An inspiring event when one realizes the amount of sincere and intelligent people that are willing to work against the direction this country is heading in. The attendance was massive-easily over 750,000 people.
I want to step back — way back — from the release of a declassified intelligence report on Russian interference in the election in order to point out the larger political significance of this moment.
Regardless of the truth value of the report, the nation’s intelligence agencies (the report is based on assessments by the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI) are strongly suggesting that the person who is about to walk into the White House got there with the help of a foreign power. The significance of this move by the nation’s security establishment against an incoming president, as I’ve been suggesting for some time, has not been quite appreciated. That the nation’s security agencies could go public with this kind of accusation, or allow their accusation to go public, is unprecedented. The United States traditionally does this kind of thing, covertly, to other countries: that is the prerogative of an imperial power. Now it claims, overtly, that this kind of thing was done to it. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it: not simply that it happened (if it did) but that an imperial power would admit that it happened. That’s the real shocker.
But we need to read the story against a larger backdrop of the slow delegitimation of American national institutions since the end of the Cold War.
It began, I would argue, with the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, even though it seemed clear to most people he committed perjury before the Senate. It continued with the gratuitous impeachment of Bill Clinton, the elevation of George W. Bush to the White House by a Supreme Court deploying the most specious reasoning, a war in Iraq built on flagrant lies, the normalization of the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and now the ascension of Trump, despite not winning the popular vote — and supposedly with the help of the Russians.
If people could step outside their partisan selves for one minute, I’d ask you to consider the following fact as yet another sign of late imperial disjunction: For the last eight years, we’ve had a president who half the country thinks is Muslim, Kenyan-born. For the next four, maybe eight, years, we will have a president who half the country thinks is the Manchurian Candidate, Russian-born. I can’t think of a greater symptom of the weird fever dream that is the American empire, whereby the most powerful state on earth imagines, over a twelve to sixteen year period, that its elected leaders hail from the far reaches of its various antagonisms.
What ties these events together is either that they cast serious doubt on the democratic legitimacy of American institutions or that they drag those institutions into the delegitimating mud of the most sordid scandals.
The simple truth is that the United States could barely have weathered one of these events during the Cold War, let alone a long succession of them. That is why civil rights activists were able, finally, to bring an end to Jim Crow when they did — the international embarrassment was too great — and why the failures in Vietnam provoked such a national crisis.
What we’re now seeing is not a cataclysmic crisis — I suspect one day we’ll look back on the language of “legitimation crisis” as itself the product of the Cold War — but a more familiar phenomenon from the annals of history: the slow but steady collapse — the real norm erosion — that you tend to see in the later stages of imperial republics. A collapse that can take decades, if not longer, to unfold.
What is almost self-evident now is that our government is becoming more corrupt now, and at a dangerously accelerating rate. (Although in many other ways life is getting better, as Steven Pinker recently noted.) In response we must resist becoming like the those of whom Yeats said: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” So I state unequivocally that I agree with the vast majority of scholars and thinkers—recent trends reveal that the USA is becoming more authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist.
Of course I could be mistaken. I am not a scholar of Italian history, totalitarianism, or the mob psychology that enables fascist movements. But I do know that all human beings have a human genome, making them much more alike than different. Humans are capable of racism, sexism, xenophobia, cruelty, violence, religious fanaticism and more. We are a nasty species; we are modified monkeys. As Mark Twain said: “Such is the human race … Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”
Thus I resist the idea that fascism can happen in Germany, Italy or Russia, but not in the United States. It can happen here, and all signs point in an ominous direction. Moreover, the United States was never a model of liberty or justice. The country was built on slave labor and genocide at home and violent imperialism abroad. It is a first world outlier in terms of incarceration rates and gun violence; it is the only developed country in the world without national health and child care; it has outrageous levels of income inequality with few opportunities for individuals to climb the socio-economic ladder; and it is consistently ranked by people around the world as the greatest threat to world peace and the world’s most hated country.
