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22/07/2018 07:58 AM
FBI Special Agent Turned GOP Congressman ‘Frankly Sickened’ by Helsinki Meeting: Trump ‘Was Manipulated by Vladimir Putin’
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is a former FBI supervisory special agent in California.

Republican congressman and former FBI agent Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) on Sunday warned Donald Trump “was manipulated by Vladimir Putin,” telling NPR’s Michael Martin he was “frankly sickened by the exchange.”

Speaking on All Things Considered, Fitzpatrick—who sits on the House committee on Foreign Affairs and the House committee on Homeland Security—explained that during his time as an FBI special agent, he worked on counterintelligence and collected Russian propaganda reports, according to NPR.

Fitzpatrick called the Russian president “a master manipulator.” He also said it’s clear the White House is lacking in urgency when it comes to addressing the Russia threat.

"It needs to be accepted as fact by everybody in our government because we need to respond to that reality and it's a significant threat,” Fitzpatrick said. “We cannot let that happen again.”

Fitzpatrick’s declaration came two days after Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) said Trump "actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign."

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22/07/2018 07:36 AM
Conservative Warns Trump is an 'Existential Threat' to the US — And Calls on Republicans to Denounce ‘Putin’s Caddy’
“Last week reminded us that there is nothing normal about Donald Trump or the existential threat he represents."

In an article for the Guardian on Sunday, conservative Charlie Sykes slammed Donald Trump for his performance Monday at a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin—and warned the president poses a unique danger to the United States.

Referencing Trump’s declaration—alongside Putin—that he holds both the United States and Russia accountable for attacks on the United States, the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Syria, Sykes noted no other president would have been able to make such an outrageous claim.

“It is impossible to imagine Reagan or, frankly, any other US president, giving that answer, and it is easy to imagine the outrage among conservatives if Barack Obama had uttered those words,” Sykes wrote. “This was not an errant tweet, or one of Trump’s random insults, outrages or assaults on the truth. Trump’s behavior risked undermining the global world order, alienating our friends and emboldening our enemies.”=

Sykes explained that Trump supporters point to “to tax cuts, rollbacks in regulation and Trump’s appointments of conservative judges” when forced to defend his actions.

“But last week reminded us how many of their values they have been willing to surrender,” Sykes wrote. “Moral relativism and its cousin, moral equivalency, are not bugs of the Trump presidency; they are central to its diplomatic philosophy. Unfortunately, polls suggest that many conservatives are OK with that, despite the betrayal of what were once deeply held beliefs.”

Sykes said the press conference with Putin “ought to have been a clarifying moment,” explaining “Trump was supposed to be the Man on the White Horse who promised that he alone could solve all of our problems.”

“Instead, he looked like Putin’s caddy,” Sykes added.

The conservative writer explained that “many conservatives have confused the swagger of the schoolyard bully with actual strength.” But, what they got from the Putin summit was a deferential Trump.

“We saw how Trump behaves when he’s confronted by an even bigger bully,” Sykes wrote. “He groveled, and then hedged, then tried to walk it all back with the absurdly laughable claim that he confused the word ‘would’ for ‘wouldn’t.’

“Last week reminded us that there is nothing normal about Donald Trump or the existential threat he represents,” Sykes declared. “It is long past time for conservatives and Republicans to recognize that.”

Read the full article at the Guardian.

22/07/2018 06:52 AM
Trump's Department of Energy Neuters Nuclear Oversight Safety Board
Under a new order from the Energy Department, a nuclear safety board will have to fight for information about and access to nuclear laboratories.

This article was produced in partnership with The Santa Fe New Mexican, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

The Trump administration has quietly taken steps that may inhibit independent oversight of its most high-risk nuclear facilities, including some buildings at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a Department of Energy document shows.

An order published on the department’s website in mid-May outlines new limits on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board — including preventing the board from accessing sensitive information, imposing additional legal hurdles on board staff, and mandating that Energy Department officials speak “with one voice” when communicating with the board.

The board has, by statute, operated independently and has been provided largely unfettered access to the nation’s nuclear weapons complexes in order to assess accidents or safety concerns that could pose a grave risk to workers and the public. The main exception has been access to the nuclear weapons themselves.

For many years, the board asked the Department of Energy to provide annual reviews of how well facilities handled nuclear materials vulnerable to a runaway chain reaction — and required federal officials to brief the board on the findings. It also has urged the energy secretary not to restart certain nuclear operations at various sites until work could be done safely.

At Los Alamos, the board has conducted ongoing reviews of the plutonium facility, holding hearings in Santa Fe and in recent years identifying imminent and “major deficiencies” in the building that could put the public at risk in the event of an earthquake. The lab sits on an active and complex geological fault system capable of causing a high magnitude quake.

The Energy Department’s order is the latest effort to limit transparency and weaken the board’s ability to conduct oversight, experts and critics say. And it represents another step by the Trump administration to stall or halt the work done by advisory boards and committees across the federal government, including a scientific advisory board at the Environmental Protection Agency and several of the Department of Labor’s advisory committees established to protect worker safety and health.

“This administration is very regressive,” said Robert Alvarez, who helped draft the legislation that created the board in the 1980s as a senate staff expert for Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and subsequently served as senior policy adviser for former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. “We shouldn’t have to wait for something to blow up or catch fire in order to pay attention to a safety problem.”

The Department of Energy did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but said in a presentation that the order will increase efficiency and decrease costs. “This order does not hinder cooperation with the board or to prevent them from accomplishing their safety oversight responsibilities,” the presentation said. A spokesman for the safety board also declined comment on the order, saying it was in the Energy Department’s purview. The spokesman said the board and staff are waiting to see how it “shakes out.”

The five-member board was formed in 1988 near the close of the Cold War, as the public and Congress began to question the lack of accountability at the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies, which since the end of the Manhattan Project had made their own rules and been entirely self-regulating. At the time, there were reports of widespread radiological contamination at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado and problems at other nuclear facilities. The board’s formation also came on the heels of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Chernobyl, Alvarez said, showed the lax conditions in which nuclear power and materials were being manufactured both in the then-Soviet Union and the United States, and the calamity that could arise from an accident. The board was born out of that understanding, and now relies on a staff of more than 100, several of whom are stationed at lab sites. These staffers create weekly one-page reports that outline mishaps and near-misses and help inform larger recommendations.

The board does not have regulatory power, but for the first two decades of its life, all of its recommendations were adopted by the energy secretary.

Now, Alvarez said, the Department of Energy is trying to “isolate and fence off” the board’s access, part of a “constant effort to chip away at the ability of the board to do oversight.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an email that the board is integral to New Mexico’s weapons labs. The board also oversees facilities in California, Washington state, South Carolina and other states.

“We have seen too many serious safety and security lapses at DOE nuclear sites to accept any attempts to weaken” the board, Udall said, adding that he wants to preserve the board’s “critical role as an independent watchdog for public health and safety.”

He said he will be asking the Department of Energy for a “full account” of how the changes will affect worker safety and public health.

The safety board’s very existence — and its ability to provide nuclear safety information to the public — has been threatened in recent years, advocates of the board say. Last summer, for example, the board’s then-chairman proposed dissolving the board entirely. A few months later, the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Energy Department that oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile, said less information should be made public by the board.

Last September, the board rescinded one its long-pending recommendations, related to emergency safety, after concluding that the Department of Energy failed to understand the problems and that officials did not to intend to remedy them. The board has made no new recommendations since 2015.

Critics of the board, including some of its former leaders, say limiting its access to information may be a good thing.

Sean Sullivan, who retired as the board’s chairman in February, recommended last summer that the board be disbanded, saying it was a relic of the Cold War and its oversight was redundant of the work already done by the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration. The proposal, he said, was a cost-cutting measure but it was opposed by other board members and abandoned.

Sullivan says it makes sense for the Department of Energy to have control over all information released to the public and it has long been frustrated when the safety board autonomously made safety information public.

For instance, Sullivan said, when board staff raised concerns in 2015 about uranium processing at the Y-12 nuclear facility in Tennessee, it was reported by a local paper and caused a headache for the nuclear security administration. Energy officials had yet to discuss problems at the site with congressional representatives from the state.

“Government shouldn’t try to hide things,” said Sullivan, emphasizing that he was speaking as a private citizen, but “if the public gets everything, conclusions may be drawn which are inaccurate — and that in and of itself can be problematic.”

Some of the nuclear security administration’s dissatisfaction with the board was revealed last fall when former Energy Undersecretary Frank Klotz recommended that the board stop publishing its weekly, one-page site reports from several national laboratories, including Los Alamos, online.

Klotz, citing an article about nuclear safety problems at Los Alamos, published in September in The New Mexican, said the reports were unflattering and might discourage workers from bringing issues to light in the future (even though workers are unnamed in the reports), the Center for Public Integrity reported.

Current acting board chairman Bruce Hamilton drew up a proposal recommending the board staff make weekly reports orally to board members, so as to avoid public embarrassment, but it was not adopted and the reports are still available. Around the same time, all Energy Department staff were required to undergo training to “control” the release of unclassified information.

David Jonas, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who served as general counsel for both the National Nuclear Security Administration and the safety board, said there have long been disagreements between the board and the Department of Energy. But there’s never before been such explicit limits on what the safety board can access, as outlined in the order, he said.

“The defense board is going to end up getting a little less information based on this,” he said.

The statute establishing the safety board explicitly gave board members and staff powers of investigation and said the secretary of energy should cooperate fully with the board and provide it “with ready access to such facilities, personnel, and information as the Board considers necessary to carry out its responsibilities.”

The new order appears to add caveats to how the law is carried out. Board members can no longer speak to lab staff without permission from the Department of Energy. The order may also make it difficult for them to access records related to how much radiation exposure workers receive.

While the statute that established the board technically trumps the order, the document gives the Department of Energy “more power to resist the defense board requests” and as a result will delay the process of getting information to the safety board, Jonas said.

He anticipates a legal fight, saying, “It’s a mess.”

Even before the start of the Trump administration, the Department of Energy had been tightening control over information released to the public.

In January 2017, while Barack Obama was still president, the Energy Department deleted several requirements for what types of incidents laboratory managers must report to a federal database used by the safety board to review problems at laboratories. Beginning that fall, labs no longer had to report certain potential safety problems or provide as much information about “near-miss” accidents.

The impact of the change is already apparent. Under the old reporting requirements, the Los Alamos lab detailed 103 incidents in 2016 and 77 incidents in the first nine months of 2017. Under the new order, Los Alamos reported just 13 incidents for the last three months of 2017 and 28 for the first six and a half months of 2018.

Sullivan, on behalf of the board, wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry in May 2017 saying the new requirements “negatively affect safety oversight” and reduce nuclear facilities’ ability to learn from mistakes. (Sullivan personally voted against sending the letter.) Perry declined to make changes, saying the new rules still ensure “safety oversight is not degraded at defense nuclear facilities.”

The safety board voted last month to hold up to three public hearings beginning in late August on the intent of the new order and how it might impact access to information. Hamilton, the board chairman, was the only member to vote against holding the hearings.


22/07/2018 06:29 AM
Exactly How Deep Are the Ties Between Russia And Trump's Republican Party?
Top GOP officials know Russia used them to influence the 2016 election. They just don’t care.
Recent events have driven home the point that Russian influence in American Republican politics is more prevalent than previously thought.

The examples are numerous—and very serious:

  • Donald Trump’s rejection of the conclusion of U.S. intelligence services about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of that interference (and no, the “would/wouldn’t” attempt at a take-back doesn’t cut it).
  • The arrest of Russian agent Maria Butina, who is facing multiple charges and is being held without bail. The details of story and the reports of her offering sex to infiltrate groups like the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party read like a bad spy novel.
  • Threats of Russian prosecution against—or “interrogation” of—11 U.S. citizens. They include longtime Kremlin critic and financier Bill Browder, who was born in the U.S. but is now a British citizen and whose Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in Russian custody; Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, who, of course, had diplomatic immunity; and Kyle Parker, a congressional staffer who wrote most of the Magnitsky Act imposing sanctions on Russia, which has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years. Trump officials pointedly failed to deny that they might cooperate in such prosecution, saying only that it was “discussed” by the two leaders when they met in Helsinki. They have since backed down.
  • The report that Russians were asked for and sent stolen documents about the Democratic opponent of a sitting Republican U.S. congressman during the 2016 election. Some reports identify that congressman as California’s Dana Rohrabacher, who met with Butina in Russia in 2015 and is sometimes described as “Putin’s favorite congressman.”

Condemnation by media, Democrats, and many Republicans has been swift and severe. Trump has made it crystal clear that he has no problem sucking up to Putin, described as his KGBFF by comedian Jimmy Kimmel on his late-night show on ABC. But exactly how deep are the claws of the Russian bear dug into the GOP?

The threats against Americans—especially the former ambassador—are beyond outrageous, and for any member of the Trump administration to play coy about cooperating with such a plan is despicable. Here’s what California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell tweeted about it:

Take this to the bank, @realDonaldTrump: you turn over former U.S. Ambassador @McFaul to Putin, you can count on me and millions others to swiftly make you an ex-president.

— Rep. Eric Swalwell (@RepSwalwell) July 18, 2018

The U.S. State Department was quick to label the Russian claims against the Americans as absurd. Given the strong backlash by the diplomatic and intelligence community, Trump officials abandoned the idea, and the U.S. Senate voted 98-0 on a resolution condemning the proposal.

But the damage has been done. The Daily Beast compiled comments from several current and former U.S. diplomats, who were all horrified at the prospect of turning over a former ambassador to Putin, even quoting one current diplomat who chose to remain anonymous but said he was “at a fucking loss.” From the story:

David Wade, who was Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, said that the White House refusal to disavow Putin on McFaul crossed a line “from demoralizing to dangerous” for American diplomats.

“To even hint that there’s some element of credibility to Russian disruptions and distractions puts a bullseye on the back of any diplomat and invites authoritarian regimes to bully and threaten American public servants for the crime of doing their job. No administration should require a lesson or reminder in why this is reprehensible,” Wade said.

What Trump is willing to admit about Russian interference into the 2016 election is anyone’s guess on any given day, depending on whether he’s standing on a stage in Putin’s shadow or whether he’s half a world away, trying to sound tough with laughable damage control. Trump has made more conflicting claims on the charges of Russian cyberhacking than there are ingredients in borscht.

But there’s no question about what’s true—and that Trump knew it was trueThe New York Times reports that, two weeks before his inauguration in January 2017, Trump was shown detailed, highly-classified intelligence reports that Putin personally ordered cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to sway the election. All along, Trump knew it wasn’t China or some 400-pound guy sitting on his bed.

The story of Maria Butina gets more bizarre with each new set of details. And it’s a tale that reaches further into the GOP, touching many GOP officials, many of whom had photos taken with Butina at NRA conventions, the National Prayer Breakfast, and other instances, which she posted on social media.

Butina faces two charges: conspiracy and acting as a covert agent for Russia’s FSB spy agency. According to a story in The Washington Post:

Butina is accused of trying to cultivate relationships with American politicians to establish “back channel” lines of communication and seeking to infiltrate U.S. political groups, including an unnamed “gun rights organization,” to advance Russia’s agenda. Descriptions in court papers match published reports about Butina’s interactions with the NRA. …

Butina was allegedly assisted in her efforts by a U.S. political operative who helped introduce her to influential political figures. That person was not charged and is not named in court papers, but the description matches that of Paul Erickson, a GOP consultant who sought to organize a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Alexander Torshin, Butina’s Russian colleague and a former Russian senator, at a May 2016 NRA convention.

Butina is described as “a former furniture store owner from Siberia and gun-rights activist.” She questioned Trump during a 2015 town hall meeting (no coincidence, I’m sure) about his plans for Russia; met with Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 NRA convention; and met with many Republican officials at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Deemed a flight risk, she is being held in custody before her trial.

And speaking of the NRA, the gun industry’s reported ties to Russia also are documented. According to a story from Newsweek

The National Rifle Association has accepted contributions from at least 23 Russia-linked donors since 2015, the gun rights group revealed in a letter addressed to Congress. The admission came after Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, prodded the NRA as part of an investigation into what political organizations may have been used by Russia to influence the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.

The money totaled $2,500, with most of it coming from subscriptions or membership dues, according to the letter, which was ... first reported on by NPR. About $525 of that money came from "two individuals who made contributions to the NRA," wrote John Frazer, the general counsel for the gun rights group. The 23 people "may include U.S. citizens living in Russia," the NRA said.

Sure, $2,500 sounds like chump change when you consider the fact that the NRA gave more than $30 million to the Trump campaign and other Republicans. But it goes deeper than that. According to reporting by NPR, Alexander Torshin, now deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and someone who is currently barred from entering the U.S., has spent six years building relationships with multiple NRA officials and past presidents, trying to gain greater access to GOP politicians.

Top GOP officials know all this and don’t care. According to an analysis in The Nation:

Russiagate isn’t just the narrow story of a few corrupt officials. It isn’t even the story of a corrupt president. It’s the story of a corrupt political party, the one currently holding all the levers of power in Washington. After Trump groveled before Putin in Helsinki, many Republicans in Washington proclaimed their solemn concern, just as they did when the president expressed his sympathy for the white supremacists in Charlottesville last year. But all of them are fully aware that they are abetting a criminal conspiracy, and probably more than one. ...

[Special Counsel Robert] Mueller, who knows more than anyone in the media about the extent of the Russiagate scandal and never leaks, isn’t telling us that Trump colluded and obstructed justice—we already know that, because we literally saw Trump request on camera, in the summer of 2016, that Russia hack the Clinton campaign, just as we later saw him bluntly admit to the world that he fired James Comey to end the Russia investigation.

Instead, we are being told something much more frightening: that Russiagate doesn’t end with Trump and his inner circle, that some members of Congress may be implicated, and that the Republican leadership therefore has a personal stake in preventing anyone beyond [former Trump campaign Chair Paul] Manafort and a few other flunkies from being held accountable.

So Donnie, I hope you enjoy your friendship with Vlad, however one-sided it might be. This satire of a Facebook clip, made a few months after the 2016 election by the comedy filmmaker team of Evan and Adam Nix (the Nix Bros.), sums it up perfectly.

22/07/2018 04:39 AM
Here's Why Americans Hate Big Government — Even When They Benefit From It
Political scientist Suzanne Mettler explains “The Government-Citizen Disconnect” and why it's undermining our democracy.

For 40 years, Republicans have attacked Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as a disastrous failure. Suddenly, last month, President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors stood decades of history on its head, much as Trump himself did when he claimed, “Hillary Clinton started birtherism, and I ended it!” The War on Poverty was a tremendous success, Trump’s CEA said in a new report. Poverty is no longer problem. But dependency on government is: The remaining problem is “the decline of self-sufficiency”!

“Between 1961 and 2016, consumption-based poverty fell from 30 percent to 3 percent, amounting to a 90 percent decline,” the report claimed. “Based on historical standards of material wellbeing and the terms of engagement, our War on Poverty is largely over and a success.”  

