Friday, March 3, 2017

Part 1 (revised), "Today and Yesterday," of Political Intimidation & Violence, and the Democratic Party Response: A Brief History (1960-2017)


Part One: Today and Yesterday 


Roddey Reid


Author’s note: This is the 1st part of a 4-part series that attempts to take seriously the success of Donald Trump’s violent authoritarian politics that has mainstreamed white nationalism and far-right political agendas. The series builds on an earlier think piece on the rise of Donald Trump as capitalist folk hero and white political bully posted here last July and published in Black Renaissance Noire 16.2. (Fall 2016). Part 1 focuses on the current crisis and the long history of political intimidation and bullying from the 1960s to the present and revolutions in the public media sphere.[1] My general argument is that Trump’s acts of intimidation and threats of violence are not occasional excesses but an integral part of his politics and policies and those of the Republican Party that are remaking U.S. political culture as we know it. It is therefore essential that we understand their power and nature as we mobilize to oppose the new regime. Part Two, “Democratic Responses,” reviews Democratic Party responses up through the Obama Administration. Part Three, “The 2016 Elections,” focuses on the Presidential campaigns of Trump and Hilary Clinton. Part 4, “Practices of Identity and Political Violence,” explores the identity and social composition of the Democratic and Republican parties as well as their cultures of loyalty and governing and concludes with a consideration of what we can learn from contemporary dynamics of political intimidation.

CEO Trump’s Hostile Takeover

Make no mistake about it, we are now in the midst of a far-right counter-revolution in Washington to remake the Federal government as we’ve known it for the last eighty years.

            Those who naively hoped that Trump would “mature” and “grow” into the Office under the pressures of daily governance and delegate policymaking to experienced Beltway politicians and experts have received a rude wake-up call. Trump, ever the aggressive entrepreneur and domineering boss, from day one in the White House he has treated the Federal government like a privately held company of which he is sole owner and CEO thus lending a new twist to the expression “privatization.” We are living the aftermath of a hostile takeover of the Federal government by a corporate raider bent on restructuring his latest acquisition. Since he assumed office, he has employed the same shock and awe tactics of his campaign, as he and his Republican allies work feverishly to dismantle or defund immigration policies, the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, climate change agreements, the Dodd-Frank financial safe-guards, public education, and the legacies of the New Deal and Civil Rights eras and while he, Trump, seeks to impose his white nationalist political agenda and highly personalized form of authoritarian rule. If anything, the pressures of governing have stimulated Trump’s violent nature, not restrained it.

            Others who thought that contradictions or “disjunction” between Trump’s stated positions and the agenda of Congressional Republicans would restrict the new Administration’s ability to enact radical change failed to take into account that what they both share in the short-term: the violent desire to preemptively wreck past policies during the narrow window of opportunity afforded by Republican control of the executive and legislative branches. It amounts to nothing less than a bid to “create facts on the ground” that recast the very purpose and form of government and citizens’ and residents’ relationship with the state and public services.[2] It would appear that resolving long-term policy disagreements can wait until presumably a changed Federal government and a new political landscape emerge from the wreckage. Such are their desire and goal, and even if the complex machinery of government, the intricacies of foreign policy, and public resistance thwart some of their most radical initiatives, the damage risks being irreparable rendering a return to the status quo ante next to impossible.

            Public reaction to the new regime’s first steps has been swift and massive and enjoyed some success thanks in part to a recalcitrant judiciary. But as liberals and progressives engage in mobilization against the new occupant of the White House who committed unprecedented acts of personal abuse and bullying of rivals, including threats of incarceration and assassination of his opponent in the general election and whose election benefitted from the hacking of Democratic leaders’ email accounts and the active interference of the FBI director, it is may be particularly instructive to revisit the recent U.S. history of political intimidation and violence and Democratic Party responses to them. It will perhaps allow us to gain a better understanding of the current political crisis and especially of the obstacles that people face in galvanizing a party establishment that heretofore has shown reluctance to openly mobilize its voters and aggressively confront in public longstanding Republican tactics that Trump has now combined with his own rough brand of political intimidation, bullying, and fear-mongering. The roots of both go back many years.

