Why Sanders Will Probably Win the Nomination. The Democrats already see reality through the Bernie lens, and Bernie Sanders is the only Democratic candidate telling a successful myth.
Successful presidential candidates are mythmakers. They don’t just tell a story. They tell a story that helps people make meaning out of the current moment; that divides people into heroes and villains; that names a central challenge and explains why they are the perfect person to meet it.
In 2016 Donald Trump told a successful myth: The coastal elites are greedy, stupid people who have mismanaged the country, undermined our values and changed the face of our society. This was not an original myth; it’s been around since at least the populist revolts of the 1890s. But it’s a powerful us vs. them worldview, which resonates with a lot of people.
Trump’s followers don’t merely believe that myth. They inhabit it. It shapes how they see the world, how they put people into this category or that category. Trump can get his facts wrong as long as he gets his myth right. He can commit a million scandals, but his followers don’t see them as long as they stay embedded within that myth.
Bernie Sanders is also telling a successful myth: The corporate and Wall Street elites are rapacious monsters who hoard the nation’s wealth and oppress working families. This is not an original myth, either. It’s been around since the class-conflict agitators of 1848. It is also a very compelling us vs. them worldview that resonates with a lot of people.
When you’re inside the Sanders myth, you see the world through the Bernie lens.
For example, if you look at Mike Bloomberg through a certain lens you see a successful entrepreneur who took his management skills into public service and then started giving his wealth away to reduce gun violence and climate change. If, on the other hand, you look at Bloomberg through the Bernie lens you see a rapacious billionaire who amassed a gross amount of wealth, who became an authoritarian mayor and targeted young black men and then tried to buy his way to power.
Same person through different lenses.
My takeaway from Wednesday’s hellaciously entertaining Democratic debate is that Sanders is the only candidate telling a successful myth. Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar all make good arguments, but they haven’t organized their worldview into a simple compelling myth. You may look at them, but you don’t see the world through their eyes.
Elizabeth Warren inhabits a myth without expressing it clearly. It just happens to be Sanders’s myth. I thought her performance Wednesday evening was tactically brilliant and strategically catastrophic. Her attack on Bloomberg was totally through the Bernie lens. Her attacks on Buttigieg and Klobuchar were also through the Bernie lens. (Through that lens a bigger spending proposal is always better than a less big spending proposal.)
Warren was a devastatingly effective surrogate for Sanders, but she reinforced his worldview rather than establishing one of her own.
Over the past five years Sanders and his fellow progressives have induced large parts of the Democratic Party to see through the Bernie lens. You can tell because every candidate on that stage has the categories and mental equipment to carve up a billionaire like Bloomberg. None have the categories or mental equipment to take down a socialist like Sanders.
Sanders goes untouched in these debates because the other candidates don’t have a mythic platform from which to launch an attack. Saying his plans cost too much is a pathetic response to a successful myth.
I’ve spent much of this election season away from the campaign rallies and interviewing voters embedded in their normal lives. This week, for example, I was in Compton and Watts in and around Los Angeles. The reality I encounter every day has little to do with the us vs. them stories Trump and Sanders are telling.
Everywhere I go I see systems that are struggling — school systems, housing systems, family structures, neighborhoods trying to bridge diversity. These problems aren’t caused by some group of intentionally evil people. They exist because living through a time of economic, technological, demographic and cultural transition is hard. Creating social trust across diversity is hard.
Everywhere I go I see a process that is the opposite of group vs. group war. It is gathering. It is people becoming extra active on the local level to repair the systems in their lives. I see a great yearning for solidarity, an eagerness to come together and make practical change.
These gathering efforts are hampered by rippers at the national level who stoke rage and fear and tell friend/enemy stories. These efforts are hampered by men like Sanders and Trump who have never worked within a party or subordinated themselves to a team — men who are one trick ponies.
All they do is stand on a podium and bellow.
In the gathering myth, the heroes have traits Trump and Sanders lack: open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills and basic human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.
The gathering myth is an alternative myth — one that has the advantage of being true.
The Gatherer: Amy Klobuchar
If you say something enough times, especially on the front page of a major news publication or cable network you will eventually be believed by someone out there who is watching. For example, here as in Trump acquitted, and earlier as in Trump’s own repeated claim that he was “totally exonerated” by the Robert Mueller Reports. What conclusion are people left with other than what’s on the front page or in the words of Donald Trump himself regarding the Mueller Report? In both instances where is the truth?
