Eighty years after the first Americans went to war against Nazi-backed fascists, a small group of historians trying to preserve the volunteers’ memory has found their services unexpectedly in demand.
“Why are people puzzled over the meaning of that word, fascism?” asked Peter Carroll, a historian of the Spanish civil war at Stanford University. “Do I think Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler? No. But there are patterns of contempt for opposition by political leaders that are as unacceptable and intolerable as National Socialism.”
For decades, Carroll has worked with a nonprofit, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (Alba), which hosted reunions for the volunteers. As the survivors aged, the nonprofit turned to awarding human rights work, and more recently started a workshop for high school teachers on how to teach history in an age when politics feels inescapable.
Tracy Blake, an Ohio high school teacher who has taken part in the workshop, said students have grown fascinated, and sometimes frightened, by the news. “They see the connections anytime we’re talking about oppression,” he said. “They ask questions about whether or not we could go down this or that road.”
Some 40,000 volunteers, men and women from around the world, fought alongside the forces of the democratically elected Spanish government against the fascist rebels commanded by Gen Francisco Franco during the 1936-39 civil war.
The International Brigades included around 2,800 Americans, but US textbooks often relegate them to a footnote.
The average US volunteer came of age in the Great Depression, from a Jewish or immigrant family in New York, and their politics were progressive to the point of socialism, or well past it. They defied Franklin Roosevelt’s ban on fighting for Spain, which was motivated by fear of rising communism and divided public opinion.
“The United States didn’t officially embrace anti-fascism until after Pearl Harbor,” said Sebastiaan Faber, a historian at Oberlin College. “The role that the volunteers played complicates any conventional, smooth story.”
With Britain and France, Roosevelt refused to sell Spain weapons, even as American corporations such as Texaco enthusiastically did business with Franco. Celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh – whose America First Committee became a Trump campaign slogan – showered praise on the Nazi regime as war broke out in 1936.
The war did not go well for the Lincolns, who were used as shock troops. Their allies – a coalition of Republicans, communists and anarchists – fell to violent power struggles. The only power to support Spain was the Soviet Union, itself turning inward as Josef Stalin directed the murder and imprisonment of millions of people.
Marina Garde, Alba’s executive director, said the volunteers “could see what was happening. It was the beginning of something else that had to be stopped.”
“We kind of forget now, so long as we have what we need,” she added. “It’s important not to forget.”
Back home, the survivors were hounded by anti-communist lawmakers. When the Subversive Activities Control Board called up Lincolns in the 1950s, its members heard brutal testimony, including from a black volunteer who told them: “Being a negro, and all of the stuff that I have had to take in this country, I had a pretty good idea of what fascism was.”
The historians have taken this testimony, along with propaganda posters, letters and other documents to high schools around the US, to help teachers confront the resurgence of “alternative facts” and extreme politics in American life.
“How can we speak responsibly about fascism today,” Faber said, “while resisting the temptation to assume that we’re smarter now than people were 50 years ago?”
Faber and Carroll were wary about direct analogies to the 30s, but they argued that the Lincolns, with so little black and white in their stories, have critical lessons for Americans today.
“They stood up time and time again, in some ways too much, that they could be tarred and feathered and dismissed,” Carroll said. “But they all felt like you had to do something, you couldn’t sit by and say it’s not my business.”
“History is not about strangers, history is about us,” he added. It’s what we do in 2017.”
Some progressive activists have explicitly taken up the legacy of the Lincolns, including at least some of their children. Jo-Ann Triantafyllos, the 66-year-old daughter of a volunteer, worked for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and joined recent anti-Trump protests. She said she was heartened to see young people in the streets, and that her father would have joined them.
The last known American volunteer, Delm Berg, also would have joined, according to his son, Tom. Berg’s father died last year aged 100, a lifelong communist who fought in the second world war and worked for progressive causes well into his 90s.
“If his health had stayed up he’d be doing it to 150. He would be fighting the travel ban tooth and nail, calling people, passing out fliers,” his son said. “I’m glad he’s not living through this.”
A handful of leftwing activists have followed the Lincolns’ example to extremes, joining Syria’s civil war to defend Rojava, where anarchists have carved out a territory partly in the model of Catalonia in the 1930s.
“I look at the Spanish civil war and see the hope but also the tragedy, that we aren’t destined to win. We can lose,” said Josh Dukes, a 34-year-old activist in a US-based group that supports Rojava. “We kind of have to do it ourselves.”