            The elections last fall were a traumatic lesson to forgetful Democratic politicians of the power of right-wing intimidation and violence to affect the outcome of election campaigns, and a reminder that threats and fear-mongering are not occasional excesses of contemporary right-wing politics and policies but an integral part of them. Arguably, this violence has been there all along woven into the fabric of cruel Republican-sponsored legislation that punishes citizens and residents by denying them access to basic healthcare and reproductive medicine, workplace and consumer protections, unemployment compensation, a liviing wage, retirement security, and legal services. Perhaps more important, the advent of Donald Trump has highlighted an underappreciated aspect of violent politics: its transformative power. It doesn’t leave the political field as it found it. Not only can smears, physical threats, and skullduggery paralyze and defeat opponents but also they can legitimize the most authoritarian politics and energize the movement or party that deploys them: be it through political speeches, Tweets, rallies, or protests, right-wing politicians and their followers now revel in intimidating and threatening others, glory in it, and find each other and bond through it, even forge a new group identity by means of it.[3] With Trump not only has “privatiziation” of the public weal reached its term, but also the process of dedemocratization whereby, according to political philosopher Wendy Brown, the positive administrative protocols of management (citizen participation as “buy-in,” collaboration, partnership, problem-solving) that have reformulated democracy as a form of corporate governance and divested it of politics and questions of justice in favor of market metrics, has taken a radical negative turn that cares little for participation or efficiency at all.[4]

            We progressives and liberals have yet to integrate into our thinking and strategies this dark political information (and just why it is so difficult for Democratic Party leaders to do so I explore in the remaining parts of this essay). Until we do, we will be taken by “surprise” again and again by the lengths to which the new regime will go to achieve its goals and how such political violence and bullying can create its own momentum that under the right circumstances can even rewrite the very script of how politics in a democracy is conducted. What follows is a small attempt to expand the resistance’s powers of anticipation and preemptive counteraction to the current onslaught.
Looking Back: They Meant It

We should have seen it coming. It’s not like there wasn’t ample warning. But few of us wanted to believe them—that they meant what they said. So much macho bluster. Strutting around, talking tough. But following close behind came the actions: fire-bombings of abortion clinics, serial capital executions, gay bashings. Not to mention the “three-strikes” laws and mandatory sentencing that sent Blacks and Latinos off to long prison terms for a petty drug offense and tripled the U.S. prison population within twenty years. Next  to come in for brutal treatment were the schools and workplaces from the presence of police in hallways and zero-tolerance drug tests to factory closings and the downsizing of middle-management to the cutting and privatization of public services and government programs.[5]

            Our willful disbelief persisted in 1994 with the radicalization of the Republican Party led by Newt Gingrich and the ensuing impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1999, which was followed the next year by the stolen presidential elections of 2000: political thuggery in full view of TV cameras. As the Florida vote recount proceeded and reports of physical assaults of poll workers by Republican operatives came in, the air became thick with the threat of political violence. You could cut the mounting climate of fear and dread with a knife, and Al Gore and old guard Democrats hesitated and relented as if haunted and paralyzed by the unspoken traumatic memory of multiple political assassinations in the 1960s—from civil rights workers and John F. and Robert Kennedy to Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and—later on--gay rights politician Harvey Milk. When the Republican partisans on the Supreme Court put a stop to the recount, Democratic politicians woke up to find themselves ejected from the political arena by a coup d’état and did not muster the courage to say so to the nation as D.C. political insiders—what the French call la classe politique—rushed to tell everyone to go back to work and get on with their lives.

            But of course what had happened was that the 21-first century’s first “CEO President”-elect and his party had just fired the U.S. electorate as so many redundant employees whose functions were now reassigned once-and-for-all to the business sector, its media outlets, and the well-funded political action committees. (The Supreme Court’s Citizens United and 1965 Voting Rights Act decisions legalizing unrestricted corporate political funding and gutting voter protections would later enshrine the theft in law once and for all.) Some refused to listen, and in January 2001 thousands of protestors turned out to greet George W. Bush’s inauguration motorcade with rotten eggs and signs reading “Hail to the Thief!”[6]