Furthermore, signs of its dysfunction continue to grow. If authoritarian political forces don’t get their way, they shut down the government, threaten to default on the nation’s debt, fail to fill judicial vacancies, deny people health-care and family planning options, conduct congressional show trials, suppress voting, gerrymander congressional districts, support racism, xenophobia and sexism, and spread lies and propaganda. These aren’t signs of a stable society. As the late Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin put it:
The elements are in place [for a quasi-fascist takeover]: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.
Now with power in the hands of an odd mix of plutocrats, corporatists, theocrats, racists, sexists, egoists, psychopaths, sycophants, anti-modernists, and the scientifically illiterate, there is no reason to think that they will surrender their power without a fight. You might think that if income inequality grows, individual liberties are further constricted, or millions of people are killed at home or abroad, that people will reject those in power when conditions worsened. But this assumes we are a democracy. A compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda and mindless entertainment, you can persuade them to support anything. With better methods of controlling and distorting information will come more control over the population and, as long the powerful believe they benefit from an increasingly totalitarian state, they will try to maintain it. Most people like to control others; they like to win.
In 2010, I was living in Pullman, Washington, working during the day as a Music Director at KZUU my college's radio station, and at night as a cashier at the only record store within 100 miles. Having a reliable source for free music wasn't a priority, but stranded in a small rural town, I desperately needed variety. While lamenting a fruitless Google search for Deerhunter demos from the band's late-aughts blog to a friend, he invited me to what.cd, a private peer-to-peer torrent tracker. A BitTorrent tracker is a server that facilitates communication between file-sharing peers. What.cd didn't actually host any illegal files on their servers, but they enabled people to independently swap files, utilizing a legal grey area to stay alive for nearly a decade.
Launched in 2007—on the same day that another popular tracker, Oink, shut down—what.cd was something of a mythical place on the internet, lauded for its massive library and derided for its stringent application process and strict rule enforcement. Though new releases would appear on the site, what set what.cd apart was its vast, deeply specialized archive of rare and unusual records; users were given a study guide and expected to understand the nuances of analog and digital media, transcoding audio files, and spectral analysis. This combination of uncompromising principles and community sourcing made what.cd incredibly successful: before it shuttered unexpectedly on November 18, the site was possibly the greatest and most extensive archive of recorded music in human history.
When I joined the site in college, it offered uninhibited access to a fathomless infinity of music. User-made "collages"—what.cd-speak for collections of albums tied together by a unifying theme—were rabbit holes of discovery, user-tagged with genres, featured artists, and producers. Each associated discography was sorted and cared for as pristinely as the one before, and a spiderweb graph of clickable links at the bottom of each artist's page showed you related artists. You could start at the 90s chart-topping R&B trio SWV, and easily end up discovering Mahogany Blue, a similar, yet mostly unknown trio with a single album released in 1993. There was a tab that displayed the top 10 most active torrents of the past day, five of which were often various bitrates of the latest Phish concert; for six whole years, that tab effectively served as my Billboard chart.
Last year, in a piece for The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance wrote about the illusory permanence of the internet. "The web, as it appears at any one moment, is a phantasmagoria. It's not a place in any reliable sense of the word. It is not a repository. It is not a library. It is a constantly changing patchwork of perpetual nowness," she wrote. "[It] is being destroyed even as it is being built. Until you lose something big on the Internet, something truly valuable, this paradox can be difficult to understand." During its 9 years of existence, it seemed what.cd was the exception to that rule. It felt like the greatest realization of what a digital library could be, its longevity a testament to its permanence.
A manifesto on the site's slate grey landing page promised Candyland meets The Matrix: "You've stumbled upon a door where your mind is the key. Beyond here is something like a utopia." It wasn't hyperbole. Past that homepage lay access to over a million albums, most of which had multiple sources, from original vinyl rips, to remastered CDs and rare imported editions, each in different bit rate formats. This massive, meticulously curated database was the sum of knowledge and hard work of what.cd's user base, which was among the most passionate on the web.