But the so-called “consumption-based poverty” rate is absurd on its face, as seen in a chart accompanying that text, showing less poverty during the Great Recession than during the dot-com boom a decade earlier — a rare period of tight labor markets and rising wages, even for low-wage workers.

In short, as is often the case in Trumplandia, the narrative had nothing to do with reality. But the narrative is a powerful one, echoing Mitt Romney’s scorn for the 47 percent of Americans he labeled as “takers.”

Fortunately, a new book by Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler seems custom-made for blowing this report to bits, as well as illuminating a complex history at odds with many common myths. “The Government-Citizen Disconnect” explains that government social spending has grown substantially over the years — more so in red states than blue — even as wages have largely stagnated ever since the 1970s. Never before have so many Americans gotten so much from their government in so many different ways, or appreciated it so little.

Examining 21 federal programs — Social Security, Medicaid, SNAP, the home mortgage interest deduction, etc. — Mettler finds that 96 percent of adults have received benefits from at least one of these policies, and that the average person has utilized five. What’s more, those who get the most tend to have the most negative anti-government attitudes. Rather than shedding light on what’s happening in America today, the CEA report can best be understood as a classic symptom of the long-standing disconnect that Mettler explores in her new book.

The relationship between government social benefits and the health of democracy has been a recurrent theme throughout Mettler’s work. On the most positive side, in “Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation,” she found that the GI Bill didn’t just help millions of veterans join the middle class, it inspired them to become active participants in civic organizations as well as politics,  producing a civic "golden age." On the other hand, in “The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy,” she explored how benefits distributed indirectly — through tax breaks or services from private companies (as with Obamacare subsidies) — obscure the role of government, as well as responsibility for who benefits most.

Throughout all her books, we can see how government policies have the potential to enrich people’s lives materially as well as encouraging their participation as citizens — or how they can fail to do so. In “The Government-Citizen Disconnect,” Mettler focuses on the central dilemma of how government programs over the past 40 years have come to produce civic and material results so profoundly at odds with one another.  

Salon spoke with her about her book, about the disconnect, and about what it means for America as a functioning democracy. 

I want to begin by asking about the subject of your book — the government-citizen disconnect, and two things you've said about it. You write that "while trust in government has eroded and suspicion and hostility have grown, people are more reliant on government than ever." Secondly, you've written, "What is at stake here is not only the future of American social provision but, more importantly, the well-being of democratic governance," which goes to its significance.  

I was actually really surprised by it too. I have been, for many years, studying changes in the rates of Americans who use 21 different federal social policies. When I began this research a long time ago, I thought that some of these policies were atrophying in coverage. But when I got back to the project, I found that, really, policies across the board have increased their coverage, at different rates. We’re in a long period now, since the 1980s, of hostility toward government social programs on the part of conservatives, and that has continued. But they only succeeded in getting one major policy decimated, and of course that was AFDC — Aid to Families with Dependent Children — in 1996.

Every other policy has remained intact, and coverage has grown. When you look at it across time, what you find is that when you add up all these policies — if you’re looking at just the direct, visible policies, in 1969 they made up 7 percent of the average American’s income, and now it’s 17 percent.  Then I looked further and included policies in what I previously called the "submerged state," policies in the tax code that serve the same purposes as the other policies — like housing, health care, and so on — but we often don't think of them as social policies, because of their design. If you add those in, the average American adult uses about 4.5 policies in their lifetime. So those policies are very common, and people are using lots of different social policies, at different times for different reasons. Yet on all sorts of indicators, people's attitudes about government and become more negative over the past several decades.

You look back to the middle of the 20th century, and Americans had very high levels of trust in government. On measures that we call political advocacy, statements like "government officials don't care about people like me," or "I have no say what government does," most Americans would disagree with those negative statements back then, whereas now the vast majority agree with those. It's been a change over time, so that started back in the Vietnam era, with Watergate, etc., but then it's really increased over time. What surprising is if you look back at that time, in the middle of the 20th century, we actually asked a lot more of citizens then. Tax rates were higher then, and we had conscription during the Vietnam War, with men having to serve in the military. Now, relatively speaking, we don’t ask vmuch of citizens, we give them more in terms of social benefits, and yet people have these very poor attitudes. So that's the paradox that I'm trying to grapple with in the book. That's the puzzle.

So that's the nature of the disconnect. What about its significance?

First of all, it means that these policies are constantly under attack. When you look at who participates in politics, people who are not very well aware of the policies they use are most likely to participate. So higher income people participate more, and most of their benefits come through the tax code. People aren't thinking much about government doing much for them.

The Trump administration has made several efforts, most recently through the new CEA report and recommendations, to add work requirements to some of the most frequently used social policies — SNAP (previously called “food stamps”) and Medicaid -- and to refer to these programs as “welfare.”  We used to reserve that term solely for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a policy that was terminated in 1996, and replaced by the more restrictive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which is now used by less than 1 percent of Americans annually. But now conservatives are trying to reignite and widen the war on welfare with these efforts to stigmatize more policies, treating them as if they are for the “undeserving,” and undermining their legitimacy.  

As a political strategy, it makes sense, in that those who rely on means-tested policies are less likely to participate in politics than others, so they lack political clout. Meanwhile a good share of Americans, over 40 percent, hold very unfavorable views of welfare.

But in fact, the average American uses a means-tested policy at some point in his or her life. We rely on the safety net when unemployment soars, as it did in the Great Recession; furthermore, changes in the economy and workplace since the mid-20th century have made these programs all the more important, given slow wage growth, increased job insecurity and fewer jobs that offer benefits.

Then there are the larger concerns that I see about Americans lacking confidence in government. This is something I’ve worried about for a long time, yet it seemed kind of like an academic concern not that long ago. Now it's more of a real concern. We’re been in a long period where our major political discourse is anti-government discourse, and people have bought into that. What this country is founded on is the principle of self-government, that we can govern ourselves, and yet what people are endorsing, really, is thinking of our own government as the enemy. That is in the long-term fundamentally detrimental to our capacity as a society to engage in collective action, to work together across differences and to make headway on all the challenges that are facing us.

One of the things you write about is the theory of policy feedback. That's something people outside the field may not be familiar with, but it’s important for focusing attention on the experiential foundations of policymaking and reality-based self-governance. Can you explain what that is?

Policy feedback is a concept that's been around now for a few decades among political scientists. It means that policies, once established, can have the effect of reshaping politics. They may affect who participates in politics, or the kinds of political demands people make. For example, Social Security, as Andrea Campbell at MIT has shown, has over time fostered more political activity among senior citizens who wanted to protect the benefits, and it's been quite protected over time, because of that dynamic.

In this book, I was looking more broadly at how the use of policies affect people's attitudes about government, generally speaking. I did not find compelling evidence that there's much impact. I found that people who use visible means-tested policies, there are some policy feedback effects for their attitudes about government. They're more likely to think "government has helped me in times of need," or "government has provided opportunities for me to improve my standard of living," that kind of thing.

But overall, I thought that the policies that are hidden in the tax code would not have much impact, and they don’t. I was surprised that the visible policies did not have more of an impact on people's attitudes about government. I thought they would, across the board, have more positive effects than they do, and for the most part they have not had much impact.  So I don't think people connect the dots very much. I don't think they think, "You know, if I look across my lifetime, government was there for me in various instances, and therefore I think government cares about people like me." Not many people make that connection.

You point out that in both 2012, when Romney made his infamous "47 percent" remark, and in 2016, the Republicans won more states that are more dependent on government. Why is significant and not just some odd quirk?

It's really interesting, Romney had made that comments suggesting that people who use government benefits are more likely to support the Democrats. When I look at the Electoral College and the average usage of social benefits by state there's not really a relationship. There are plenty of solidly red states that were in Romney’s column and then in Trump’s column that rely heavily on social benefits. So then it's like the plot thickens: Here you have people in areas that rely a lot on social benefits, and yet they are electing people who are often promising to scale back those benefits. We've seen a lot of that in recent years. And so that's a problem piece. What's going on? What can explain this?

I think various different things are at play. In the analyses that I did, one factor that was consistently significant, and shaped people's attitudes about government in a negative direction, was their views about welfare. When people are asked about welfare, about 45 percent of Americans will say they have unfavorable views of it,. It turns out that that is a very significant determinant of their broader views about government.

Because if people look at that one policy — whatever they mean by that — and they extrapolate, they’re thinking that government has these policies that I don't think are fair or right, and that's basically what government is: It gives special advantages to people who don't work to pay their own way, it gets them special benefits and doesn't take care of people like me who work hard, etc. I think conservatives have managed to capitalize on that kind of approach and that has served them well. For example, I look at the state of Kentucky.

Yes I wanted to ask about the history there, over time. I thought it was fascinating.

To me, this is just a book full of puzzles and paradoxes, and Kentucky is one of them. I felt like if I could understand what's happening in Kentucky, I could understand American politics. You go back to as recently as the 1980s, and Kentucky was sending moderate Democrats to Congress, and they included some progressives who were responsible for some really important social and educational social policies. By the 1990s, they begin to send moderate Republicans to Congress. And then, from the mid-'90s to the present, their delegation becomes more and more conservative, so that they're sending Tea Party folks and Freedom Caucus folks to Congress. But at the same time — I have a graph [below] in the book that shows this — the proportion of the average Kentuckian's income that comes from the federal government increases dramatically, from 10 percent in 1970 to 23 percent in 2015.

I drill down to the congressional district level. For example, in Kentucky's 6th District, the congressman's name is Andy Barr, and he's one of the proponents of having work requirements and time limits for food stamps. In some counties in his district, 52 percent of the average person's income comes from federal social transfers. This is just mind-boggling.

So I tried to learn what I can about this. That philosophy about welfare is probably a factor that comes into play there. I looked at the determinants of those negative attitudes about welfare. There's long been attention to race, and I do find that race is significant, that whites are more likely than people of color to be anti-welfare. But the other factor that is highly significant is income growth. I divided up the respondents into all these subgroups, and each of the middle-income groups had a very negative feeling toward welfare, much more, more so than both low-income people and high-income people.

You have people who we been in this long era of rising economic inequality, where for middle-income people and low-income people their wages have been pretty stagnant, or in some occupations deteriorating over time. So I think people have felt like they're not getting ahead, their kids are not having greater opportunities, and the Republican Party in Kentucky has effectively made the case of connecting the dots for them in a way that says the problem is Democrats and their environmental policies which have been detrimental to the coal industry and so on. Now, if you dig down, there's not good evidence for that, but they have managed to command the narrative and gives people an explanation. And while Americans generally like the policies they use, when it comes to these more general principles, they are still very anti-government. I'm sure there's other things that play into it, but those are some of the main things that stood out to me.

You look at two specific policy areas in more detail, and I’d like to ask you about them. First, your comparison of welfare and the earned-income tax credit.

This is something else I found really boggling. So the earned-income tax credit, for sociologists or economists who write about it, it's a big success. It's our largest anti-poverty program now, that has a big impact in raising a lot of people's household incomes above the poverty level. From that point of view, it's quite successful. Respondents like it very much; they feel it’s a policy that treats them with dignity and respect. They get to go to the offices of H&R Block to fill out their tax forms and get the returns; they like it much better than when they went to these dark, dingy welfare offices where they were treated in a way that was very disrespectful.

But I wanted to know: What is the political impact of that? Does that make people feel better about government? I thought maybe it would, and to the contrary, I found that it does not have an impact, and in fact, people who use EITC have very negative attitudes about government, and those attitudes remain intact and unaffected by EITC. What that says to me is that these people are the working poor, whose lives have been very difficult in recent decades. They epitomize what I've been saying about people who are middle-income and yet they’re seeing less opportunity, they’re not getting ahead, and I think they’re borne much of the brunt of that.

There's also, for people in that group, a sense of this fiscal cliff: They may have qualified for some other social benefits for a time, and then, just when they start making more income, suddenly they no longer qualify for those things, such as food stamps, for example. So then they're more resentful. We did a bunch of open-ended, in-depth interviews with people to try to explore what they were thinking about these policies. That's what many people told us, that they felt that government was unfair because people would make more income and then they wouldn’t qualify for things.

That's what I saw happening with the earned income tax credit. Now those individuals – when we compared them to AFDC and TANF beneficiaries, those [latter] folks were more likely to have more positive attitudes about government, but the EITC folks were more likely to vote, more likely to participate in politics than the AFDC/TANF beneficiaries. So it illustrates that wider pattern I was finding. It's interesting because most policies in the tax code are for high-income people. They’re submerged, people use them but they don't think government has done anything for them. I wondered, would that be different for these low-income people who are EITC beneficiaries? But it's the same basic pattern. I think a general pattern of these policies and tax codes is that people view it not as government giving them a benefit, but rather them getting to keep more of their own money, simply because of the way it’s distributed, designed and delivered.

Another issue area you focused on was higher education, and the different forms of support involved. What did your comparison of those different forms of support show?

There again, policies with the most visible design have an impact. So people who used the G.I. Bill, and Pell Grants are — controlling for other factors — more likely to feel that government has provided opportunities them to improve their standard of living. I was really struck by these findings. It's consistent with early research I’ve done with other data sets. I wrote a book about the World War II G.I. Bill, and found it really had a very positive impact in different ways.

In each of these instances, what you're seeing is that when policies are delivered in a way that government’s role is clear, it has a different impact than when it’s channeled through the tax code, as is the case with say the 529 benefits or the American Opportunity Tax Credit or student loans, which is a hybrid sort of policy — it's visible in some ways, but less so in others, and does not have that much of an impact on people's feelings that government cares about them or has provided opportunities.

What would be your broadest, major takeaway from all this?

The major takeaway is that people's views about welfare was the one thing that was consistent in every single model I ran, every attitude that we looked at. People's views about welfare were highly significant. Some of those other things about people's social identities and partisan affiliations, they would pop up in one model or another, but not with the same clear pattern that there was about views about welfare.

Returning to something touched on before, about the different levels of participation — both for voting and otherwise. You showed that America's voting gap is quite large. No other country is really similar, but it's invisible, virtually, in terms of the political discourse. It’s not a subject that gets a lot of air time, ink or electrons. These people don't vote, and the issues that matter for them just sort of disappear from the conversation. What did you find? And why does it matter?

I'm not really breaking new ground here, there's a big scholarship that shows that people who are lower-income and have less education are less likely to vote. I'm just adding to that: Yes, these are people who use these particular policies and their voices are not heard. We have known for a while, from scholars that study economic inequality, that politicians respond particularly to high income people. There's really great work on this by Martin Gilens at UCLA, for example, and this underscores that same finding. The policies that benefit higher-income people tend to be protected, and policies that benefit lower-income people tend to be under attack more often.

I like to end my interviews by asking what's most important question I didn't ask. What would that be for you? And what’s the answer?

Maybe where this leaves us is: Where do we go from here? What can be done? I've been talking for a while in my work about how we ought to create policies where government's role is more visible, and we ought to deliver policies in a way where we're trying to make that evident to people. For those things to happen, I think you have to have the political will, and right now that's not the case. What I actually think is more significant now is organizing on the ground, interacting with people and helping to connect the dots for them.

If you go back to the middle of the 20th century, when many more Americans belonged to labor unions than today, labor unions helped to make it more evident to people what difference government makes to them, and what policies were helpful. The AARP does that and continues to do that for retired people, on the role of Medicare and Social Security in their lives. But we don't have many other organizations that do that. For these problems we have been talking about, and lots of others that are confronting American democracy these days, it's necessary for people to become active at the grassroots level in organizations, and for those organizations to make these connections with people.

22/07/2018 04:00 AM
Michael Avenatti Shuts Down Trump-Backing Alan Dershowitz Over His Poor Record of Accuracy: 'Don't Interrupt Me'
“Do you know what Michael Cohen has shared with me?” Avenatti asked.

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for adult film star Stormy Daniels on Sunday shut down frequent Donald Trump defender Alan Dershowitz, who attempted to admonish Avenatti for claiming to be privy to more tapes made by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen.

Avenatti and Dershowitz were speaking on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” about a report, published Friday in the New York Times, that revealed Cohen secretly taped at least one conversation with the Trump. Avenatti repeated a claim he’s made before, namely that “there are multiple tapes of President Trump number one.”

“That ultimately is going to prove to be a big problem for the president, you know, that old adage—you live by the sword and die by the sword—will be true in this case because the president knew his attorney had a predisposition towards taping conversations with people, and Cohen had shared tapes with the president along the way during the ten years of legal representation,” Avenatti said. “Donald Trump knew better, and it's shocking to me that he now expresses shock about being taped.”

“I have a question for Michael Avenatti,” Dershowitz later said. “How do you know there are other tapes? You're not in a position where you could possibly know that properly. How do you know there are other tapes involving the president of the United States? Are you privy to what was seized from the office? That's a very important question. I wish you would answer it.”

“I'm not going to answer your question because I don't have to answer your question, but suffice it to say, Alan, that my accuracy rate over the last six months has been a lot better than yours as it relates to this matter,” Avenatti remarked.

“I’m not getting into anything personal,” Dershowitz replied. “I just want to know how you know.”

“Please don't interrupt me,” Avenatti said. “Please don’t interrupt me, okay? My accuracy rate over the last six months has been spot on in this case and if I'm wrong, why don't we have Mr. Trump or his attorneys come forward today, right now, and claim there are no other tapes? You're not going to hear that because—you’re not going to hear that because there are other tapes, period.”

“You miss my point,” Dershowitz said. “My point is you're probably—if you're right, if you are right, we have a real problem. Not if you are wrong. If you're right, then you have access to information that's supposed to be sealed and supposed to be secret. How do you have that information? How are you right? How did you get that information that nobody else knows? You're not in a position where you have been given that information properly. So I think you do have an obligation to answer that question.”

“I would think he could have had access to the information before this investigation into Cohen began,” Dan Abrams (this reporter’s former boss, full disclosure) suggested. “I don't know the answer to, that but that's my guess. It hasn't always been a criminal investigation, and apparently this has been happening according to Michael Avenatti for years.”

“That's one possibility,” Dershowitz relented.

“Alan, let me say this,” Avenatti said. “All the information the FBI seized, that's not under lock and key. The only way it would be improper for me to have it is if the FBI gave it to me. I could have receive it from Michael Cohen, one of his counsel, or others. There is a host of ways I could have obtained it.”

“How?” Dershowitz demanded.

“I could have received it from Michael Cohen I could have received it from Michael Cohen’s counsel,” Avenatti explained. “… If I’m wrong about it Let them come forward and state that I'm wrong.”

“You're right about it and you shouldn't have the information,” Dershowitz insisted.

“Do you know what Michael Cohen has shared with me?” Avenatti asked.

“I don’t,” Dershowitz said.

“Thank you,” Avenatti replied.

Watch below.

