How Trump encourages and provokes political violence

Donald Trump has done great damage to more than his presidency. With his remarks about the tragedy in Charlottesville, Trump dramatically increased the nourishment and encouragement he has been feeding the racist right.

Activists respond to signals, and racist right leaders saw Donald Trump, standing in front of the gilded elevators in Trump Tower. frantically waving them on.WHITE NATIONALISTS MARCH: At the University of Virgina - @DAILYPROGRESS

In his misplaced and myopic commitment to a dishonest and evenhanded assessment of blame, Trump affirmed the white nationalist protests of those who support him, and warned their opponents that more were coming. It’s every bit as awful as you imagine, and maybe a little bit worse.

Whether or not the president realized what he was doing, his audience certainly understood; racist leaders got the message.

Klansman David Duke, whom Trump condemns every few years under duress, tweeted his gratitude:  “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”

Richard Spencer, the white supremacist “identitarian,” didn’t even wait for the meltdown press conference, explaining that Trump’s earlier condemnation of the violence wasn’t to be taken seriously. “Only a dumb person,” he said, “would take those lines seriously,” identifying Trump as the “first true authentic nationalist in my lifetime” to be president.

Although a far larger number of Americans, including Trump’s putative allies in the Republican Party, were appalled by Trump’s response, social movements don’t need majorities to mobilize, nor to make a difference.

(AP Photo/Steve Helber) White nationalist demonstrators class with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency.Seeing an ally in the Oval Office, especially one beleaguered by mainstream politicians, fuels the difficult work of building a movement. Trump’s encouragement makes it easier to go to a meeting after work, stay later and talk to another potential convert, to find the temerity to go out in public and face people protesting against you. And if the counterprotesters outnumber you, it’s even easier to find justification for carrying arms.

Violence and confrontation brings attention to the white nationalist movement and, like their president, its activists welcome any attention. The president of the United States has accepted them, and effectively endorsed at least part of their cause in defending the Confederate monuments. In the face of policy defeats (the monuments are coming down), Trump’s support is feeding a new “Lost Cause” story.

Trump has expanded the space and attention available for white nationalist advocates, and you can expect them to try to fill it. They will be met by larger crowds of anti-racist activists and, at least sometimes, a smaller would-be vanguard of antifa activists ready to fight. Every confrontation will feed the beast.

Eager street fighters ready for violent confrontation with each other won’t make the police work easier. Indeed, first hand reports from Charlottesville credit antifa fighters with protecting non-violent activists–and even saving lives. They stepped in when police were not around. Depending upon committed amateurs to keep the peace is hardly a recipe for peace and civility. It’s particularly awful that sets of young men with very different political commitments are prepared to see themselves as the good guy with a gun–or shield or stick.

What’s even worse, whenever and however the Trump presidency ends, those who see him as their champion will view his failed presidency as yet another indictment of the degradation of the political mainstream, all the more reason to take to the streets–carrying Confederate and Nazi paraphernalia, brandishing whatever weapons they’re allowed to show.

Imagine what the president of the United States could do to counter this growing danger, then look at your Twitter feed tomorrow morning. I fear you won’t feel better.

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Business defections, updated

Donald Trump’s advisory councils are no more.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Trump will no longer be taking advice; it’s not clear that he ever listened to these groups anyway.

But, since the horrifying events in Charlottesville, and especially since Trump’s far more disturbing response to them, a few of America’s CEOs have decided they can’t, in good conscience, work with him. And then a few more followed, and then…

Initially, Trump announced that he could easily replace the defectors with more committed, patriotic, and energetic leaders.

And then he announced, via Twitter, that he would dissolve the councils altogether to take pressure off business leaders. (And so that he won’t have to make good on recruiting new corporate participants.)

But it was the executives on the council who first decided to disband, perhaps to take pressures off themselves. It’s hardly surprising that Trump claimed credit for something he could no longer do anything about.

Does it matter?

Presidential advisory councils like the Manufacturing Council and the Strategy and Policy Forum virtually never met anyway, and executives, when leaving, expressed disappointment about their lack of influence. It was all symbolic politics anyway. A few CEOs used their departures to make their own statements about the administration.

It’s hard to imagine that the end of these boards, which offered only a veneer of inclusion and consultation, will change anything materially. Then again, we will get yet another sign of the administration’s isolation.

