All posts by Gary Olson

Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths

You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.

— Frans de Waal, “An Interview with Frans de Waal,” The Believer, September 1, 2007

My question is prompted by the recent Senate vote (unanimous as far as I can determine) for a $38-billion, ten year military aid package to Israel, the single largest in U.S. history, but it’s something I’ve pondered and written about for decades.

In the Israeli case, the best defense apologists can muster is that our spineless mollusks in Congress would do the right thing but for fear of AIPAC’s swift retaliation. While there is an element of truth here it’s unfair to our invertebrate friends. It conveniently overlooks the fact that in other situations — absent any AIPAC pressure — Congress assiduously avoids “doing the right thing.” Instead, it directly or indirectly funds brutal and barbarous overt and structural violence across the globe, a veritable galaxy of moral blind spots.

Hence my question: Are we, almost across the board, governed by psychopaths? Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not suggesting our rulers lack a conscience or any vestige of empathy. The situation is both more nuanced and more dangerous. We’re not talking about primary psychopaths like Jeffrey Daumer and Ted Bundy or fictitious murderers like “Dexter” or Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs. We need to set aside those individuals who are empathy-impaired as a result of damage to the brain’s prefrontal cortex and those born with abnormal brain chemistry.

Our focus should be on the powerful people who’ve allowed their biologically inherited empathy trait to atrophy, to be self-anesthetized in order to pursue their ambitions within the rules of the game. This “bracketing” is required by the capitalist system’s priority on accumulation, the milieu within which its “logic” dictates being highly selective about whom compassion is to be directed. Jon Ronson, an expert on psychopaths, is convinced that “the way capitalism is structured really is a physical manifestation of the brain anomaly known as psychopathy.” In his research, Ronson discovered that many traits found on the psychopath checklist are, in fact, positives for non-murderous psychopaths. Why? Because these traits render distinct advantages in achieving success in the highest ranks of politics, business and the military.

For example, on a given morning a member of Congress might present a public face of compassion as she sincerely scolds public officials who kidnap refugee children from their parents. Then, in the afternoon, she votes for U.S. military policies that terminally (as in dead) separate other children from their parents in Palestine, Afghanistan or Yemen. That evening, she embraces her partner, plays fetch with the family dog, reads bedtime stories to the kids and sleeps soundly, feelings of rectitude intact. This compartmentalization of morals classifies her, for lack of a better term, as a “secondary psychopath.”1

This behavior is determined by a culture which the same powerful people have helped to shape and, in turn, rely on to legitimate their actions. Little wonder these individuals not only don’t feel remorse for the victims, especially those far from our borders, but don’t even see them as victims. If seen at all, they are the necessary collateral damage required to perpetuate the system.
We have reached the point where, as Erich Fromm once observed, when operating within an insane society, the only healthy members are viewed as “maladjusted.”

If there is some merit to this argument we are far beyond just weeding out a few moral monsters on Election Day. But neither are we without hope or alternatives. Political struggles against empathy-numbing neoliberal ideology and the economic system it serves can create conditions that enhance the flourishing of empathy and love, the foundation for our better selves.

  1. See Martha Stought, The Sociopath Next Door (New York: Broadway Books), 2005.

High Plains Radicals

The Sun was shining as I was strolling
The wheat field waving the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice was chanting
This land was made for you and me
— Woody Guthrie

With socialism, even in a diluted and inchoate form, assuming a higher profile, I’m reminded of my early years in North Dakota during the 1950s.  On the one hand, it wasn’t the Gestapo-like scenes from Standing Rock, today’s widespread sex trafficking in the booming oil fields in the western part of the state or the Trump-friendly votes of current Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. On the other hand, it was hardly idyllic with its duck-and-cover drills, loyalty oaths, McCarthyism, and stifling Evangelical Lutheran social mores. Still, there was at least a vague awareness that things had once been better.

I wasn’t a red or even a pink diaper baby, those who for better or worse gazed at Communist Manifesto picture books for toddlers and inherited their parents’ radical politics. In fact, red, white and blue diapers would be a more apt description.   However, through cultural osmosis I must have internalized some sense of what remained of North Dakota’s radical political legacy.

In the early 1900s, 9 of 10 North Dakotans were farmers who were being bankrupted by ruthless out-of-state economic conglomerates.   In response, they organized the Nonpartisan League (NPL) a socialist insursurgency movement.  Together with elements of the Socialist Party and the IWW, the NPL quickly became a force to be reckoned with and in the 1918 election, won both houses of the state legislature.   Along with new safety net legislation, among the first laws to be passed were the creation of a publicly owned grain mill, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator and a publicly owned bank, the Bank of North Dakota.  The latter was envisioned as a credit-union style institution to liberate farmers from predatory lenders. Incidentally, I grew up assuming the Bank of North Dakota, a quasi-socialist institution, had a counterpart in every state. In fact, it was the only one of its kind.