Isn’t this sort of thing the basis of the advertising that we see more and more on television? Advertisers are repeating over and over again throughout the day and/or evening the name and merits of their product and that particular product, be it a drink or appliance, an insurance company or a new line of cars, will be remembered.
Well this is Trump’s way, to repeat over and over again that, for example. he was, exonerated by the Mueller Report, acquitted by the Senate. At this moment in time, February 2020, Trump is off to a grand start as the presidential campaign gets under way. The opposition, the Democrats, are still for the most part squabbling among themselves, not yet having a candidate, program, or policy of their own they can all get behind, and then repeat in the manner of Trump over and over again.
In fact, so far the Democrats have nothing to repeat other than their own clever put-downs of their fellows. And in the most recent Democratic debate Elizabeth Warren was putting down Michael Bloomberg, and all this was listened to and made fun of by Trump and his base at a Trump rally only a short distance away. The Democrats don’t seem to know that no squabbling beats squabbling every time.
But in regard to Trump, the absence of truth, of any concern for the facts, doesn’t end here. Trump has other trump cards. His world of untruth is the only world he knows and this gives him a net advantage over those still living in another world, our world of both truth and falsehood.
In particular his world of untruth may start with a lie (Obama wasn’t born in the US, Hillary Clinton is “crooked,'” “Romney is an evil man,”). The people listening to him will probably know little or nothing of the facts of the case, Obama’s birthplace, Hillary’s emails, Romney’s struggle with his God. But by hearing Trump’s lies over and over again they begin to believe whatever outrageous nonsense he is serving up…
And then there are the general “untruths” that Trump is always repeating to his base at the rallies, such as: — one, MAGA, meaning that things were better before and that he, Trump is going to make them better now, make America great again, just stay with him
— two, the WALL on our southern border, as he says it’s being built, he’s building it, insuring that the dark skinned peoples from South of the border will no longer be coming into our country, no longer be taking ourJobs and government handouts,
—and three, FOSSIL FUELS, now our principal sources of energy, providing jobs and warming and cooling for our homes. Trump’s opponents want to take them away. Trump whether he believes in global warming or not will make sure that doesn’t happen and that the extraction from the earth of our own abundant supplies of coal, gas and oil will continue. Wouldn’t it be enough to say that Trump is lying about all this, in particular about global warming and immigration? Why doesn’t the Press say it whenever they mention the president that he is lying? Instead they do seem to take him seriously.
So many questions regarding the subject! No end to the discussion. The two main questions I have concern the Republicans in Congress and the Media. Why do the the ones, the Republicans, in particular the Senators who by themselves recently acquitted the president of any wrong doing, why do they stick with the President? Why haven’t they left him en masse? They have to be afraid, but of what?
And then the media. Why do they treat the President with respect, why do they treat him as if he were a real President? Because given his grotesque, coarse, vulgar and lying Tweets and general behavior he shows little if any of the qualities that one would expect to find in a President.
For example, again, why did the Post direction go along with the headline, Trump acquitted? As if he had been really acquitted, were not guilty, not guilty of serious abuse of power? Is there an honest man anywhere who doubts that Trump did not abuse the power of the office for his own personal ends?
The Post might have better said that the President in spite of his lies was acquitted by the Republicans, fearful for their own survival in the 53 or soTrump lands from which they came to the Congress. Instead of “Trump acquitted” on the front page of a respected newspaper, why didn’t they write, the Liar, Trump, was “acquitted” by the Senators running scared? Wouldn’t that be more truthful, more accurate? And isn’t that what really happened? But instead Trump is helped to go on repeating that he was acquitted this time just as earlier he had been exonerated, not by the Mueller Report but by Bill Barr.
The truth about what really happened, isn’t that the first duty of the Press to report. But instead, from the headline, Trump acquitted, this is the principal news that people not knowing the details because of the failure of the press to make them apparent, walk away with. Why did the Media in even this instance support by their headline Trump’s world of untruth?… He wasn’t acquitted. The trial was fake.
“Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery.” Dostroevsky
We often read that our country is acutely polarized, in particular in the throes of citizen groups opposing one another and as it seems sometimes almost ready to go to war. If you’re like me and watched the recent Impeachment Hearings in the House of Representatives you’d probably agree that the extreme polarization we are experiencing was in public view during the Hearings. Throughout the Hearings Adam Shiff and Jerry Nadler et al at one pole, and Devin Nunes and Doug Collins et al at the other, were more than ready, if given the OK, to tear into one another as in a mini-House of Representatives Civil War.
What is it that best describes, may even account for the polarization? Left vs. right, as in Sanders vs. Boutigieg? Liberal vs. Conservative, as in the New York Times vs. Fox News? Believer vs. Non-believer, religious vs. secular, as in Pence vs. Bloomberg? Or any one of scores of other dualities. perhaps the very worst at present being Syrians vs. Syrians, and Rohingya vs. Rohingya where at this time millions of refugées are fleeing their homes?
Now man’s history is among other things an endless series of Civil Wars wars of opposites such as Left and Right. Wars between two opposing sides, whatever these might be, as that between slavers and anti-slavers, as between North and South, Korea and Vietnam, as between the Whites and the Reds in the early years of the Soviet Union couldn’t be more common.
In the history books there are huge numbers of Civil Wars. Not as many as the grains of sand on St. Pete’s beach where I live, not as many as the the numbers of leaves now falling from Tampa’s prized oak trees, although perhaps as many as the grains of sand in my grandchildren’s buckets this morning on the beach. In any case Wikipedia lists thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Civil Wars, its listing going back at least as far as Ancient Greece and Rome.
The wars between us outnumber most other events. In fact what else has happened as often? Well births and deaths, but that’s about it. And it may very well be that all wars are to a great extent Civil Wars. And we might say based on the evidence that man, in answer to the question What is Man, is the most apt of all of God’s creatures to go to a war to the death with his semblable.
But today, what is it that may best account for the differences that divide us. What is it in our history that most helps us to understand what is happening today? Some seem to be of the opinion that have to go back to the founding of the country to find an answer to this question, to what it is that so polarizes us.
Are our times any different from past times? Or has it always been like this? I don’t know, but let’s go back to the country’s founding. One side of the Left Right division would see the Founders as the forerunners of today’s secularists who prize a “wall of separation” between church and state. “The other side in this debate would see instead the Founders as having intended that the United States be a Christian nation built upon Christian and, specifically, biblical principles. (I take the nub of this idea from Gregg Frazer’s book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders.)
The founders of course were probably, like all of us, of at least two minds on the subject. That is probably why we’ve had but one major Civil War between us since our founding in 1776. President Trump is doing his best to change this. We don’t wish him well in the endeavor.
The Current Carried Doug Jones Toward the Righteous Shore
The best election night celebration I’ve ever attended was in Alabama on December 12, 2017. I had been in Alabama for a week. One of the things I did was to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma,
which was one of the most moving experiences of my life. The iron of the thing was still ringing wnd further into Jones’s arc on the dial. Dozens of people held their phones out at arm’s length to take selfies with dozens of other people they did not know. Some print outlets called the race early but, this being the 21st century and all, nothing was official until somebody said it on television. When CNN finally did, I got hugs from more strangers in five minutes than I have in my whole life. It was like a great weight had risen from the people in the ballroom, and finally, for once, they could fly.
Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore to become the United States Senator from Alabama.
People there told me that it had been like that 15 years earlier, when Jones, then the U.S. Attorney for Northern Alabama, had won convictions of two men named Thomas Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry. Blanton and Cherry had been part of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist cell that had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, killing four young schoolgirls. Blanton and Cherry had been able to stay free because J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had buried the evidence against them. Shortly after Jones was appointed by President Bill Clinton, the government declassified the files that Hoover had buried. Jones moved on Cherry and Blanton and got them convicted. When the verdicts came down, people say, everybody hugged strangers that day, too.
So, when Doug Jones got up on Wednesday, and he explained why he would vote to convict Donald Trump and remove him from office, he did so in the knowledge that it was going to complicate a re-election campaign that already looked like a long pull up a gravel road. But, watching him, I went back to the bridge that day, and I heard the whisper of the courage that still stays in the unyielding iron. The Civil Rights Movement remains the cleanest and strongest current in our history and, sooner or later, everyone trying to do right by the republic feels the need to tap into it. I believe Doug Jones voted to convict Donald Trump, regardless of the obvious political peril, in part because he felt the familiar strength of that current carrying him toward the righteous shore.
