Friday, August 12, 2016

The Paranoid Style: From Reagan to Trump

For many years Robert Welch warned his readers about the conspiracy (italics his) that was plotting to merge the United States and Soviet Russia. His big idea was that repeated exposure could ultimately stop the "socialist nightmare with its perpetual shortages of everything and with its regimentation of individual human lives like that of barnyard animals."

As editor of The John Birch Society Bulletin, Welch was a resilient advocate for racism and sexism decades before Donald Trump's Reality TV reboot. Welch opened each issue with his personal "reflections on the news" -- usually an essay on how US leaders and people like Ralph Nader were destroying the family and civilization. The rest of the small, austere publication was devoted to reports like "United Nations - Get US Out," priorities like a windfall profits tax and stopping the Equal Rights Amendment, and turgid notes from Birch Society meetings.  

Welch couldn't decide who he disliked more, anti-nuclear activists or Rockefeller Trilateralists. As a result, he cast them as partners in a massive plot. It was a highly paranoid theory, but by no means the only one that polluted the political bloodstream in the run up to Ronald Reagan's election.

In fact, by 1980 the claims of Birchers were less sensational than those of other groups. Take the New Christian Crusade Church, which promoted unbridled racism in a tabloid newspaper, Christian Vanguard, or the US Labor Party, which served up doomsday scenarios about "controlled disintegration," orchestrated by agents of the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds.

And let's not forget the Moral Majority, a compulsive user and critic of mass media, which saw the forces of evil everywhere, but masked its extremism by bemoaning the decline of the family and shouting incessantly about its right to free speech. Anti-abortion, anti-ERA and pro-tax cut hallelujahs were artfully inserted into Moral Majority news releases that read like compasssion-free sermons.

All this might be a topic of mere historical curiosity had these groups and others like them not basically succeeded, their ideas and agendas largely incorporated into the Reagan platform. Moral Majority Report did everything it could short of outright endorsement. "If turning back the clock means the restoration of some of the freedoms that Americans traditionally enjoyed," announced a typical writer, "I'm all for it." He was referring to the Republican platform.

Like Donald Trump, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Christian fundamentalist movement had an intense love/hate relationship with the media. After all, it had all begun on TV with Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour. By 1980, the movement's tabloid paper was turning Falwell's radio and TV pronouncements into syndicated columns, while its reporters gloated about the growing attention. At the same time, however, they also despised the "immoral" television networks.

For these pioneers of political fundamentalism, the real "insiders" were purveyors of "smut" and degenerate lifestyles, a vast group that included most "non-Christian" media and members of the press. Their basic message, which read like a newsy catechism, was that the "moral" can clean up the media by exerting control over it. That meant boycotting specific outlets or supporting only Christian media.

Through insistent propaganda, the Moral Majority turned ignorance into strength and sexism into a virtue. Sound familiar?

Still, the electronic fundamentalism of Falwell's empire sounded almost moderate in contrast with the outright aryan arrogance of Christian Vanguard. "Specifically compiled for the Elect," this religious house organ was obsessed with one enemy, the Jews. This was a bullish racism, punctuated with articles like "Sadistic Jewish Slaughter of Animals." 

Pretending to intellectual rigor, one article attempted to prove that the enemy was plagued by a "devastating sense of inferiority." In another report, covering an Aryan Nations Movement conference, the publisher of a sister publication, Zion's Watchman, came out strong against humanism, marxism and "the seed of the serpent." Guess who he meant. 

Yet the Aryans remained hopeful, according to another contributor, because "the various right wing movements will come together, and unite as never before once we understand the importance of rallying under the Law of God, making what we call Germany's WWII 'Nazism' seem tiny in comparison." Scary stuff.
Like many movement publications of the era, Christian Vanguard had a clearinghouse for books, with listings under headings like "secret societies," "the money question," and "the Jewish world conspiracy." Another heading covered "self defense and survival," and included books on explosives, combat and surveillance. It was an early sign of the survivalism to come. Clearly, the "Elect" were prepping for action. Reading their paper also offered solid proof that Nazism was alive in Louisiana and other southern states in the Reagan era.