22/07/2018 03:12 AM
Trey Gowdy Calls on Trump Advisers to Resign If He Won't Listen on Russia: 'The Evidence is Overwhelming and the President Needs to Say That'
"The president has access to every bit of evidence,” Trey Gowdy explained. “Even more than those of us on House Intelligence [Committee] ... The evidence is overwhelming.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) on Sunday called on top intelligence officers to step down if President Donald Trump refuses to accept their assessment that the Russian government is interfering in U.S. elections.

In an interview on Fox News, guest host Bret Baier asked Gowdy why Trump continues to suggest that Russia may not have been responsible for the 2016 election attack, even as the president claims that he accepts the intelligence community’s assessment about the Kremlin’s role.

Gowdy said that he had watched Trump’s press conference with Putin and concluded that Trump had told a “lie” when he said that Russia most likely did not interfere in the 2016 election, a claim that Trump later walked back.

“I can tell you this, Brett, the president has access to every bit of evidence,” Gowdy explained. “Even more than those of us on House Intelligence [Committee]. He has access to Pompeo and Chris Wray and Dan Coats and Nikki Haley. The evidence is overwhelming.”
The committee chairman went on to say that Trump intelligence officials should resign if the president continues to disregard their advice.
“It can be proven beyond any evidentiary burden that Russia is not our friend and they tried to attack us in 2016, so the president either needs to rely on the people that he has chosen to advise him, or those advisors need to reevaluate whether or not they can serve in this administration,” Gowdy said. “But the disconnect cannot continue. The evidence is overwhelming and the president needs to say that and act like it.”
“We got a classified briefing this week,” Gowdy explained “There is no way you can listen to the evidence and not conclude, not that the Democrats were the victims, but the United States of America with the victims. We were the victims of what Russia did in 2016.”
Baier pointed out that Trump had extended an invitation for Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Washington, D.C. before informing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
“I do think it strange. I will also say this,” Gowdy opined. “I think that the United States of America sometimes has to meet with people that we don’t have anything in common with… This country is different. We do things differently. We set the standard for the rest of the world. The fact that we have to talk to you about Syria or other matters is very different from issuing an invitation. This should be reserved.”
Before concluding the interview, Baier asked Gowdy about the news that a FISA warrant accuses former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page of conspiring with the Russian government.

“My take is that Carter Page is more like Inspector Gadget then he is Jason Bourne or James Bond,” Gowdy quipped. “I’m sure he’s been on the FBI’s radar for a long time, well before 2016. Here’s what we will never know, we will never know whether or not the FBI had enough without the [Steele] dossier, the DNC-funded dossier because they included it and everyone who reads this FISA application sees the amount of reliance they placed on this product funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC.”

Watch the video below from Fox News.

22/07/2018 02:04 AM
Evangelical Christians Try to Defend Their Support of ‘Sinner Trump’ in Stunning Interviews: 'We Rationalize the Immoral Things Away'
Christians in the Bible Belt voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. How do they reconcile his actions with their beliefs?

In a deep dive into how Evangelical Christians are able to reconcile their deeply held beliefs with their support for President Donald Trump, the Washington Post discovered a considerable amount of compromise along with a belief that he may be part of God’s plan despite his un-Christian life.

As the Post reports, “It was summer, and all over the Bible Belt, support for President Trump was rising among voters who had traditionally proclaimed the importance of Christian character in leaders and warned of the slippery slope of moral compromise. In Crenshaw County, where Luverne is located, Trump had won 72 percent of the vote.”

“Recent national polls showed the president’s approval among white evangelical Christians at a high of 77 percent,” the report added. “One survey indicated that his support among Southern Baptists was even higher, surpassing 80 percent, and these were the people arriving on Sunday morning to hear what their pastor had to say.”

Interviews with Christian congregants in the Alabama community revealed a stubbornness to attack Trump for his faults, with one member of the First Baptist church remarking Trump is God’s chosen one. According to Jewell Killough, 82, “Oh, I feel like the Lord heard our prayers and gave us a second chance before the end times,” The retiree went on to defend the President from the slings and arrows of  national reportage on his missteps and history of womanizing, saying, “I think they are trying to frame him.” According to Brett Green, 33, he was directed to vote for Trump by the “Holy Spirit.” “That’s why we have the Holy Spirit,” Green explained. Saying his support of the president is “like a gut feeling” despite Trump’s failings. Green went so far as to defend Trump’s Un-Christain comments about taking strangers in, referring to when the president reportedly asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?”

“Jesus Christ was born in Nazareth, and Nazareth was a shithole at that time,” Green rationalized. “Someone might say, ‘How could anything good come out of a place like that?’ Well, Jesus came out of a place like that.”

Green’s wife, Misty, a 32-year-old federal worker, expressed displeasure with Trump’s habit of insulting people, such as calling them “stupid” or “loser, ” but she wasn’t ready to condemn him.

“A lot of his actions I don’t agree with,” she stated. “But we are not to judge.”

Fellow congregant Jack Jones, admitted that he has struggled with reports of Trump’s infidelities, stating, “We stick strictly to the Bible that a divorced man is not able to be a deacon,” while pointedly mentioning allegations that the President had an affair with an adult film start and a Playboy Playmate.

“It’s difficult, that’s for sure,” He stated, with his wife, Linda, chiming, in, “George Washington had a mistress. Thomas Jefferson did, too. Roosevelt had a mistress with him when he died. Eisenhower. Kennedy.”

“None of the  are lily-white,” her husband agreed.

Like many members of the church, Terry Drew said that abortion is front and center when it comes to support for Trump and that he is willing to look the other way because he believes Trump is anti-choice.

“I hate it,” he explained. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this.”

The alternative, in their view was Hillary Clinton, who they described as “Of Satan.”

“She hates me,” Drew confided . “She has contempt for people like me, and [First Baptist Pastor Clay Crum], and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.”

You can read the rest of their comments here.

22/07/2018 01:47 AM
Accused Annapolis Shooter Had A Deep Connection to This Alt-Right Theology of Mass Murder
Jarrod Ramos had connections to vengeful right-wing theology, and a hero complex drawn from violent anime

When news broke of an active shooting at the Capital Gazette, my local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, I tweeted editor Rick Hutzell to ask if he was safe, and how I could help. When police announced the arrest of 38-year-old Jarrod Ramos as the suspect in the mass shooting, I, like many others, delved into his Twitter accounts.

I was shocked when I realized that Ramos – whom a grand jury just indicted on 23 charges, including five counts of first-degree murder – had contacted me two years ago. He taunted me in response to the Capital’s March 2015 report about how I had helped law enforcement thwart a mass shooting threat made on Twitter against grade school kids and Jews in Kalispell, Montana, by a man named David J. Lenio.

What I learned about Ramos, as I followed his Twitter trail, reveals as strange a worldview as one could imagine informing a mass-murder scenario. There are at least two main influences evident in Ramos' tweets. One is a worldview taken from the theocratic wing of the alt-right, and the other comes from a violent anime subculture centered around a popular manga, anime and film series titled “Berserk.” Taken together, they provide a Rosetta Stone that allows us to translate the significance of two religious visions, in relation to each other, as they existed in Ramos' mind.

I believe these mutually informing visions allowed Ramos to cast himself as a vigilante hand of God. His theocratic worldview, combined with his immersion in the world of "Berserk," helps to solve the mystery of his cryptic, final tweet and illuminate his possible motive for mass murder.

For all of Ramos’ vividly imagined righteousness, this story begins with a woman-hating, angry man. That there is a misogynist root to Ramos’ rage-filled rampage is no surprise. Numerous male mass murderers have backgrounds of stalking and harassing women, especially online. Ramos’ beef with the Capital goes back to his ill-conceived defamation suit against the paper, its publisher and a columnist for reporting on his guilty plea for the online harassment of a woman he had known slightly in high school. In court documents he objected to the Capital’s report that, after he had not heard from the woman in months, he told her, “Fuck you, leave me alone.” Ramos told the judge that he felt it unfair that the reporter had not allowed him to offer an explanation. He complained to the judge, “That carries a clear implication that something is wrong inside my head, that I’m insane.”

Whether Ramos is sane is a matter for the court to determine. But there is an explanation for these hostile words – which he cribbed from the protagonist in "Berserk" – and it has to do with Ramos’ worldview, which needs to be more clearly understood.

The alt-right half of the Rosetta Stone

I believe Ramos contacted me initially because the Capital had reported on my connection to David Lenio, a white nationalist who had tweeted threats of a possible mass shooting, and also because I was researching and writing about ties between a local politician named Michael Peroutka and a right-wing group called the League of the South.

The League is a theocratic, secessionist organization whose leader, Michael Hill, had called for the formation of death squads targeting journalists, elected officials and other members of “the elite.” In his essay “A Bazooka in Every Pot,” Hill described such an assassination campaign as part of “fourth-generation warfare,” a style of decentralized conflict that blurs the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians.

Hill wrote: “To oversimplify, the primary targets will not be enemy soldiers; instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite without whom the engines of tyranny don’t run.”

That was not Hill’s only overt call to violence. He followed up with another essay calling for young men of “Christendom” to become “citizen-soldiers” to destroy the “galloping tyranny” of our time.

As for Peroutka, he is a neo-Confederate theocrat who thinks that the wrong side won the Civil War and that our real national anthem is “Dixie.” He is also a former board member of the League, which had endorsed his successful 2014 campaign for a seat on Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Council, running as a Republican. This is the same League that helped organize the infamous torch-lit Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.

Over a period of nearly seven years, Peroutka is one of only two politicians whom Ramos tweeted about – the other being Donald Trump, who has repeatedly vilified journalists.

Jarrod Ramos is not affiliated with any political party, and there is no evidence that he was politically motivated or that he acted on anyone’s orders. On the other hand, as Salon’s Paul Rosenberg has reported, he was influenced by the rhetoric and ideology of the racist alt-right. And like Hill, Ramos showed bold belligerence toward managerial elites whom he viewed as enemies.

For example, Ramos wrote in his @EricHartleyFrnd Twitter bio (which he named in apparent mockery of a former Capital columnist whom Ramos had sued unsuccessfully for defamation), “Dear reader: I created this page to defend myself. Now I’m suing the shit out of half of AA County and making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.”

Justice and public safety require that we consider the context, including multiple influences and possible triggers, when a suspect faces mass murder charges. Therefore, it is fair and necessary to ask whether President Trump’s demagoguery against journalists could trigger some lone nut to murder them. As researcher Chip Berlet has written, sociologists call such a violent response to coded rhetoric “scripted violence” – and “heroes know which villains to kill.” Followers thus don’t require specific orders, but gather a sense of validation and righteousness in carrying out a violent campaign of societal purification against people designated as corrupting influences.

This suspect had a simmering feud for seven years with the Capital, its former publisher and Eric Hartley, the former columnist whom he had sued unsuccessfully. Ramos created a website on which he posted documents and communications about his case, describing himself as an agent of “the Inquisition” and “a crusader” who answered to a “Higher Authority” than civil government and who meted out literal “carnage” to his foes.

Ramos wrote of his perceived enemies: "The authority that permits their power also stands poised to punish its abuse. Even kings must answer to God, and a modern day Inquisition is at hand. The potential judgement is no less severe; the carnage differs only in literal terms. As this search for Truth commences, a crusader they could not kill approaches."

His crusade targeted court officials as well as journalists, whom he considered dishonest. For example, Ramos tweeted a quote from German poet Paul Gerhardt: “When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” Ramos concluded, “Time to slay some murderous shitbag esquires." In another tweet criticizing “inequity in the MD justice system,” he said: "Here's to Higher Authority hearing and #hurting."

To Ramos, defamation is a violation of common law but, more important, a violation of God’s law that is worthy of hellfire.

For example, he once tweeted: “Catholicism still says liars go to hell.”

He also tweeted, without attribution or citation, a quote from a 16th-century church court case: “Again, my unruly tongue, if it were not punished, it would not only set more of you on fire, but it would bolden others to do the like.” This quote is from a confession to defamation in Mitford v. Shaw, an ecclesiastical court case from 1569-70. Church courts in England had jurisdiction over cases of defamation when the plaintiff’s claim was not for money damages but for the correction of a sin. (Common law courts oversaw claims for money damages.) Church courts sentenced violators to do public penance, on pain of excommunication.

In the Mitford case, when the church court found Charles Shaw guilty of slander, he did penance by standing up in church, wearing linen apparel, and reading his confessional statement, which equates slander to murder, worthy of divine retribution.

Shaw stated, “I acknowledge thus to slander my Christian brother is an heinous offence, first towards God, who hath straightly forbidden it in his holy laws, accounting it to be a kind of murdering of my neighbor, and threatening to punish it with hellfire and the loss of the kingdom of heaven.”

Modern-day theocrats, such as Peroutka, would like to see ecclesiastical courts replace the American judicial system. At a 2016 Summer of Justice rally in Wichita, Kansas, which took place the same week as the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Peroutka called on his fellow Christian nationalists to “take dominion over these positions of civil authority” in order to “interpose” against laws that don’t square with their notion of God’s law.

Peroutka claimed that the only valid laws are ones which adhere to this fundamentalist vision of the Constitution and the Bible. “What if the Congress did pass a law allowing abortion? And then what if a sitting president signed it and a sitting court validated it?” he asked. “Would it be the law? No, of course not.” Then he slung on his guitar and filmed the crowd for a video for his new song, “Courts cannot make law.”

Near the end of the Summer of Justice, the anti-abortion group Operation Save America staged a kangaroo “ecclesiastical court” which declared that Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, marriage equality and the removal of government-sponsored prayer in schools were contrary to God’s law. Eight “judges” took turns reading “charges” against the Supreme Court and then declared their decisions “null and void.”

The judges included the Rev. Matt Trewhella, leader of the Milwaukee-based Missionaries to the Preborn, who had signed a statement in 1993 declaring that the murder of abortion providers was “justifiable homicide.” Convicted murderers Paul Hill and Michael Griffin later unsuccessfully used “justifiable homicide” defenses in their trials for killing abortion providers.

Ramos’ tweets make clear that in his theological view, journalists who had allegedly framed him and court officers who had supposedly lied about him were as guilty as murderers and would ultimately answer to God. He saw himself as an agent of divine retribution. He was not subtle about how he would punish the sin of defamation.

He tweeted: “Awaiting reprisal, death will be their acquisition.” This is a misquoted lyric from a thrash metal song by Slayer, “Raining Blood.” The actual line is: “Awaiting reprisal, death will be their acquittance.” The song ends with a vision of victims’ blood deluging a revenge-driven killer: “Raining blood from a lacerated sky, bleeding its horror, creating my structure. Now I shall reign in blood!”

“Ramos came to see himself as some kind of vigilante for righteousness, casting himself for example as a 'crusader' and gunning down innocent people in a newsroom," Political Research Associates analyst Frederick Clarkson told Salon. This vision was "not unlike the militaristic, millennial vision of Michael Hill,” he continued. “Last year [Hill] rallied what he calls the Southern Defense Force, which he envisions as not just a modern Confederate army but the ‘Army of the True Living God.’”

So it makes sense that Ramos, who has metaphorically casts himself as a Christian holy warrior, would identify with Peroutka, a dyed-in-the-wool theocrat who has argued that civil servants must disobey any laws believed to be contrary to God’s law. Ramos tweeted three times in defense of Peroutka, once to crow to Rema Rahman, a journalist at the Capital, about Peroutka’s 2014 election to the Anne Arundel County Council. He tweeted: “Peroutka won and you lost @remawriter. Get over it. You’re already going to Hell, so why not concern yourself with more relevant matters?”

He tweeted again to tell Rahman to “shut the fuck up” after she wrote a piece reporting that illegal robocalls might have helped put Peroutka’s campaign over the top. He said: “It's not your place, so shut the fuck up @capgaznews. Peroutka's columns don't get the pickled shit sued out of him.”

He also tweeted: “Why are they so obsessed about Peroutka @capgaznews?” He added the hashtag #CapDeathWatch.

Ramos, who nursed grievances against perceived injustices, and who had sued a newspaper for defamation, also identified with Donald Trump. In response to an opinion column in the Capital that questioned Trump’s qualifications for the presidency, he tweeted a warning: “Referring to @realDonaldTrump as ‘unqualified’ @capgaznews could end badly (again).” His tweet linked to a Wall Street Journal article about Trump's lawsuit against Univision, claiming breach of contract and defamation.

The next day, Ramos tweeted: “Fuck you, leave me alone,” and linked to a Maryland appellate court document upholding the dismissal of his defamation case against the Capital. It is reasonable to assume that this angry comment was directed at the journalists and newspaper who had bested him in court, and perhaps also at attorneys and judges.

The embittered suspect with a vendetta against a local newspaper the justice system had been simmering since 2011. What triggered him in 2018? I don’t know. But shortly before the massacre, two things happened that could have been factors. Three days before the shooting, Donald Trump had pointed out members of the news media at a big outdoor rally in South Carolina, demonizing them as “enemies of the people.” This is a phrase that demagogues throughout history, from the French Revolution to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, have understood and used as an incitement to violence. A day later, Peroutka was defeated in his 2018 re-election bid, losing to a female candidate in the Republican primary.

The "Berserk" half of the Rosetta Stone

The other, seemingly unrelated element of Ramos' worldview is drawn from the world of anime, the source of his final, cryptic tweet, approximately three minutes before the shooting began. It was a peculiar expression he had used before: “Fuck you, leave me alone.” This world of manga and anime informed the suspect’s hero-versus-villain worldview and also the way he expressed it through language and religious symbolic imagery. While his tweets referenced mainstream sci-fi touchstones, such as "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," his primary influence was the universe of "Berserk," a blood-and-guts manga, anime and movie series that has also inspired several video games.

Ramos tweeted numerous references to "Berserk" characters, paraphrased quotes from them, and used symbolism drawn from the series. He described himself as playing a role in the world of "Berserk" and hinted that an understanding of its fictional world was key to understanding his “psyche.” Indeed, in a letter he wrote stating his intention of “killing every person present” in the Capital newsroom, he quoted from "Berserk." As mentioned above, he did so again in his final tweet before the shooting began.

Ramos tweeted to ask whether Eric Hartley, the former Capital columnist, was “Ordained to Be Murdered by the God Hand?” In "Berserk," the God Hand is a group of the five most powerful demons. The photo on Ramos' Twitter avatar was the face of Hartley, with a Berserk symbol pasted over it – a brand that marks victims for demonic sacrifice. 

He tweeted, “Judge Nick doesn’t believe in the God Hand. I play a well-established part of that system by tweeting of it.” It appears that Ramos identified with the world of "Berserk" and saw himself as playing a part in it.

Ramos also marked former Capital Gazette publisher Thomas Marquardt -- whom he nicknamed "Evil Tom" -- with the demonic brand, in the banner image for the Twitter account @EricHartleyFrnd. To Ramos, the brand signified that it was "Open Season" to hunt and kill. He tweeted, "Another stooge @capgaznews says Evil Tom is going on his own terms? That mark on his head is called Brand of Sacrifice; or now, Open Season." He also tweeted a YouTube link to the song “Murder” from the "Berserk" soundtrack.

