of the like-minded group the Base for several months in late 2018.

A fourth arrestee, Johnny Garcia, was known in the movement as “Roman”.

According to court documents, the men allegedly cooperated in specifically targeting journalists with lurid violent threats, bearing slogans like “These people have names and addresses”, and “You have been visited by your local Nazis”. The plan was in response to reports on the group in late 2018 in outlets including the Seattle Times.

The men have been charged with conspiracy, stalking, and postal offenses.

Already, six members of Atomwaffen have been convicted since 2018 on charges including firearms offenses, planning terrorist attacks, hate crimes, and murder.

Not all charged members may stand trial. Devon Arthurs, accused of killing two other members of Atomwaffen, remains involuntarily in Florida state hospital. Nicholas Giampa, accused of killing his former girlfriend’s parents, has yet to stand trial. Initially he was unable to stand trial because of the effects of a self-inflicted gunshot wound

Atomwaffen was the first of a number of Neo-Nazi groups which emerged from 2015 and later that embraced a so-called “accelerationist” ideology, which preaches that western society is corrupt and violent acts sowing chaos will speed up its downfall and allow a white supremacist state to be built in its place.

They drew increasingly on the writings of the American neo-Nazi James Mason. Mason prescribed violent terrorism and a leaderless cellular structure, and praised the convicted murderer Charles Manson.

Mason became an advisor to Atomwaffen, and has appeared in propaganda videos made by the group.

Accelerationist groups also embraced a distinctive aesthetic which took in half-balaclava skull masks, bold and gruesome graphic design, and slickly edited propaganda videos, frequently depicting armed training camps.

All of those groups have now been subjected to significant legal consequences after their activities, their internal communications, and their identities were repeatedly exposed by antifascist researchers and investigative journalists.

The FBI appeared to be accelerating its efforts to crack down on the groups even before director Christopher Wray defined white supremacist extremists as a “national threat priority” which was “on the same footing” as Isis in early February. There have been at least 13 arrests of members of such groups since last October.

The better part of Atomwaffen’s leadership structure is now awaiting trial. Eight members of the Base have been arrested, and the identity of their leader exposed. Smaller groups, like Feuerkrieg Division, have now publicly called a halt to recruiting.

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Conspiracism


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Conspiracism

It is very effective to mobilize mass support against a scapegoated enemy by claiming that the enemy is part of a vast insidious conspiracy against the common good. The conspiracist worldview sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events; makes irrational leaps of logic in analyzing factual evidence in order to “prove” connections, blames social conflicts on demonized scapegoats, and constructs a closed metaphysical worldview that is highly resistant to criticism.~1

When conspiracist scapegoating occurs, the results can devastate a society, disrupting rational political discourse and creating targets who are harassed and even murdered. Dismissing the conspiracism often found in right-wing populism as irrational extremism, lunatic hysteria, or marginalized radicalism does little to challenge these movements, fails to deal with concrete conflicts and underlying institutional issues, invites government repression, and sacrifices the early targets of the scapegoaters on the altar of denial. An effective response requires a more complex analysis.

The Dynamics of Conspiracism

The dynamic of conspiracist scapegoating is remarkably predictable. Persons who claim special knowledge of a plot warn their fellow citizens about a treacherous subversive conspiracy to attack the common good. What’s more, the conspiracists announce, the plans are nearing completion, so that swift and decisive action is needed to foil the sinister plot. In different historical periods, the names of the scapegoated villains change, but the essentials of this conspiracist worldview remain the same.~2

George Johnson explained that “conspiratorial fantasies are not simply an expression of inchoate fear. There is a shape, an architecture, to the paranoia.” Johnson came up with five rules common to the conspiracist worldview in the United States:~3

“The conspirators are internationalist in their sympathies.

“[N]othing is ever discarded. Right-wing mail order bookstores still sell the Protocols of the Elders of Zion…[and] Proofs of a Conspiracy [from the late 1700’s].

“Seeming enemies are actually secret friends. Through the lens of the conspiracy theorists, capitalists and Communists work hand in hand.

“The takeover by the international godless government will be ignited by the collapse of the economic system.

“It’s all spelled out in the Bible. For those with a fundamentalist bent, the New World Order or One World Government is none other than the international kingdom of the Antichrist, described in the Book of Revelation.