Decades later, many far right groups continue to believe in some sort of conspiracy aimed at destroying their "way of life." Specifically, they remain united by a fanatical fortress mentality and the belief that their rights as individuals are under attack. Before Reagan's election, the U.S. Labor Party, led by perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, was already predicting that economic "disintegration" was just around the corner. Meanwhile, Christian Vanguard warned about "race mixing" and the Moral Majority emphasized a war on family values. Taken together, these threads provided a template for the Tea Party and Trump-ism.

Each of these groups had its own crusade and main enemy. Their modern equivalents are much the same. What most of them lack, however, is any vision of a better future. Instead, the paranoid right seems to draw its strength from alienation, using prejudices and frustrations as catalysts for unity.

Shortly before Reagan's election, this was exemplified in a pamphlet from Americans for Nuclear Energy, a so-called "citizens group." Their pitch, in the main text and a fundraising appeal, concentrated on the enemy. In this case, it was "coercive utopians," led by easy targets like Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, a power couple exploited and demonized much like Bill and Hillary. Their goal, warned the group, is raw power "to control each of our lives." 

Each day, "the coercive utopians march closer to their repressive goals. The battle is for freedom in America." And what was freedom? In this version, abundant energy through nuclear power. Without it, America faced a "second stone age."

Obviously, that didn't happen. But if the paranoid style ever prevails, we could end up in a stone age whether we use nukes or not.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Progressive Eclipse: Burlington & Bernie Sanders (Series)

Also appearing in 2VR: Green Mountain Noise

A serialized examination of the most successful
progressive movement in the last half century

In 1989 The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution described the rise of Vermont's progressive movement. But many things changed after Bernie Sanders moved onto the national stage, while new economic and political challenges created pitfalls. Putting Burlington's story in a larger context, this sequel also explores the impacts of the Occupy movement, the struggle to overcome the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, and other challenges. But the main focus is Sanders' rise and the hotly contested 2012 mayoral race in which developer Miro Weinberger beat Republican Kurt Wright and Independent Wanda Hines. In a May 4, 2015 interview with Scott Harris on Between the Lines, series author Greg Guma discusses the potential and challenges of Sanders' presidential candidacy.

Progressive Eclipse takes a closer look at why progressives found themselves on the defensive despite a record of success. It also examines the decision by Sanders and Mayor Bob Kiss to invite military contractor Lockheed Martin to Vermont and other problems that emerged after Burlington launched a municipally-owned cable TV and fiber optic system. Revisiting several Progressive administrations, it chronicles the twists and turns that led to Sanders' presidential run and Weinberger's mayoral victory. The Prologue is included below, and the following chapters are available:


“It’s time for a change. Real change.” That was Bernie Sanders’ slogan in his 1981 campaign for Mayor of Burlington.

The race had begun as a long shot but Bernie turned his shoestring operation into a real challenge. Nevertheless, even on March 3, 1981, Vermont Town Meeting Day, the incumbent and the local Democratic “old guard” still expected a decisive victory. After all, Ronald Reagan had been elected President only four months earlier. Sanders was no threat, they assumed, nothing more than an upstart leftist with a gift for attracting media attention.

Bernie wanted open government, he said, and different development priorities. He opposed an upscale Waterfront project and an Interstate access road to downtown.

He supported Rent Control. “Burlington is not for sale,” he declared. “I am extremely concerned about the current trend of urban development. If present trends continue, the City of Burlington will be converted into an area in which only the wealthy and upper-middle class will be able to afford to live.”

The incumbent mayor, Gordon Paquette, was a working class guy from an “inner city” ward who had grown up delivering bread and started his political career in 1958 as a Democratic alderman. By managing a patronage-based coalition known as the Republicrats, he had reached what turned out to be the pinnacle of his power as Burlington mayor from 1971 to 1981.