If what.cd was a world unto itself, then data was its currency. Users had to maintain a ratio of downloaded to uploaded content, and if you fell below a certain ratio (i.e.: you were leeching too much without giving back), you got banned. This system required you to contribute to stay a member. Many users utilized "seedboxes"—private servers that constantly uploaded torrents—to maintain their ratio. Users increased their ratio by filling requests for rare albums or unique versions and adding them to the library. To me, it always felt like what.cd had perfected the crowdsourcing model: like a utopian society, every user had a stake in the wellbeing of the site, simply because the only way to keep buying in was to keep contributing.
Albums missing from the database had what the site referred to as "bounties," or collective pools of download credit awarded to the first user to upload a sought-after release. Users could add download credit to the bounty attached to a given release, subtracting from their own ratio to entice others to upload a missing album. This led to some absurd bounties: the user who filled the eight-year-old request for Wildflower, The Avalanches' first album in 16 years, earned 10.3 terabytes, or approximately 2,000,000 songs, in download credit.
The small town that had once been a barrier to music discovery was now my key. I used my time at the radio station and record store digging through basement boxes, scouring record racks, and uploading forgotten local college and high school band's records. By the time I had graduated in 2013, I had racked up a healthy ratio that sustained me until the site's shutdown. I think I took the freedom what.cd offered me for granted. When the site suddenly shuttered without explanation last Thursday, I had hundreds of gigabytes of download credit left.
Books and comics were also shared on what.cd, and when one user created a request for three unpublished J.D. Salinger works that have been barred from release until 2060, many threw their proverbial coins into the wishing well, amassing a bounty worth over 6 terabytes. The only known copies of these stories was sealed away inside private, supervised rooms at Princeton and the University of Texas. In 2013, a what.cd user filled the request with scanned pages of the books, leaking the stories to the world for the first time.
This was the beauty of what.cd: its underlying suggestion that anything could be, and should, be accessible to the public. History will remember it as the Fort Knox of illegal pirating, but free music was never really the point of it—you can find free music nearly anywhere else on the internet. What.cd was ultimately an archivist project, a collaborative effort to combine popular and forgotten cultural artifacts into one place, and make it as easy as possible to experience them the way you wanted. It encouraged first-time digitization of hundreds of out-of-print and private press records, and it remained the only place on the internet where you could reliably find them. In that respect, I would argue that what.cd had a salutary effect on music and culture as a whole; after all, studies have shown that piratingdoes not necessarily equate to lost sales, and that people who pirate musictend to buy more music.
In college, I gave a presentation on sampling in music, pirating, and copyright law. In grading my work, my professor endearingly deemed me a "copyright communist," meaning that I had argued for equal access to artistic works for all, and disagreed with the music industry's obsession with defending capital over art. I realized at that moment how much what.cd had molded, not only my musical taste, but also my nascent political awareness, opening my mind to a world where information and cultural production was freely available.
Late Friday, the site's staff posted one last message to Twitter, celebrating the spirit that made What.CD so special and offering hope that a similar site would crop up to take its place. "We've seen what happens when thousands of people work together to build a tribute to human culture free from concern over profit or acclaim." They attached a link asking fans to donate to archive.org, a nonprofit that works diligently to catalog pretty much everything in existence, including, with Wayback Machine, the internet itself.
If you type in what.cd into that machine, and navigate to any day before November 11th, 2016, you'll see that familiar grey homepage with its static manifesto. "There are none who will lend you guidance; these trials are yours to conquer alone," it reads. "Find yourself, and you will find the very thing hidden behind this page. This is a mirage." It always seemed like a nonsensical way to manufacture mystery, but when I tried to log on Thursday morning and found it gone, I finally understood the paradox LaFrance was talking about. Like a mirage, what.cd had disappeared.