Conspiracism can occur as a characteristic of mass movements, between sectors in an intra-elite power struggle, or as a justification for state agencies to engage in repressive actions. Conspiracist scapegoating is woven deeply into US culture and the process appears not just on the political right but in center and left constituencies as well.~4 There is an entrenched network of conspiracy-mongering information outlets spreading dubious stories about public and private figures and institutions. They use media such as printed matter, the internet, fax trees, radio programs, videotapes and audiotapes.~5


 

If you want to jump out of this article, try these related pages:

The Conspiracism Collection:

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No, Islam is not a race. Yes, you are still a racist


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No, Islam is not a race. Yes, you are still a racist

Biological race doesn’t exist. But the concept of biological race is an invention with a long history. Its transformations help answer the question.

One of the earliest and most detailed systems of biological racial classification existed in the French colony of St Dominguez. According to the historian C.L.R. James, the system of classification contained more than 150 gradations of “blackness”.

Only people who could prove that they were “purely white” were granted full rights. This system was overthrown by a slave rebellion and revolution. The “aristocracy of skin”, a term used by the Parisian masses to describe racism, was temporarily defeated. Those 150 gradations of blackness, which were regarded as a natural fact, have long been forgotten.

Roughly 80 years later, biological racism enjoyed a renaissance, as all sorts of new so-called races were discovered. This was the advent of pseudo-scientific Darwinian racism. For example, the Irish were considered a separate race to the English, and closer to apes. Skulls were measured, intellects compared and, lo and behold, the Irish were found inferior. This conveniently explained the Irish famine, in which between 800,000 and 1.5 million people starved to death while the British exported their food.

Nowhere did social Darwinism go further than in Germany. Prior to the late 1880s, Jewishness had been regarded purely as a religion. Of course, Jews had suffered religious discrimination, but they could escape this through conversion, as many did. Yet, from the late 1800s onward, with the aid of “science”, Jewishness was transformed into a race, which was then associated with a series of visual and cultural markers, involving facial hair, big noses, dishonesty and suspicious customs such as kosher food.

These examples highlight how racism was never really about “natural” differences. It was a manufactured ideology of oppression. Racism is really about power.

Biologically linked racism started to go out of fashion with the fall of the Third Reich. But this didn’t mean that racism disappeared. It just changed form.

Take the example of the USA. Since the Declaration of Independence, the USA has concealed real inequality under a constitution and political system premised on formal equality.

In the past, the contradiction between real and formal inequality was justified by the alleged inferiority of non-white races. But the struggles and achievements of those non-whites increasingly made such claims untenable.

Today, no one credible argues that inequality and poverty stem from innate racial differences. Rather, we are told that “cultural problems” are to blame. The new rationalisation is not biologically based, yet it is the politically acceptable code for the same old racism.

Anti-Muslim racism, which exploded following 9/11 and the “war on terror”, fits into this mould. Small-l liberals have played a special role in promoting it. The polite arguments that Islam is more repressive than other religions, that Muslims lack respect for women or democracy, or are particularly violent, are all coded signals which, like a dog whistle, prick the ears of rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth racists.

This is what happened at the Cronulla riot in 2005, where men of Arab appearance were bashed by a white mob trying to defend “their” beach and “their” women. It was referred to by participants as “Leb and wog bashing day”.

Racism always relies on stereotypes and visual or cultural markers. So, the racists portray Muslims as big-nosed, fat, fanatical, bearded misogynists who want to slaughter animals and non-believers alike, impose sharia law, prohibit tasty food and beverages, destroy liberty and reason and generally fuck things up for the “enlightened” West.

Why do they want to do this? Well, who knows, but one thing is for sure – they aren’t as civilised as us.

All of these tropes are based on racial stereotypes of Arab people, which are as old as they are repulsive. Edward Said’s magnificent book Orientalism traces this tradition of representation through Western art and literature. It turns out that “good Muslim” vs. “bad Muslim” is just an updated version of the colonial era “good savage” vs. “bad savage” trope.

Christopher Hitchens took war-mongering atheism to new depths when he endorsed cluster bombs and said that the death toll in the Iraq war wasn’t high enough. But the tradition of atheism and Enlightenment values being used as the spear tip for colonial-style racism goes at least as far back as the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt.

Racism has changed with the times, but it is still a system of oppression that commits violence towards whole swaths of humanity, who are depicted through a few crude stereotypes.

So sure, Islam is a religion. But the statement “Islam is a religion, not a race” remains the most transparent of covers for real racism.

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