People called him Gordie, a street-smart political operator who knew how to appeal to Irish and French Canadian residents while meeting the needs of the business community. Comparisons with Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley were not uncommon. But demolition of an ethnic neighborhood near the Waterfront and a “master plan” to replace it with an underground mall, hotel and office complex had made him some enemies.

Cracks in the fa├žade of public calm slowly opened toward the end of the 1970s. Speculation drove up land values and rents, deepening the city’s chronic housing shortage. A restless youth culture emerged. Despite decent commercial growth, revenues couldn’t keep pace with the need for services. And the next steps in the city’s “urban redevelopment” vision would be disruptive – a highway into the center of the city, private waterfront development, and a pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown. The total cost, including public and private funding, was projected at more than $50 million. The local atmosphere was anxious and unsettled.

In January 1981, Paquette was nominated after a caucus fight for a sixth term. In previous races he had sometimes run unopposed. This time he prevailed in the caucus over Richard Bove, owner of the popular local Italian restaurant that bore his name. Afterward, Bove bolted the party to run as an Independent. Since Paquette was still a Republicrat at heart Republican leaders decided not to oppose him and instead banked on his re-election.

His main opponent became Sanders, a former “third party” radical running as an Independent who opposed Paquette’s proposed 10 percent increase in property taxes and promised to work for tax reform. He had never before run for local office, or even attended an entire City Council meeting. The recently formed Citizens Party, which had backed environmentalist Barry Commoner in the 1980 presidential election, ran three candidates for the Council, also known as the Board of Aldermen. The incumbents generally attempted to ignore their opponents, assuming that these electoral activists had no chance of upsetting the status quo.

But Bernie was hard to ignore, and local leaders of both major parties underestimated the growing influence of neighborhood groups, housing and anti-redevelopment activists, young people, the elderly, and the city’s countercultural newcomers. They also shrugged off the possibility that some of Paquette’s past supporters might want to send him a message.

By the time Sanders and the mayor finally faced each other over a folding table at the Unitarian Church tempers were hot. Bernie exploited rising local anger by linking the mayor with Antonio Pomerleau, the white-haired godfather of Vermont shopping center development. Pomerleau was leading in efforts to turn Burlington’s largely vacant waterfront into a site for commercial and condominium development.

“I’m not with the big money men,” Paquette protested. Frustrated and desperate to counter-attack, he warned that if Sanders became mayor Burlington would become like Brooklyn.  He looked honestly shocked when people hissed at him.

On March 3, with a few thousand dollars, a handful of volunteers and a vague reform agenda, Bernie Sanders won the race for mayor by just ten votes. Burlington had elected a “radical,” a self-described socialist who was determined to change the course of Vermont history. A Citizens Party candidate for the City Council, Terry Bouricius, meanwhile became the first member of the party elected anywhere in the country. In an odd twist, Bouricius won in Ward Two, the same place that had given Paquette his first term on the City Council 23 years earlier.

Prior to Sanders and the Progressives, Burlington had become a cultural backwater run by an aging generation, unresponsive to the changing needs of the community. If you attended a council meeting the first question often was, “How long have you lived here?” Political competition was the exception. Clannish Democrats and compliant Republicans made the rules.

The next three decades proved just how much the political establishment underestimated Sanders’ appeal, not to mention the potential for a progressive movement in the city and across the state. By 2011, the Queen City was known nationally for its radical mystique and “livability,” transformed from a provincial town into a cultural Mecca, socially conscious and highly charged. Over the years Burlington’s progressives not only consolidated a base in local government, they challenged the accepted relationship between communities and the state, and helped fuel a statewide progressive surge. They also weathered the storms of succession struggle.

Three progressive mayors managed Burlington for 29 of the 31 years after Sanders’ first win. Although Democrats continued to dominate the City Council during most of that time, and a Republican candidate for mayor could still win, a multi-party political system had changed the shape and style of city government, and, beyond that, fundamentally altered Vermont’s political landscape.