He repeatedly referenced a vampire character from "Berserk," Nosferatu Zodd, and tweeted an image of Zodd. He tweeted: "If you think this man [wants to be] your friend, know this: when his ambition crumbles, death will come for you — a death you cannot escape." This is a paraphrased quote from Zodd, who said, “If you consider this man your true friend, and regard him as a brother, then know this. When this man's ambition crumbles, it is your destiny to face your death. A death you can never escape!”

Ramos also identified with "Berserk" characters on several other occasions. He tweeted, “I told you once. I will have my own kingdom. Nothing has changed.” This is a close paraphrase of a quote from the character Griffith, who said, “I told you once, I will get my own kingdom. Nothing has changed.”

He tweeted, “I'm Femto. I can also do whatever I want. I will have my own kingdom. I will choose the place you die," adding a link to a trailer for "Berserk." Griffith dies and is reborn as Femto, a member of the God Hand, who is undeterred by moral inhibitions. Femto becomes the spearheadof the God Hand’s schemes.

Ramos tweeted the anime cover art from "Berserk – The Golden Age Arc Movie Collection" on DVD, which features the protagonist Guts. He twice quoted Guts, a swordsman motivated by revenge whose left forearm is replaced by a prosthetic which can be fitted with a cannon. Guts kills many enemies, including his primary antagonist, Bishop Mozgus, who is a demon spawn with angelic wings. Before delivering the coup de grâce, Guts tells Mozgus, “If you meet your God, say this for me … Leave me the hell alone!”

The latter is one of the most popular quotes among "Berserk" fans. However, some translate the quote, or paraphrase it differently. For example: “If you meet your God, tell him to leave me the fuck alone!”

Or, as Ramos tweeted, some three minutes before the shooting: “Fuck you, leave me alone.” He then added another of his Twitter handles, @JudgeMoylanFrnd, which features the face of Charles Moylan, the judge who had dismissed his defamation case, marked with the brand of sacrifice.

Guts’ message for Mozgus to take to his god is a familiar trope in action movies, the sort of comment that a protagonist makes before dispatching a villain, such as “I’ll see you in Hell,” “See you on the other side,” or “Hasta la vista, baby.” However, this “Leave me alone” message is not meant for the people whom the protagonist is about to kill; it is for them to carry to their god.

In light of Ramos’ having previously tweeted this same language in anger at both the Capital and Maryland court officials, and that this closely tracks what Guts tells his primary antagonist before delivering the killing blow, Ramos was making clear his intent to kill. In the context of scripted violence, as when a politician uses his office to demonize journalists, individuals who view themselves as holy warriors or heroes motivated by a sense of grievance know which villains to kill.

Ramos, who represented himself in his defamation case against the Capital, insisted that he was sane and that he had not been merely fantasizing online about being a predator. He wrote on his website, "I’ve been learning law for a different kind of game. It’s no publicity stunt, nor clinical insanity, nor predatory Internet fantasy, but very dangerous indeed."

In the same document, he wrote, "Much like a life, what is the price of a name? Are these even two different questions?" Like the 16th-century English penitent who confessed to defamation in Mitford v. Shaw, calling it a kind of murder, Ramos equates the loss of his good name with the loss of a life. This is akin to the reasoning of those who kill abortion providers: If, according to their understanding of God’s law, abortion is murder, then those who provide abortions are subject to death. Likewise, if a theocrat believes defamation to be a kind of murder, then what is the penalty?

After years of build-up, Ramos became a self-righteous, avenging character he had invented for himself, and announced his intent to kill, writing to the newspaper’s former attorney and to Maryland court officials that he was on his way to the Capital newsroom “with the objective of killing every person present.” They received the letters after the massacre. In a letter to Judge Moylan, he wrote, “Welcome, Mr. Moylan, to your unexpected legacy: YOU should have died.” He signed off, “Friends forever, Jarrod W. Ramos.”

Here again, Ramos is quoting from Berserk.

Guts’ adoptive father Gambino blames him for the death of his wife. So he tries to kill Guts, while telling him, “You should have died.” In self-defense, Guts kills Gambino. But he feels guilty and conflicted about this deed. A recurring nightmare of an army of skeletons haunts him, their eyeless orbs glaring as they chant over and over, “You should have died.”

This message is not for the people whom the protagonist has killed, nor for the people he would have liked to kill. It is for Guts himself – a killer who felt justified but also conflicted and guilty even as he killed.

Ramos seems to be suggesting that, like the "Berserk" protagonist he referenced in his final tweet, he felt conflicted about killing. It appears that just prior to the mass murder, Ramos signaled his realization that, like Guts, he would feel guilty about it. This suggests that he knew right from wrong, and therefore supports the argument that, as Ramos himself has insisted, he was sane. While his final tweet indicates a rationale that he must defend himself from perceived oppression and injustice (“Leave me alone”), his letter to the judge indicates that he anticipates feeling haunted by the consciousness of guilt (“You should have died”).

Lessons learned

As our family members, friends and colleagues die in one mass shooting after another, we urge ourselves to understand what we could do differently as a society. Why did this suspect do what he did? Each time, we come away with at least as many questions as answers. I don’t claim to know the right questions, let alone the answers. We all have a lot of work to do. But I have learned a few things from my research into Jarrod Ramos’ world. One of them recalls Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Ramos showed himself to the world before he acted. He collected a grab bag of grievances out of which he tried to forge a rationale, arguably a theology, that would give his revenge tale a transcendent meaning: It would be the story of his life. He revealed himself often; society chose not to see or was unable to, or at any rate did not take him seriously. He recognized this fact. After the mass murders, his letters reminded us all, “I told you so.

Ramos' worldview is clearly derived from multiple, esoteric sources – sources he may not have accessed all by himself. This does not mean that he did not act alone; it does mean that he did not come to such sources as 16th-century ecclesiastical court records by himself. Someone pointed him in this direction. Ramos is probably not the only one who has been directed to such material in search of the will of God in the 21st Century and one’s role in God’s plan.

Ramos called himself “an arrogant auto-didact,” with reference to how he learned how to represent himself (however unsuccessfully) in court. There is a rich history on the far right of individuals -- including self-proclaimed “sovereign citizens” and theocrats advocating Higher Law -- who defend themselves by cobbling together supposed legal precedents, divine authority and ill-conceived justifications for illegal and sometimes violent acts.

There are also Christian nationalist think tanks, such as Michael Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution, that peddle books and courses to self-taught advocates on how to “defend against those in opposition to God’s Word.” However out of the mainstream they may be, such people should be properly understood and taken seriously. They say what they mean; they mean what they say. When someone speaks out about meting out carnage in service to Higher Authority, let’s all pay attention.

Ignoring an injustice collector who views himself as the hand of God doesn’t work. Ignoring the women he harasses doesn’t work. Coddling him in the courts despite his overt law-breaking doesn’t work. Ignoring the multiple cultural influences that shape and validate his viewpoint doesn’t work.

When it comes to Jarrod Ramos in particular, however bizarre and convoluted his "Berserk"-influenced, alt-right worldview may seem, pay attention. There is much more we need to know about the profoundly anti-democratic origins of this man's violent history.

22/07/2018 01:32 AM
CNN’s Tapper Uses Ex-Trump Adviser's Own Words to Corner Him on Russia Contacts: That’s You 'Calling Yourself an Informal Adviser’
“Do you have relationships with Russian government officials? I can tell you I don't," Jake Tapper said.

CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday spoke with Carter Page, the onetime Donald Trump adviser whose contacts with the Russian government are under scrutiny by the FBI.

The Department of Justice on Saturday released documents relating to the FBI’s FISA warrant authorizing surveillance on Page. Tapper on Sunday asked Page point-blank: “Were you ever an agent of a foreign power?”

Page spent the majority of the interview declining to answer Tapper directly, even when confronted with his 2013 claim he’s “had the privilege of serving as an informal adviser.”

“That’s yourself calling yourself an informal adviser,” Tapper explained.

“Informal having some conversations with people,” Page insisted. “This is really nothing and just an attempt to distract from the real crimes that are shown in this misleading document. Page 8 [of the FISA warrant] talks about disguised propaganda including the planting of false or misleading articles, which is exactly what this is. That's kinds of the pot calling the kettle black by Mr. [James] Comey.”

Tapper explained the FISA warrant on Page has been renewed three separate times by two administrations, asking how he responds to “many people, over two administrations, four judges appointed by Republican over and over, believing that you are an agent of a foreign power.”=

“Actually, it would be a good question for them, Jake,” Page replied. “Whether they believe that what they did was appropriate now. You know, again, they were misled.”

As Page continued to dodge his questions, Tapper corned the former Trump adviser. “You keep saying it's spin,” Tapper said. “If you could directly answer the questions it would be great.”

“The application says you established relationships with Russian government officials including Russian intelligence officers,” Tapper said. “You’re telling me they pulled that out of thin air, you have no relationships with Russian government officials? You've already told me and this audience that you were an informal adviser to the Kremlin in 2013 and have relationships with government officials, right?”

Page said the FISA warrant is “the pot calling the kettle black.”

“Carter, you have relationships with Russian government officials, true?” Tapper asked.

“Well, let's see what they are talking about,” Page demurred.

“I'm asking you a straight question,” tapper said. “Do you have relationships with Russian government officials? I can tell you I don't but then again you lived in Russia, you're an academic and worked in energy in Russia and went there in 2016 to speak at the commencement address. Do you have relationships with Russian government officials?”

Watch the full video below:

22/07/2018 12:30 AM
Top CIA Official Issues Dire Warning: We're on the Brink of A New Cold War — With China
While Americans are focused on Russia’s attacks on its democracy, China is waging its own Cold War

While most Americans are focusing on Russia's attack on American democracy during the 2016 presidential election, one CIA official is warning that a different type of cold war is being waged from another competing superpower — in this case, China.

"I would argue... that what they're waging against us is fundamentally a cold war — a cold war not like we saw during THE Cold War (between America and the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991), but a cold war by definition," Michael Collins, deputy assistant director of the CIA's East Asia mission center, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, according to the Associated Press. As one example, he pointed to the Chinese construction of military outposts on islands in the South China Sea, a development he referred to as "the Crimea of the East."

The Crimea reference is an allusion to how Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Collins also explained that "at the end of the day they want every country around the world, when it's deciding its interests on policy issues, to first and foremost side with China and not the United States, because the Chinese are increasingly defining a conflict with the United States and what we stand behind as a systems conflict," according to CNN. He pointed to the recent enshrinement of the writing of Chinese President Xi Jinping into that nation's constitution as evidence of the threat posed by the country, arguing that "it sets up a competition with us and what we stand behind far more significantly by any extreme than what the Russians could put forward."

piece by The New York Times in February elaborated on the tenets of Xi's "thought," which is now held as central to China's nationalist understanding of itself in a manner analogous to the thought of Chinese Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong:

"Never before have the Chinese people been so close to realizing their dreams," Mr. Xi is often quoted as saying. Implicit in the dream of being counted among the world’s powers is the idea of China nearing the United States in strength and influence.

Boiled down, the doctrine is a blueprint for consolidating and strengthening power at three levels: the nation, the party and Mr. Xi himself...

To sustain China’s global rise, Mr. Xi is modernizing China’s military and investing heavily in a $1 trillion international trade initiative known as Belt and Road. Under Mr. Xi, China has expanded the size and scope of its military, purged corrupt officers and built military installations in contested waters of the South China Sea...

Xi Jinping Thought promotes the supremacy of the Communist Party to growing numbers of avid consumers, internet users and world travelers — a group fundamentally different from the workers and peasants who were supposed to be the soul of the Communist Revolution.

Mr. Xi’s philosophy teaches that the goal of a powerful, unified China can be achieved only if the Communist Party stays firmly in control of China. The party, he says, is the solution to China’s problems, not their source...

Central to the doctrine is the idea that for China to continue its global rise, and for the party to maintain its rule, a decisive leader is needed at the helm. And the man for the job is Mr. Xi.

Xi Jinping Thought was seen in action this week when the Communist Party announced it would abolish presidential term limits, allowing Mr. Xi to remain in power, perhaps indefinitely.

Collins' comments came on the heels of a similarly dire observation from FBI Director Christopher Wray earlier this week. Wray noted that his bureau has economic espionage investigations active in all 50 states that can in one way or another be traced back to China. As he told the AP, "The volume of it. The pervasiveness of it. The significance of it is something that I think this country cannot underestimate."

China has been accused of a number of economically aggressive actions, from attempting to steal business secrets and technological and academic research from American companies to developing increasingly advanced weapons, such as long-range cruise missiles that are capable of reaching supersonic speeds.

China has also been criticized by President Donald Trump for its trade policies toward the United States and has imposed new tariffs on Chinese imports as a way of rectifying what he has claimed is an inequality. This policy has fueled concerns that America might soon find itself in the middle of a trade war.

"Well, the threat has huge potential implications for the American economy, particularly for the agricultural sector," Ed Gerwin, a senior fellow for trade and global opportunity at the Progressive Policy Institute, told Salon in April. "Because, as you know, farm prices move based on threats to the global economy, opportunities in the global economy. And all of this saber-rattling with respect to tariffs I think is particularly troublesome for the farm sector. One of the problems is that we are talking about imposing tariffs on products that come from China, that in many instances are made from components from all over the world — the standard example being the iPhone, which really has relatively little Chinese content."

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., also expressed concern to Salon about the long-term implications of Trump's belligerent trade policies not only toward China but other American trading partners as well.

"One hopes, but one doesn’t know, that President Trump is going to know the moment when he’s got to really sit down and negotiate and not be trading increased tariffs back and forth with China or our enormous trading partners in the EU, or Canada. I mean, good God. We actually have a trading surplus with Canada!" Lieberman told Salon. At that time, Gerwin also explained how Trump's "new duties are often described as ’tariffs on China’ or ’tariffs on the United States,’ but they’re really taxes on American businesses, workers, and consumers."

21/07/2018 11:55 PM
Julian Assange's Departure from Ecuador Embassy in London Is Imminent
Robert Mueller would love to have a chat with him.

Glenn Greenwald has a piece up at the Intercept declaring that Julian Assange’s tenure at Ecuador’s London embassy may be coming to an end very soon.

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno traveled to London on Friday for the ostensible purpose of speaking at the 2018 Global Disabilities Summit(Moreno has been confined to a wheelchair since being shot in a 1998 robbery attempt). The concealed, actual purpose of the President’s trip is to meet with British officials to finalize an agreement under which Ecuador will withdraw its asylum protection of Julian Assange, in place since 2012, eject him from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and then hand over the WikiLeaks founder to British authorities.

Now it is Glenn Greenwald, so take it with an appropriately large grain of salt, but apparently this has been in the works for some time.

A source close to the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry and the President’s office, unauthorized to speak publicly, has confirmed to the Intercept that Moreno is close to finalizing, if he has not already finalized, an agreement to hand over Assange to the UK within the next several weeks. The withdrawal of asylum and physical ejection of Assange could come as early as this week. On Friday, RT reported that Ecuador was preparing to enter into such an agreement.

Even RT has picked up on it, so it has to be true.  ;-)

At any rate, I’m sure that Robert Mueller would love to have a chat with him and find out where all those hacked e-mails came from, as if we didn’t already know.

21/07/2018 11:48 PM
Bernie Sanders: Trump 'Really Sold the American People Out' in Helsinki Summit
"Perhaps he is being blackmailed by Russia because they may have compromising information about him or perhaps also, you have a president who really does have strong authoritarian tendencies."

In an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" that will air Sunday morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said U.S. President Donald Trump "really sold the American people out" during the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week.

"I was absolutely outraged by his behavior in Helsinki," Sanders told CBS's Margaret Brennan. "And it makes me think that either Trump doesn't understand what Russia has done, not only to our elections, but to cyberattacks against all parts of our infrastructure. Either he doesn't understand it, or perhaps he is being blackmailed by Russia because they may have compromising information about him or perhaps also, you have a president who really does have strong authoritarian tendencies and maybe he admires the kind of government that Putin is running in Russia."

All of these possible scenarios, Sanders argued, are a "disgrace and a disservice to the American people."




21/07/2018 11:42 PM
Justice Department Releases FISA Applications That Accused Trump Adviser Carter Page of 'Conspiring With the Russian Government'
"That the FISA materials hurt the GOP narrative is not surprising since Rep. Devin Nunes admitted he never read the source documents on Carter Page. In fact, the first Nunes memo was such a disaster that I can't wait for the second one."

In an unprecedented and unusually timed document dump Saturday night, the Justice Department released a 412-page, partially redacted version of the FBI's 2016 FISA application requesting authorization to wiretap former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

"The FBI believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government," reads the FBI's application, which was ultimately approved by a federal court. The application goes on to accuse Page of "collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government."

The documents can be viewed here.

As Common Dreams reported, the FBI's surveillance of Page became a subject of "partisan sniping" earlier this year when Democrats and the GOP latched onto competing narratives about how Obama's Justice Department obtained permission to wiretap the former Trump campaign adviser.

Aligning with President Donald Trump, Republicans alleged in a memo drafted by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that the FBI's surveillance of Page amounted to an abuse of power—an abuse Republicans don't typically care about when the privacy rights of ordinary Americans are at risk.

But as Splinter's Dell Cameron and Jack Mirkinson note, the Nunes memo "turned out to be self-defeating for the GOP for several reasons." They explain:

First, it charged that in seeking the secret surveillance warrant, federal investigators had failed to inform judges that key evidence was obtained from a biased source—the so-called Steele dossier, which was initially written by former British spy Christopher Steele on behalf of Democrats. But a response memo published by the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee later debunked the accusation, revealing that the court had in fact been informed of the source’s political bias.

The memo also backfired by inadvertently confirming that the Steele dossier was not the primary factor jumpstarting the Russia inquiry. Instead, it acknowledged events previously reported by the New York Times: A former Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, came under the scrutiny of investigators in July 2016 after boasting that Russia had dirt on then-candidate Hillary Clinton to an Australian diplomat in London.

Responding to the newly released FISA documents on Saturday, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) wrote: "That the FISA materials hurt the GOP narrative is not surprising since Rep. Devin Nunes admitted he never read the source documents on Carter Page. In fact, the first Nunes memo was such a disaster that I can't wait for the second one."

In a tweet early Sunday morning, Trump asserted—citing the right-wing advocacy group Judicial Watch—that the documents actually prove that the GOP's narrative was correct, and that the FBI "misled the courts."

"Witch Hunt Rigged, a Scam!" Trump added.

The FISA documents were released on Saturday in response to Freedom of Information Act requests by numerous news outlets and advocacy groups.

As Charlie Savage of the New York Times observes, "The spectacle of the release was itself also noteworthy, given that wiretapping under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, is normally one of the government's closest-guarded secrets. No such application materials had apparently become public in the 40 years since Congress enacted that law."

21/07/2018 11:57 AM
US Ambassador to Russia Explains Why He Won’t Resign — But Offers No Defense of Donald Trump
Jon Huntsman defended his role as U.S. ambassador to Russia, but said nary a word about Donald Trump's actions.

Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, on Saturday responded to a column by Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gerke, explaining why he won’t step down from his role even after Donald Trump appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference last Monday. But, Huntsman offered little in the way of support for the president’s actions.

Huntsman was responding to a column published Tuesday in the Tribune,the Utah paper owned by Huntsman’s brother, Paul Huntsman. In that article, Gerke called on Hunstman to resign, writing, “Huntsman, you work for a pawn, not a president.” That article was published in the wake of Trump’s stunning performance last Monday in Helsinki, during which the president cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies and appeared to accept Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Writing for the Tribune, Huntsman defended his position as U.S. ambassador to Russia, explaining that he is “charged with representing our country’s interest, which in the case of Russia are complex and little understood.”

“Popular punditry is ill-suited to describing the acts of courage, dedication and patriotism I regularly witness as chief of mission overseeing one of America’s most sensitive overseas outposts,” Hunstman wrote. “Our work has been made more difficult over the past year by the loss of hundreds of colleagues through unprecedented expulsions of diplomats and a staff drawdown imposed by the Russian government.”

In his op-ed, Hunstman likewise defended the “representatives of our foreign service, civil service, military and intelligence services” who work to “stabilize the most dangerous relationship in the world, one that encompasses nuclear weapons, fighting terrorism, stopping bloodshed in Ukraine, and seeking a settlement of the seemingly intractable Syrian crisis.”

“Their dedication to service to their country is above politics, and it inspires me to the core,” he added. “It is my standard.”

Still, Huntsman offered no defense of the president, whose action on Monday were panned by critics and supporters alike.

“I have taken an unscientific survey among my colleagues, whom you reference, about whether I should resign,” Huntsman insisted. “The laughter told me everything I needed to know. It also underscores the fragile nature of this moment.”

Read Huntsman’s full op-ed at theSalt Lake Tribune.


21/07/2018 04:44 AM
Meet the 12 Russians the US Government Indicted Last Week
A close look at the indictment reveals interesting things about the 12 Russians indicted by the US government

If you've been following the Trump-Russia scandal over the past week, it's nearly certain that you've heard about the 12 Russian officials who were indicted by the Grand Jury of the District of Columbia. It is the fact that these people were indicted that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to insist that American President Donald Trump turn over Americans like one of our former ambassadors, Michael McFaul, over to his government in order to be interrogated.

The key difference, of course, is that Putin is fabricating charges against McFaul and others like whistleblower Bill Browder, while the accusations against the 12 Russian officials are rooted in serious investigative work. Yet who are these dozen Russians that have been identified by Robert Mueller's investigation?

According to the indictment, the Russian officials singled out by the government were Boris Alekseyevich Antonov, Dmitriy Sergeyevich Badin, Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev, Nikolay Yuryevich Kozachek, Aleksey Viktorovich Lukashev, Artem Andreyevich Malyshev, Sergey Aleksandrovich Morgachev, Viktor Borisovich Netyksho, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Osadchuk, Aleksey Aleksandrovich Potemkin, Ivan Sergeyevich Yermakov and Pavel Vyacheslavovich Yershov. With the exception of Kovalev, the indictment describes all of these individuals as "GRU officers who knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other, and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury (collectively the 'Conspirators'), to gain unauthorized access (to 'hack') into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election."

The indictment claims that these individuals hacked the email accounts of staffers and volunteers at Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign by at least March 2016, hacked into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee by at least April 2016 and began releasing tens of thousands of stolen emails and documents by at least June 2016, continuing to do so through the month of the presidential election.

And who are they specifically?

According to the indictment, Netyksho is a Russian military officer whose unit (Unit 26165) "had primary responsibility for hacking the DCCC and DNC, as well as the email accounts of individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign." Antonov was assigned to that same unit and oversaw a department within it that was "dedicated to targeting military, political, governmental, and non-governmental organizations with spearphishing emails and other computer intrusion activity." Antonov is accused of having "supervised other co-conspirators who targeted the DCCC, DNC, and individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign." Badin held the title of "Assistant Head of Department" in that unit and supervised various attacks on the Democratic and Clinton-related targets chosen by the Russian government.

Then there is Yermakov, who the indictment claims was a master of aliases, using "various online personas" in order to engage in a number of hacking operations. These names included "Kate S. Milton," "James McMorgans" and "Karen W. Millen." Lukashev was a senior lieutenant in the Russian military and, like Yermakov, used a number of online pseudonyms, including "Den Katenberg" and "Yuliana Martynova." Lukashev "sent spearphishing emails to members of the Clinton Campaign and affiliated individuals, including the chairman of the Clinton Campaign." Morgachev, by contrast, was in charge of a department at the unit that developed and managed malware, including one hacking tool called "X-Agent," and is charged with supervising the agents who implanted the X-Agent malware on DCCC and DNC computers and then monitored it.

READ MORE: Donald Trump, Brexit and the Russians: A dangerous turning point in "World War IV"

Kozachek is described in the indictment as a lieutenant captain who had been assigned to Morgachev's department within Unit 26165 and employed pseudonyms like "kazak" and "blablabla1234565" in order to do his job. He also "developed, customized, and monitored X-Agent malware used to hack the DCCC and DNC networks beginning in or around April 2016." Yershov, meanwhile, is accused of having "assisted Kozachek and other co-conspirators in testing and customizing X-Agent malware before actual deployment and use." Malyshev, on the other hand, was a second lieutenant whose work for Morgachev's department involved monitoring X-Agent malware that had been implanted on Democratic Party machines. He used pseudonyms like "djangomagicdev" and "realblatr."

Osadchuk is a Russian colonel and the commanding officer of Unit 74455, which "assisted in the release of stolen documents through the DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 personas, the promotion of those releases, and the publication of anti-Clinton content on social media accounts operated by the GRU." Meanwhile Potemkin was a Russian military officer assigned to Unit 74455 who supervised a department "responsible for the administration of computer infrastructure used in cyber operations. Infrastructure and social media accounts administered by Potemkin's department were used, among other things, to assist in the release of stolen documents through the DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 personas."

Later in the indictment more information is provided about Kovalev, namely that he "was an officer in the Russian military assigned to Unit 74455 who worked in the GRU’s 22 Kirova Street building (the Tower)."

Throughout the document, considerable detail is given about how various email accounts owned by either the Clinton campaign or other Democratic Party bodies were deliberately targeted by individuals or groups of individuals on this list. It explains how they hacked into these accounts and what they ultimately gained from doing so. Kovalev specifically is accused, among other things, of hacking the website of a state board of elections and stealing information about roughly 500,000 voters "including names, addresses, partial social security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers." He is also accused of hacking into the computers of a company that supplied voter registration verification software, targeting "state and county offices responsible for administering the 2016 US. elections" and visiting the websites of counties in states like Florida, Georgia and Iowa in order to find vulnerabilities.

It is worth reminding the reader, at this point, of what McFaul told Salon earlier in the week — namely, that Putin is trying to create a false equivalency between the crimes he ordered committed by Russian officials and the fabricated charges he has created against McFaul and Browder.

"But let's be clear: What Putin was doing was assigning moral equivalency to a legitimate indictment with lots of evidence against several Russian military intelligence officers for violating American sovereignty in 2016 during the presidential elections, with a completely fabricated, cockamamie story invented by Putin," McFaul told Salon. "To even, for a moment, give any kind of dignity to what President Putin proposed was not in America's national interest, from my point of view."

21/07/2018 04:33 AM
The Propaganda Is Working: Trump Voters Call MS-13 a 'Serious' Threat to the US — But That's Simply Not True
Trump voters now overwhelmingly believe the peddled notions about this group few of them ever heard of, before this year, and that is a testament to the power of the white nationalist propaganda machine whirring away within the White House walls.

Donald Trump's support is based on racism. And the racism is based on Republican conspiracy theories. And those conspiracy theories are now, thanks to White House propaganda, taking root within his racist, gullible base.

A majority of people who voted for President Donald Trump consider criminal gang MS-13 a threat to the United States, a new poll finds, indicating the Trump administration may be succeeding in inflating the perception of the gang’s national risk.

Specifically, 85 percent of Trump voters call MS-13 a "very" or "somewhat" serious threat to the United States, and roughly half of them are worried MS-13 is going to target them or their families personally, which is a ludicrous, asinine theory based entirely on Trump-peddled propaganda. Before Trump's team settled on "MS-13" as their stand-in for Violent Ethnic People Coming To Get You, it would be a fair bet to say that precious few among Trump's base would even know what MS-13 was. Now half of them are worried that MS-13 is hiding under their floorboards.

To make it clear, yet again, while there is a violent gang called MS-13 and has been for a few decades now, the current incarnation is largely a collection of disconnected teenagers whose lofty ambitions primarily revolve around menacing their schoolmates, not entire U.S. towns. They are not increasing their membership, have no central structure or leadership, have no substantive role in drug or human trafficking, and primarily target young Latinos. Those are their primary victims, not lily white Trump supporters breathlessly flipping through Republican fundraising emails.

Everything else is a hoax. The vision of a paramilitary entity known as "MS-13" capturing and losing American towns, the notion that this violent but scattered group is a meaningful presence on the border in any capacity, and all the rest of it is a hoax crafted by white nationalists in the White House and racist online circles to justify an explicitly racist crackdown on innocent refugees.

For all the hype in the governor’s race, MS-13 has been associated with three murders in Virginia this year, and two of the victims were MS-13 members themselves. To put that into perspective, there were 480 homicides in Virginia in 2016, and nine Virginians died in traffic accidents over Fourth of July weekend alone.

But Trump voters now overwhelmingly believe the peddled notions about this group few of them ever heard of, before this year, and that is a testament to the power of the white nationalist propaganda machine whirring away within the White House walls. It is still not considered decent to demonize non-white Americans in general, or non-white immigrants, but concocting a blatantly racist conspiracy theory about a new non-white menace hiding just beyond your mailbox continues to be the preferred stand-in for those more blatantly white-supremacy-based notions.

To Rep. Steve King (R-IA), immigrants are primarily melon-calved drug mules. To Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Mexican cartels are possibly working with ISIS to import an infectious disease found only in Africa. To the NRA, Muslims fleeing violence are quite possibly violent extremists themselves. To Donald Trump's White House team, every asylum-seeking child tossed into tent cities with little paperwork and little concern for ever reuniting them with their parents might be, just might be, a wee little gang member come to kill us all.

This willing effort to demonize an entire group based on demonstrably false fearmongering is the sort of thing that gets you put on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of hate groups. It may be to the point where the White House itself counts as such; their declarations of the inherent criminality of immigrants certainly appears to be meeting that criteria. Trump may not know his left shoe from his right, but his advisers are certainly very aware that "MS-13" does not have even one percent of the power they have been painting it as having in breathless campaign-year announcements. Ditto for all the other Republicans attempting to fundraise off their efforts to frighten their racist base; this has become, unequivocally, one of the go-to propaganda efforts of the Republican Party itself.

Peddling such obvious propaganda should itself render someone unfit for office, but we have fallen a very long way from any imaginary time when we demanded our top national leaders be, at the very least, truthful. Perhaps branding the Republican Party a hate group would jostle some of the beltway’s conscience, however.


21/07/2018 04:22 AM
Who the Hell Is Bill Browder — And Why Does Putin Want to Get His Paws on Him So Badly?
Behind this week’s Helsinki headlines lies a fascinating mystery with deep roots and many unanswered questions

Amid the wailing and rending of garments that filled the air after President Trump’s bizarre press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last Monday, one mysterious name lingered in the air. Who the hell is Bill Browder, and why does Putin want to get his paws on him so badly?

At one point in Putin’s remarks in Helsinki, he appeared to extend a peculiar offer to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller — while standing next to the man Mueller is investigating, of course. Mueller and his team would be allowed to visit Russia and observe the interrogation of 12 military intelligence officers who were indicted last week for their alleged involvement in the 2016 hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In exchange, Russian investigators would get access to various people living overseas “who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” in the inelegant phrasing of Putin’s real-time interpreter.

It turned out later that one of the people Putin was interested in grilling was Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. (McFaul spoke to Salon's Matthew Rozsa later in the week.) Even by contemporary norm-busting standards that was an extraordinary breach of protocol — although not as astounding as the fact that the White House briefly seemed to entertain the idea. (An “incredible offer,” said our president.) But at the time Putin only mentioned one individual by name: William F. Browder, a 54-year-old investor and financier, originally from Chicago, who reportedly made hundreds of millions of dollars in the Wild West marketplace of post-Soviet Russia.

Anyone who has intermittently tried to follow the shadowplay narrative of Russian history and politics during the Putin era heard alarm bells going off, and perhaps felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. This was a plot twist that requires some explication, in a story that quite likely no one will ever fully understand.

Several major publications supplied obligatory “Who is this guy?” articles almost immediately, and Browder himself wrote a piece for Time magazine, offering his own highly truncated version of his history with Putin. None of it was untrue, exactly, but for my money those accounts largely served to obscure the deeper historical currents that flow beneath this implausible tale. Neither man is likely to mention that they were once close allies; Browder was described as among Putin’s “most vocal cheerleaders” in a 2006 Economist article (which has become remarkably difficult to find). Furthermore, Browder becomes slightly more difficult to cast as an American hero once you notice that he renounced his U.S. citizenship 20 years ago, for reasons he has never adequately explained.

I imagine both Browder and Putin would say that their shared connection to the pre-Putin past of Soviet Communism is irrelevant to their present-tense dispute. I’m not so sure: Russia has some of the same mythic qualities as William Faulkner’s Deep South, where the past is not dead and isn’t even past.

Putin was of course a KGB officer during the later years of the Soviet Union, who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall from his post in East Germany. Bill Browder’s grandfather, Earl Browder, was perhaps the most famous American Communist during the decades before World War II. An all-American boy from a farm family in Kansas, Earl Browder became a socialist as a teenager, spent several years in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution and was leader of the Communist Party USA for 15 years, even running for president as the party’s nominee in 1936 and 1940. He was also almost certainly a Soviet spy and recruiter, meaning that he worked for the same organization that would educate and employ the young Vladimir Putin some years later.

I should probably explain my personal connection to this story: My mother was a member of the Communist Party, both under Earl Browder and under William Z. Foster, his comrade, rival and successor. I may be deluding myself here, but I always feel some identification with the psychological mechanisms — evasion, secrecy, storytelling — employed by those whose family histories were shaped by American Communism. I call it the legacy of the Red Seed.

In between grandfather and grandson, by the way, comes Felix Browder, Earl’s son and Bill’s father, who was not a Communist or a Soviet spy. Instead, Felix was a math prodigy who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton at age 20, chaired the mathematics department at the University of Chicago and become a world-renowned scholar in the field of nonlinear functional analysis, which I will not pretend to understand. (Felix’s two brothers were prominent mathematicians too, while Bill’s brother, Tom Browder, entered college at 15 and is now a particle physicist.) That has nothing to do with Vladimir Putin, but I guess it makes clear that we’re talking about an unusual American family.

Bill Browder went to Moscow in 1996, 75 years or so after his grandfather met his Russian Jewish grandmother there at the apex of post-revolutionary fervor. The younger Browder -- indeed, he was only 32 at the time -- had a $25 million stake largely supplied by the New York banker Edmond Safra, which he multiplied many times over, building enormous wealth for himself and his investors. At first, he did so with the apparent friendship or at least toleration of Vladimir Putin, who during that same period was rising rapidly from regional obscurity to unquestioned domination of the entire country.

According to most accounts, Putin moved to Moscow from his home city of St. Petersburg in the same year Browder arrived. (It is admittedly difficult to feel certain about any aspect of the Russian president's biography.) His first job in the Russian capital was as deputy chief of something called the Presidential Property Management Department, which was responsible for transferring the former assets of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party to the newly organized government of the Russian Federation. Browder's firm, Hermitage Capital Management, became a major investor in many of the semi-privatized companies. Did they do business together at the time? I can find no evidence that they did, but it seems inconceivable that they did not meet.

Putin's upward trajectory after that was even more startling: In 1998, the year of a major financial crisis in Russia that wiped out a great deal of foreign investment -- and also the year when Bill Browder renounced his U.S. citizenship -- Putin was appointed to head the FSB, the "intelligence and security organization" that succeeded the Soviet-era KGB. By August of the following year, he was acting prime minister of the Russian Federation, and after President Boris Yeltsin's abrupt resignation on the last day of 1999 -- another detail that's slightly too strange for fiction -- Putin became acting president as well. The rest, you might say, is history.

READ MORE: Donald Trump, Brexit and the Russians: A dangerous turning point in "World War IV"

I’m not proposing any grand theory on how these circumstances fit together. In fact, I think the more you pull this story apart, the more tangled it becomes. In various respects, both Putin and Browder seem more like fictional characters than real people. In the most authoritative English-language account of Putin’s life and career, Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy’s “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” the Russian leader is compared to Oleg Komarov, a “pseudo-colorful” Russian émigré in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel “Pnin” who holds an incoherent blend of reactionary, religious, ultra-nationalist and pro-Communist views.

At the risk of derailing a story that is already full of weird tangents even further, here’s another one: Fiona Hill, co-author of that book, is now one of Trump’s principal advisers on relations with Russia. In an extensive interview with the Atlantic during the presidential transition (but before she joined the new administration), Hill predicted that the Trump-Putin bromance wouldn’t last long, adding that since the incoming president wasn’t “exactly the most diplomatic of people,” he was likely to “fall out with his new friend Vladimir pretty quickly.” She also predicted that Trump might pull out of the conflict in Syria, recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and pretty much allow Putin to do as he pleased. Are those things now happening (sort of) because she said that? I told you we were in a work of fiction.

Anyway, Bill Browder comes from another kind of novel altogether. Considering everything we know and don’t know about him, he’s like a character in a John le Carré spy thriller, who seems to be one thing and then turns out to be something entirely different — and then, at the end of the story, turns out to have been driven by personal considerations no one had even noticed.

There are almost too many reasons for Putin and Browder to hate each other’s guts: They have been embroiled in a bitter public feud ever since Hermitage Capital Management, Browder's investment firm, became the target of systematic Russian government harassment beginning around 2005. Browder himself was abruptly barred from entering Russia, forcing him to move to London full-time. His employees and associates in Moscow were subjected to a series of violent assaults and quasi-legal police raids. One of them was a lawyer and accountant named Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in November 2009. He had been arrested after investigating an alleged tax-fraud scheme in which corrupt Russian officials siphoned off $230 million from either Hermitage or the Russian state or both. (Good luck figuring that one out.)

After that, Browder became the principal impetus for the financial sanctions imposed by the United States under the Magnitsky Act, which were meant to punish the Russian oligarchy for its involvement in Magnitsky’s death and similar human rights abuses. Vladimir Putin really, really does not like the Magnitsky Act. Those sanctions were specifically what Natalia Veselnitskaya wanted to talk to Donald Trump Jr. about, in their now-legendary Trump Tower meeting of June 2016. They are not the same sanctions that incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn apparently discussed with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition (in a conversation that Flynn then lied to the FBI about), but those later sanctions could be described as successors to or amplifications of the Magnitsky sanctions.