John Doar (right) walks with James Meredith onto the Mississippi State campus in October 1962.
Which of these four events (OK, Trump may not yet be at event level) would you rather be hit by? Right now, during this first week of February, 2020, they’re big news.
My first reaction is to call them a reality check on us, on our long held assumption that we, man/woman, is in control of his world. Well he’s not, as these four events seem to be saying.
In so many ways things are now, as they’ve always been, out of our control (although often, as in the case of the Iowa Caucuses, due to our own mistakes). Iowa didn’t have to be that way, nor did Trump have to be our president.
Furthermore, while it’s true that we are in control in as much as we can make babies — there are nearly 8 billion of us now alive on the earth, all of whom were once babes in arms, probably a new record for mankind — we cannot assure their survival beyond a hundred years or so at most. What kind of control is that?
“Hi Granddad, why don’t you come over to see us more often, you’ve only got a few years left to live.”
The locusts have free range, as do the viruses, and probably no less the faulty computer software. And lest we forget, there’s Donald Trump so far out of anyone’s control, including his own selfcontrol something that may never have been given him even while in his mother’s arms.
In what follows I’m not giving a column to Donald Trump. I’ll have more to say about him, and he is an often recurring name in my blogs. The three columns below will be for the East African locusts, the Chinese Coronavirus, and the Iowa Caucuses. This will be my first experience with a three colunmn central space.
“Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow.” So said God, rather vengefully, according to Moses and Aaron. But although the locust infestation wreaking havoc on east Africa is of biblical proportions, it is not a portent of end times, said experts at a press conference in Nairobi this month. Still, the finger-length bugs spell big trouble for the countries most affected.
It is the worst locust invasion in decades for Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. One enormous swarm, recently over north-eastern Kenya, contains nearly 200bn of the creatures and occupies a space in the sky three times the size of New York City. There are dozens of swarms in Kenya alone. And the un’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (fao) warns that the number of locusts could increase 500-fold by June, when it is hoped that drier weather will check their spread.
The insects eat a lot. A swarm the size of Paris consumes the same amount of food in one day as half the population of France. Crops such as millet, sorghum and maize are a big part of their diet, making life even harder for the 12m or so people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia who are already hungry (see map). Northern Uganda and South Sudan are also at risk; swarms are just 200km away and moving fast.
February 4, 2020
As China grapples with a mysterious coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 420 people and sickened thousands, the country’s 1.4 billion people are asking what went wrong. Senior officials are engaging in an unusually blunt display of finger pointing.
So many officials have denied responsibility that some online users joke that they are watching a passing-the-buck competition. (It’s “tossing the wok” in Chinese.)
The Chinese people are getting a rare glimpse of how China’s giant, opaque bureaucratic system works — or, rather, how it fails to work. Too many of its officials have become political apparatchiks, fearful of making decisions that anger their superiors and too removed and haughty when dealing with the public to admit mistakes and learn from them.
“The most important issue this outbreak exposed is the local government’s lack of action and fear of action,” said Xu Kaizhen, a best-selling author who is famous for his novels that explore the intricate workings of China’s bureaucratic politics.
By Li Yuan, in the NYTimes February 4, 2010
To excite the most Americans possible and have its best chance of toppling President Trump, the Democratic Party needs a sorting of candidates that’s coherent, a system that inspires faith, a process that makes participants feel respected and heard.
Iowa provided none of that on Monday night. Instead it staged a baffling spectacle resistant to any timely, definitive verdict. More than 12 hours after the actual, physical caucusing at hundreds of locations across the state had finished, there were still no official results, just resentments, recriminations and reports that a newly intricate manner of counting had proven laborious, a newly developed app for it hadn’t worked as planned, a backup phone line had jammed and the campaigns had been asked to join a pair of emergency conference calls with state Democratic officials.
Maybe there’s a moral here about dreaming too big and reaching too high. Maybe there’s just a terrifying repeat of the party’s awful luck in 2016.
Frank Bruni, in the NY Times, February 4, 2020
As a child, confronting my mortality was terrifying. Now it is an opportunity.