The initial success of the NPL also helped spawn the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) in neighboring Minnesota where both sets of my grandparents had emigrated from Norway and Sweden in the 1870s.  Although never made explicit, the experiences of my elders bequeathed to me a deeply ingrained distrust toward “Big Shots” in general and more specifically, those in the Twin Cities (Mpls/St.Paul) and further east in Chicago. Such people did not have our best interests at heart. I also prefer imagining now that if monsters were hiding under my bed at night they were eastern bankers, grain merchants and railroad tycoons.

Alas, this period was short-lived. Then, as now, the capitalist state performed its primary function as protector of the ruling class. The devastating effects of the government’s campaign against labor unions, embodied in anti-radical hysteria, the first Red Scare in 1920, jailing and deportation of radicals, the Palmer Raids and imprisonment of Eugene Debs, all but extinguished radical prairie populism. Both major political parties toiled endlessly to make socialism synonomous with “Un-American”.  The  final blow occurred when many farmers gravitated toward the Democratic Party, the graveyard of radical progressive movements.

This heinous chapter in American history joins racism, a belief in U.S. exceptionalism, nativism, and ruthless imperialism as being as American as baseball and apple pie.

But lest we forget, the less well known but countless examples of courageous resistance to these execrable episodes is also part of the American tradition. In keeping with this spirit, I recommend viewing John Hanson and Rob Nilsson’s “Prairie Trilogy,” a reissued assemblage of three short films about North Dakota’s radical past.  Shot from 1978-1980, Praire Fire, Rebel Earth and Survivor, have been lovingly restored and couldn’t be more timely.

As reviewer Joshua Brunsting, puts it, “While thousands of people are turning to what they believe to be a groundbreaking socio-political movement, they don’t stop to realize that this type of worker-focused ideology is at the very heart of the American political experience. Maybe not as those living in 2018 think of socialism, but the DNA runs deep and runs clear.” The recent surge of public activism and the rejection of capitalism by today’s millennials are fully consonant with this sanguine conclusion.

More on “Keeping Families Together”

Good on everyone who rallied in such large numbers on behalf of keeping families together. I will generalize and break down the participants into three groups. The first was composed of folks who may have participated in their first protest and responded with genuine empathy and moral outrage regarding a transparently immoral situation. They are well-intentioned and believe the Federal government is not acting in ways commensurate with America’s highest ideals. For them, the blame largely lies with Trump but they’re not opposed to hearing more discussion on the subject.

A second group understood that public pressure must be sustained to force any meaningful change. They also grasp that this didn’t begin with Trump but with a long history of brutal bipartisan U.S. policy in Central America‘s Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These three countries suffer the first, fourth and fifth highest homocide rates in the world. U.S action on behalf of empire stoked this desperate situation; this second group also refuses to exempt the Democrats for their complicity, including Obama’s horrific immigration policies. They know that in 2014, Hillary Clinton spoke in favor of deporting thousands of Central American migrant children, saying “We have to send a clear message that just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay.”

These participants largely connected the dots and know the history of U.S. officials breaking and destroying families both here and abroad from the very beginning. These folks might have read books like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States or Robert Jensen’s Citizens of the Empire. Further, they might have wondered, as did commentator Elizabeth Oram, that considering this past, “Where were the masses, outrage, the fury? Do we care about families or do we just want to make a partisan challenge to an embarrassing Republican?” In addition, the second group are right to worry there will be 24/7 efforts by DNC-level Democrats to coopt the movement and use it to protect incumbants and increase their seats in November.

Those in the third group might have a ”Hate Has No Home Here” yard sign, mouth the right phrases and take part in one-off, media-celebrated, “feel good,“ anti-Trump events. And not a few of them come across as self-righteous while keeping cognitive dissonance at bay. As Noam Chomsky observes, such people are “…deeply and deliberately apolitical in the sense they do not seek to address issues of power, resources, decision making, or how to bring about change.”

I take no pleasure in saying it’s the latter who must “get woke“ from their moral amnesia if they’re serious about safeguarding children and families everywhere. It’s not too late but time is exceedingly short.