By now, you’ve likely heard the news: What.CD, an illegal, invite-only warehouse of music torrents, was shut down by French authorities on November 17. The online mourning that immediately followed must have been a bewildering, even unsightly phenomenon to those who didn’t enjoy privilege of membership to this private club, approximately 150,000-strong. Why the outrage, the concern? Aren’t these just the crocodile tears of wily nerds no longer able to consume music for free?
In short, no. Much more than a clearinghouse of illegal music downloads, What.CD was the latest, greatest, most sophisticated and most comprehensive music-sharing community I’ve ever been part of, and I’ve been part of many. In fact, that had these music-sharing communities never existed (had the law had its way, in other words), I would not be the person I am today. Let’s back up for a minute.
It’s 1997. I am 13 years old. Having convinced my parents to trade the closed ecosystem of CompuServe for the wide-open Netcom, I am running wild on “The Internet,” a nascent virtual world I don’t quite understand. I stumble onto IRC, a loosely organized Mordor-like network of chat rooms, and I soon meet like minds who humor me as I gush about Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM. Eventually I am deemed cool enough, or corruptible enough, and a fellow named Jim from Washington, D.C. invites me to join his private FTP server. He suggests I grab Love’s Secret Domain by Coil and Chiastic Slide by Autechre; each takes a full night to download (28.8 kbps modems max out at about 3.6 kilobytes per second). Then I listen, and I am changed forever. In these two albums — infinite others, but especially these two — I find what I did not know I had been looking for, and I see the contours of my future laid out for me, a truth I am still discovering 20 years later.
I was hooked. I downloaded music voraciously, exploring scenes and sounds I’d otherwise never know, spending what little money I had on CDs and records in the meantime. Soon enough, I became a bit player in “the scene” – a shadowy cabal of professional pirates, according to law enforcement, or a disparate network of internet-obsessed music geeks, in my telling. I eventually gained access to Checkpoint, a database of nearly everything “the scene” had released and where to download it. At the time, I was only peripherally aware of the cultural importance of what I was looking at. It was not until What.CD (and its antecedent, OiNK) came around that I put the pieces together.
What.CD is best understood as a library, or an archive, whose mission was making available to its members the entirety of recorded music known to mankind. (I found countless vinyl-only, hyper-obscure, out-of-print releases available on What.CD.) If that sounds like a lofty (or absurd) goal, it was, but What.CD came closer to achieving that goal than anything else I’ve ever known.
Moreover, What.CD was not only phenomenal for accessing music, but for discovering it too — which, in this author’s opinion, is the primary conundrum facing music listeners today. What.CD’s torrent database was tightly controlled and carefully edited, ensuring uniformity and regularity, and users could mine it via robust search facilities. But the star of What.CD’s show was its user base, who organized its vast catalog in myriad ways. Tags allowed users to search by artist, genre, style, BPM, and beyond. Recommendations abounded on the site’s in-depth discussion forums. Best of all was its “collage” functionality, a tool that allowed users to group together torrents however they liked: by artist, by label, or by more esoteric concerns (“Female electronic musicians”, “Best EPs of 2014”). No hyperbole: What.CD was a music lover’s dream come true.
What’s the point of all this? Should music always be free and readily available willy-nilly? On the contrary: I am deeply, passionately committed to the cause of fair pay for artists, musicians, and creators of all kinds. But over the past 16 years, we (consumers, artists, everyone) have been sold a false bill of goods. Copyright infringement is not stealing. And the solution proffered to us by the powers that be — streaming — has simultaneously disempowered consumers, chipping away at the very notion of “ownership” itself, while decimating the income of underground musicians. Streaming is definitively not the way forward. Its primary value proposition – convenience – is a smokescreen, a cover for entrenched interests (major labels, publishers, tech companies awash in capital chasing growth instead of profit) to trick consumers into a Faustian bargain, the endpoint of which is a narrowing, not a widening, of musicians’ role in society.
What is? For now, Bandcamp is perhaps the closest legal analogue to What.CD, although its library, and music discovery functionality, pales in comparison. It’s no substitute, but the more artists and record labels that sign on, the better it will be.