By George Yancy
The NYTimes, Feb 3, 2020
As a young boy, I recall very clearly telling my mother with an innocent defiance that I wished that I had never been born because I will die someday. I can’t recall her response, but I’m sure it worried her and left her feeling hurt. But I was frustrated, angry, afraid. While I knew that people died, it had suddenly dawned on me that I would be among them, that I will die someday. It was an epiphany — one I would rather have not had. I recall thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this. Who is playing this terrible joke on me?”
Strange, I realize, but there I was — a child, elated to be alive, feeling the warmth of the sun on my brown skin, playing with friends in the streets, eating ice cream, celebrating birthdays, enjoying unconditional love shown to me by my mother and my older sister. Why did I have so much joy and shared love just to someday have it all taken away, gone forever? And I understood “gone forever” to mean never ever existing again. Done! Kaput! It made absolutely no sense to me.
In my own experience there is only one satisfactory way to avoid, if not death, the fear of death. And that’s to not be alone, to be with loved ones. And creating opportunities to be with others, in caring and loving relationships, is really what life is most about, or should be if we would be happy and strong, free and brave as our anthem would have it. What has happened to us, what have we done to allow our lives under this president to be too often nasty and brutish, anything but sharing and joyful? PBW
I experienced the fact of my death as a cosmic slight. I could not get it out of my head. Even at that young age, I began to feel the heavy weight of my finitude. I couldn’t put it down, even though I wanted to. Death was now too close.
It was dreadful. That sense of unthinking longevity, invulnerability, cavalier confidence — hell, just being a child — gave way to a deep and frightening reality that I could not control. The childlike omnipotence collapsed and left me facing an abyss. The abstract fact of death had become personal. I had come to realize that not a single moment is guaranteed, not another breath, another blink of an eye, another hug from my mother or clash with my sister.
As I grew older this feeling of existential dread stayed with me — of being thrown into existence without any clear sense of why we’re here, of wondering whether or not God exists, whether or not the cosmos has any meaning beyond what we give it, whether or not we have immortal souls, whether there is anything to be discovered after death or whether death is the final absurd moment of our being. I was like the French-Algerian existentialist Albert Camus, who wrote of having “conscious certainty of a death without hope.”
As an adult, this uncanniness goes unabated; it has not stopped. There are times when, like the 17th-century thinker Blaise Pascal, I feel trapped between two infinities of meaninglessness. In his unfinished work, “Pensées,” Pascal writes, “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the small space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me. I wonder why I am here rather than there, now rather than then. Who set me here? By whose order and design have this place and time been destined for me?”
The fact of death is like a haunting. It frequents me, entangled in everything I do: It’s just beneath my pillow as I sleep, strolling next to me as I casually walk from one class to the next, inserting its presence between each heart beat in my chest, forcing its way into my consciousness when I say “I love you” to my children each night, assuring me that it can unravel the many promises that I continue to make, threatening the appointments that I need to keep. This sense of haunting is what the Harvard professor Cornel West calls the “death shudder.” Of this “shudder” in the face of death, he writes, “Yes, dread and terror were involved, but also perplexity. Exploration. Where does nonexistence take you? What does it mean to be stripped of your own consciousness? How do we live with the idea that we are always tantalizingly close to death? At any moment the bridge can collapse.”
I continue to shudder. Yet there is something about facing the fact of death that invites us to double back, to see our existence, our lives, differently. The scholar Mark Ralkowski, reflecting on Martin Heidegger’s notion of “being-toward-death,” writes: “In rare moments, we can be returned to ourselves by an experience of anxiety (Angst), which disrupts the tranquillity of the everyday world by emptying it of its usual significance and meaning. In these moments, none of our projects or commitments makes sense to us anymore, and we see that we are committed to roles prescribed to us by das Man” — which means “the they” or “the crowd.”
I want my students to experience one of those “rare moments,” to consider the short duration of their lives. To get them to think differently about our time together, to value their lives differently, I make a resolute effort to remind my students that all of us, at some point, sooner or later, will become rotting corpses. That, I explain, is the great equalizer. No matter how smart, brilliant, wealthy, beautiful and fit you are, no matter how great your MCAT, LSAT or G.P.A. scores, no matter your religious or political orientation, we will all perish.