More Thoughts on the Poor People’s Campaign

Rev. William Barber is the closet thing to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that we have in our midst.
— Prof. Cornell West on the PPC’s Co-Founder

The Poor People’s Campaign, modeled on MLK’s original movement from fifty years ago, held its first rallies and direct actions this past Monday at 37 state capitals across the country. I was privileged to be arrested for blocking the roadway during the civil disobedience portion of our rally at the capitol building in Harrisburg, PA. These actions will continue every Monday for 40 days and culminate in a national mobilization at the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. The campaign is non-partisan and politicians are not allowed on the platform.

The primary reason I joined the Poor People’s Campaign and have encouraged others to do so is its potential for realizing basic structural change. So far, my personal experience with the PPC has been overwhelmingly positive. Hallmarks include dynamic leadership, superb organizational skills, a diverse membership and high morale. I’ve also witnessed instances of MLK’s “beloved community“ when interacting with the members. And I agree with radical activist and writer Patrick Taylor that “We need to articulate the moral foundations of our political positions.”

There is, however, one caveat and I offer it with only the best of intentions. The PPC is tantalizingly close to taking, for me at least, the next logical step for reaching its potential. Along with its powerful moral message, there’s a need to be explicit about how the class and power structure of capitalism is inextricably linked to the PPC’s “Four Evils” of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation and the cost of America’s war economy. It’s not disparaging to either approach to advocate combining faith-based motives with a fact-based, political economy diagnosis of the problem. This symbiotic fusion would provide a formidable tool for advancing the PPC’s objectives.

Doing so, would be entirely in keeping with Martin Luther King’s own political evolution. By 1966, when speaking to his staff, King offered some positive words about democratic socialism and then said, ”You’re really getting on dangerous ground here because you’re messing around with the folks. You are messing around with the captains of industry.” Two years later, in an interview with a NYT’s reporter, King said “In a sense you could say we‘re involved with class struggle…”

This is why King was described as “the most dangerous man in America.” Jared Ball, writing for the Black Agenda Report described how King’s image has been sanitized (in Cornell West’s phrase, “the Santa Clausification“ of King) when powerful forces came together “…to ensure that King would be separated from his anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and patient work for a genuine revolution.”

Bruce Dixon, the managing editor of Black Agenda Report, has been critical of the PPC’s focus on symptoms but not causes. Yet Dixon writes, “we can and should march alongside them. What we cannot do, as socialists, is consent to be led by this cramped vision, a vision which refuses to name capitalism as the problem…”

Yes, there are risks that rank-and-file Democrat types might be offended. But telling the truth about the neoliberal capitalist DP national leadership can’t be avoided if the PPC is to obtain its radically transformative potential.

The title of Dr. King’s last book was Where Do We Go From Here?  We should be having that conversation.

• Author’s Note: There’s a good article about PPC co-founder Rev. William Barber entitled “William Barber takes on Poverty and Race” in The New Yorker, May 14, 2018.

A Few Thoughts on the “March for Our Lives”

In yesterday’s New York Times, regular op-ed contributor David Brooks heaped effusive praise on last Saturday’s March for Our Lives. Brooks wrote:

I have to say, I loved the gun-control march I observed  last Saturday in Washington. The crowd was good-hearted, gracious, diverse and welcoming… Everybody kept underlining their faith in our democratic system, that voting is the way to make change…Of course some of the student speakers were grandiose and pretentious. Most of us were like that when we were 18.

Brooks is sometimes described as ‘the liberals’ favorite conservative,” perhaps because of his erudition and seeming reasonableness. In truth, Brooks has invariably condemned political activism while remaining oblivious to structural and class realities in this country. What this pompous moralizer and the Democratic establishment share is fear that this youth-led, increasingly inclusive protest movement can’t be cooped and contained by “vote, vote, vote” mantras, working within the two-party status quo or bought off with free food. They already see students of color standing in solidarity with Parkland while simultaneously linking that shooting with systemic violence in Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

If, as promised, their courageous campaign continues, it will quickly encounter the system’s recalcitrant resistance to any serious changes. And if a critical mass of students begins seeing the connections among violence, racism, injustice, capitalism and Washington raining death on people abroad, the MSM will abruptly cease its fawning approval. Many of us recall how quickly the liberal establishment turned on Dr. King the moment he gave voice to these same connections.

Finally, most of us older folks didn’t come to radical politics through our formal educations or the good fortune of being red diaper babies. In fact, R,W & B diapers were the norm. Instead, we stumbled through a process that, looking back, included naive liberal actions and expectations. For example, we knew the U.S. attack on Vietnam was immoral but had yet to fully grasp that it wasn’t a “mistake.” That it was only one inevitable consequence of a vile economic system and was preceded and followed by countless other covert and overt interventions.