On Saturday night, the UFC will offer what is possibly their best card in five months with two title fights including one with rising female star Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It’s a lineup so good that last summer’s lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez isn’t even on the main card.
But much of the UFC news this weekend is less about the bouts at Dallas’s American Airlines Center and more about someone who hasn’t fought in more than five months. And there is nothing to say this predicament is going to end soon. Even as the UFC pushes on selling Stipe Miocic v Junior Dos Santos as a headliner on Saturday the headlines continue to be about Conor McGregor and a fight that might never happen.
On Thursday, UFC president Dana White told radio host Jim Rome that he is setting a Sunday deadline for finishing negotiations with McGregor on a possible Mayweather fight before looking to work with Mayweather’s representatives next week. His proclamation was a bigger deal than anything that happened in the pre-fight discourse in Dallas, save for Friday’s announcement that Jon Jones is going to meet Daniel Cormier in July. Whatever McGregor does stands as the biggest thing going on with White’s UFC.
Perhaps a year ago it wasn’t this way. A year ago, McGregor was just coming off his non-title loss to Nate Diaz, dulling his soaring star. There was also talk Ronda Rousey might return that summer after her stunning loss to Holly Holm and in many ways Rousey was always the UFC’s most-compelling figure. But now, 12 months later, the UFC has been sold to corporate owners and White says he is certain Rousey’s through after Amanda Nunes took her apart in UFC 207. This leaves McGregor as the organization’s one great draw.
He has gotten bigger in his planned half-year hiatus and paternity leave. He looms larger than ever over the UFC, technically holding both the UFC’s lightweight and featherweight titles though he’s since had to return the featherweight belt after beating Alvarez for the lightweight title in November. No fighter might better understand their leverage better and he is well aware that his only shot at a $75m-$100m payday is to step into a boxing ring with Mayweather. Until he does that, the talk around the UFC will be McGregor even if McGregor continues to sit out.
Saturday night should be a celebration of how deep the UFC remains. The Miocic-Dos Santos rematch is a pairing of two explosive hitters. Jedrzejczyk is a furious fighter who has overwhelmed her last several opponents. Alvarez remains a skilled fighter who just wasn’t a match for McGregor – as few are.
But many of the UFC headlines at the end of this week are about White’s deadline and his confidence that he can pull together a McGregor-Mayweather fight. “I will do the Mayweather-McGregor fight because I think he deserves it,” White told CNN this week. On a weekend when all the stories should be about a loaded card, they are about a proposed fight that White says will make “zero cents” for the UFC.
There isn’t much he can do about this unless another great star comes along. Jones, the organization’s once-great champion, is finally coming back from the year-long doping suspension that ruined UFC 200. His battles with Cormier are always good entertainment. But after all of Jones’s problems in recent years there is no certainty he will be the fighter he was once. Cris Cyborg has been cleared of a possible doping violation and holds promise of being as exciting as Rousey had been. But will any of them have the flair of McGregor and Rousey? Can they bring the same mainstream appeal? Can anyone?
For now, McGregor waits. He can afford to do this after taking four fights in 11 months and carrying the UFC to its huge sale before his sabbatical. Whatever he decides to do will have a huge impact on the rest of the organization. Every top male fighter within realistic distance of his weight class is longing for a shot at him, knowing the only real money is in a McGregor fight. Diaz, for instance, remains on the sidelines since his 20 August rematch loss to McGregor, scoffing at White’s offers of fighters like Alvarez.
“Call me with some real shit,” Diaz recently told Ariel Helwani’s The MMA Hour.
For now, Diaz must stand in line with everyone else lusting for their McGregor chance as McGregor chases Mayweather money.
Meanwhile the UFC will put on a great show Saturday night.
Donald Trump gave career advice to university graduates on Saturday and offered himself as a blueprint, lavishing praise on “outsiders” who know they are right and denouncing “pathetic” critics.
Trump left the controversies besieging him in Washington behind to fly to Lynchburg, Virginia, and present himself as a man of God to a supportive crowd at Liberty University, the biggest Christian college in America.
His half-hour commencement address did not touch on his decision to fire James Comey, the director of the FBI, but was nevertheless shot through with references to his own life philosophy.
“The fact is, no one has achieved anything significant without a chorus of critics standing on the sidelines explaining why it can’t be done,” said Trump, who wore a suit instead of the academic gown customary on such occasions. “Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic because they’re people that can’t get the job done. But the future belongs to the dreamers, not to the critics. The future belongs to the people who follow their heart no matter what the critics say because they truly believe in their vision.”
Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty University, said there were more than 50,000 people in the crowd, the biggest ever turnout for a commencement address at the college. Trump was only the second sitting president to speak there, following George HW Bush in 1990. Falwell presented him with an honorary doctorate of laws.
Trump, who reportedly does not read books, told the graduates: “Remember this: nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy. Following your convictions means you must be willing to face criticism from those who lack the same courage to do what is right. And they know what is right but they don’t have courage or the guts or the stamina to take it and to do it. It’s called the road less travelled.”
The billionaire businessman, TV celebrity and novice politician continued: “In my short time in Washington, I’ve seen first hand how the system is broken. A small group of failed voices, who think they know everything and understand everyone, wanted to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think. But you aren’t going to let other people tell you what you believe, especially when you know you’re right.”
There was applause from the audience, some of whom wore red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. The president added: “We don’t need a lecture from Washington on how to lead our lives. I’m standing here looking at the next generation of American leaders. There may very well be a president or two in our midst. Anybody think they’re going to be president? Raise your hand.”
He urged the graduates to never quit or give up. Later he again made reference to his own experience: “Be totally unafraid to challenge entrenched interests and failed power structures. Does that sound familiar, by the way?”
Indeed, some of the remarks gave an insight into his own willingness to dig in against opposition, as evidenced during the turmoil of the past week. “Treat the word impossible as nothing more than motivation. Relish the opportunity to be an outsider. Embrace that label: being an outsider is fine. Embrace the label because it’s outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference.
“The more that a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you should be that you must keep pushing ahead, you must keep pushing forward.”
There were other familiar Trump touchstones: how evangelical Christians voted for him in the election, how the “beautiful stadium” at Liberty was “packed”, digressions about upcoming sports fixtures.
Falwell was one of Trump’s earliest and most outspoken supporters, helping him win 80% of the white evangelical vote despite his colourful New York past including three marriages. A recent Pew Research Center survey marking Trump’s first 100 days in office, a milestone he hit on 29 April, found three-quarters of white evangelicals approved of his performance as president while just 39% of the general public shared this view.
However, critics of Trump questioned why a man who was caught boasting about groping women – on an Access Hollywood tape that came to light during last year’s election campaign – was being embraced by devout Christians.
Trump was careful to speak of the country’s religious heritage dating back to the pilgrim fathers. “In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God,” he said.
“As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practising your faith or preaching what’s in your heart. We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God and follow his teachings.”
It was not Trump’s first speech at Liberty University. In January 2016 he made a speech there promising: “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.” But he inadvertently drew laughs in January 2016 when he referred to one of the Bible’s books as “Two Corinthians” instead of the more common “Second Corinthians”.
Introducing him this time, Falwell told the audience: “President Trump ventured into politics at a time when our nation has never been more polarised. He deserves our respect and admiration for enduring relentless and often dishonest attacks from the media, the establishment on the left and the right and from academia.”
Trump was making his first extended public appearance since he dismissed Comey, whom he branded a “showboat” and “grandstander”. The FBI director was investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, including possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. Democrats condemned the move as “Nixonian” and demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor as a guarantee of independence.
Four candidates to succeed Comey were due for the first interviews with attorney general Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, at Department of Justice headquarters on Saturday.
First to arrive was Alice Fisher, a high-ranking DoJ official in the George W Bush administration, who left after about 90 minutes. Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, Michael J Garcia, an associate judge on New York’s highest court, and Republican John Cornyn of Texas, a former state attorney general, were expected in the afternoon.
Trump said on Saturday that “we can make a fast decision” on the appointment, potentially before he leaves for Saudi Arabia on Thursday. “Even that is possible,” he told reporters. “I think the process is going to go quickly. Almost all of them are very well known. They’ve been vetted over their lifetime, essentially. But very well known, highly respected, really talented people. And that’s what we want for the FBI.”
Meanwhile, in an interview on Fox News’s Justice with Judge Jeanine, Trump was asked about reports that he had asked Comey whether he had his loyalty.
The president said: “No. No, I didn’t. But I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask. I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States, is important. You know, I mean it depends on how you define loyalty, number one. Number two, I don’t know how that got there, because I didn’t ask that question.”
Trump lashed out at Comey on Friday, tweeting that the former FBI director “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
The ambiguous reference raised the spectre of a possible obstruction of justice and drew comparisons to the secretly taped conversations and phone calls that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. The president refused to comment on the tweet in his Fox News interview. “I won’t talk about that. All I want is for Comey to be honest and I hope he will be and I’m sure he will be, I hope.”