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Varieties of disruption: business defections

Protest can exercise influence by disrupting the usual politics of the moment, and there are lots of ways to create disruptions, and different people have vastly different opportunities.

Women's March on Washington (32593123745).jpgLarge demonstrations are one way to show strength, but you need to generate lots of people, as the Women’s March did earlier this year.

Less popular causes, like white nationalism, generate attention with smaller numbers and more aggressive tactics.

For those deeply entrenched in positions of power, sometimes disruption only requires saying no. Over the past day or so, four corporate leaders resigned from the Trump administration’s advisory American Manufacturing Council in response to Trump’s tepid response to the violence in Charlottesville. (Elon Musk, of Tesla, had already left the Council over Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Accord on climate change.)

Ken Frazier, chairman and chief executive officer of Merck, is leaving President Trump's American Manufacturing Council because of how Trump responded to the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Kenneth Frazier

Kenneth C. Frazier, the Chief Executive Officer of Merck pharmaceuticals was the first to defect, explaining that it was a matter of moral conscience. The president quickly attacked him and his company on Twitter, but Merck’s share price increased over the day. Bizarrely, Trump was able to elicit sympathy for the had of a multinational drug company. At the end of the day, Frazier was followed by by Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour and Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel.

Trump pilloried the defectors as “grandstanders,” proclaiming that he had three replacements available for each of them. Then, Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, resigned as well, because “it’s the right thing for me to do.”

The business protest doesn’t make for great pictures, placards, or police involvement, but it can matter.

Note: It’s a little easier for the second defector than for the first, and even easier for the 47th, and more CEOs may follow. If enough defect, it may become financially unwise to continue to work with the administration.


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And the Confederate monuments?

About those statues?

The Nazis and Klansmen and associated white racists said they were marching in Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA.jpgCharlottesville to save the statue of General Robert E. Lee on horseback.

Last year Charlottesville’s City Council voted to strike the statue and rename what was called “Lee Park” where it sat.  It’s now called “Emancipation Park.”

How’s that for provocation?

It’s hard to imagine that young white men hundreds of miles from Virginia could get so worked up about the landscape architecture of a city park.

I went looking for a statement from the organizers about why Lee’s statue was so important to them, and it turned out to be more difficult to find than I’d expected. Jason Kessler, who called for the Unite the Right demonstration, was unable to make it through a press conference about the events, and sometime in the past day, his website went down.

But Richard Spencer, who organized a rally in support of a statue of Stonewall Jackson a few Stonewall Jacksonweeks ago, explained it this way: “We will never back down from the cowardly attacks on our people and our heritage. What brings us together is that we are white. We are a people. We will not be replaced!”

It’s all about preserving white heritage.

Commemoration of the past is always mostly about the present and the future. Statues and memorials of the Confederacy proliferated in the early part of the 20th century, as another generation of white nationalists were setting up Jim Crow laws and institutionalizing racial segregation, along with a”lost cause” myth of the Civil War that foregrounded nobility and mostly edited out slavery. There are about 1500 Confederate memorials spread across 31 states.

The Southern Poverty Law Center put together a timeline noting how new statues came in packs, pretty much associated with Ku Klux Klan revivals (below).

In Charlottesville, Jackson’s statue was unveiled in 1921, before a crowd of 5,000 celebrating a reunion of the Daughters of the Confederacy. A huge Confederate flag was pulled back to reveal the general on horseback. Lee’s statue was unveiled in 1924, a highlight of a two-day gathering of the Sons of the Confederacy.

Of course, none of our heroes are pristine; we honor the triumphs that speak to the current moment, and try to make sense of their blemishes. Thomas Jefferson–to cite a Charlottesville example–wrote the Declaration of Independence, designed the University of Virginia, and maintained more than a hundred slaves on his estate, most of whom were sold upon his death. That’s a mixed legacy, and there’s certainly a lot worth arguing about.

That said, it’s tough to make the case to valorize a West Point educated career officer who resigns his commission to take up arms against the United States.

The first bad news for the white nationalist marchers is that their efforts are likely to undermine any attempt to preserve the Lee statue or, for that matter, Confederate monuments all across the South. As demonstrated this past weekend, the statues are exactly the wrong sorts of tourist attractions, and even Southern conservatives are coming to recognize fighting to retain them isn’t worth the trouble.