September 11 and the Iraq Invasion

Then, in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the build up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq Federal and local authorities abetted by mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times unleashed a wave of intimidation and fear-mongering against their own traumatized citizenry (Saddam Hussein’s fictional weapons of mass destruction; the politically convenient Code Orange terrorist attack alerts based on outdated intelligence) and ushered in what Philosopher Brian Massumi calls a new affective regime of counter-factuality and “felt reality of threat” as instruments of government. In this kind of a state of emergency, “every possibility becomes a sure fact.”[7] As Berkeley linguist George Lakoff pointed out, intimidated Congressional Democrats never countered with alternate themes and frames to those circulated by the White House and thus failed to muster effective Congressional opposition to the war and the Patriot Act. [8] Amidst the drumbeat to war, many residents and citizens, less cowed than Democratic leaders, met the impending invasion with some of the largest anti-war demonstrations the nation had ever seen but in the end there was no stopping the rush to invade and occupy Iraq. Meanwhile, George Bush’s campaign manager Karl Rove, capitalized on this emergent counter-factual regime by channeling Republican consultant Lee Atwater’s highly effective attack ad campaigns of the 1980s and launching in 2002 and 2004 overt media smears of decorated veterans such as Max Cleland (a triple amputee no less) and John Kerry (via the Swift Boating videos) whose sacrifices and actions his henchmen belittled and mocked and whose patriotism they questioned. The Democratic candidates were slow to respond later admitting they were simply unprepared for attacks on their military records.[9]

            Unbeknownst to them, they had been forcibly thrust into the twilight zone of extreme political bullying in which no holds are barred and nothing is sacred. Not even military honor, perhaps the last bastion of public respect in the U.S. Preemptive public attacks like these destabilize and intimidate opponents by making violently clear to one and all that they are supremely indifferent to any type of social, psychological or ethical boundary. They strive to impress upon both actual and potential victims their literally boundless character that exceeds all possible imaginings and logic. Kerry and Cleland countered primarily with the “facts” in the apparent belief that facts could speak for themselves. In a word, they were victims of what Lakoff would term their own “communicational idealism,” or the belief that language operates primarily and rationally at the level of concepts rather than through metaphor, repetition, and, last but not least, the neural networks of sensation and feeling that constitute the embodied cognitive and linguistic infrastructure of communication upon which successful verbal bullying depends.[10] What they didn’t realize is that extremely violent allegations endlessly repeated can succeed also because they operate at the level of affect or emotion creating confusion and anxiety among voters, and that by focusing primarily on issues of character and intent that are difficult to refute and “not subject to the same rules of non-contradiction as normative logic,”[11] these are able to bypass the accountability of factual discourse.

            Yet these smears should have not surprised them or us, for already during the 2000 primaries, the Bush campaign targeted rival Republican John McCain by spreading a rumor suggesting that his adopted South Asian baby was a bi-racial love-child and that his Vietnam War experience of imprisonment and torture unmanned him and rendered him mentally unstable. These attacks left voters stunned, but with U.S. public opinion and media obsessed with questions of character, the virus of doubt spread quickly infecting large numbers of mass viewers.

New York City as Laboratory of Intimidation and Fear

Outside the Beltway, Donald Trump’s home turf of New York City also proved to be fertile ground for deepening the dark arts of political intimidation.  Already beginning with the Volcker recession (1980-82) it became the epicenter of the financialization of the world economy, and pressures on companies by Wall Street to produce an unheard of 20% return led to corporate takeovers, factory closings, massive layoffs, downsizing of middle management and a surge in workplace bullying symbolized by the tyrannical or abusive boss much admired and promoted by the business press. In this rougher environment Rudolph Giuliani brought the bare-knuckled tactics he was known for as U.S. Attorney for New York to the mayor’s office during the 1990s (1993-2001) that turned a new page in the rough-and-tumble municipal politics dominated throughout much of the twentieth century by party machine patronage, back-room real estate deals, corrupt building-trades unions, and Mafia influence. Still alive in this political culture were vivid memories of the Cold War smear used to bully and discredit political rivals, an art that was practiced without peer by New York attorney Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s former counsel and later Trump’s lawyer and mentor. Courageous journalists like Bob Herbert and the late Wayne Barrett patiently chronicled how, through spectacular arrests of criminals and innocent civilians alike and the brutal removal of the homeless from the streets of New York, Giuliani installed a climate of intimidation and fear that targeted whites and the middle-class as well as communities of color and the poor.[12]

