Monthly Archives: June 2018

The Clear and Present Danger

Today Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative whose occasional swing vote has sort of moderated the Roberts Court. announced his retirement, to take effect next month. His announcement is timed to ensure a conservative replacement can be confirmed before Democrats have a chance to retake the Senate.

Republicans will rush to confirm the most extreme nominee Trump can find. Probably someone who’s a legal “analyst” on Fox News. John Yoo (the Bush-era author of the paper that legally justified torture) might like the gig. Maybe one of the very fine people who rallied in Charlottesville has a law degree.

For the foreseeable future the US Supreme Court will be a solid 5-4 majority for the most reactionary rulings imaginable. Of the four reactionary justices who will be joined by Trump’s new nominee – Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch – Gorsuch is 51, Thomas is 70, and Alito and Roberts are in their early 60s. None will be replaced any time soon.

The only hope now for saving our democracy – given how much damage to it Trump and his lockstep Republicans have already inflicted in only 18 months – lies with retaking one or both houses of Congress. To do so in 2018, they already will need to overcome legalized gerrymandering, voter suppression, unthinkable amounts of corporate and foreign money, and online meddling from Russia and, by now, likely China, North Korea, and the Middle East as well.

By 2020, Trump can cancel elections under one or another pretext; Fox News will applaud (of course); the SCOTUS will uphold it as representing a clear and present danger to the Dear Leader and his designated replacement, Ivanka; and Congressional Republicans, along with favored donors for what elections remain, will become unimaginably wealthy oligarchs. If Democrats or other political opponents are too critical (think of the fawning adulation Trump requires at his Cabinet meetings), they’ll be jailed or killed.

Lest you think this is absurd hyperbole, that was pretty much exactly Putin’s formula for consolidating power in the fledgling, Yeltsin-era democracy of Russia. We don’t have Russia’s political history or norms, but Trump doesn’t need them. He’s got Putin to tell him what to do next.

I said at the time that the Senate Republican refusal, for a solid year, to even consider an Obama SCOTUS nominee in 2016 – and the Democrats under Obama not making that unprecedented tactic a fight to the death, and then not making the Gorsuch nomination a bigger deal afterwards – fucked us over for a generation. But even I didn’t imagine that a decades-long reactionary SCOTUS majority could be an instrument in the demise of the US Constitution as we know it. There is nothing magical about America’s political culture that innoculates us from the sort of authoritarian kleptocracy that has run much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia in my lifetime.

This year’s midterms matter more than ever. Forget your tired cliches of both parties being the same, Democrats being corporate sellouts or war criminals (both true), or “lesser of two evils is still evil” rhetoric (also true). Time’s up. Hillary Clinton was awful, and Chuck Schumer still is. But as imperfect as they can be, no Democrat is looking to start the Fourth Reich. Democrats are, in very practical and immediate terms (like letting the rule of law have a crack at him), the only ones who can stop Trump politically.

Otherwise, start planning to make this country ungovernable – and soon, before the police state really does take hold and even that becomes impossible. There’s two things we know from those dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, and Asia: Even without the modern technology available to Trump, they’re really hard to get rid of; and doing so usually only comes after the loss of uncountable lives.

Kennedy’s retirement, and the power Trump will gain by naming an obedient replacement, is a stark reminder that time for avoiding that fate is running out.

How to Get Away With Fascism

Between the G6, the Singapore summit, and now the abomination unfolding on the Mexican border, the last two weeks have brought into far sharper focus what has been apparent since 2015: that Donald Trump’s vision for America is an authoritarian dictatorship, with him as the Great Leader for life.

The term “fascism” derives from the Italian “fascismo,” the Benito Mussolini movement which wed authoritarian governance with corporate-designed policies. For my entire adult life, dating to Ronald Reagan, elements of the left have called (mostly Republican) US leaders and policies fascist. In the Mussolini sense of corporate rule, the term has largely been accurate. For that matter, Amazon’s recent repeal of Seattle’s Employee Hours Tax meets that definition as well.

But what is now happening in Donald Trump’s presidency more closely tracks with the much more notorious 20th Century example of fascism.

“First, they came for immigrant babies, and I did not speak out, for I was not an immigrant baby…”

Only ten days ago, Donald Trump spurned and ridiculed the democratically leaders of what have traditionally been America’s closest allies. He went directly from that to a “summit” with perhaps the world’s single worst domestic human rights abuser, and spent the rest of the week singing that dictator’s praises – as he routinely does with bloodthirsty despots, who he invariably expresses admiration for.