Last weekend on Meet the Press, National Review editor Rich Lowry explained, “I’ve always been skeptical of the rush to tear all these things down. There’s a distinction between Robert E. Lee and, say, Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early figure in the Klan. But if these monuments are going to become rallying points for neo-Nazis, maybe they do all have to go.”

Politicians may need to move quickly, or anti-racist activists will beat them to it.

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Why Charlottesville?

With the help of Donald Trump, a few hundred white nationalists captured national attention this weekend, eclipsing for the moment growing international dangers as well as the much larger sustained mobilization of the anti-Trump Resistance. Weapons, provocative symbols, counterprotest, and a death were all part of an awful and unfolding story.

Start: Racism in America long predates the Trump presidency and even the Trump family residency. It’s deeply entrenched in American history–along with organized efforts to move the country to something better. Over hundreds of years, antiracists have been winning, but bending the arc of the moral universe take a lot of hard work, and progress is uneven. And there are always people trying, sometimes successfully, to bend it back.

White nationalism is now mostly marginal. American Nazis, Klansmen, and their allies get attention by provoking larger numbers of their opponents to show up to oppose them. Brandishing the Confederate battle flag, the swastika, and quotes from Adolf Hitler are good ways to call out the opposition. Picking sites where the racists won’t be tolerated and will be greatly outnumbered, like Skokie, Illinois or Berkeley, California is another.

Charlottesville, Virginia is such a place. Focusing on the plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the white nationalists started last by marching on the campus of the University of Virginia (designed by Thomas Jefferson, ironically, a particularly difficult character in the commemoration battles), carrying torches. It was a lead-up to the Unite the Right march scheduled for the next day.

The Unite the Right charlottesville-militia.jpgcrowd assembled in the morning, some conspicuously armed and outfitted like a paramilitary unit. The anti-racists were out in force as well, in much larger numbers. The nationalists chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans, announced their support for Trump, and clashed with counterdemonstrators. Local police, aided by National Guardsmen, ordered the demonstration to disperse before it was to start.

Police and Guardsmen worked20170709_MET_KLAN_JM01 to disperse the planned demonstration before it was to start, and tried to keep the two sides apart. Despite all the visible guns, the critical weapon this time was a Dodge Challenger; someone drove the car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators, hitting two other cars, wounding 19 demonstrators and killing one.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has declared a state of emergency, the injured have been hospitalized, and presumably the outsiders are leaving Charlottesville.

So, how do we make sense of all of this?

Although racism and violence are not new, the number of hate incidents, including vandalism, rallies, and attacks on individuals, has increased since the Trump campaign, 

Oddly, despite desperately seeking accomplishments to brag about, Trump won’t claim credit for this one.

He has, however, promoted an environment where members of a marginal tendency in American life gets continual support for their view of the world. In just the past few weeks, the Trump administration has announced plans to fight affirmative action, build a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out, further restrict immigration for Muslims, and purge transgender servicemen and women from the armed forces–as a “favor” to the the military. “Making America Great Again” means advancing a narrower vision of America, returning to an imaginary past in which the others don’t have to be seen, and certainly don’t get jobs and benefits to which they are not entitled.

Whatever Trump says, these demonstrators are clear that they think he’s on their side.  And this fragile president is extremely reluctant to question the judgment of those who support him. Activists respond to signals, and the president of the United States is waving them on. Condemning violence on “many sides,” refusing to mention race, Nazis, or the KKK, the president offers no suggestion that he wants them to stop.

People pay attention.

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Free speech on campus? Provocation and protest.

Berkeley has become the indispensable stop on the right-wing lecture circuit. Antifa (anti-fascist) groups in the Bay Area now reliably turn up on campus to try to make sure offensive ideas don’t pass unchallenged.

Oakland Antifa has already announced a demonstration against rightwing provocateur Ann Coulter, and its willingness to work to shut her–and others like her–down.

A potentially violent response like this is, of course, catnip for conservatives who make their living provoking conflict.