We learned some hard lessons, not the least of which was that we’d been lied to our entire lives. At the time I recall seasoned activists sharing their experiences, pointing us toward information sources and above all, being infinitely patient with us.  I sense that’s a critically important role for us in the days ahead.

A Confession (of sorts) and a Radical’s Lament

Radical: Derived from the Latin radix, which literally means the root or base. In political terms it means penetrating beyond conventional explanations and getting at the root cause of a problem.

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag puzzled over people who still express surprise about all the suffering in the world at human hands. She wrote, “No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.” I would amend Sontag’s indictment to include people who’ve been afforded the luxury of time, resources and access to information that allows them to grasp how the world actually works — but fail to do so.

After being criticized by an opponent for changing his mind about a firmly held opinion, the iconoclastic British political economist J. M. Keynes reputedly replied, “When information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, Sir?” Keynes voraciously pursued information, new evidence upon which to test his opinions.

Of course, we can’t know more than we’ve been exposed to and some new information is almost impenetrably complex. But that’s rarely the stumbling block on many topics. In the past I’ve harbored a host of conventional opinions. Here are only a few: Defending indefensible aspects of the former USSR, evidence-free opinions about “human nature,” staunchly defending the Democratic Party (including being president of my college’s Young Democrats), socially constructed sexist attitudes, believing the U.S. was a democracy, and being (very) tardy in recognizing that most college professors neither practice nor encourage genuine critical thinking.

I only revised my thinking after being exposed to new information, to new ways of thinking. Often it was the result of serendipitous encounters with morally-grounded, truth-seeking teachers, scholars, novelists, playwrights. artists, scientists and family members. At other times, contact with social and labor activists or exposure to another culture played a role. I’ve been grateful for whatever agents prompted this search, a practice I hope to continue for as long as I remain a sentient being.

When it comes to how our capitalist system operates, the learning curve is not a steep one. A curious, honest, and reasonably alert high school junior could easily grasp the essentials. However, it’s my sense that for many individuals this learning curve has flat-lined after flirting with some ineffectual liberal tinkering, leaving these folks “comfortably numb” and in a state of arrested political/economic development.  Is this because new information about politics and economics is too threatening? That too many previously held assumptions would be called into question?  That it might create unacceptable tension with family, friends and associates? Do the personal gains from embracing neoliberalism mandate neither extending the bounds of empathy to those victimized by domestic and global capitalism nor contemplating the possibility that this system can’t be “reformed” into a humane one?

Finally, nothing I’ve written above should be taken as a personal attack on anyone. That interpretation would be counterproductive to my desire to open a candid, long overdue conversation on this sensitive topic.

Why So Little Empathy and Compassion Within American Culture?

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; the class which is the ruling material force in society is at the same time the ruling intellectual force.
— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Setting aside the 3-4 percent of the U.S. population that can be classified as psychopaths (‘snakes in suits’ at the highest levels of government, business and the military) what can we say about an entire society that displays an anaesthetized conscience towards the suffering of others and towards the ecological commons itself?

We know that many hear the “cry of the people” but the moral sound waves are muted as they pass through powerful cultural baffles. I submit that neoliberal capitalist culture in the U.S. deadens feelings of social solidarity, pathologizes how we view ourselves and stunts our natural feelings of empathy and moral responsibility.

Massive belief systems tend to override our neuro-biological, evolutionary heritage as our brain’s plasticity conforms to corporate capitalist ideology. We come to view our “selves,” our identities, as based primarily on market values, especially “Only care about yourself and a few persons close to you.” One advances in society via rugged self-reliance and individuals are basically hyper-competitive, perpetual consumers.

How does this cultural information access our brains? Simply put, culture is invented by institutions that serve particular interests. The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, argued that it’s all about class and power as the ideas of the ruling class take on the everyday status of common sense, of universal truths. These include “truths” about human nature and how the world works.

It would be incorrect, however, to assume our rulers are a coven of diabolical conspirators who gather at Davos to consciously devise their wicked schemes. There’s actually a remarkable symmetry between neoliberalism’s ruling ideas and the convictions held by elites. And whereas they might be “nice guys” in their private lives, in their institutional capacities they’re moral monsters. Why? In part, because they must do so to be successful but they also believe their behavior is synonymous with society’s best interests. The fatal flaw in “speaking truth to power” is that psychopaths will always sleep well at night.