After hearing this, students will often become completely silent. There is a sudden recognition that something has been haunting our joy, our unquestioned and collective happiness, our sense of “permanence.” It is palpable. No matter how many times I’ve decided to remove the veil, the sting of our collective finitude continues to hit me, along with the reality of bodily decomposition and putrefaction. The unspoken reality of death, which is the haunting background of our lives, shakes my body; I mourn for me and my students, and humanity.
Yet a clarity emerges. My students and I see each other differently, perhaps for the very first time. We are no longer simply students and professor, but fragile creatures and mysterious beings who have been dying from the moment we were born in a universe with no self-evident ultimate meaning. Something as previously uneventful as sitting next to one’s fellow classmate takes on unspeakable value. That shared understanding, vulnerability and mutual recognition of collective destiny makes our time together even more joyful, even more precious.
I’m not sure if the “death shudder” will ever abate while I’m alive. And I am no closer to understanding the fact that I exist or why I must die. I don’t seem to be able to achieve the necessary adjustment, the solace of acceptance. In his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” Wittgenstein helps to give voice to something mysterious about our being: It is thatwe exist, and that we will die, which is so uncanny. It is that both life and death are inextricably braided together that elicits the shudder. And the shudder and the uncanniness point beyond mere facts. They function, at least for me, as gestures, as intimations of a beyond, that enthrall my soul.
So, sooner or later I will die. I’m assured that it will happen. I know that if you are reading this article 100 years from now, I will no longer exist. I will have paid the debt for the gift of being. Death is our collective fate. Yet so many of us fear to talk about it, fear to face it, terrified by the idea of nonbeing. But we must face our destiny, our rendezvous with death. Indeed, the concept of death is a deep and perennial theme in philosophical and theological-religious thought; it is one of the Big Questions. As the philosopher Todd May writes, “Of course, most religions don’t claim that we don’t die. But there is, for many religions, a particular sense in which we don’t really die.”
It is in this spirit of exploration that I will interview 12 deeply knowledgeable scholars, philosophers and teachers, one each month, about the meaning of death in their respective traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Jainism and others. I will be asking questions like: What is death? Why do we fear death? Is death final? Do we have immortal souls? What role does death play in how we ought to live our lives?
The objective is not to find definitive answers to these eternal questions, but to engage, as my students and I try to do in our classes, in a lively discussion about a fact that most of us would rather avoid, and move ourselves a little closer to the truth.
This essay is an introduction to a series of monthly interviews to be conducted by the author with 12 religious scholars and practitioners on how individual religious traditions understand and respond to the inevitability of death.
Next: An interview with the Tibetan Buddhist Dadul Namgyal.
George Yancy is professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is “Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America.”
I take what follows for the most part from Jonathan Haidt’s Introduction to his book, The Righteous Mind.
The appeal and question, “Can we all get along?” was made famous on May 1, 1992, by Rodney King, a black man who had been beaten nearly to death by four Los Angeles police officers a year earlier. The entire nation had seen a videotape of the beating, so when a jury failed to convict the officers, their acquittal triggered widespread outrage and six days of rioting in Los Angeles. Fifty-three people were killed and more than seven thousand buildings were torched. Much of the mayhem was carried live; news cameras tracked the action from helicopters circling overhead.
After a particularly horrific act of violence against a white truck driver, King was moved to make his appeal for peace.
This appeal is now so overused that it has become cultural kitsch, a catchphrase1 more often said for laughs than as a serious plea for mutual understanding. I therefore hesitated to use King’s words as the opening line of this book, but I decided to go ahead anyway.
Americans nowadays are asking King’s question not about race relations but about political relations and the collapse of cooperation across party lines. Many Americans feel as though the nightly news from Washington is being sent to us from helicopters circling over the city, delivering dispatches from the war zone.
As he stumbled through h his is television interview King holding back tears and often repeating himself followed up with something lovely, something rarely quoted, with these words:
“Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”
This book is about why it’s so hard for us to get along. We are indeed all stuck here for a while, so let’s at least let’s do what we can to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.
Sound familiar? Shouldn’t we be able to get along? The Republicans need to abandon Trump for otherwise there is no “working things out.” But they can’t do so. Why is that? Perhaps because they are convinced that their livelihood is for better or worst tied to the Party, and as the Party goes so will it go for them.