            Perfecting the use of punitive threats and retaliation, Giuliani cowed dissident city administrators into silence through smearing reputations of his critics and sending the police to rough up citizens. He even went so far as to declare all city dwellers to be so many “law-breakers in waiting,” thereby edging a climate of fear towards one of terror: no one, high or low, was safe from the long arm of the mayor’s and the NYPD.[13] However, even though New Yorkers, whose developed instinct for pushing back in a rough environment they like to see reflected in the aggressiveness of city politicians, seemed to grow weary of Giuliani’s thuggish behavior during his second term, his stirring press conference amidst the ruins of the Twin Towers on September 11 imparted a new sheen to Giuliani’s tarnished reputation (Oprah Winfrey hailed him as “America’s mayor”) and the terrorist attacks vastly expanded opportunities for political bullying that his successor Michael Bloomberg (2002-14) did not hesitate to exploit for political advantage.[14]

Revolution in the Public Media Sphere

Meanwhile in AM radio and cable TV, a new public culture of bullying and intimidation was already emerging that authorized and enabled a more violent political discourse. Part and part of the exploding culture wars, radio and TV talk shows hosted by Don Imus (1971-2007), Howard Stern (1982- ) and Morton Downey, Jr. (1986-92) and later Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews (Hardball), and Bill Maher (in his Politically Incorrect show in the 1990s) revolutionized acceptable public speech provoking and channeling audiences’ pent-up (male) rage against, alternately, people of color, liberals, feminists, leftists, queers, welfare recipients, and immigrants smashing the last remnants of respectful speech of the old broadcast media.[15] The mainstreaming of public expressions of hate was well underway.

            Talk shows together with the new reality TV began to stage a veritable theater of humiliation at the expense of participants and invited guests. “The Apprentice,” starring Trump as co-producer, rode the reality TV wave of popularity to great success in putting on display the intimidation of employees by an abusive boss for the consumption of captivated audiences. Speaking over and shouting down liberal guests were commonplace on talk shows, and even physical assault in the case of Downey and O’Reilly could not be ruled out. In reality TV sometimes the consequences were quite violent as, for example, when a man committed suicide as police stormed his house and attempted to arrest him in front of TV cameras on NBC’s series “To Catch a Predator,” a show that entrapped people by luring them into committing socially reprehensible acts. AM radio and cable
TV have authorized a remarkable surge in the violent expression of personal and collective sovereignty over others.16
            The pleasures of the spectacle of humiliation could not to be denied and aggressive politicians were happy to exploit them.