I’d like to share an excerpt from What.CD’s final statement, which may seem needlessly grandiose without context. But it is not. What.CD was perhaps the most vivid present-day exemplar of the original hacker ethic, until it wasn’t. “All information should be free. Mistrust authority—promote decentralization. You can create art and beauty on a computer. Computers can change your life for the better.”
To Oink: thanks for paving the way. One remaining hope for What.CD’s legacy is that it, too, will serve as a model for whatever comes next. Learn from our successes and learn from our failings. We’ve always avoided politics; our position should be clear. So if our memory is to achieve anything, let it serve as a kind of proof. You were there. You shared an experience with hundreds of thousands of kindred explorers. Don’t forget that there are people who are willing to work to ensure that works of cultural value can be preserved and shared. Granted, we worked within the limitations of our time, place, and model, but the goal supersedes the details.
We’ve seen what happens when thousands of people work together to build a tribute to human culture free from concern over profit or acclaim. The results are beautiful. And now it’s time to move along with that in mind.
The 2016 Presidential campaign has been a very significant one for Latinxs, often referred to as the “sleeping giant” of the electorate. While Republican candidate Donald Trump astonished most media observers with his set of shifting, unorthodox political positions, it’s been his crudely racist and sexist discourse that have become the campaign’s central focus. Yet his relentless attacks demonizing immigrants from Mexico and Central America and conflating them with the national security issues represented by border enforcement–represented by his dubious wall-building dream–have put our interests in a narrowly defined box, obscuring discussion of other issues critical for Latinxs.
The role of media in driving the way issues are represented is a bit more complex when discussing Latinxs, who have varying degrees of language preference. While the vast majority of Latinxs in the US gradually become English-dominant by the 3rd generation in this country, Spanish-language media is strongly influential on recent and first-generation immigrants, as well as their acculturating children. Even for those of us who prefer English, Spanish-language media has often been an important resource that reflects the US Latinx perspective, as well as highlight stories that are not prioritized in the major English-language media.
Due to the fragmentation of media-viewing habits among mainstream Americans, and Latinxs’ greater dependence on traditional media, the Spanish-language network Univision often ranks ahead of mainstream networks or is #1 on particular nights or time slots, and as a result it has become a driver of not only Spanish-language news coverage, but a major player in corporate media, owning millennial-focused properties like Fusion, The Root, and Gawker Media. As Univision has come to dominate media that targets Latinxs, it also seems to be setting the standard for the rest of the Latinx-focused media, particularly the way it imbues a synthesized monolithic Latinx identity with both political and consumer marketing techniques.
I simply cannot wrap my head around how others with level heads and sound minds can even consider Trump for president of this country and leader of the free world. The logic simply escapes me.
I try to view it through the lens of economic anxiety, diminished economic mobility and global pressure. It all seems understandable, but then I’m reminded of Donald Trump, a billionaire whose businesses have on more than one occasion gone bankrupt, who stiffed contractors, who outsources the making of many of his products and who brags about not paying federal income taxes. All of which brings me back to: Are you kidding me?
I try to view it through a purely ideological lens in which people simply tend to vote for the party nominee. It makes sense, but then I’m reminded of Donald Trump, a man who isn’t really an ideologue but a demagogue interested only in self-aggrandizement. And again I return to: You’re kidding, right?
I think of the family values voters on the right with whom I’ve become acquainted over the years. Although I might have vigorously disagreed with their positions and their inherent myopic anachronism, at least I could say that they were as principled in their adherence to their positions as I was in opposition to them. But then, again, I hit Donald Trump, who is dragging traditional conservative paternalism into the muck of perversion, who brags about sexually assaulting women, who makes fun of the disabled, who savors a lust for vengeance, who says he has never needed to seek forgiveness, even from God. Again, are you kidding?