The contrast between those two events underscored what Trump is clearly pining to do: replace the long-standing global political and economic dominance of Western democracies with a new global regime, dominated by the world’s three biggest authoritarian dictatorships: China, Russia, and the Trump-led United States.

Now, the literal kidnapping and disappearing of children and babies from their parents – parents who in many cases were trying to follow the proper legal steps for applying for political asylum, and themselves did nothing illegal – has been dragged out of the shadows and into the glare of world-wide outrage. And it just keeps getting worse.

Tonight, there have been three new developments: an AP report that the government is scrambling to establish what it is calls “tender age shelters” – a particularly nasty euphemism for baby prisons; a Capitol Hill meeting in which Trump reportedly told outraged lawmakers that he would stop his policy only if his wall is built; and multiple reports that officials in the Trump White House are delighted with the outrage they have intentionally provoked, in the belief that not only Trump’s base, but a majority of Americans share their racist obsession with using the most barbaric imaginable tactics against their randomly selected, brown-skinned victims. That even with the near-certainty that many of these parents will never see their children again, and that some of those kids will die as a result, a majority of Americans share their belief that such lives are meaningless.

How is this any different from the attitudes that prompted Hitler to target Jews, or Rwanda’s Hutus to massacre the Tutsi?

In these and so many other historical examples, authoritarian leaders justified their absolute power by whipping up the fear and anger of their supporters against a minority. There is little doubt that Donald Trump wants absolute power, chafes at our government’s limits on it (whether in Congress, the courts, media, the Mueller investigation, or the streets), and has been moving as quickly as he can since his inauguration to tear down existing democratic institutions and norms.

Remember, on the eve of the 2016 election, when polls had Clinton in the lead and Trump was telling his followers that the election was “rigged”? (Turns out it was, but that’s not what he meant.) There’s every reason now to fear that if Trump is impeached or simply loses (or thinks he might lose) the 2020 election, he won’t go. That’s what aspiring dictatorships do.

This wholly intentional controversy is a critical moment because it represents more than simply another instance of Trump’s steady efforts to destroy norms, push at the bounds of law and decency, and see what he can get away with. This is a policy, not law; it can be stopped, in our political system, by either Congress or the courts.

Congress, of course, is controlled by a Republican Party now wholly dominated by Trump. His congressional allies have, so far, almost always defended him, through outrage after scandal after crime. And Trump has, with the help of those congressional allies, been packing the federal courts with far-right ideological zealots at an unprecedented pace. The longer this goes on, the less likely it becomes that courts will rule against even the most horrifying Trump actions.

An ACLU lawsuit in San Diego will be the first court ruling on Trump’s border separation policy; and numerous local elected officials are taking actions to distance themselves from that policy. These are important steps, as are the countless rallies, direct actions, and other events springing up by the hour now as an expression of popular rage. But the plain fact is that nothing can truly stop Trump from these and further outrages except his removal from office. Trump and his literal and figurative crime family want this policy, and the outrage it has provoked. They’re almost certainly taking notes for future, hoped-for purges. As morally and legally repellent as Trump’s policy is, the need to resist it goes far beyond ending its specific abuses.

This month has been, for many Americans, the first time that Donald Trump’s dreams for an openly fascist, authoritarian government have come into sharp enough relief to break through lifetimes of denial that such a thing would even be possible. But it is. Understanding what Trump is truly about goes against our indoctrination, pretty much from the cradle, in American exceptionalism and in the the permanence and moral superiority of American democracy. As recently as a decade ago, there was widespread national disbelief that our government would torture people – and that was on foreign soil. Now, our government is instituting widespread, intentional, widespread torture and child abuse in ordinary American cities.

There’s nothing unique about human nature in America that immunizes us against the worst things human beings can do to each other.

What happens next matters a lot – not just for the sake of immigrants and their families, but for the future of the US as a flawed but basically free society. If a majority of Americans can now see where this road leads, but still can’t or won’t stop that train from running on time, we are in deep trouble – collectively and as individuals.

Now is not the time to tweet your dismay or shout at a windowless building or set up circular firing squads. Now is the time to unify and resist – and to keep resisting, in ways both creative and ordinary, through truth-telling and organizing and building alternative institutions, in elections and on the streets, until Donald Trump and his fascist enablers are driven far, far away from any positions of power.