In any event, to the extent these ideas are internalized by working people, we police ourselves, thus reducing the elite’s need for visible coercion. And make no mistake, there is nothing more dangerous to ruling class interests than people getting in touch with their inborn, wired sense of empathy and then acting as their sisters’ and brothers’ keeper.

To reiterate, ideas do not have an independent existence apart from economics. As my old friend Mike Parenti once wrote, “…whenever anyone offers a culturistic interpretation of social phenomena we should be skeptical.” Why? Because “cultural explanations are closer to tautologies than explanations.” It’s culture itself that needs to be explained and political analyses that neglect or refuse to account for class will have little explanatory value.

Why is this topic so important? First, as Peter Kropopkin, the Russian revolutionary, geographer and naturalist, noted in his famous book Mutual Aid, the predisposition of helping one another — human sociality — was of “prehuman origin.” And those societies that willingly abandon cooperation “are doomed to decay.” Everything we’ve learned about this from evolutionary biology, neuro-anthropology, cultural studies and neuroscience reinforces Kropotkin’s assertion.

Second, people act the way they do for reasons that we can study and comprehend. Yes, “Those who have the gold, make the rules!” But those “rules” also give shape to our emotional life and sense of self. Finally, exposing the class power behind culture points up the absolute necessity for basic structural changes in our dominant economic system and its empathy-enervating ideology. Piecemeal, cosmetic reforms won’t cut it.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the elite’s attempt at cultural hegemony is complete. If we lived in such a hermetically sealed system, impervious to challenge, we couldn’t be engaging in this dialogue. But the circle is rapidly closing.

A Few Thoughts on Bannon, Trump and the Future

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Bannon, used him as his ventriloquist’s dummy. A few months after the election, Bannon was banished from the White House by the unelected real power in Washington because his isolationist brand of capitalism clashed with their global one. But according recent reports, Trump remains in close contact with Bannon, speaking to him by phone several times a week. Because White House Chief of Staff John Kelly monitors incoming calls, Trump calls Bannon from his personal phone out of Kelly’s earshot. Trump’s ringing endorsement of Judge Moore may have followed one recent conversation.

Along with his ethno-white, “Christian,” ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant agenda, Bannon sought to cripple or eviscerate federal government agencies, especially those pertaining to the social safety net. That process is well underway. But in terms of reducing U.S. military intervention, Trump has resisted Bannon’s entreaties.

Likewise, Bannon must be dismayed that Goldman Sachs executives (former HRC supporters) are now dictating the administration’s economic policies. The very people that Bannon demonized are now in charge. What about Trump himself? In the words of astute political analyst Bob Borosage, Trump functions as “the barker outside the big tent,” a distraction while all the “grisly deeds” occur on the inside. Sadly, many liberals remain transfixed by a few trees and miss the raging forest fire.

Bannon, the Pied Piper of Right-Wing Populism, now strategizes from his Breitbart bunker, boasting that his future Senate candidates will owe nothing to fat cats, crony capitalists and smug elites from New York City, Washington, DC or Silicon Valley. But where will his money come from? Bannon‘s primary financial backers have been billionaire Robert Mercer (who despises the GOP leadership) and his daughter Rebekah Mercer. The senior Mercer says he “wants government shrunk down to the size of a pinhead,” sentiments shared by Bannon. The Mercers, in turn, will recruit donors among Texas oilmen and tech barons to form Super-PACs.

Bannon has intimated that he has a better grasp of Trumpism than Trump himself, and that’s certainly true. Bannon believes he channels the will of Trump’s base into the president’s mind who then communicates that rhetoric back to the base.

Presumably, this core of supporters would continue even without Trump. If the president, due to sheer incompetence, outright betrayal or self-immolation leading to impeachment, is no longer a viable sock puppet, Bannon will find other willing vessels.

Meanwhile, with only a few exceptions, the complicit, decadent Democrats line their pockets, safeguard their privileges, and desperately seek to regain power. Should they succeed, they’ll resume the policies that got us in this situation.

Bannon, his intra-elite Republican enemies, and the Democratic leadership are convinced the vulnerability of the working class to clever propaganda and relentless manipulation is limitless.

Finally, I raise these issues for one reason: so much turns on the response of tens of millions of Trump supporters whose allegiance should now be in play. Isn’t that responsibility on us?

An Open Letter to the White Working Class

I’m writing this letter as the proud son of the working class. My father, who never attended college and was our family’s breadwinner, worked as a Greyhound Bus ticket seller, part-time mail carrier and grocery store stock boy. When he died of a sudden heart attack at age 47, he was working the night shift as a hospital orderly. I was 12 years old and my younger brother was seven.