I try to think of it from a strict constitutionalist’s perspective, to understand how strongly they want the vacancy on the Supreme Court to be filled by a constitutional purist. But then I think of Trump, whose Muslim ban would fly in the face of the Constitution, whose threats to the press strike me as constitutionally hostile, whose advancement of torture would seem to me constitutionally questionable (to say nothing of its legality in the face of international norms and treaties). Are you kidding, America?
I try to think of it in terms of weariness with Washington and with D.C. insiders, the Clintons in particular, and dynastic democracy in general. I try to think of the intense Clinton distrust and even hatred that exists in some quarters, sentiments only exacerbated by things like this never-ending email saga. But then I hit Donald Trump, a real estate scion who has been sued nearly 1,500 times and is currently being sued for Trump University deceptions and the rape of a 13-year-old girl. You have got to be kidding.
There is no way to make this make sense. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Donald Trump is a bigot.
Donald Trump is a demagogue.
Donald Trump is a sexist, misogynist, chauvinist pig.
Donald Trump is a bully.
Donald Trump is a cheat.
Donald Trump is a pathological liar.
Donald Trump is a nativist.
Donald Trump’s campaign has proved too attractive to anti-Semites, Nazis and white nationalists, and on some level the campaign seems to be tacitly courting that constituency.
Donald Trump — judging by his own words on that disgusting tape and if you believe the dozen-plus women who have come forward to accuse him of some form of sexual assault or unwanted sexual advance — is an unrepentant predator.
To put it more succinctly, Donald Trump is a lowlife degenerate with the temperament of a 10-year-old and the moral compass of a severely wayward teen.
There is no way to make a vote for him feel like an act of principle or responsibility. You can’t make it right. You can’t say yes to Trump and yes to common decency. Those two things do not together abide.
If you are voting for Trump, you are voting for coarseness, corruption and moral corrosion. Period. And if you are not actively voting against him, you are abetting his attempt to hijack American greatness and sink it with his egotism.
What is to be done about the Republican Party? Sixty years ago it was the party of Dwight Eisenhower and a dynamic suburban middle class putting an end at last to the long reign of the New Deal Democrats. This summer it became the pathetic captive of Donald Trump, a television performer professing to speak for a discontented and sullen middle class.
From Eisenhower to Trump in sixty years—this was a real trip to the bottom, make no mistake, a humiliation indeed for a once-powerful party. The Republicans had had ample time to avoid it. There had long been warning signs of a party slipping into irrelevance, but there seemed to be no Republican leader shrewd, charismatic, or brave enough to shake it out of its intellectual slumber.
Nelson Rockefeller had been purged years ago for association with Henry Kissinger and for opposing the thought of Ronald Reagan. William F. Buckley, brilliant political writer though he might be, was only a journalist, after all. The Bush family, which had recently had a son elected president by the Supreme Court with one of its customary five-to-four votes for Republicanism, may have wondered if it would be worth disturbing the Court again to spare the party a little humiliation.
Whatever the case, what Trump saw when glancing at the arthritic Grand Old Party was the empty shell of a political machine, available for occupancy. Adding it to the world-famous assortment of properties and consumer goods bearing the Trump name—hotels, golf courses, gambling casinos, colleges, beefsteaks, and so forth—would not only give him some sorely needed political legitimacy but would also enhance his celebrity, always a serious consideration with Trump. He took it over.
For people who like their history adorned in high-flown nomenclature, this period might be called “the Trump Captivity,” and “captivity” describes the condition in which the Grand Old Party awoke late in the 2016 presidential campaign to discover it was wearing the Trump logo.
Equally surprising had been the discovery that Trump was running for president. This was odd because Trump had never seemed to be a political animal. No one thought of him as a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. Having so little political identity, he surprised serious politicians in 2015 by declaring himself a Republican candidate for president and starting to play one on television.
His stage was a televised set of “debates” designed to show off the party’s presidential talent. These gave Trump an immediate advantage, since he was the only performer already known to millions, having played host on a popular TV “reality” show in which he tested people for business acumen and fired those who didn’t measure up.