Comey declined a request to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Jim Sciutto, chief national security correspondent of CNN, tweeted: “Source w/firsthand knowledge tells me Comey turned down Senate invite to testify b/c ‘wants to lay low for a while & take some time off’.”
On Wednesday, some time after dawn, the security gates at the US disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, will be thrown open and a slight 5ft 2in woman will walk out into the open air and freedom.
For Chelsea Manning, release from military incarceration will mark a colossal turning point. Having been arrested seven years ago when she was an unknown, lowly and outwardly male soldier, she will emerge into an entirely new life as a civilian, a celebrity, and an openly transgender woman.
The day will be momentous in ways that go far beyond its huge personal ramifications for its subject. Manning’s discharge, a parting gift of President Obama as one of his final acts in office, will bring to an end one of the more shameful chapters in US military history.
It began with the humiliating breach that saw vast quantities of state secrets downloaded by a relatively junior army private from supposedly secure intelligence databases on to a Lady Gaga CD. It passed through the harsh treatment of the perpetrator in the military brig in Quantico, Virginia, denounced by the UN as a form of torture. And it was capped by the imposition of the longest prison sentence ever recorded in the US for an official leak: 35 years in military prison.
Now Manning, her punishment foreshortened, has the chance to put all that behind her. “I’m looking forward to breathing the warm spring air again,” she told the Guardian from her prison cell as she prepared for release.
“I want that indescribable feeling of connection with people and nature again, without razor wire or a visitation booth. I want to be able to hug my family and friends again. And swimming – I want to go swimming!”
Manning’s release will be greeted with rejoicing by public figures who have spoken out in her support over the years, from Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers to Michael Stipe of REM and the designer Vivienne Westwood, among many others. But no one carries as much weight as an empathizer of Manning’s spell in the whistleblowing wilderness than Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who followed her into the abyss and who has paid a similarly heavy price in the form not of imprisonment but of exile.
Snowden, speaking from asylum in Russia, told the Guardian that in his opinion the timing of the soldier’s release was apt, given the ominous noises coming out of the White House in the week of the firing of the FBI director James Comey. “With a president who offers democracy nothing but contempt and a Congress that represents party over public, whistleblowers have never been more important,” he said.
Snowden lamented what he called the “draconian sentences” handed down to Manning and others like her, that “weaken democracy’s safeguard of last resort, the free press, by cutting off its most reliable source of critical truths”. He praised her as a “citizen who, knowing the costs, left behind the safety of silence to speak a truth that saved lives”.
Despite the hardship Manning has endured over the past seven years, Snowden said he draws solace from the worldwide campaign for her freedom that will culminate with her release this week. In a comment that might be said to contain more than a grain of wistfulness, given his own state of limbo, he said: “I’m grateful that Chelsea will finally have a chance to enjoy the freedoms she gave so much to defend. Courage to her – and volume to her voice.”
Manning has indicated that she intends to live in Maryland after her release, a move that will bring her story full circle. It was here in early 2010, at a branch of the Barnes & Noble in suburban Maryland, barely 20 miles away from the Pentagon, that she used the bookstore’s open public wifi network to upload to WikiLeaks what she later described at her trial as some of the “more significant documents of our time”.
Manning was on leave from duty in Iraq at the time and staying with her aunt in Potomac. She had brought with her from the US forward operating base Hammer outside Baghdad a camera memory stick carrying hundreds of thousands of secret documents that she had downloaded from intelligence databases initially onto that infamous Lady Gaga CD.
As Manning had been poring through those classified databases in her work as an army intelligence analyst, she had grown increasingly disturbed by what she was reading, material that she believed pierced through the fog of war and revealed “the true nature of -21st-century asymmetric warfare”. Other documents she transmitted to WikiLeaks exposed civilian casualties from US attacks as well as evidence of corruption, censorship and other nefarious behavior on the part of Iraqi government forces and other US allies.
David Coombs, the lawyer who represented Manning at trial, spent three intense years preparing her defense and got to know her very well. He said that he came to appreciate the motives that drove her to commit a massive leak of classified information.
“I can understand how Chelsea Manning was the person who did this,” Coombs said. “She is caring, intelligent, she sees that we don’t always do the right thing and that we could be better – and that if people are informed, maybe they would make better decisions.”