Because my dad was a World War Two vet, we had a very modest house purchased under the G.I. Bill’s Home Loan Guaranty Program. Under provisions of the Social Security Act’s Aid to Widows with Children, my mother received some scant relief, but never beyond the maximum legal amount of $200 per month. As recipients, single moms were not to work outside the home.  It wasn’t easy but I shudder to imagine our lives without these Federal government programs. It also taught me that a government responsive to its citizens can be a positive, make-or-break difference.

After growing up a poor kid in Fargo, North Dakota, I managed to achieve some success through hard work, sacrifice and determination, but I certainly displayed no more grit than you’ve expended.  Earlier this year, my wife and I retired to a comfortable lifestyle, with all that implies.

Changing Times, Change Outcomes

I mention this background only because I think it conveys an important lesson: Had my “back in the day” working class existence occurred thirty-five years ago instead of sixty years ago, all my determined self-improvement wouldn’t have produced the same positive outcome. Why? Because times changed. A long economic decline occurred and you’ve been working harder for decreasing wages and benefits. Just how bad is it? When you total up their debt and total up their assets, 40% of Americans (4 in 10) have zero dollars. Zilch. They’ve been cheated out of opportunities that once were available to me and other members of the white working class. That America no longer exists. Now, is it possible to determine with precision’s just who’s to blame for this state of affairs? You betcha.

One more thing: had I been the child of a black veteran, my situation would’ve been truly grim. I’m embarrassed to admit that for most my adult life I was ignorant of the fact that racial exclusion provisions of the Social Security Act meant that throughout the South and elsewhere, black mothers were virtually excluded from these benefits. Widows who’d been “working” in the cotton fields or as house maids were legally ineligible. States were allowed to refuse mothers based only on race and routinely did so.

Likewise, African-American vets were denied many of the G.I. Bill’s benefits. They were prevented from gaining access to mortgages, bank loans, and educational opportunities. Formal and informal segregation excluded blacks from the suburbs where most new housing was being built. That’s only the tip of the iceberg that fostered a wealth gap between whites and blacks which continues to this day.

I should add that I’m a recovering Democrat, a longstanding member of Democrats Anonymous. But I haven’t been immune to (very) temporary seductions by smooth-talking presidential candidates, the last being Obama in 2008. In 2016, however, I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton in either the primary or general election.

How does race play into our political situation?

If your high school education was similar to mine, you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that there was no “white race” in our country until the idea was invented by white plantation owners in Virginia around 1676. Before their arrival here, the Europeans had never thought of themselves as white.

Ninety percent of the colonial population in Virginia consisted of Africans, some of them enslaved and others indentured servants, and poor European tenants and laborers. Not only did they share deep grievances against the ruling plantation owners; for three generations, blacks and whites had inter-married, worked, celebrated and mourned together. It may be hard to imagine today, but questioning any of this simply wouldn’t have entered their minds. Notions of mutual aid and common cause was second nature. So what happened?

A small army of poor (black) Africans and poor (white) English frontiersmen realized they were getting their asses whupped by the landed aristocracy. This ragtag militia, led by the Englishman-turned-rebel, Nathanial Bacon, attacked the royal English government and burned Jamestown to the ground. Ultimately, the overmatched uprising failed. Bacon died of illness, but 23 of his followers were hanged as traitors. This is known as Bacon’s Rebellion.

Recognizing that another insurrection was possible and might spread, the now-terrified ruling circle of plantation owners came up with a solution. Their great trick was to drive a wedge between white and black workers. On the one hand, draconian laws were passed that punished whites for associating with blacks. On the other hand, financial rewards were bestowed on whites who captured runaway slaves. Furthermore, perks like owning a tiny plot of land and a few minor legal rights were granted to whites, and their status versus blacks was elevated. Over time, an artificial bond was created between elites and the white working class. This was the genesis and evil genius of creating “white identity” where none had existed. Gradually, poor whites came to believe they were better human beings by virtue of their skin color. This strategy has been working for 400 years even though there’s nothing “natural,” nothing biological about it.

What about the white working class today and Donald Trump?

It’s well known that the white working class makes up one-third of the American adult population and they supported Donald Trump by a margin of two to one.  Their votes in the key electoral states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin tipped the election to Trump. Hillary Clinton had dissed two-thirds of Americans without college degrees, including those in these states.

Hillary Clinton had written off voters like yourselves. Why? Because she had nothing of substance to offer you. Wall Street’s Mistress promised “ladders of opportunity,” but you knew from painful experience that those ladders had been kicked away long ago by leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Members of the posh, immensely privileged, white upper class were reaping all the benefits of policies enacted by the Republicrats.