Political experts who stay on top of the cable TV bulletins and know who is who in the blogosphere now assure us that Trump has never been interested in politics. It is a killer job: phone ringing all night with bad news, constant wars in distant unpronounceable countries, incessant funeral speeches to comfort next-of-kin after mass slaughters of the innocent by people exercising the constitutional right to bear arms. It didn’t seem a natural career choice for Trump, whose real ambition in life seemed to be enhancement of his own fame, increasing his own celebrity status, becoming ever more famous for being famous. In street slang he would be “a publicity hound.”
He quickly learned that playing the political eccentric was a sure way to become famous in the media, and he played it to the hilt. With his insouciant devil-may-care style, calculated to make the hicks gape at his daring contempt for serious politics, he enchanted the media, which delighted in spreading tales of his descent into swinishness.
Mexicans were vilified as rapists, NATO allies as chiselers too cheap to pay for their own defense. John McCain, an American war hero of the Vietnam era, was a “loser.” Vladimir Putin with his brutish KGB training was a praiseworthy example of the statesmen Americans should admire. President Obama, however, was not to be trusted: Trump had it on good authority that he was not even an American, just an African outsider criminally exercising power from inside the White House. These bizarre imbecilities flowed from Trump to the grateful media with almost daily regularity, and on some days with servings of cruelly personal insults aimed at the overweight and the victims of crippling medical ailments.
To the extent that it had any political content at all, the Trump Captivity might be described as a flare-up of reactionary demagoguery. There was obvious racism in the effort to deny Obama’s citizenship and a hint of more in the slogan about making America “great again.” This could not have been easy to swallow for a party one of whose founders was Abraham Lincoln, yet it submits quietly to the more blatant racism still flourishing in Congress with the do-nothing politics of Senate leaders like Mitch McConnell and the reactionary House faction that rules by terrifying two inert parties.
A few prominent Republicans, angry about the party’s humiliation, publicly declared Trump was unfit to be president and said they would not vote for him. They were a lonely few, however, until recordings of Trump’s vulgar sexual comments about women he had known and coveted produced a revulsion against his nomination. It was not Trump’s politics that fired this extraordinary uprising of party regulars; it was the vulgar crudity of his language. He was so obviously not a gentleman.
Whatever the election results, the Republican Party has lost its credibility as a political force. When the shock subsides, a few people who still care will have to decide what the party of the future will be, if any. At present it seems to be drifting passively toward oblivion. The campaign has made it clear that the party needs more than an overhaul. It needs reinventing. It needs ideas.
Hours before we learned of Trump’s boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy,” the Republican nominee affirmed his false belief that the Central Park 5—five teenagers, four of them black and one Latino, convicted on charges of attacking and raping a 28-year-old white woman, all five since exonerated by DNA evidence—were guilty.* “They admitted they were guilty,” Trump said. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same."
The same Republican leaders who rushed to condemn Trump for his remarks on a hot mic were silent about his continued attacks on these men, which stretch back to the original event in 1989, when he placed an incendiary ad in New York City newspapers against the then-teenagers. “Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police!” said Trump. “[M]uggers and murderers … should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
Republicans didn’t say anything because Trump wasn’t attacking Republicans. The ground didn’t shift for the GOP nominee until he did. His “grab them by the pussy” comments don’t just threaten his own bid at the White House; they threaten the whole Republican political apparatus. They undermine party enthusiasm. They give millions of Republican-voting women a reason to stay home. And what happens if they do? Suddenly, the House and Senate are at risk. Suddenly, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are leaders of a minority party.