Protests turned violent at UC Berkeley, where right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos was set to speak on Feb. 1, 2017. (Credit: Trevor Laity via CNN)Two months ago another provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos visited Berkeley to promote himself and his forthcoming book, then under contract to Simon & Schuster, which had reportedly given the self-described troll an advance of $250,000. The demonstrations, the violent conflict, and the ensuing damages all provided Yiannopoulos and the press with lots of free attention. Shortly afterward, S&S withdrew the contract when videos featuring Yiannopolous lauding sex with underage boys, but the Berkeley College Republicans who invited him to campus learned their lesson.

So did Ann Coulter, who eagerly accepted their invitation to speak.  She also has an interest in claiming space in the media and selling books. Even Coulter’s most recent decision, to cancel her speech, has brought the very public figure extra attention–and some support. Indeed, in the wake of the cancellation, Yiannopoulos has promised to return to Berkeley–bringing his own paramilitary security.

A protester holds a sign that reads "Make Fascists Afraid Again!" during a demonstration at the University of Washington campus where far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech.

Protest in Seattle

Expect other publicity hungry conservatives to work to wangle their own invitations at Berkeley.

So, there’s a reasonable question about whether the antifa strategy is working out the way activists want. There’s also a reasonable question about the place for a diversity of ideas–including provocative, offensive, and even hateful ideas–on campuses.

On the second question, I fear that as someone who works on a college campus, my answers are going to be pretty predictable. I would be appalled if an academic unit, like a political science department, was willing to front the expense of bringing a Coulter or a Charles Murray to campus, largely because they contribute no more to the understanding of politics than they do to chemistry. By the way, Coulter’s quote for a visit ranges from $20,000-50,000; Charles Murray costs between $30,000-50,000. It’s hard to justify those costs as a reasonable expenditure of student fees.

But campus groups, like the College Republicans–or the Green Fundamentalists or the Young Hegelians–also contribute to the diversity of activities on a college campus. Mostly, they should invite whomever they want. I’d be astonished if Coulter didn’t offer a massive discount in her fee to go to Berkeley, just because any violence and disruption that attends her talk is such great publicity for her.

On a vital campus, there should be far more visits and speeches than any student could ever attend, including the presentation of ideas he or she will find patently offensive. milo-protests-berkeley.jpgProtesting outside or asking hard questions inside are completely acceptable responses to an offensive speaker. So is just staying home. (Actually, that was the advice given by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who defended Coulter’s right to speak.)

We all have an interest in the free flow of ideas, and that means protecting unpopular, uninformed, and hateful speakers. Today’s activists should recall that those on the left have always been more likely to be silenced than those on the right.

Now about antifa goals: Coulter, Yiannopoulos and others on the right campaign against what they describe as a culture of liberal intolerance. I think this is a tough case to make honestly, but violent protests offer undue support for the claim.  Rather than “making fascists scared to speech,” the protests publicize and valorize them. It doesn’t seem smart to me. And responding reflexively with disruption to every offensive voice on the right just makes Berkeley a don’t miss spot on every troll’s book tour.

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Democracy and science

Image result for march for science

March for Science in Berlin

This weekend’s March for Science turned out hundreds of thousands around the world, with particularly large turnouts in Washington, DC, and Chicago. For yet another protest weekend, a week before the Peoples Climate March, this level of participation was pretty impressive.

Image result for march for science

New York

Many of the demonstrators leaned into geektron identities as scientists, sporting knitted pink brain caps, wearing lab coats, and carrying signs deploying obscure formulae or the kinds of puns that elicit groans even in faculty mail rooms.

The run-up to this demonstration evinced disputes among scientists. Arguing against politicizing science, coastal geologist Robert S. Young worried in The New York Times that

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

Science is supposed to be outside politics, where evidence eclipses gut feelings, and commitments are to a process rather than a specific outcome. Science can inform protest movements, to be sure, about automobile safety or climate change or vaccinations, to cite just a few examples, but politicizing support for inquiry risks further polarizing an already divided citizenry, as well as fostering cynicism and distrust for the very process science is supposed to promote. A placard is an awkward space for making arguments about standards of evidence.

Here’s a few ideas about how we got here specifically, and some general comments about the important and difficult role of science and expertise more generally in a democracy.