But their Party is no longer the Republican Party they once knew, but the Party of Donald Trump. The 251 Republican members of the House and Senate do seem to believe that they can’t abandon the one without abandoning the other. For if they abandon Trump they will be abandoning their Party, now his Party, allowing it to drift aimlessly and finally break up on whatever distant shore awaits it.
Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell
And he’s on a mission to use the “authority” of the executive branch to stop it.
By Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson
Ms. Stewart is the author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.” Ms. Fredrickson is president emerita of the American Constitution Society.
Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history? And why has this particular attorney general appeared at this pivotal moment in our Republic?
A deeper understanding of William Barr is emerging, and it reveals something profound and disturbing about the evolution of conservatism in 21st-century America.
Some people have held that Mr. Barr is simply a partisan hack — willing to do whatever it takes to advance the interests of his own political party and its leadership. This view finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In a Nov. 15 speech at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in Washington, he accused President Trump’s political opponents of “unprecedented abuse” and said they were “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”
It is hardly the first time Mr. Barr stepped outside of long-established norms for the behavior of attorneys general. In his earlier stint as attorney general, during the George H.W. Bush presidency, Mr. Barr took on the role of helping to disappear the case against Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-contra affair. The situation demonstrated that “powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office,” according to Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor in that case. According to some critics, Mr. Barr delivered the partisan goods then, as he is delivering them now.
Another view is that Mr. Barr is principally a defender of a certain interpretation of the Constitution that attributes maximum power to the executive. This view, too, finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In the speech to the Federalist Society, he said, “Since the mid-’60s, there has been a steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority that accelerated after Watergate.” In July, when President Trump claimed, in remarks to a conservative student group, “I have an Article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” it is reasonable to suppose this is his CliffsNotes version of Mr. Barr’s ideology.
Both of these views are accurate enough. But at least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed “secularists” for “moral chaos” and “immense suffering, wreckage and misery,” it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society. For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion.
In Maryland, the department rushed to defend taxpayer funding for a religious school that says same-sex marriage is wrong. In Maine, it is defending parents suing over a state law that bans religious schools from obtaining taxpayer funding to promote their own sectarian doctrines. At his Department of Justice, Mr. Barr told law students at Notre Dame, “We keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith.”
In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.
This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.
Mr. Barr has a long history of supporting just this type of “religious liberty.” At Notre Dame, he compared alleged violations of religious liberty with Roman emperors forcing Christian subjects to partake in pagan sacrifices. “The law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as a new orthodoxy,” he said.
Barr watchers will know that this is nothing new. In a 1995 article he wrote for The Catholic Lawyer, which, as Emily Bazelon recently pointed out, appears to be something of a blueprint for his speech at Notre Dame, he complained that “we live in an increasingly militant, secular age” and expressed his grave concern that the law might force landlords to rent to unmarried couples. He implied that the idea that universities might treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group” was intolerable.
This form of “religious liberty” is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — “the wreckage of the family,” “record levels of depression and mental illness,” “drug addiction” and “senseless violence” — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.
The great evildoers in the Notre Dame speech are nonbelievers who are apparently out on the streets ransacking everything that is good and holy. The solutions to society’s ills, Mr. Barr declared, come from faith. “Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” he said. “Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.” He added, “The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.”
Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.
It is equally clear that Mr. Barr’s maximalist interpretation of executive power in the Constitution is just an effect, rather than a cause, of his ideological commitments. In fact, it isn’t really an interpretation. It is simply an unfounded assertion that the president has what amount to monarchical powers. “George III would have loved it,” said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine who once held Mr. Barr’s position as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, of Mr. Barr’s theory. It’s almost beside the point to note, as the conservative lawyers group Checks & Balances recently wrote, that Mr. Barr’s view of history “has no factual basis.”
Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism. And that, really, gets to the heart of the matter. If you know anything about America’s founders, you know they were passionately opposed to the idea of a religious monarchy. And this is the key to understanding the question, “What does Bill Barr want?”
The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system.
Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.
Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus. Mr. Barr did not emerge in order to serve this one particular leader. On the contrary, Mr. Trump serves a movement that will cynically praise the Constitution in order to destroy it, and of which Mr. Barr has made himself a hero.
Katherine Stewart (@kathsstewart) is the author of the forthcoming book “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.” Caroline Fredrickson (@crfredrickson) is the author of “The Democracy Fix.”