The longer we wait, the harder it will be to succeed.

The Turning Point

The Seattle City Council’s abrupt decision to repeal the Employee Hours Tax leaves Seattle with no coherent plan to address the homelessness crisis – or any other urgent issue

On Tuesday, June 12, at about 2:30 PM, the window for progressive policy change in Seattle politics slammed shut.

To be sure, it may be forced open again from time to time on particular issues. The grass rots activism that has forced a string of progressive policy changes in recent years still exists. But as people and wealth pour into Seattle, the dominance of money in local politics has now reasserted itself, a demographic pendulum swing I’ve been warning about for years. /but I didn’t anticipate that it would be boosted further by a reactionary anti-tax backlash that Seattle’s biggest businesses have now legitimized in their campaign to repeal the Employee Hours Tax.

This new reality will impact not just homelessness, but every issue that needs money to address it. Seattle politics has been dominated by local corporate power throughout most of its history. But the money and power now involved is unprecedented – as is the toxicity, fueled by social media and the era of Trump, that poisoned the EHT saga.

The Repeal

There are two, and only two, primary reasons why a Seattle City Council majority secretly hatched a plan to repeal the Employee Hours Tax, and then passed it less than 24 hours after making it public. Those reasons both rhyme with the word “Damazon.”

Less than a day after Mayor Durkan signed a business-approved compromise EHT bill last month, local big businesses reversed themselves and announced that they were opposed to the new law. By weeks’ end, they had launched a referendum to repeal it.

That effort had less than a month to gather 17,632 valid signatures (by June 15) to qualify for November’s ballot. After last weekend, organizer claimed that they had over 47,000.

Perhaps more importantly, polling released last weekend showed what Councilmember Lisa Herbold called “overwhelming public support” for the repeal. Most immediately, that polling is what led Herbold and two other co-sponsors of the EHT bill, CMs Mike O’Brien and Lorena Gonzalez, to agree to the repeal. The repeal of a bill passed unanimously less than a month ago was ensured.

As CM Kshama Sawant pointed out, such polling by itself doesn’t mean much this early; the repeal referendum hadn’t even qualified for the ballot yet, and the anti-repeal campaign wasn’t even set to launch in earnest until next week. Sawant also noted that even if the anti-repeal campaign lost, it would still lay important groundwork, in public education and networking, to build stronger support for whatever came next.

But left unspoken in the council’s repeal meeting was the corporate money the repeal referendum would draw. Financial filings are incomplete, but show that the referendum had already raised at least $379,067 for its signature-gathering, with far more in support pledged by Amazon, Starbucks, Kroger, and other major employers. Ballot measures have no donation limits; the potential millions such companies could spend on an already-popular repeal effort is why council members decided the referendum vote was both inevitable and unwinnable.

The second major reason for the council vote, rhyming with “Jamazon,” is next year’s council elections. If business interests failed to repeal the EHT by ballot, the obvious next step would be to replace the council members who supported it with ones who would repeal it. Herbold, O’Brien, and Sawant all face re-election next year, and they’re all vulnerable. Herbold won her West Seattle district by literally dozens of votes in 2015, in a campaign in which she was outspent 3-1 by her business-friendly opponent. For years, O’Brien has been despised by the angrier anti-homeless neighborhood activists in Ballard and Magnolia. And Sawant’s 2015 Capitol Hill district race shattered previous records, with nearly a million dollars raised overall.

This is no longer even 2015. Just in the last three years, Seattle has added over 50,000 residents and untold wealth. Between individual donations and third party PACs, Jenny Durkan’s successful mayoral run last year raised a staggering $1.9 million – including a $350,000 PAC donation from Amazon that more than paid off in the EHT fight.

Other businesses, noting Amazon’s successful investment, will be even more willing to buy candidate loyalty in 2019. The effort to unseat Sawant alone – in a district that has now become one of Seattle’s wealthiest – will likely top one million dollars, and the neighborhood zealots targeting O’Brien figure to have powerful new allies as well. Both O’Brien and Herbold have hundreds of thousands of reasons not to make themselves further targets by refusing to support a seemingly inevitable EHT repeal. The days of successful shoestring campaigns for city council are gone forever.