He added: “This was not someone trying to harm America or the war effort, but a person who was hoping that this would spark a debate.”
By the time Manning had completed the dump of data to WikiLeaks, she had effectively put into the public domain a vast mountain of previously secret digital information. The trove included war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 250,000 US embassy cables from around the world, and official files on 765 Guantánamo detainees.
The single element that probably had most impact was footage of an aerial attack by a US Apache helicopter in Baghdad in which two Reuters staffers and other civilians were killed. WikiLeaks published the video in April 2010 under the title ‘Collateral Murder’, causing an international outcry.
When a collective of international news organizations led by the Guardian began publishing stories on the back of Manning’s leaks, the global reaction was immediate, and highly divided. There were those, like the current deputy National Security Advisor to President Trump, KT McFarland, who called for the source of the leaks to be executed.
Then there were those like Hillary Clinton who were fork-tongued in their response. The then US secretary of state, embarrassed by the unveiling of hundreds of thousands of intimate diplomatic cables, insisted publicly that the leak “puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries”. Privately, though, she spent hours on the phone with foreign diplomats reassuring them that no one was in peril.
Seven years later, Manning’s leaks continue to evoke sharply differing opinions from informed observers. Micah Zenko, an expert on US national security policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, is skeptical of their long-term significance. They provided fascinating detail and color, he said, “but I do not think they had a lasting, strategic impact, except on officials and diplomats themselves who now assume everything can leak.”
David Hearst, chief editor of the London-based news and opinion site Middle East Eye, is convinced that Manning’s leaks have had a far more substantial legacy. He points to embassy cables whose revelations helped to spark the Arab Spring by exposing for instance the nepotism of the Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the suppression of popular movements in Bahrain.
“WikiLeaks undermined key US allies in the MiddleEast by opening a window on how the US really sees and reported on its closest middle east allies and how they see each other, in turn undermining them further in the eyes of their people,” Hearst said. “The disclosures confirmed the existence of US war crimes in Arab eyes, such as the Apache helicopter tape, and provided Arab youth with a unifying message that acted as an accelerator for the Arab spring uprising.”
A third attitude prevalent among conservatives and parts of the military is that the leak, irrespective of its content, was an act of treachery that Obama was wrong to have rewarded with this week’s release. “It was a breach of the fundamental trust between fighting men and women on which the military depends,” said David French, a former major in the US army who now writes for the National Review. “Obama doesn’t understand that – to grant early release breaks the faith.”
Amid such diversity of views, one thing is certain: the US government responded to Manning’s act with the severity of a category five hurricane. Coombs recalls the feeling of having virtually the entire US national security apparatus bear down on them, with the army, Pentagon, Department of State and the intelligence services all piling in to prosecute the soldier. “They were pushing every legal extreme in order to obtain an outcome that would give them the greatest chance at a lengthy sentence.”
Coombs and his client fought back as best they could. In the most memorable moment of the trial at Fort Meade in Maryland, the lawyer taped out on the floor of the court the precise measurements of the isolation cell in Quantico in which Manning had been penned for months, and placed inside the outline her actual prison mattress to illustrate the draconian conditions of her confinement. “We couldn’t bring the courtroom to Quantico, so laying it out inside the court was the next best thing,” Coombs said.
Coombs and Manning succeeded in rebuffing the most serious charge, aiding the enemy, which was an important victory. But they couldn’t prevent the final outcome of the trial landing like a body blow. “The sentence was deflating,” Coombs said.
Jesselyn Radack, a human rights lawyer who defends whistleblowers, said the 35-year sentence was wholly out of kilter with previous cases. “The sentence was radically harsher than the treatment of any of the other whistleblowers that have been prosecuted in recent times,” she said.
The prison term left Manning facing decades in captivity, a grim prospect starkly compounded by the fact that she would be in a male-only institution even though since childhood she had privately identified as a woman. The day after the sentencing, Coombs went on NBC’s Today show and announced that Manning was a transgender woman and was determined to transition, and within hours of that statement the US military gave its considered reply: no way.
“Chelsea’s captors took a blatantly anti-constitutional anti-trans position,” said Chase Strangio, the ACLU lawyer who has represented Manning in her battles over gender transition while inside military lock-up. “Even in 2013 it was pretty clear that they couldn’t just announce they were going to withhold all care.”
Not for the first time, the US government underestimated the doggedness of Chelsea Manning and her supporters. Over the past four years, with the help of the ACLU, she has managed to push the military into the 21st century.