Donald Trump mad Saturday’s March for Science a viable political strategy. As a candidate, and so far as president, Trump has emphasized complete disdain for normal ways of learning things–like studying, reading, or listening to experts. He has instead trumpeted the excellence of his brain, sometimes with reference to genetics and accomplished relatives, and, above all, his gut instincts. He proclaimed his disinterest in learning the names of world leaders or even countries, and announced positions on phenomena like climate change or crime rates in terms of his own faith. When the weight of evidence, data, or professional judgment arrayed against those beliefs, he reflexively dismissed it as fake.

The studied absence of evidence or expertise from policy debates about the environment, international relations, nuclear weapons, or even taxes, was provocative all by itself, but Trump coupled with a commitment to weakening the institutional infrastructure of science. The Trump administration promised large cuts to the National Institutes for Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, agencies that had been severely underfunded for more than a decade.

If the administration displayed no interest in the results of scientific inquiries, it saw no reason to offer much in the way of support for producing new knowledge.

Trump threatened the public good with poorly-informed policies; he also threatened those who produced science by promising to spend less on almost everything. Remember, spending on science means jobs not only for scientists and scholars, but also custodians and administrative aides, suppliers of microscopes and media, and all the grocers, cleaners, and barbers they patronize.



Perhaps the ongoing funding crisis in both education and science should have spurred a movement five or ten years ago, but the added denigration of evidence and the pursuit of truth proved to be the necessary add-on for broad mobilization. (For its part, the Administration issued a response to the demonstration by announcing its commitment to rigorous science–unless it was inconvenient.)

Image result for march for science

Los Angeles

Beyond Trump, there is a larger challenge in balancing science and expertise with democracy. Ameria’s founders, overwhelmingly, were men of science and study who harbored great skepticism about popular wisdom. Although they created avenues of participation for regular citizens, they didn’t want to be bound by policies made by popular majorities.

But Donald Trump’s previous success came in entertainment; he’s made money by pleasing an audience, essentially giving some people what they want. Paradoxically, this is a big problem for democracy.

Now, properly practiced scientific investigation doesn’t generally provide unambiguous answers about matters of policy, but real information should matter. Upon learning that a ship sailing off into the distance won’t fall off the edge of the earth, no one is obliged to send ships off into the distance–but something becomes possible. Assessing the extent of human made climate change doesn’t mandate a carbon tax or regulation, but it does suggest the necessity of a discussion.

In the early days of the American republic, leaders were apprised of public preferences, but insulated enough to pursue the policies they thought wise without much fear of reprisal. As democracy spread, effective leaders took on the obligation of bringing the public along with them, listening to public opinion, but informing and trying to shape new possibilities.

Political movements play this pedagogic role as well.

Meanwhile, think about Dwight Eisenhower, responding to the shock of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. President Eisenhower identified the Soviet satellite launch as an essential security threat, coming to the American people to ask for higher taxes to support the military. But Eisenhower didn’t stop there. He argued that America had to invest in its own future, through building infrastructure of all sorts, and especially by investing in education and science. The cold war was a foundational challenge to America, one which demanded a substantial response. In a televised address in November 1957, he laid out a broader vision of national security:

We should, among other things, have a system of nation-wide testing of high school students; a system of incentives for high aptitude students to pursue scientific or professional studies; a program to stimulate good-quality teaching of mathematics and science; provision of more laboratory facilities; and measures, including fellowships, to increase the output of qualified teachers.

The biggest part of the task is in the hands of you, as citizens. This is National Education Week. It should be National Education Year. No matter how good your school is–and we have many excellent ones–I wish that every school board and every PTA would this week and this year make one single project their special order of business. This is to scrutinize your school’s curriculum and standards. Then decide for yourselves whether they meet the stern demands of the era we are entering…

Young people now in college must be equipped to live in the age of intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, what will then be needed is not just engineers and scientists, but a people who will keep their heads and, in every field, leaders who can meet intricate human problems with wisdom and courage. In short, we will need not only Einsteins and Steinmetzes, but Washingtons, and Emersons.

Another long-term concern is for even greater concentration on basic research–that is, the kind that unlocks the secrets of nature and prepares the way for such great break-throughs as atomic fission, electronics and antibiotics.


An American democracy depends upon science not just to give people what they want (flying cars? fat-burning pills?), but also the capacity to make informed decisions about what they might want, and how they might get it.




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