Browder told the Senate Judiciary Committee in his testimony last July that he believes Putin has amassed an illicit personal fortune of perhaps $200 billion during his years in power — several times more than even a high-end estimate of Donald Trump’s wealth — but that most of it is invested in the West. That means Putin is “potentially exposed to asset freezes and confiscation,” Browder said, and “has a significant and very personal interest in finding a way to get rid of the Magnitsky sanctions.”

"Putin is apoplectic about my success getting Magnitsky Acts passed in seven countries around the world," Browder told Salon's Matthew Rozsa this week. "This puts his entire offshore fortune, which is gigantic, at risk."

That’s all highly plausible, although we are not likely to find the receipts. Until recently, Putin’s counter-charges against Browder have pretty much been complaints about the change under the sofa (at least by comparison). Browder has twice been convicted in absentia on tax-evasion charges by Russian courts, and was sentenced to nine years in prison both times. (In one of those cases, his co-defendant was Sergei Magnitsky, who had been dead for several years. Even for Russian jurisprudence, that was breaking new ground.) Russian authorities have repeatedly tried to get other countries to arrest and extradite Browder. Spanish police briefly detained Browder when he visited Madrid in May, but were told by Interpol to disregard the Russian arrest warrant.

This week Putin upped the ante considerably, claiming at the Helsinki press conference that Browder’s “business associates” had somehow spirited $1.5 billion out of Russia without paying taxes and then “sent huge amounts of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.” Maybe this was meant to refer to Michael McFaul, who says he knows Browder but has never done business with him. At any rate, it's such a Trumpian allegation — a wild falsehood, supposedly supported by specific but completely invented statistics — that one wonders if it’s something Trump told him to say, or a laddish troll-move they cooked up together.

So we have established that Bill Browder and Vladimir Putin are not pals, and that healing and hugs seem deeply unlikely. From the Western media’s perspective, the story looks clear enough: One of them is a crusader against corruption and abuse, the other is a foreign despot with a trail of bodies. OK, fine: Except that the story was quite a bit different once upon a time. As with Putin and Donald Trump — as with almost everything about Putin, in fact — the past is full of unanswered questions.

In 2006, that Economist article I mentioned earlier (which I could only track down, in incomplete form, through the Internet Archive), sneeringly referred to Browder as a “loyal Putinista” and suggested that he had defended the Russian leader’s human rights record against foreign critics. Whatever had recently happened to turn Putin against Browder, the article suggested, had taken the Hermitage Capital head by surprise. As a major stakeholder in numerous Russian companies close to the Putin government, he had believed he was a trusted friend to the Kremlin.

Documentary evidence about Browder’s years in Moscow before 2005, and his early relationship with the Putin government, is remarkably sparse. A lengthy but notably lightweight New York Times profile from 2008 reports that after Browder arrived in Russia in 1996 he rapidly positioned Hermitage Capital as a way for Western investors to get “a piece of the action” in the wide-open Russian economy. He became a “colorful figure” in Moscow, with a reputation for being “abrasive and headstrong.” Despite his family background, he admitted, he had relatively little contact with everyday Russians and didn’t speak the language.

Browder’s support for Putin is dispensed with in a single paragraph:

After Mr. Putin became president in 2000, Mr. Browder became a vocal supporter of the Kremlin, saying that Russia needed an authoritarian leader to establish order and calling Mr. Putin his “biggest ally” in Hermitage’s effort to reform big business. Mr. Browder thrived, and the funds managed by Hermitage grew to more than $4 billion.

Browder told Times reporter Clifford J. Levy that he didn’t know why he fell afoul of Putin in 2005. I don’t believe that for a second, but in fairness, there are a lot of things about this saga we don’t know. As mentioned above, we don't know whether Putin and Browder knew each other personally during that period, although it seems unlikely that they never met. (Until this week Putin had avoided saying Browder’s name in public, and frequently denied knowing the details of his case. Not exactly an authoritative source.) We don't know whether Browder's rise and Putin's rise were simply contemporaneous factors in the chaotic equation of late-'90s Russia, or whether there was a connection between them we now cannot see.

Browder’s firm survived the Russian financial collapse of 1998 that drove many foreign investors out of the country with empty pockets, and then rebounded stronger than ever. That was the same year Browder renounced his United States citizenship, a decision he has explained in various different ways. The Times article from 2008 mentions that fact only genially, and in passing: Browder “became a British citizen, not out of antipathy toward the United States, he said, but because he felt comfortable there.”

Browder’s Wikipedia page says he gave up his citizenship “to avoid paying taxes related to foreign investment,” but the only source for that is a 2012 CBS News item that includes at least two unrelated factual errors (about his birthplace and the founding of his company). In an interview with Newsweek last October, Browder framed it quite differently, suggesting that he felt a grievance because his family had been “viciously persecuted” during the McCarthy era. When his Russian-born grandmother — whom Earl Browder originally met in the Soviet Union — was dying of cancer, Browder said, the U.S. government “wanted to deport her back to Russia. It just left a legacy of bad feeling about the rule of law.”

There’s a tremendous richness and irony to that, am I right? The same government that wanted to ship Browder's grandmother back to Russia has recently, perhaps, contemplated doing the same to him. We have a president who wants to deport people for all kinds of bad reasons and has no respect for the rule of law, but he can’t sell out Bill Browder to the Russians even if he wanted to because Browder is not a U.S. citizen. Is the McCarthyite hangover a convincing explanation for Browder's 1998 decision? Not really — it strikes me as a fiction cooked up two decades later to fit changing circumstances. That’s a Red Seed move if I’ve ever seen one.

I have no overarching conspiracy theory to offer here, except the one about history being full of echoes and coincidences. Is it a coincidence that Bill Browder’s grandfather and Vladimir Putin were both Communist Party members who worked for the KGB, albeit in different eras? Yeah, sure, although it might have made for some interesting conversation. Is it a coincidence that Browder and Putin rose to prominence, wealth and influence in Russia at exactly the same time, with remarkable speed and under mysterious circumstances, first as allies and then as bitter enemies? I dunno, guys — I would put the answer to that one somewhere between “depends what you mean by coincidence” and “definitely not.”

I’m not trying to turn Bill Browder into the villain of this story, and still less Vladimir Putin — a blend of the most depressing ingredients of Soviet conformity and Russian nationalism — into its hero. My sympathies will always be with the guy who can sell a sentimental tale about his dying Commie grandma being hounded by Joe McCarthy, whether or not it’s true. I’m kind of hoping Browder will call me up to explain everything I’ve gotten wrong. We’d have a lot to talk about.

Maybe the larger point is that human beings want to create and consume simplistic narratives about heroes and villains that often tend to conceal the more interesting and tangled stories behind them — the stories that are actually true and might have something to teach us. Every article ever written about Bill Browder, as far as I can tell, deliberately avoids the most ambiguous aspects of his story, which are almost certainly the parts most worth noticing.

Browder’s story connects two centuries, two great nations, two especially odious world leaders and an entire epoch of history, from the Russian Revolution to the Cold War to the global triumph of capitalism to the rise of a new authoritarianism. It’s a story full of secrets we will never know. It’s our story too, told in the present tense, which is always frustrating. We don’t know how much of it is true, or whether it has a moral, or how it’s going to end.


21/07/2018 04:02 AM
How the Right Wing Convinces Itself That Liberals Are Evil
Since the 1950s, the conservative movement has justified bad behavior—including supporting Donald Trump—by persuading itself that the left is worse.

If you spend any time consuming right-wing media in America, you quickly learn the following: Liberals are responsible for racism, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan. They admire Mussolini and Hitler, and modern liberalism is little different from fascism or, even worse, communism. The mainstream media and academia cannot be trusted because of the pervasive, totalitarian nature of liberal culture. 

This belief in a broad liberal conspiracy is standard in the highest echelons of the conservative establishment and right-wing media. The Russia investigation is dismissed, from the president on down, as a politicized witch hunt. George Soros supposedly paid $300 to each participant in the “March for Our Lives” in March. (Disclosure: I marched that day, and I’m still awaiting my check.) What is less well appreciated by liberals is that the language of conspiracy is often used to justify similar behavior on the right. The Russia investigation is not just a witch hunt, it’s the product of the real scandal, which is Hillary-Russia-Obama-FBI collusion, so we must investigate that. Soros funds paid campus protestors, so Turning Point USA needs millions of dollars from Republican donors to win university elections. The liberal academic establishment prevents conservative voices from getting plum faculty jobs, so the Koch Foundation needs to give millions of dollars to universities with strings very much attached.

This did not begin with Donald Trump. The modern Republican Party may be particularly apt to push conspiracy theories to rationalize its complicity with a staggeringly corrupt administration, but this is an extension of, not a break from, a much longer history. Since its very beginning, in the 1950s, members of the modern conservative movement have justified bad behavior by convincing themselves that the other side is worse. One of the binding agents holding the conservative coalition together over the course of the past half century has been an opposition to liberalism, socialism, and global communism built on the suspicion, sometimes made explicit, that there’s no real difference among them. 

In 1961, the American Medical Association produced an LP in which an actor opened a broadside against the proposed Medicare program by attributing to Norman Thomas, a six-time Socialist Party candidate for president, a made-up quote that “under the name of liberalism the American people will adopt every fragment of the socialist program.” Because these ideologies were so interchangeable in the imaginations of many conservatives—and were covertly collaborating to enact their nefarious agenda—this meant that it was both important and necessary to fight back through equally underhanded means. 

The title of that LP? Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine. The American left is used to waiting for liberals to finally get ruthless. Through the eyes of the right, they always have been. 

Long before Fox News, conservatives began forming their own explicitly right-wing media landscape. Supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal dominated the “mainstream” press, which meant that conservative dissidents needed a home. The conservative magazine Human Events was launched in 1944 as an alternative to what its cofounder, Felix Morley, believed was a stifling conformity in the American press. The same was true of the American Mercury in 1950, when under the ownership of William Bradford Huie the formerly social-democratic magazine moved to the right. “There is now far too much ‘tolerance’ in America,” Huie declared in the first issue of the new Mercury. “We shall cry a new crusade of intolerance . . . the intolerance of bores, morons, world-savers, and damn fools.”

Both Morley and Huie felt victimized by a liberal press establishment that stifled alternative voices—and, after all, liberals had the New Republic and leftists the Nation as journals of opinion—but their charge of mainstream “bias” was more complicated. One of the largest newspapers in the United States, the Chicago Tribune, owned by conservative businessman Robert McCormick, had militantly opposed the New Deal and American entry into World War II. Fulton Lewis Jr., a Washington, D.C.–based political journalist who was, by 1950, one of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s biggest supporters, had one of the most listened-to radio programs in the country. And both Morley and Huie had had illustrious careers before launching their magazines. Morley won a Pulitzer Prize when he edited the Washington Post in the 1930s; Huie had a solid reputation as a freelance journalist. But they clung to the belief that dissenters from the liberal orthodoxy were being hounded out of media, which more than justified questionable acts, particularly on Huie’s part. Desperate to keep his magazine afloat, Huie sold the American Mercury in 1952 to far-right businessman Russell Maguire, who was closely tied to prominent anti-Semites and was one himself. Huie told a reporter at Time that he knew all about Maguire’s unsavory views, but believed his financial backing was necessary in order to ensure a conservative voice in American letters. “If I suddenly heard Adolf Hitler was alive in South America and wanted to give a million dollars to the American Mercury, I would go down and get it.”

Even more alarming to conservatives than the bias of the mainstream press was the number of liberals, radicals, and communists alleged to be in higher education. In a 1952 American Mercury article, a twenty-seven-year-old William F. Buckley accused liberal historians of a “conspiracy against giving the American people the facts” about Franklin Roosevelt, and claimed that they thus “betrayed the American people.” In his debut book, God and Man at Yale, published the year before, Buckley had dismissed academic freedom as a cynical shield wielded by left-wing faculty to protect themselves from the political consequences of their views; he advocated using the threat of withholding alumni donations as a weapon against the liberalism and leftism running amok in the academy. Buckley would soon become the gatekeeper of “respectable” conservatism by pushing back against the conspiratorial excesses of the John Birch Society. But he began his career by indulging in some of those rhetorical flourishes himself, along with a plan of action on how to fight back against the stranglehold of leftists on the academy. 

Buckley was also one of McCarthy’s most vociferous defenders. Although popularly remembered today as a drunken punch line discredited by crusading journalists like Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s, McCarthy is actually an important figure in the development of American conservatism. Almost every major conservative journalist and politician in the 1950s defended him. Senator Barry Goldwater voted against McCarthy’s censure in 1954. Conservative radio pundit Fulton Lewis defended McCarthyism in his broadcasts even after the senator’s death. William F. Buckley was no exception: he went to the bat for McCarthy in the 1954 book McCarthy and His Enemies. Buckley applauded McCarthy for recognizing that “coercive measures” were necessary to enforce a new anticommunist “conformity.” While Buckley—unlike many of his peers—did distinguish between “the Liberals” and “the Communists,” he suggested that “atheistic, soft-headed, anti-anti-Communist liberals” were ultimately little better than communists, and by far a greater danger to American democracy than any supposed excesses of McCarthyism. And indeed, Buckley never abandoned his defense of McCarthy and repeatedly attempted to rehabilitate the senator in the eyes of the broader public. In 1999 he published a pro-McCarthy novel, The Redhunter, which incorporated large swaths of McCarthy and His Enemies almost verbatim.

Still, Buckley was comparatively moderate next to other conservatives, who suggested that the answer to the communist threat might be to adopt the communists’ own tactics. Fred Schwarz, an Australian-born doctor who founded the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade in 1953, wrote in his book You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists) that liberals were effectively “protectors and runners of interference for the Communist conspirators.” Why? Because liberals resisted efforts to purge communists and their sympathizers from schools and universities, and insisted on pesky legal technicalities like the Fifth Amendment. “[O]rganization is the genius of Communism,” Schwarz continued, and so “an anti-Communist program needs organization.” Just as communists “operate through a great number of front organizations, each of which is tuned to some specific motivating dynamic,” so must “every religious, professional, economic, and cultural group” adopt this model to “organize an anti-Communist program.”

A full-blown Leninist approach was tempting, Schwarz wrote, but he preferred a decentralized organization based on “voluntary choice and free will.” Not all on the anticommunist right were so circumspect. Robert Welch, a wealthy retired candy manufacturer and right-wing activist, organized the John Birch Society in 1958 explicitly along the lines of what he called “international communism.” Welch wrote in the society’s founding document, The Blue Book, that this was simply a savvy political decision: the communist conspiracy was, after all, “incredibly well organized,” and “so well financed that it has billions of dollars annually just to spend on propaganda.” The Birchers would, like the communists, organize themselves into cells (or, as Welch preferred to call them, “chapters”), set up front organizations, and distribute propaganda (by which Welch meant conservative magazines and journals, including National Review, Human Events, and his own American Opinion). The goal was not to become a mere “organization” like the Democratic or Republican Parties, but to become a movement, in the same sense as communism or its close ideological ally, organized labor. And indeed, at its peak in the early 1960s the John Birch Society claimed around 100,000 members, more than the Communist Party USA at its height in the 1940s, easily making it the largest and best-organized group on the right. The Birchers’ on-the-ground presence certainly dwarfed the reach of the National Review, which in 1961 counted only 29,000 weekly subscribers. 

One of the Birchers’ most prominent campaigns was a drive to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had presided over a Court that made dramatic rulings in favor of civil rights, ranging from establishing a right to birth control to abolishing mandatory school prayer to the greatest sin of all, desegregating public schools. In August 1963, Welch accused the civil rights movement of being a communist plot to create a “Soviet Negro Republic” in the South, with Martin Luther King Jr. as president, and blamed Brown v. Board of Education for poisoning race relations in America. “What we want to do,” Welch wrote in the Birch Society’s bulletin, “is to concentrate the whole opposition to what is happening in the South, and resentment of it, into one course of action: The Movement to Impeach Earl Warren.”  

The conflation of communism and the NAACP was not accidental. Of all of the supposedly communistic liberal front groups, none drew conservative scorn more fiercely than the civil rights movement. William F. Buckley, who opposed the impeachment as a tactic against the Warren Court, nonetheless infamously wrote in 1957 that the “advanced” white race in the South was justified in taking “such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally,” in areas where “it does not predominate numerically.” His magazine, National Review, repeatedly suggested that the civil rights movement was communist inspired, riddled by communist infiltration, or composed of communist front organizations. Martin Luther King himself was suspect—National Review called him the “source of violence in others” in 1965.

King was far more radical than his sanitized popular memory today—he spoke out against American imperialism in Vietnam, called for a guaranteed basic income, and was murdered while visiting Memphis to support a strike by public-sector sanitation workers—but he was no doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist. “Communism forgets that life is individual,” he said in a 1967 speech, while also condemning capitalism for forgetting “that life is social.” These distinctions were lost on the civil rights movement’s right-wing opponents. By painting civil rights activists as communists, or at the minimum dupes of an international communist conspiracy, segregationist southerners were making a bid for the support of conservative anticommunists elsewhere in the country.

They got it. Barry Goldwater, whose anti-liberal and anticommunist political bona fides were so secure he could get away with criticizing the John Birch Society without losing the support of its members, voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The vast majority of conservative publications opposed the bill’s passage, on the grounds both that it was an unacceptable expansion of federal power and that the “mobocratic” and “unruly” civil rights agitators were in effect advocating for socialism. George Wallace, the hyper-segregationist governor of Alabama, recognized the potency of this conspiratorial rhetoric during his third-party run for president in 1968. Shunned by Buckley and the conservative establishment on the basis of his sympathy for New Deal–style welfare programs, Wallace was embraced by the Birchers because of his unwavering opposition to the “communists,” “radicals,” and “agitators” in the civil rights movement.

The rise in prominence of the religious right in the 1970s and ’80s did little to tamp down paranoid political rhetoric. Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer—as well as Catholics like Paul Weyrich and Mormons like W. Cleon Skousen—conflated liberalism, socialism, and communism under the broader umbrella of “secularism” and built alliances with one another to combat this scourge. Often, this merely meant consolidating preexisting activism: Falwell had been an outspoken opponent of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and Skousen was a key propagandist for the John Birch Society in the 1960s and early ’70s before penning in 1981 The 5,000 Year Leap, a book that codified many of the shibboleths of the religious right to the present day. The evangelicals and their allies in other denominations were united in their opposition to abortion, gay rights, and feminism—the tangible realities of the nefarious left-liberal agenda. 