I may be mistaken but based on my own reading, some Trump voters also found merit in Bernie Sanders’ program. But with Sanders off the ballot, they reasoned – “Hey, what do I have to lose?”  I’m also given to understand that many Trump voters also didn’t believe he would be a great or even good president, but voted for him anyway to poke a finger in the Establishment’s eye. An Ohio voter clarified that it was the middle finger. If so, good for you!

I trust you to correct me, but my take is that Trump offered hope with his “I’m not a politician” maverick outsider status. Policies of both major parties diminished your livelihoods, leaving you unable to afford child care, housing, and education. Many Trump supporters are one medical emergency away from economic disaster. Whatever your household income, the future seemed precarious, headed in an inevitable downward spiral, and prospects of a better future for your kids slipping away. For decades, no one was listening, but Trump seemed different in his pledge to get matters “under control.”

But what has Trump actually done since taking office? Here are just three examples among many: During the campaign he demonized Hillary Clinton for being in bed with Goldman Sachs (she was), the financial firm that “robs our working class” (it does). Yet we’ve recently learned that Trump’s long awaited tax cut plan was written by former Goldman investment bankers now on his team. The tax plan is an obscene giveaway of trillions of dollars that will, in the words of economist Jack Rasmus, “redistribute income massively upward from the middle and working classes to the rich.”

Meanwhile, Trump wants a spending cut of $1 trillion in Medicaid over the next decade and continues to shred what’s left of the social safety net after Bill Clinton’s devastating cuts in 1996.  By any measure, Trump’s economic agenda is “largely Goldman’s agenda.” In fact, I agree with those who argue that Goldman Sachs and the military-industrial complex now administer the presidency. I don’t believe this is what you were voting for.

Further, in explaining his startling decision to reverse a solemn campaign pledge to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, Trump said, “Decisions look different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” Indeed. Whatever one’s intentions, one quickly learns to obey the wishes of the deeply imbedded, unelected power structure in Washington, or face daunting consequences.

Finally, you might recall that Trump proclaimed he would be “the greatest jobs’ President that God ever created.” Well, we’re still waiting.  And so are the 1.5 million workers who lost jobs during Obama’s administration, another “jobs creator.” Many of them have fallen into poverty and opiate addition, and have suffered permanent psychic scarring. More and more jobs are being outsourced or converted to part-time, seasonal, and low-wage, while still others are being replaced by robotics.

Just yesterday, here in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA, 460 workers at the Wells Fargo call center were told to report to the cafeteria, where they were abruptly fired. Many left the meeting in tears. Nancy Jenkins, 53, was one of them and told the local newspaper, “We have a lot of single parents who worry they’ll have to take a minimum wage job and aren’t sure how they’ll make it.” Jennings herself recently had a kidney transplant and worries she’ll be unable to pay for anti-rejection meds. Jennings’s starting salary at Wells Fargo: $13.82 per hour. Wells Fargo’s profit just this quarter: $4.47 billion.

You may have seen Trump’s recent late night response to all of this when he tweeted, “Stock Market at an ALL-TIME high!”  How much stock do you own?

But after having reported this, I must add that Trump is not the central problem, but only the predictable outcome of a much deeper crisis, one created by several preceding administrations. I’m suggesting that, consciously or not, Trump (or, really, his media guru, Steve Bannon) sold the white working class a bill of goods, and he encouraged you to scapegoat immigrants and black people for your entirely justified grievances. After poring over this material, I can say that no evidence exists to support these charges and reams of data refute them.

If Trump’s vision succeeds, there will be only one noteworthy change: a different 1% will rule the country. We have no skin in this game. All of this reinforces the conclusion reached by numerous nonpartisan political science studies: ordinary citizens have no influence over the government in Washington. As things stand, voting is essentially meaningless.

So, what’s next?

I’m not the first person to say there is one tiny minority that presents a danger to you. It’s the wealthy, privileged, and overwhelmingly white oligarchy that rules over all of us. Other than worrying that you might catch on that immigrants, Muslims and people of color are not threatening your well-being, they have never given a rat’s ass about us, our children or our grandchildren. All they want from us is our labor, and that only if the price is low enough.

As the late George Carlin famously quipped, “No matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, you’re screwed because it’s all fixed. There is a club and you ain’t it.” Tim Wise, a close student of race matters, notes that by virtue of their experience, brown and black people have always known this. The white working class, owing to conditions more recently thrust upon them, has only begun to entertain this truth and the troubling questions and doubts surrounding it.