But of course the GOP could tolerate his place at the top of the ticket so long as he restricted his threats to groups outside the party. President Trump, after all, would nominate their judges, sign their tax cuts, and affirm their plans to gut the social safety net. Ryan, the House speaker, said as much in his endorsement. “For me, it’s a question of how to move ahead on the ideas that I—and my House colleagues—have invested so much in through the years,” he wrote in June. “It’s not just a choice of two people, but of two visions for America. And House Republicans are helping shape that Republican vision by offering a bold policy agenda, by offering a better way ahead. Donald Trump can help us make it a reality.” For him and many Republicans, Trump’s frank advocacy of racial repression is a small price to pay for their expansive reversal of liberal social policy. It’s hardly even a price.
In fact, we now have a list of all the things the Republican Party will tolerate solely for the sake of the White House and a continued congressional majority. It’s a long list.
The Republican Party will tolerate racist condemnation of Mexican immigrants and Latino Americans at large. It will tolerate the same racist condemnation of Muslims, even as both attacks feed an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust, and violence.
It will tolerate a policy platform that treats these groups—and Syrian refugees to the United States—as a dangerous fifth column. In Trump’s vision of America, Latino immigrants, when they aren’t “stealing jobs,” are the vector for crime and disorder, plunging towns and cities into lawlessness. It’s why Trump wants to root them out with a new “deportation force,” home by home, person by person. And it’s why he wants a wall on the Mexican border—a concrete prophylactic to keep those dark-skinned migrants from reaching our borders.
It will tolerate the same racist policies for Muslim Americans. In Trump’s world, Muslims are a “Trojan horse,” a foreign intrusion that threatens American security. It’s why he wants to ban their entry to the country, why he wants new surveillance of Muslim communities, why he wants to reject refugees, and why he’s accused Muslim Americans of condoning terrorist violence. “They know what’s going on,” Trump said after a shooter killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando. “They know that he was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what? They didn’t turn them in. And you know what? We had death, and destruction.”
The Republican Party and its leaders—Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and hundreds of federal and state office-holders—will tolerate attacks on veterans and prisoners of war. It will tolerate blatant racism toward a federal judge and a Gold Star family, whose son died fighting for this country. It will tolerate Trump’s call for war crimes (“take their oil”), his zeal for torture, and his support for renewed nuclear proliferation.
It will tolerate his rhetoric toward black Americans, treating them as helpless brutes leading disordered, degenerate lives. It will even tolerate his drive to make the Republican Party a more comfortable home for white nationalists, a vehicle for ethno-nationalism and herrenvolk democracy. Ryan, praised for his principle and integrity, said nothing when Trump hired Steve Bannon to coordinate his campaign, despite Bannon’s ties to white nationalists through his website, Breitbart. He said nothing when Trump promised to deport American citizens whose parents came to the country illegally, a violation of the 14th Amendment. And even when Ryan condemned Trump—as in the case of Trump’s attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel and the Khan family—he still backed him for president of the United States.
For more than a year, Trump has preached state repression of nonwhites. And for more than a year, Republican leaders have tip-toed around him, even praised him. They’ve defended him, rallied behind him, and touted him as the right man to lead the country. “Donald Trump is committed to cut taxes, curb spending, and get our national debt under control,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in his video endorsement of Trump at the Republican National Convention in July. “Unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump takes seriously the threats from Islamic radicals and is committed to rebuilding our military.” Rubio joined the recent chorus against Trump, even as he continues to back the real estate mogul’s bid for the White House.
There’s a logic here, and it’s not hard to see. When it comes to voting, it doesn’t matter to Republicans that Trump is anathema to nonwhites and religious minorities. Neither black Americans nor Latinos nor Muslim Americans are going to vote for the GOP in significant numbers, and the party as a result is unresponsive to those communities, if not openly contemptuous of their concerns. Few Republicans, for example, want to restore the Voting Rights Act, and even fewer have challenged the drive to restrict and disenfranchise voters. We can see this dynamic in real time.
That’s why they distance and condemn. That’s why they place a wall between themselves and their nominee, hoping no one notices their endorsements and continued support. Anything to protect their congressional majorities from anger and disenchantment. “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests,” Ryan said in a statement. “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever," said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. “As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.