She won the right to hormone treatment, a first for a military prisoner. Last year she broke further ground when she was told that she could have gender reassignment surgery while in Fort Leavenworth.
But she also had to endure the daily struggle of being in an all-male environment in which she was obliged to undergo a forced haircut every two weeks to keep her within male military grooming standards. At times the denial of treatment sapped at her confidence and threatened even her survival.
“There was a hopelessness. She was never going to get the treatment she needs,” Strangio said. “Chelsea was punished not once but twice with solitary confinement for trying to take her own life for reasons directly related to the denial of her care.”
If gender transition has been Manning’s overwhelming priority in her years of captivity, transition in more ways than one will likely remain a dominant theme when she walks out of those Fort Leavenworth gates. Her battle to live as a woman will continue, coupled with the arguably even greater transition of the return to civilian life.
“Chelsea has been through years of institutional life of one sort or another, with a lot of trauma. Nothing is going to be easy,” Strangio said.
Manning’s aunt Debbie, with whom she was staying in Maryland when she uploaded the files to WikiLeaks, said that now was Chelsea’s chance to put her difficult childhood and troubles with the military behind her and finally achieve her dream of going to college. “She’s extraordinarily gifted intellectually and will make a real contribution to society.”
Debbie, who has rarely spoken in public, also had a stern word for military chiefs. She told the Guardian: “I hope that these past few years have caused the army to think seriously about its treatment of Chelsea before and after she was deployed and make sure that other emotionally challenged soldiers are given proper treatment and are not sent into global hot spots when they are in serious need of psychological counselling.”
On the up side, the minute Manning steps out into the blazing sunlight of freedom she will find herself surrounded by a family of like-minded people who will understand her journey and her challenges. As Strangio put it: “She’s going to get the benefits of a beautiful and vibrant community, people who she can hug and touch and talk to, there’s going to be a huge amount of support.”
“Touch is so important,” Chelsea Manning agreed when she talked to the Guardian, after seven long years having been deprived of it. Not to forget swimming. There will be plenty of time for swimming.
It’s been a terrible week for American voting rights. On Thursday, Donald Trump announced that Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach will work with the vice-president, Mike Pence, to lead a commission on voter fraud and suppression. Let’s be clear about what this is: a white power grab as naked and frightening as last summer’s nude statues of Trump himself.
Before the election, Trump engaged in race-baiting when he called for poll monitors and told his supporters to “take a look at Philadelphia, what’s been going on, take a look at Chicago, take a look at St Louis”. It’s no coincidence that these are three cities with large African American populations.
After the election, Trump said 3-5 million people voted “illegally” (they didn’t – that’s a lie). This, too, was race baiting. As was the egregious comment during his campaign in which he called Mexicans “rapists”. Trump has repeatedly tried to scare white people into fearing “the other”. This voting commission continues that effort by suggesting black and brown folk are voting improperly – and it will work.
It will lend legitimacy to the idea that voter fraud is a real problem, even though there were only four documented cases of attempted voter fraud in the US in 2016, about one for every 80 million people. By equivocating voting fraud and voter suppression, this commission will be a sinister attempt at making both seem like similar problems. They are not.
American state governments are racing to make voting more difficult for tens of millions of people – and the federal government is helping them. Voter suppression is as rampant as voter fraud is statistically nonexistent. Republicans’ efforts to undermine our democracy puts Russia to shame.
Trump asking Kobach to help him restore integrity in voting is like Hitler asking Goebbels to help put out the Reichstag fire. Kobach has whipped up hysteria about nonexistent voter fraud in Kansas and, in making people prove they are citizens in order to be able to vote, has effectively disenfranchised many legal voters.
I’ve long thought that as the white majority prepares for when it will become a minority, around 2043, it will aggressively assert its power in any way it can. The policies of Trump, who won a minority percentage of the popular vote, offer a glimpse into the ways white America will try to rule as a racial minority – and naked power grabs at the ballot box are a key part of that story.
Voting restrictions helped Trump win states that increased barriers to voting such as North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin – which flipped from supporting Democrats to supporting Trump. He knows that to hold on to his power, he needs to bolster those restrictions.
Republicans have bragged about suppressing early voting for African Americans in North Carolina. The Trump administration has dropped the Department of Justice’s lawsuit that argued Texas’s voter ID law discriminated against black and Latino voters.