Given all of the above, I would respectfully ask you to consider the following: the pain and fears of the white working class are real, but the diagnosis is wrong, and, if not corrected, terribly dangerous. This letter was my attempt to offer a second opinion, one which goes beyond symptoms towards pinpointing the actual cause, those who own and benefit from our deeply dysfunctional economic system. I wrote these paragraphs not to cast blame or make judgments about Trump supporters, but to begin a much needed conversation about our country’s future.

There are people, including some I know, who depict Trump sympathizers as bigoted, ignorant, gullible rubes, almost congenitally incapable of empathy. In fact, a few individuals advised me not to bother with this letter because “Trump supporters are fact-resistant and won’t give you the time of day.”

I don’t buy this, and the sweeping claim that all 62 million Trump voters are incapable of thinking and acting in their own interest is not only bullshit, but smugly condescending.

I’ve never doubted that white working class folks, if privy to all the facts, constitute one pillar in constructing the basis for a social movement that — operating outside the hopeless two party system — can fundamentally change our country. For me, that feels like our last and best hope.

Deep State Banishes Bannon and Company

My take on Steve Bannon’s recent firing is at odds with the celebratory tone I detect from others, especially those claiming it’s a victory for decent people. It was nothing of the sort, and Bannon wasn’t banished for any of the reasons we’ve read about in mainstream media accounts.

Why was Bannon so objectionable, and to whom? Sure, he’s a white nationalist, bigoted, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, hate-mongering egomaniac. And like so many of his peers in the upper circles of the corporate, military and political world, he’s probably a psychopath. No problem.

He’s also a fervent disciple of capitalism, but, for his intra-elite enemies, the wrong kind. It was Bannon’s anti-globalist, “American First,” nationalistic and even isolationist positions that guaranteed his exit. For example, he strongly opposed General McMaster’s plea to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan and military intervention in Venezuela. He wanted to normalize relations with Russia while the corporate financial oligarchy salivated over a profitable new Cold War. Bannon favored a new trade war with China, something that’s anathema to U.S. corporations dependent on low-wage, non-unionized Chinese labor. No wonder that when news of Bannon’s departure appeared on screens at the New York Stock Exchange, “wild cheering” broke out.

What’s going on is that we’ve just witnessed a re-consolidation of control by one element of the power structure over the other, a struggle in which neither side cares a whit about us. In the 2016 election, the hybrid network of structures where actual power resides—sometimes termed the Deep State—favored Hillary Clinton. She was the eminently reliable bride of Wall Street and a proven warmonger. They could have lived with Jeb Bush, but Clinton was a more known quantity.

After spectacularly underestimating Trump’s appeal, the global capitalists began methodically forcing out all those around the president who shared Bannon’s world views.  They were replaced with Wall Street and military types so that we’re now ruled by an unelected Goldman Sachs/military/national security state. Having neutered Trump, it’s unnecessary to carry out a soft coup, assuming he continues to be only a figurehead and isn’t even more of a loose cannon. Because Trump has no real convictions other than self-promotion and only said what was needed to hoodwink voters, this shouldn’t pose a problem.

Bannon, who was Trump’s Svengali, has returned to his Breitbart News bunker to continue—his term—”the war.” During the campaign, he sensed that millions of white Americans felt marginalized, treated unfairly, angry, and despairing about the future. In short, many of these once-loyal Democratic voters felt, quite rightly, that they were being screwed over by the system. His “genius” was to promote and pander to the fears and insecurities that vexed so many of those who increasing self-identified as white voters. He also listed (often by coding) those responsible for their plight. Some were valid: condescending elites from both parties, trade pacts patently unfair to American workers, and Wall Street’s influence. Other reasons were demonstrably untrue: people of color, immigrants, and Muslims.

It’s unarguable that Trump has gone back on all the changes he promised. But Bannon and his ilk are secure in the belief that Trump supporters, many of whom are former Democrats, are rubes who, being fed a potent mix of half-truths and scapegoating, will continue to behave against their own best interests in 2020. On leaving the White House, Bannon disingenuously said, “The longer they talk about identity policy, I got ’em…If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Of course, the Democratic Party long ago abandoned the working class, economic justice, peace and environmental sustainability. They offer nothing but failed, endless wars, austerity at home, “Russia gate” fantasies, continued fealty to their corporate sponsors, and Hillary clones.

Very few people reading this piece have a dog in this hunt. It behooves us to look elsewhere before our dire situation becomes terminal.