[1] For the purposes of this essay I use intimidation and bullying somewhat interchangeably to name verbal and non-verbal acts of political violence meant to destabilize opponents and coerce their behavior. In the current informed literature on bullying individuals or groups the term "bullying" emphasizes the subjective and traumatic dimensions of repeated acts of aggression in personal, institutional, and public settings that link the most subjective experiences to collective life itself. For an international perspective see Roddey Reid, “Bullying in U.S. Public Culture: or, Gothic Terror in the Full Light of Day,” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 20 (Fall 2008): 129-49.
https://www.academia.edu/5060705/_The_US_Public_Culture_of_Bullying_or_Gothic_Terror_in_the_Full_Light_of_Day_TOPIA_Canadian_Journal_of_Cultural_Studies_20_Fall_2008_
On Trump as a capitalist phenomenon see Reid, "Trump as Capitalist Folk Hero, or the Rise of the White Entrepreneur as Political Bully, Black Renaissance Noire 16.2 (Fall 2016) https://www.academia.edu/29863898/_Trump_as_Capitalist_Folk_Hero_or_the_Rise_of_the_White_Entrepreneur_as_Political_Bully_Black_Renaissance_Noire_16.2_Fall_2016_92-95 
[2] For the disjunctive theory of Presidential transitions when the governing party caught between old and new political paradigms, see, for example, Corey Robin, “The Politics Trump Makes: Is Trump, Like Carter, a Disjunctive President?” n+1, 11 Jan. 2017. https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/the-politics-trump-makes/ Accessed 20 Jan. 2017. For free-market ideologues’ longstanding goal of having citizens and residents view themselves primarily as human capital and consumers and transforming their relation to government see Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015).
[3] Trump’s verbal intimidation and threats against immigrants, the news media, etc. no longer put off establishment conservatives but rather now draw them in; they are falling behind him, not the reverse. Even the attendees of the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a very establishment organization, acclaimed enthusiastically Trump’s February 24, 2017 incendiary speech denouncing the media and corporate elites: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/24/us/politics/trump-conservative-political-action-conference-speech.html?_r=0. As of March 7 95% of Republicans approve Trump's job performance. And since February the % of Republicans who trust Trump and not the media as their news source has gone up from 78% to 86%: https://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2436 Accessed 7 March 2017. However dismantling healthcare and Medicaid is another matter: as of March 22 subsequent to the Trump/Republican health care proposal to cut Medicaid benefits, Trump's support among Republicans dropped 14 points to 81%. https://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2442 Accessed 22 March 2017. 
[4] Brown, Undoing the Demos, 43, 128-29.
[5] Patricia Baird Windle and Eleanor J. Bader, Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (New York: Palgrave: 2001); 2001; Loic Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2009); 1999; David Gordon, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial “Downsizing,” (New York: Free Press, 1996); Joel H. Neuman and Robert A. Baron, “Workplace Violence and Workplace Aggression: Evidence Concerning Specific Forms, Potential Causes, and Preferred Targets,” Journal of Management 24.3 (1998): 391-409.
[6] Douglas Kellner, Grand Theft: Media Spectacle and a Stolen Election (New York: Rowman & Littleton, 2001).
[7] Brian Massumi, “The Future Birth of The Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” in Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Exception (Durham and London: 2015), pp. 189-205; Mick Taussig. “Terror as Usual: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of History a State of Siege.” Social Text 23 (Autumn/Winter 1989): 20.
[8] George Lakoff, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 12st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain (New York: Viking Penguin), pp. 145-58; see also Don’t Think of an Elephant!, White River Junction (Vermont), Chelsea Green Publications, 2005; Matt Bai, “The Framing Wars”, New York Times Magazine, 17 July 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/17/magazine/the-framing-wars.html Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
[9] Kate Zernike, “Kerry Pressing Swift Boat case Long after Loss,” New York Times, 28 May 2008: A1. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/28/washington/28kerry.html Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
[10] Lakoff, The Political Mind, 13-14. For a complementary analysis of linguistic vulnerability, the performative force of language, and the sovereign power attributed to hate speech, see Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 1-41, 72-82. On countering Trump’s lies and misrepresentations as a misguided strategy see Patrick Seymour, “The Case against ‘Exposing’ Fascists,” Lenin’s Tomb 19 Feb. 2017 http://www.leninology.co.uk/2017/02/the-case-against-exposing-fascists.html#disqus_thread Accessed 3 March 2017.
[11] Massumi, Ontopower, 194.
[12] On the surge in bullying and intimidation in the U.S. workplace see Reid, “Bullying in US Public Culture“: 133-36.  Bob Herbert, “Bullying the Homeless,” New York Times, 29 Nov. 1999: A25; Wayne Barrett, Rudy! An Investigative Biography of Rudolph Giuliani (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
[13] Michael Powell and Russ Buettner, “In Matters Big and Small, Crossing Giuliani Had a Price,” New York Times 22 Jan. 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/22/us/politics/22giuliani.html Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
[14] Later revelations concerning the Giuliani Administration’s incompetence in responding to the attacks that cost the lives of New York City police and firemen would put an end to his political career.  Before 9/11 he had tried to revive his flagging career in an unsuccessful bid in 2000 to run against Hillary Clinton for a Senate seat. Much later in 2016 he made another attempt at a comeback when he encouraged rogue FBI agents to put pressure on FBI Director James Comey to break protocol and revive public doubts about Clinton’s email server at the close of the Presidential campaign arguably contributing to her defeat.
[15] Eric Alterman, Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press: 1999).
[16]  Reid, “Bullying in U.S. Public Culture”: 132.

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