The lessons of city council’s abrupt EHT capitulation are many and sobering, and extend far beyond homelessness. Seattle’s 20-year failure to plan for its ambitious population growth targets (density!) have more than been met, but concomitant investments in essentials like utilities, schools, transportation, affordable housing, and social services haven’t come close to keeping pace. City leaders pushed a downtown tunnel plan that was billions of dollars more expensive than other Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement alternatives; They also chose to spend billions more each on waterfront development, Mercer Mess beautification and other South Lake Union amenities; another $1.7 on convention center expansion, and still more on a streetcar system nobody asked for and few are using. While those and other pricey real estate schemes got funded, utilities are aging, traffic is frequently gridlocked, road and bridge repairs are backlogged by two decades, schools and buses are overflowing, and on, and on.

Cities routinely use economic boom times to invest in those kinds of basic, big-ticket projects – made even bigger, in Seattle’s case, by its past planning failures. Instead, city leaders have now effectively given Amazon and other big businesses effective veto power over paying for any of them, and allowed a vocal anti-tax contingent to further delegitimize attempts to raise new revenue. The feds and state aren’t helping any time soon. With a state ban on personal or corporate income taxes, the city is forced to rely on regressive sales, property, and B&O taxes for much of its revenue, and has already raised those as much as it’s politically feasible to do. Lost in the EHT debate is that the hours tax or something similar was about the only tool Seattle had left that could pay for a major new initiative. Now that option appears dead, too.

Meanwhile, there will be an enormous and critically needed families and education levy on this fall’s ballot, as well as several other potential ballot measures. All of those campaigns just got much harder due to big property tax increases this year and the anti-tax framing used to repeal the EHT. Future ballot measures are going to be impacted heavily as well. After the EHT repeal, Seattle’s civic leaders literally have no idea how our growing city will pay for its needs.

“There Is No Plan B”

That includes dealing with affordable housing and homelessness crises that affect everyone who pays residential property taxes, everyone who rents, and everyone who can’t afford housing at all. As Herbold and others noted in the meeting where the EHT was repealed, “There is no Plan B.” After the sudden jettisoning of nearly a year of advocacy and work by thousands of people, homeless advocates and their elected allies must start over.

Convincing the city to devote significant resources and help to any marginalized class of people is always going to be a tough sell. It’s even harder in a city that’s also rapidly getting richer, whiter, and more male. In this environment, and in the era of Trumpian self-interest, “it’s the right thing to do” by itself is not a winning argument; it falls on too many indifferent ears among the privileged majority. Even in liberal Seattle, while every corporate EHT opponent took pains to emphasize how much they care about the homeless, they still weren’t willing to help.

Beyond all of that, at every step in the EHT saga, proponents were out-messaged and out-strategized. The framing of the tax as benefiting the (largely unsympathetic) homeless, rather than what the money would buy (affordable housing, social services) was one messaging problem; the popular name “head tax” a second; and its reframing as a tax issue, a third. The business community put out an enormous amount of misinformation in fighting the EHT, and anti-homeless residents pitched in with a lot of frothing ignorance; little of that was effectively addressed by EHT backers. city leaders have wasted a lot of money over the years (anyone remember the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness?), but the city has also done some things right and helped save a lot of lives through past programs. That record was never seriously defended, and the improvements reflected in EHT spending plans rarely touted.

And the business community had plans, backup plans, and backups to their backup plans at every point. Proponents…didn’t. Appealing to altruism got the EHT passed, but wasn’t enough to save it. There was no Plan B.

Money Talks, Homeless People Die

In the mere two and a half hours it took city council to negate a year’s work, there was about a one in 32 chance that a homeless person would die in Seattle. Those odds are getting worse, not better, with every month that passes.

In the aftermath of repeal, Mayor Durkan is talking about the regional One Table initiative, which hasn’t done anything at all during the two and a half years of Seattle’s so-called “state of emergency” on homelessness. Those other cities and counties are just as limited in their potential revenue sources as Seattle, with even less political will.

Homeless advocates are already analyzing lessons from the EHT fight and planning how to regroup, but the simple fact is that only government has the resources to fund the kind of comprehensive response needed. Private philanthropy helps, but it’s capricious and not coordinated among different funders. Nonprofits are essential but can only do so much. It will always come back to government. Social justice activists will also organize for ballot measures and next year’s elections, and they’re still a significant force in Seattle. But the playing field just got a lot less level.

And still, people are dying.