And the Nation reported on Tuesday that in Wisconsin, new voting restrictions kept some 200,000 people from voting. Trump won there by less than 23,000 votes. This restriction had a “disproportionate impact on African American and Democratic-leaning voters”. But efforts to undermine voting rights don’t end there. Jeff Sessions announced that he is undoing Obama’s criminal justice reform. This will increase the number of incarcerated black Americans – and lead to yet more African Americans losing their right to vote.
Also, because of the constant swirling storm of firings and scandal at the White House, another important story about voting has been lost: after getting a budget unworthy of carrying out the US Census Bureau’s important mission, its director, John H Johnson, resigned.
The census is extremely important in fairly creating (or gerrymandering) congressional districts every 10 years, which will happen next in 2020. The census also helps us understand who we are in terms of race, class and sexual orientation. As my colleague Mona Chalabi noted: “The numbers from the Census Bureau underpin just about everything we know about the economy, education, health and justice in America.”
America has always been an unequal society, and often a dysfunctional one too. But clearly, under the Trump administration, it has gotten increasingly unequal and dysfunctional. And while I think of Trump’s consolidation of power this week as a white power grab from black and brown voters, the irony is that the dream of free and fair elections is slowly eroding for white people too.
With the power of the federal government, the help of state election executives like Kobach around the country, a resigned census director, and an attorney general who will no longer sue states who are suppressing votes, Trump is ending elections as we’ve known them.
Energy Transfer Partners’ not yet operational Dakota Access pipeline leaked 84 gallons – or about a bathtub-full – of shale oil at a pump station in Spink County, South Dakota, on 4 April. The station stands roughly 100 miles south-east of the site of indigenous protest encampments along the Missouri river, where for months in 2016 the Standing Rock Sioux’s stand against Dakota Access captivated the world.
Despite enduring controversy over the Dakota Access pipeline, the South Dakota department of environment and natural resources did not issue a press release about the mishap because the department deals with pipeline leaks all the time. The department only issues a press release when a detected leak threatens drinking water, fisheries or public health. It logged the Dakota Access incident in its database, but the spill remained unknown to the public for over a month until local reporter Shannon Marvel broke the story for Aberdeen, South Dakota’s American News on Wednesday.
The relatively minor leak demonstrates the risk of technological and human failure inherent in crude oil pipelines. Just a few months earlier, on 5 December 2016, a North Dakota landowner discovered a massive, undetected 176,000-gallon oil leak polluting a creek 150 miles north of Standing Rock.
A month after that, a pipeline farther north in the Western Canadian province of Saskatchewan leaked over 52,000 gallons of crude on the territory of the Ocean Man First Nation. As indigenous peoples, ranchers and environmentalists have repeatedly stated, the question is when and where pipelines will leak – not if.
As Donald Trump and the oil industry gear up to push forward Keystone XL and other pipelines across the US, we can expect talking heads to take to the press and cable networks to tell us that pipelines are safer than trains for the transport of crude, that regulations have stolen jobs in the heartland and that energy independence from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is paramount to our national economic and security interests.
From corporate offices in Houston and Dallas and network headquarters in midtown Manhattan, these snake oil salesmen will tell us not to worry – the benefits of pipelines far outweigh the costs. Drill, baby, drill, and America will be great again.
To them, the benefits of pipelines look pretty sweet. Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren – who has a reported net worth of $4.4bn – lives in a 23,000-square-foot home on 10 acres in Dallas’s elite Preston Hollow neighborhood, where houses sell for tens of millions of dollars and where Warren’s six-bedroom, 13-bath home features a four-lane bowling alley, a chip-and-putt green, a pole-vault pit and a 200-seat private theater. When his Dallas mansion isn’t cutting it, Warren escapes to an 11,000-acre ranch north-west of Austin, where giraffes, peccaries and Indian bison roam the property. America is awfully great if you’re Kelcy Warren.
But who is forced to live with the costs of pipelines and the lavish wealth they build?
Not the predominantly white residents of the city of Bismarck, North Dakota – the pipeline was rerouted from upriver of their settlement out of concern that it threatened the city’s water supply.
No, instead the Dakota Access pipeline – not yet operational but already leaky – crosses under the Missouri river just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation. There it threatens the water supply of a community where 41% of citizens live in poverty. In Standing Rock, adequate homes, schools and hospitals are few and far between, but a brand-new $3.8bn pipe, which costs $1bn more than the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs budget, is now in the ground. At any moment, a leak might contaminate the water supply of Standing Rock and the 17 million people downstream who rely on the Missouri river.