Increasingly, the communist fingerprints to be found on these cultural changes were not to be found in an overarching conspiracy directed from Moscow—after all, the sexual politics of radical American feminists were hardly those of Leonid Brezhnev—but from a more nebulous grouping of student radicals, intellectuals, and activists. Although the term “cultural Marxism” would not be used to describe this new, somewhat murkier conspiracy until the 2000s, the outlines of the charge were already evident by the late 1970s. In 1980, televangelist James Robison declared in a speech that he was “sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the communists coming out of the closet,” and called for “God’s people” to fight back.

The collapse of the Soviet Union accelerated these trends. It was no longer possible to accuse liberals and remnants of the left of being in Moscow’s pocket, but this did not stop conservatives from invoking the specter of left-wing radicalism to rally support and justify extremism. It just took more creativity. Pat Buchanan deftly shifted midsentence in his infamous 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention from the Cold War to the “cultural war,” the “religious war . . . for the soul of America,” suggesting that the fight against liberalism, feminism, and the “gay agenda” was not just the equivalent, but in fact the continuation, of the Cold War itself.

The “culture war” was the basis of the Clinton hatred phenomenon in the 1990s, which—as in 2016—was particularly focused on Hillary Clinton. She was the worst of all possible worlds: an elitist big-government liberal with degrees from Wellesley and Yale Law, a feminist who initially refused to change her name after marrying Bill, declined to embrace the image of a mother and housewife in the White House, and was rumored to be the real powerhouse next to her husband.

Bill Clinton had run in 1992 as a “different kind of Democrat,” and after losing Congress in 1994 tacked even more to the right. Clinton embraced financial deregulation, effectively abolished the existing welfare program, and even signaled his openness to partially privatizing Social Security and Medicare. Yet Clinton’s policy concessions to conservatives won him little goodwill from across the aisle. Congressional Republicans embraced scorched-earth legislative tactics under firebrand House Speaker Newt Gingrich, including the 1995 government shutdown, a preview of the right’s nihilistic resistance to Barack Obama over a decade later.Gingrich was a veteran partisan bruiser—as House minority whip he led the successful effort to oust Texas Democrat Jim Wright as speaker for minor ethics infractions in 1989, suggesting for good measure that Wright and other Democrats harbored socialist sympathies given their willingness to negotiate with the Sandinista government to end the Nicaraguan civil war. 

But in another sense, the fervid anti-Clinton paranoia may have been a psychic and political necessity for Republicans who yearned to regain power. With Clinton offering real policy conciliations to conservatives, the easiest way to maintain energetic opposition was to construct a narrative of criminality and anti-American perfidy that must be countered at all costs. Right-wing attacks against the Clintons could and did backfire—the president’s approval ratings actually rose during his impeachment—and accusations against Bill Clinton for affairs, sexual harassment, and even rape were easier to dismiss as part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton put it, when right-wing magazines were also accusing her of murder. Bill Clinton weathered the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but Clinton hatred never went away. It reappeared with a vengeance in 2016.

The bitter partisan battles of the 1990s intensified trends that had existed on the political right since World War II. Indeed, the creation of Fox News in 1996 was a supercharged throwback to the days of Human Events and the American Mercury. Fox News was necessary, the argument went, because conservative journalists and conservative perspectives were shut out of mainstream broadcasters. Never mind that even Bill O’Reilly had enjoyed a career at CBS and ABC before joining Fox News in its debut year. But while conservative media in the 1950s and ’60s either had a limited reach—the National Review in 1960 had less than a tenth as many subscribers as Time—or were counterbalanced by the FCC’s fairness doctrine, which was on the books between 1949 and 1987, Fox News presented an unchallenged right-wing worldview to millions of viewers twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

Conservative pundits repackaged Cold War–era attacks equating liberals with communists during the Bush years. In 2003, Ann Coulter, a frequent Fox News talking head, published Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, which was a full-throated defense of Joseph McCarthy that accused liberals of being, well, traitors who hated America. The book sold 500,000 copies in its first three weeks. Even the racially charged birther myth—that Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen, and was a covert Muslim, to boot—was a riff on the old John Birch Society charge that liberals, including moderate Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, were secret members of the international communist conspiracy. The cry that Obama was a Marxist, Maoist, Muslim Kenyan socialist was almost interchangeable with right-wing attacks directed against the civil rights movement in the 1960s. And the idea that a vast left-liberal conspiracy was both undermining the country and using dirty, underhanded tactics to do so rhetorically justified an anything-goes strategy on the part of the right. Shutting down government. Refusing confirmation votes. Supporting Donald Trump for president.

So-called Never Trump conservatives lament that the Republican Party and, indeed, the conservative movement have ceased to be about ideas beyond slavish devotion to Trump’s cult of personality. But this critique ignores the centrality of the idea of liberal nefariousness even in the self-consciously intellectual corners of the conservative movement. Jonah Goldberg, who has been affiliated with National Review for twenty years, has called for a revived conservative intellectual vigor to tackle the policy challenges of the twenty-first century. He was also the author, in 2008, of the book Liberal Fascism, which—until a last-minute change by Goldberg—bore the subtitle The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton.

Even the theory-heavy Chicago School movement that undergirded the post-Reagan shift to laissez-faire economic policy derived its momentum from the perceived need to rescue the “free enterprise system” from the clutches of liberalism, which would otherwise inevitably lead to communism. Robert Bork, the academic, judge, and Nixon administration official who was perhaps the preeminent ideological conduit between academia and government—and whose 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline is exactly what it sounds like—described his antitrust theories as an antidote to the “reckless and primitive egalitarianism” of the Warren Court. 

Trump is, in many ways, the ultimate embodiment of this long-standing tendency on the right. His transformation from New York Democrat to Republican Party celebrity began by embracing the birther conspiracy; he even took credit for Obama’s eventual decision to release his long-form birth certificate. As president, he has wondered aloud why Attorney General Jeff Sessions hasn’t personally defended him from the Russia investigation in the same way that, in Trump’s Fox News–fueled fantasies, Eric Holder once shielded Obama from “scandals” like “Fast and Furious.” 

The idea that the left is depraved, corrupt, and ruthless has been an important strain of American conservatism since the movement began. But in the Trump era, it has metastasized. Right-wing policy ideas have been so thoroughly discredited—does anyone even argue anymore that trickle-down economics will ensure mass prosperity?—that the only apparent reason for conservatism’s existence is to fight back against evil liberals. This is, of course, not the sign of a healthy political movement. The right’s support for McCarthy has been a long-standing embarrassment for American conservatism. Its embrace of Trump may be history repeating itself.

21/07/2018 03:38 AM
The First Casualties of the Trade War are Trump Supporters
The coming red state ruination is no accident, our partners are making a point, economic aggression affects us all

For President Trump, all questions have simple answers: US “immigration laws are the weakest and worst anywhere in the world”, the Mueller investigation is a “Rigged Witch Hunt”, and “trade wars are good, and easy to win”. While many of Trump’s presidential actions will have negative consequences over time, for his burgeoning trade wars, the bills are already beginning to come due. They are high, they are primarily hurting states that voted for him, and they are harming business people who want to succeed as he did.

International trade is central to the US economy. In 2014 (the latest data available), trade represented an estimated 30 percent of US GDP and supported 41 million US jobs, up 300 percent from 1992.  In 2016, US exports alone supported an estimated 10.7 million U.S. jobs.  Small entrepreneurs play an outsized role in US trade, exactly the people businessman Donald Trump says he respects. In 2014 (the most recent available figures), small- and medium-sized US firms (SMEs) made up 98 percent of US exporters, 97 percent of US importers, and concluded one-third of all US merchandise trade.  In fact, in 2014 US companies with0-9 employees exported $190 billion, 161 percent more than its closest G-7 competitor’s companies of the same size.

READ MORE: What Neoliberals dont get about Trump

Donald Trump disrupted global trade for three reasons. First, he made a key campaign promise to bring jobs back home by renegotiating America’s trade deals. Second, because he could: unlike immigration, taxation, and health care, President Trump has full control over US trade policy without requiring Congressional approval. Third, gleefully unconstrained, he offered a confrontational and catastrophically simplistic solution to a complex issue.

He stated that the US was “losing” in trade because it had large bilateral trade deficits, particularly a $375 billion goods deficit with China. Trade deficits occur for many reasons and economists generally can’t agree on any of them, but for Donald Trump, trade deficits were bad, he could fix them by himself, and he was spoiling for a fight.  

On June 1, Trump first imposed steel and aluminum tariffs affecting countries including Canada, Mexico, and Germany, alienating America’s NAFTA and EU partners over less than two percent of America’s total imports. They responded with their own tariffs. Then, on July 6th, Trump installed $34 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, China retaliated with $34 billion of its own tariffs, whereupon Trump threatened a further $200 billion. Approximately $75 billion of US goods are now subject to retaliatory, and completely unnecessary, tariffs, which fall heavily on the Rust Belt and the Farm Belt, both areas of strong Trump support.  

The economic damage from these decisions is considerable. Estimates project that Trump’s tariffs will reduce US economic growth by between 0.3 to 1.3 percent — economists expect 2.4 percent growth next year. The US Chamber of Commerce, America’s business voice, states that these actions threaten 2.6 million U.S. jobs. 468,790 US jobs are estimated to be lost from the steel and aluminum tariffs alone. Over 41 percent of clothes, 72 percent of shoes, and 54 percent of non-leather handbags sold in the US are made in China and will likely now be more expensive. As a result of the EU’s retaliatory tariffs, Harley Davidson is moving some production of its iconic American motorcycle out of the US to the EU, which it says “is not the company’s preference”.

Trump’s trade wars promise both immediate and longer-term economic effects.  BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink stated that intensifying trade tensions could reduce stock prices by 10 to 15 percent, spur a broad market downturn and slow down the U.S. economy. In June, investors withdrew $12.4 billion from global stocks, the fastest withdrawal since the 2008 financial crisis. That same month, the market values of US corn, soybeans, and wheat crops dropped $13 billion, about 10 percent. Reflecting a 25 percent Chinese tariff, US soybean prices fell by 16 percentto their lowest level in ten years, after having exported some $12 billion to China last year (56 percent of all US soybean exports).  

According to Mr. Rusty Smith, a corn and soybean farmer in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, this price drop is “like $100,000 that has disappeared into thin air. We were already in the red, and now it’s even worse.” Bloomberg Economics estimates that all these tariffs could cost the global economy $470 billion, reduce global trade by 3.7 percent, and shrink the US economy by 0.9 percent by 2020.  

In the US, who will be most affected? The emerging conclusion is Republican states, Trump voters, and small business people.  Moody’s Analytics projects that China’s tariffs will significantly affect 20 percent of the counties that voted for Trump (with a total population of eight million Americans), as opposed to only three percent of the countiesthat voted for Hillary Clinton (1.1 million total population).  Soybean farmers in the Great Plains, car manufacturers in the Midwest, and oil producers in the Dakotas and Texas have all been hit by China’s tariffs, and they are predominantly from red states.
Finally, 59 percent of small- and medium-sized firms export to only a single market, compared to 75 percent of large firms that export to multiple countries, leaving smaller firms exceptionally vulnerable to international trade turmoil. They are the most exposed to the costs of Trump’s frenzied policies and often live in red states.

This Red State ruination is not accidental. Donald Trump brought his belligerent brand of politics to trade, insisting that he could force US trading partners to submit. With their responses, the EU and other countries have made a different point — that in an interdependent global economy, economic aggression affects everyone, even the perpetrator, so that reasonable compromise is manifestly preferable to conflict.

To drive this home, these countries intend to punish Trump’s supporters in the US. Many of these retaliatory tariffs have been targeted with malice aforethought, to send a message to Donald Trump and to those who put him in office.  Several countries  have aimed their fire at both Kentucky and Wisconsin, homes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, levying tariffs on specific local products such as whiskey, cheese, and Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Trump’s tariffs have created a coalition of conservatives who would never normally oppose a Republican President. The CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said, “Tariffs are simply taxes that raise prices for everyone… that will cost American jobs and economic growth.” Republican farmers and agribusiness groups have implored Congress to restrain Trump’s trade policies. Even members of Trump’s own party are rebelling. Republican Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn) said “I believe the president is abusing his authorities. I believe it is a massive abuse of his authorities.” Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said, “We risk having American products locked out of new markets, jobs moved overseas, and a decline in American influence.”

In his lust for simplicity and confrontation, Donald Trump has created anarchy in the global trading order. In trade, he suffers no restraints, no dearth of targets, and apparently no interest in shielding those who raised him to power. Einstein’s definition of genius was to take the complex and make it simple.  Donald Trump’s trade policy has demonstrated his anti-genius, as he has taken something complex and made it chaotic.

21/07/2018 03:24 AM
Trump's New Attack on Lawyer Michael Cohen Was a 'Terrible Idea' That Will Blow Up in President's Face: Trial Attorney
While spending the weekend at his New Jersey golf course, President Trump accused his former attorney, Michael Cohen, of “perhaps illegal” behavior by recording a conversation with Trump during which the two reportedly discussed a hush money payment.

Preeminent attorney Shanin Specter suggested that President Donald Trump’s Saturday morning Twitter attack on his former fixer, Michael Cohen, could blow up in his face.

While spending the weekend at his New Jersey golf course, President Trump accused his former attorney, Michael Cohen, of “perhaps illegal” behavior by recording a conversation with Trump during which the two reportedly discussed a hush money payment.

“Is there not now a public war between the two?” asked CNN host Michael Smerconish.

“Yes, Mike, there appears to be,” Specter answered. “This is a very surprising tweet from the president this morning where he suggests his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, committed a crime.”

“The significance of this tape is that it may indicate there was criminal conduct by either President Trump or Michael Cohen or both of them,” Specter explained.

Specter suggested the tape may fall under the crime/fraud exception to the attorney/client privilege.

“Read the tea leaves now, who would have motivation to put this in the public domain?” Smerconish asked.

“Michael Cohen,” Specter immediately answered.

He suggested Cohen’s motivation could be that, “if he still entertains the thought that the president might pardon him, the putting of this tape in the public domain is a pressure point on the president that he can do the president great damage.”

“It’s extraordinary that the president would suggest that Michael Cohen has committed a crime in relation to the tape recording of this conversation, which, by the way, appears to have occurred in New York State, in which there is one party consent and I’m sure that President Trump knows that,” he argued.

“So not only is suggesting that Cohen committed a crime in recording him, but to accuse his former lawyer, who simply said may have the goods on him of committing the crime is a terrible, terrible idea,” Specter continued.




21/07/2018 03:17 AM
Is Artificial Intelligence Too Dehumanizing to Succeed?
Giving corporations powerful technology to intrude even more deeply into the personal lives of consumers and employees and then analyze that data for financial gain is a dangerous combination.

Does all the hype about AI sound just a little too familiar? If you’re old enough to remember the first beginnings of the Internet and the dotcom bubble, you might also remember the tsunami of hype that attended these events as they unfolded. Wiredmagazine made endlessly breathless predictions about how the Internet would transform humanity and bring about a technologically-driven utopia. Now we’re wrestling with how such a promising technology devolved into a netherworld of hacking, hate speech, exploitation of personal data, “dark webs”, misinformation, political chicanery, and citizen surveillance despite these glowing promises. In the latest twist, AI is being sold in a similar way by similar players and the cultural amnesia is impressive.

In the early nineties, I had the unusual experience of being the first journalist to write about the advent of the Internet. The genesis was that Vinton Cerf, “the father of the Internet”, was on the advisory board for a technology magazine where I was a staff editor. Vint had sent me an email describing how a Department of Defense network would soon be commercialized and available for public use. We ran an article breaking the news about this exciting development—the birth of the public Internet. The articles ran three months before the New York Times broke the story. It was from this vantage point that I watched the Internet hype bubble expand for almost a decade—not just in technology publications but in the mainstream media as well.

The Technology Hype Machine

What’s past is prologue. The non-stop torrent of hype about AI is now taking us down the same path but with an important difference. While the Internet did, in fact, provide democratizing benefits by empowering users and still continues to do so, AI is a far more exotic and inaccessible technology. As such, it will be developed and controlled by well-funded and powerful organizations, whether the same Silicon Valley giants that have already been exposed as trampling over the rights of their users or corporations that will use it to exert more repressive control over employees.

As an editorial in The Economist gushed: “Using AI, managers can gain extraordinary control over their employees. Amazon has patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more efficient. Workday, a software firm, crunches around 60 factors to predict which employees will leave. Humanyze, a startup, sells smart ID badges that can track employees around the office and reveal how well they interact with colleagues.” Is the workplace of the future sounding like fun yet?

Psychopathic AI?

Giving corporations powerful and manipulative technology tools to intrude even more deeply into the personal lives of consumers and employees and then analyze that data for financial gain is a dangerous combination and a blueprint for dystopia. As was the case with the Internet, I believe that AI will end up providing some important benefits if and when used ethically and thoughtfully. But it also has the potential to do a lot of harm. Witness, for example, the “psychopathic AI” being developed by MIT students.

My sense as a futurist, however, is that there’s also some good news here: Internet users are becoming wiser and more guarded about the unintended consequences of technologies that lure us in but then exact a steep price. The first wave of a user revolt came in the vigorous pushback that monopoly-provider Facebook received after its egregious privacy transgressions were revealed. I believe that over time, and as they come to better understand the implications, people will begin to reject AI applications and programs that are offensive, exploitative, and dehumanizing. In this sense, corporatized AI will eventually fail as some kind of utopian platform for the common good, just as the Internet in many cases has become a tool for subtly institutionalizing social and economic advantage. Here are some observations about how and why I think this will happen:

AI will create widespread dehumanization and depersonalization. The rise of computing in everyday life has already created a “mediated society” as I described in Digital Mythologies. Here in the US, citizens often find themselves relating to each other not directly but through some sort of mediated digital experience. Over time, these dehumanizing experiences can chip away at our sense of humanity and have profound cultural effects. However,  many are now waking up to the Faustian bargain of having an AI-precursor technology such as Alexa cater to our every whim, on the one hand, while robbing us of privacy and personal freedom on the other and making us fully dependent on hyper-technology for the essentials of life.

In my opinion, a fully implemented AI world is unlikely to happen because humans now have a powerful desire to reconnect with the natural world, undo the massive harm that’s been done to the planet in the name of progress, and reclaim their independence from the subtle chokehold, de facto dependency, and limited range of personal choice that characterizes a mechanistic, technology-driven lifestyle. Technology is here to stay but only those systems, products, and services that don’t impede this goal will ultimately succeed.

AI will make people dumber and more dependent on “the system”. When calculators first came out, students who used them eventually began to forget how to add subtract and divide. Their skills simply atrophied. Now that the use of Google search is widespread, it’s been observed that Internet users no longer feel it necessary to remember either history and or basic facts because they can be so easily looked up. Some observers think that this is making us less intelligent and changing the patterns of how we think. In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr observed: “The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible… but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when repeated frequently.”

There are other points to consider. Many of us no longer use maps because GPS makes them unnecessary. But without a map you no longer have a cognitive sense of your own surroundings. There’s no need to pay attention to where you are physically. This notion of physically is incredibly important. In a very subtle way, a person gives up a little of their independence of thought to a machine and becomes a less skillful negotiator of life’s terrain, both literally and figuratively. That aspect of life becomes an abstraction, a fog of unknowing. In losing touch with your surroundings, you also lose touch with the natural world, already a hazard of living in an advanced Western nation.

I would argue that not only is technology changing society and culture for the worse in some areas of life, but that this shift is not just cultural but ontological. AI and the overuse or inappropriate use of computer technology has the potential to remove us from the natural world and to literally abstract as well as distract us from our surroundings. This can include people, places, and the fullness of many life experiences (Think of a traveler glued to their smartphone while strolling through the streets of Paris.) In making this existential shift, AI will also make humans more dependent on their systems, less self-reliant, less intelligent, and less educated in the traditional sense of education as a way of apprehending and appreciating the world at large. Intelligence will be valued, but primarily in machines, not humans and in those who develop and own the most capable machines who will become the new “masters of the universe”. Wisdom, as we now know it, will be diminished because it is not a programmable attribute.

AI will increasingly be used as means of social control. AI is very sophisticated and powerful technology. Following the pattern of social Darwinism that has characterized much of the Silicon Valley’s initiatives to date, it confers power on those who direct its aims. This makes it a very different animal than the Internet which, for all its flaws, still manages to empower individuals. Who are the powerful entities that will end up controlling and dispensing AI? No surprise—corporations that can afford to buy and perfect this technology and also governments using it to track the lives and movements of citizens.

Authoritarian countries such as China will be the first to perfect this. In China, AI is already being used to implement a social acceptability score that ranks the “value” of its citizens to the government and determines to what extent the citizen is eligible for government-provided benefits.

As described in an article in Fast Company: “By 2020, the country plans to give all its 1.4. billion citizens a personal score, based on how they behave…The government started working on its so-called social credit system back in 2014, which ranks citizens on their trustworthiness, including whether they jaywalk, buy Chinese-made products, what they post online, and whether they smoke in nonsmoking areas. Those deemed trustworthy can get discounts on energy bills and better interest rates at banks, while those considered untrustworthy can reportedly be stopped from buying property and even high-speed internet.”

While there may be no short term cure for how AI is being applied in authoritarian regimes, the most optimistic perspective is that dystopian uses of AI will eventually be resisted in Western democracies. The hope is that this will happen as citizens become increasingly less starry-eyed and more well informed about who really benefits from these technologies and how, and over the course of time, they have the potential to greatly diminish the quality of life.


21/07/2018 03:03 AM
Here's How Canadian Boomers Got Into Pot
Many baby boomers believed marijuana use could usher in a new era of experience, enlightenment and joy. Half a century ago, this was utterly new to most Canadians.

The legalization of marijuana in Canada comes almost a century after the drug was first declared an illegal substance in 1923, but pot didn’t explode in popularity until the 1960s when a group of rebellious people began promoting it a shortcut to peace and enlightenment.

Concerned about the new use of this drug, in 1969, the Royal Commission on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs visited coffee shops and universities to talk to young people about marijuana use.

One student told them marijuana reveals “a greater sense of the universe.” He enthused that “things you never noticed… now jump out … and every event becomes suddenly deep.” Another touted that cannabis could be the “catalyst to the great Epiphany.”

One participant promised “fantastic benefits” from smoking marijuana and said that it could lead to “a much better way of living.”

In short, many baby boomers believed marijuana use could usher in a new era of experience, enlightenment and joy. Half a century ago, this was utterly new to most Canadians.

Cannabis convictions soar

Convictions for cannabis went from 60 in 1965 to 6,292 in 1970. By the spring of 1970, the Royal Commission on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs suggested that somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 million Canadians had used marijuana.

A survey of Toronto adults in 1971 showed that 8.4 per cent had used cannabis in the previous year, with higher rates among young people. Thirty per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 said they had tried the drug, while only 10 per cent of people aged 25 to 35 had smoked marijuana. From 1968 to 1972, marijuana use at Toronto high schools tripled.

Read more: How pot-smoking became illegal in Canada

What made this new generation of young people reject the hard-drinking ways of their elders in favour of a new drug? Part of marijuana’s appeal was its illicit status — it allowed baby boomers to reject the rules of the “establishment” and the habits of their parents.

Timothy Leary addresses a crowd of hippies at the ‘Human Be-In’ that he helped organize in 1967. Leary told the crowd to ‘Turn on, Tune in and Drop out.’ (AP Photo/Bob Klein)

It was believed marijuana would open them to new experiences, while alcohol diminished awareness. As the LSD guru, Timothy Leary, put it in his Politics of Ecstasy, alcohol consumption brought about the “State of Emotional Stupor” while marijuana would lead to “The State of Sensory Awareness.”

Marijuana users were well aware that their parents already took a wide array of legal and prescription drugs. They were often highly critical of prescription drugs like barbiturates and tranquillizers. They believed these drugs numbed people to the injustices and inadequacies of North American society.

Promises of enlightenment

By contrast, marijuana promised to open a path to enlightenment. Many baby boomers were interested in Eastern religions and transcendent experiences. As Charles Reich put it in his Greening of America, an ode to the new generation, “using marijuana is more like what happens when a person with fuzzy vision puts on glasses.”

Reich explained that marijuana enabled people to hear new sounds in music and to visualize the world in new ways. It would allow them to understand time differently, thereby releasing them from the unrelenting demands of a capitalist society.

Read more: The truth about cannabis on Canadian campuses

Other marijuana users were influenced by the popular culture of the day to try the drug. The Beatles were getting “high with a little help” from their friends. Janis Joplin spent all her money on drugs in “Mary Jane.” Bob Dylan intoned: “Everybody must get stoned.”

The Beatles psychedelic animated movie ‘Yellow Submarine’ from 1968.

Drug use was also glorified in movies. The Beatles psychedelic cartoon Yellow Submarine premiered in 1968, while the countercultural classic Easy Rider came out the following year. It featured Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper driving their motorcycles from Los Angeles to New Orleans, smoking dope, taking LSD, visiting a commune and raising the ire of the establishment.

Finding a ‘groove’

Protesters stage a demonstration in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood in the 1960s. Michel Lambeth/Library and Archives Canada, CC BY

From the Mariposa music festival to the coffee shops of Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, marijuana wafted through the air of the late 1960s. Headshops were a vital part of the street life in countercultural communities like Vancouver’s Kitsilano. Stores like the Polevault in Vancouver featured coloured lights beaming through parachutes on the ceiling, while chairs, cushions and ashtrays invited people to stay and “groove.” Countercultural newspapers like the Georgia Straight (Vancouver), Harbinger (Toronto) and Octopus (Ottawa) glamourized marijuana in their pages.

Marijuana proponents did not persuade the Royal Commission that marijuana would usher in a new era of enlightenment. But the Commissioners were persuaded that the costs of marijuana prohibition were too high, both for individuals and the state. They recommended the laws against the prohibition of marijuana be repealed.

This did not happen, as Marcel Martel explains in his book Not this Time. Jean Chretien’s attempt to decriminalize marijuana in 2003 also failed.

The ConversationFinally, more than 50 years after the “Summer of Love”, cannabis will be legalized in Canada, although the dream of marijuana’s potential to create a new society has largely passed.

Catherine Carstairs, Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Guelph

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

21/07/2018 02:51 AM
Should You Shield Yourself From Others’ Abhorrent Beliefs?
Suppose that a spy is asked to infiltrate a group of hateful extremists. Should she accept the assignment?

Many of our choices have the potential to change how we think about the world. Often the choices taken are for some kind of betterment: to teach us something, to increase understanding or to improve ways of thinking. What happens, though, when a choice promises to alter our cognitive perspective in ways that we regard as a loss rather than a gain?

Think, for example, of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in the FX television show, The Americans (2013-). They are Russian spies in the 1980s tasked with living in the United States and engaging in acts of espionage. In order to do their job, they have to spend a lot of time associating with people whose worldview they find abhorrent. They must build close relationships with many of these people, and this means exposing themselves to their ideas and often acting as if they hold these ideas themselves. It makes good sense for a person given such an assignment to worry that, in carrying it out, she will become more sympathetic than she currently is to some false or abhorrent ideas – not because she has learned that these ideas might be correct, but because the time spent encountering these ideas and pretending to embrace them might cause her to unlearn, at least to a degree, some of what she presently understands about the world.

It’s not hard to imagine other cases that have this kind of structure. Maybe the documentary that a friend invites you to watch puts forward a message that you think is dangerously false. Maybe a discipline you are thinking of studying involves ideological presuppositions you reject. And so on. In such cases, the way that a choice would alter your cognitive perspective is seen as a net minus. The choice might seem like a good one nevertheless – if it’s also a choice to do your job, say, or to spend time with a friend who needs your company. But the potential loss of knowledge or understanding – the potential clouding of your way of thinking about the world – is something you’d rather avoid if you could.

But wait. Can this really be the right way to think about this kind of situation? Imagine a climate-change skeptic considering whether to take an oceanography course. Suppose this person thinks: Climate change is a hoax, and if I enrol in this course it will make me more inclined to believe in climate change, so perhaps I should do something else with my time. We have words for this kind of person: dogmatic, ideological, closed-minded, fearful of the truth. This is not the kind of person you should want to be. But what is the difference between this person and the spy we imagined, who considers refusing an assignment because of the way it would cloud her understanding of the falsity of certain abhorrent views?

These cases present us with a dilemma. When we consider how a certain choice would alter our knowledge, understanding or ways of thinking, we do this according to the cognitive perspective that we have right now. This means that it’s according to our current cognitive perspective that we determine whether a choice will result in an improvement or impairment of that very perspective. And this way of proceeding seems to privilege our present perspective in ways that are dogmatic or closed-minded: we might miss the chance to improve our cognitive situation simply because, by our current lights, that improvement appears as a loss. Yet it seems irresponsible to do away entirely with this sort of cognitive caution. How much is too much, though, and when is this caution appropriate? And is it right to trust your current cognitive perspective as you work out an answer to those questions? (If not, what other perspective are you going to trust instead?)

This dilemma is escapable, but only by abandoning an appealing assumption about the sort of grasp we have on the reasons for which we act. Imagine someone who believes that her local grocery store is open for business today, so she goes to buy some milk. But the store isn’t open after all – she didn’t realise that today’s a holiday. Even though the store is closed, her behaviour still makes a kind of sense. She is going to the store because she thinks it is open – not because it actually is open. It makes sense for this person to go to the store, but she doesn’t have as good a reason to go there as she would if she didn’t just think, but rather knew, that the store were open. If that were case she’d be able to go to the store because it is open, and not merely because she thinks it is. That’s the distinction to keep in mind.

Now let’s revisit the cases of the spy and the climate skeptic. Suppose that a spy is asked to infiltrate a group of hateful extremists. Should she accept the assignment? If the spy knows that the extremists’ views are false and abhorrent, she might reject the assignment because of that falsity and abhorrence. And that seems like a good reason indeed: the extremists’ views are abhorrent, and the assignment risks making the spy more sympathetic to those views, so perhaps she should ask for a different one.

The same can’t be said of the skeptic, however. The skeptic doesn’t know that climate change is a hoax, since it isn’t a hoax at all. So he can’t choose not to enrol in the course because climate change is a hoax, any more than the person we imagined earlier could go to the store because it is open. Rather, the most that the skeptic can do is avoid taking the course because he thinks that climate change is a hoax – a choice that makes sense, but not one that is based on as good a reason as the skeptic would have if he didn’t just think, but rather knew, that this was true.

If this is on the right track, then the crucial difference between the dogmatic or closed-minded person and the person who exercises appropriate cognitive caution might be that the second sort of person knows, while the first merely believes, that the choice she decides against is one that would be harmful to her cognitive perspective. The person who knows that a choice will harm her perspective can decide against it simply because it will do so, while the person who merely believes this can make this choice only because that is what she thinks.

What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question: that climate change is a hoax, say, or that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have. And what could assure us, when we exercise cognitive caution in order to avoid what we take to be a potential impairment of our understanding or a loss of our grip on the facts, that we aren’t in that situation as well?Aeon counter – do not remove

John Schwenkler

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

21/07/2018 02:43 AM
Don't Drink the Kool-Aid: Scholar Whose Sisters Planned Jonestown Explains Why 'Brainwashing' Is BS
Many argue that people join “cults” – or “new religious movements,” the term scholars prefer – because they’ve been brainwashed.

Nearly 40 years ago, my two sisters, Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, were among those who planned the mass deaths in Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978.

Part of a movement called Peoples Temple, which was led by a charismatic pastor named Jim Jones, they had moved with 1,000 other Americans to the South American nation of Guyana in order to create a communal utopia. Under pressure from concerned relatives and the media, however, they implemented a plan of group murder and suicide. Jonestown is remembered in the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” because more than 900 people died after drinking poison-laced punch. My two sisters and nephew were among those who died.

In the wake of this tragedy, you might think that I would be amenable to the idea that they had been brainwashed. It would absolve their heinous actions and offer an easy explanation for their behavior.

Many argue that people join “cults” – or “new religious movements,” the term scholars prefer – because they’ve been brainwashed. The thinking goes that they’ve undergone some sort of programming that allows others to manipulate them against their will.

How else to explain why people become immersed in fringe groups that seem so alien to their previous, more socially acceptable lives? How else to account for the fact that – in some cases – they’ll even commit crimes?

But like the word “cult,” the term brainwashing seems to only be applied to groups we disapprove of. We don’t say that soldiers are brainwashed to kill other people; that’s basic training. We don’t say that fraternity members are brainwashed to haze their members; that’s peer pressure.

Read more:
Why the label 'cult' gets in the way of understanding new religions


As a scholar of religious studies, I’m disheartened by how casually the word “brainwashing” gets thrown around, whether it’s used to describe a politician’s supporters, or individuals who are devoutly religious.

I reject the idea of brainwashing for three reasons: It is pseudoscientific, ignores research-based explanations for human behavior and dehumanizes people by denying their free will.

No scientific grounding

Brainwashing is used so frequently to describe religious conversions that it has a certain panache to it, as if it were based in scientific theory.

But brainwashing presents what scientists call an “untestable hypothesis.” In order for a theory to be considered scientifically credible, it must be falsifiable; that is, it must be able to be proven incorrect. For example, as soon as things fall up instead of down, we will know that the theory of gravity is false.

Since we cannot really prove that brainwashing does not exist, it fails to meet the standard criteria of the scientific method.

In addition, there seems to be no way to have a conversation about brainwashing: you either accept it or you don’t. You can’t argue with someone who says “I was brainwashed.” But real science seeks argument and disagreement, as scholars challenge their colleagues’ theories and presuppositions.

Finally, if brainwashing really existed, more people would join and stay in these groups. But studies have shown that members of new religions generally leave the group within a few years of joining.

Even advocates of brainwashing theories are abandoning the term in the face of such criticism, using more scientific-sounding expressions such as “thought reform” and “coercive persuasion” in its stead.

Conversion, conditioning and coercion

Once we move beyond brainwashing as an explanation for people’s behaviors, we can actually learn quite a bit about why individuals are drawn to new ideas and alternative religions or make choices at odds with their previous lifestyles.

There are at least three scientific, neutral and precise terms that can replace brainwashing.

The first is “conversion,” which describes an individual’s striking change in attitude, emotion or viewpoint. It’s typically used in the context of religious transformation, but it can describe other radical changes – from voting for the “wrong” candidate to joining Earth First!

It can be sudden and dramatic, as in the case of St. Paul, who had been persecuting the early church but then stopped after supposedly hearing a voice from heaven. Or it can be a slow and gradual process, similar to the way Mahatma Gandhi came to understand his role and mission as a leader for Indian independence.

We usually think of conversion as a voluntary process. But when we look at accounts of well-respected converts – St. Augustine comes to mind – we find exactly what the philosopher William James said we would: Converts begin by being passive recipients of a transcendent, life-changing event. They don’t plan for it; it just happens. But they cannot go back to the way things were before their experience.

Next, there’s conditioning, which refers to the psychological process of learning to behave in a certain way in response to certain stimuli. As we grow up and experience life, we become conditioned by parents, teachers, friends and society to think and feel in certain predictable ways. We get rewarded for some things we do and punished for others. This influences how we behave. There is nothing evil or nefarious about this process.

Studies have shown that many of the people who seek out new religions may be predisposed or conditioned to finding a group that fosters their worldview.

But what about the nice people who, in rare cases, end up doing terrible things after joining a new religious movement?

Again, the process of conditioning seems to offer some explanation. For example, peer pressure has the powerful ability to condition people to conform to specific roles they are assigned. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, participants were randomly assigned the role of guard and prisoner – with the guards soon becoming abusive and the inmates becoming passive. Meanwhile, deference to authority, which Stanley Milgram studied in his famous 1961 experiment, may encourage people to do what they know is wrong. In the case of Milgram’s experiment, participants applied what they believed were electric shocks to individuals, even as they heard simulated screams of pain.

And finally, coercion can also help explain why people may act against their own values, even committing crimes on occasion.

If someone is told to do something – and threatened with physical, emotional or spiritual harm if they don’t – it’s coercion. Just because someone carries out an order, it doesn’t mean they agree with it. Prisoners of war may publicly denounce their home country or claim allegiance to the enemy just to survive. When they are released from captivity, however, they revert to their true beliefs.

In other words, coercion – or exhaustion, or hunger – can make people do things they might not otherwise do. We don’t need a theory of thought reform to understand the power of fear.

A denial of agency

True believers certainly exist. My sisters fall into that category. They sincerely promoted the cause of the Peoples Temple – no matter how misguided it was under the leadership of Jim Jones – because of their deep commitment to its ideals. This commitment arose from their conversion experiences and their gradual, conditioned acceptance of ethical misbehavior.

I do not consider them brainwashed, however. They made decisions and choices more or less freely. They knew what they were doing. The same is true for members of the Branch Davidians: They accepted and believed the word of God as interpreted by David Koresh.

Bodies of victims of Jonestown mass suicide are loaded from U.S. Army helicopter at Georgetown’s international airport, Nov. 23, 1977.
AP Photo

If brainwashing actually existed, we would expect to see many more dangerous people running around, planning to carry out reprehensible schemes.

Instead, we find that people frequently abandon their beliefs as soon as they leave coercive environments. This fact does not address the difficulty of leaving certain groups, whether they’re political parties, religious movements, social clubs or even business organizations.

Nevertheless, people can leave these groups and abandon their beliefs – and do.

Should we consider situational hurdles and peer pressure forms of brainwashing? If that were the case, then everything – and nothing – would constitute mind control.

We have studies that illuminate processes of conversion and conditioning. We have historical examples that demonstrate what people do under compulsion.

The brainwashing explanation ignores this social scientific research. It infantilizes individuals by denying them personal agency and suggesting that they are not responsible for their actions. The courts don’t buy brainwashing.

Why should we?

Rebecca Moore, Emerita Professor of Religious Studies, San Diego State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.