What conservatives and centrists and even some liberals really mean when they say that we need pipelines in order to achieve “energy independence” is that in the dogged pursuit of the last drops of the planet’s oil wealth, some people are expendable.
In the short term, the expendables are the indigenous communities, ranchers and workers forced to live under the constant threat of petroleum poisoning. In the long-term, the expendables include all future generations condemned to a planet cooked by greenhouse gas.
Rerouting pipelines might protect a few expendables in the short term, but it cannot save our planet and its peoples in the long run. To protect the planet and future generations from a world superheated by fossil fuel, we must stand with indigenous peoples, ranchers and environmentalists against pipelines that lock-in even more emissions into the global economy.
A few dozen gallons of oil spewing from a pump in South Dakota doesn’t just prove that the water protectors have been right all along. The pool of tar it left behind is also a warning of what’s to come if more black snakes slither into the ground.
We need a just transition now more than ever. Not just for our leaky pipelines, but for our failing moral infrastructure, which has unequivocally defined indigenous peoples, the poor and our children as collateral so that a few men can frolic in palaces, safari with giraffes on their own properties and become unfathomably wealthy.
As the Trump administration attempts to ham-fist the Keystone XL pipeline down the throats of indigenous peoples, ranchers and the mother earth we all share, we must stand and say no. A better world is possible and indeed deeply necessary right now. Let’s fight for it.
The scandals have come so thick and fast that they have almost begun to cancel each other out – each new one obliterates the memory of the last. Like everyone else, most of the right is now debating the James Comey firing. Some agree with progressives that it stinks to high heaven, others will say and do anything to defend Trump, and others still see it as an opportunity to direct even more domestic surveillance and harassment at Muslims.
Few are seeing it as many liberals do: the last straw for this administration.
Publication: The American Conservative
Author: Rod Dreher, old friend of this column and the subject of an interesting New Yorker profile in recent weeks.
Why you should read it: Dreher’s short, sharp post shows that the bizarre circumstances surrounding Trump’s firing of Comey have perplexed people across the political spectrum.
Excerpt: “Either Trump is a colossal idiot, or he is hiding something, and is a colossal idiot about trying to cover it up. Either way, I don’t see how anybody can take what Trump has done here at face value.”
Publication: Grabien News
Author: Staff writer
Why you should read it: This is a quickfire listicle from a clickbait news site that doesn’t even seem to have a coherent political position. What makes it important to us is that Drudge linked to it and tweeted it, and that tweet was retweeted by Trump to his almost 30 million followers. This sequence of events reminds us of a number of things: the hyperreality of Trump’s social media presidency, the way his worldview is formed by sympathetic conservative media, and the way he grabs on to anything he can in the interests of self-justification.
Excerpt: “Even before the 2016 campaign, the FBI endured a number of humiliations under Comey’s tenure. Most damning were revelations that the FBI was generally aware of almost every terrorist who successfully struck America over the last eight years.”
Publication: Washington Post
Author: Hugh Hewitt is a conservative talkshow host, an author and a lawyer who did some time serving the Reagan administration, and has a professorship at Chapman University. He works his schtick as the voice of erudition in conservative media, but sometimes this just amounts to a higher standard of sophistry.
Why you should read it: Hewitt’s column is an attempt to wave away the Comey firing, which others are interpreting as brazenly corrupt. This has nothing to do with Russia, he insists – it’s all about Comey’s own record, which undermined confidence in the FBI. It’s a reminder that unlike the Watergate situation, in which, eventually, the whole of the media was gunning for Nixon, we now live in an era when powerful individuals and entire outlets will be on hand to hose down Trump’s proliferating scandals and energise his supporters. Apart from anything else, this will make it much tougher for Republican legislators to move against the president.
Excerpt: “Apparently, the new deputy attorney general, Rod J Rosenstein, shared exactly that view and expressed it succinctly in his three-page memo to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Confidence in the FBI would not come back until a new director was in place, and that, of course, requires that Comey be fired. Not a decision to be taken lightly, Rosenstein argued, but one he recommended that Sessions make. Sessions reviewed the recommendation, concurred and forwarded a joint recommendation to the president, who agreed.
Anyone who thinks this is connected to a cover-up of ‘Russian collusion’ has to believe that both Rosenstein and Sessions would participate in such a corrupt scheme. I don’t. It is, in fact, absurd to think that. Reread the Rosenstein memo – a few times. There’s the story. Comey was wrong in July, wrong in subsequent statements, wrong as recently as last week and refused to admit error. The story is a straight-line one, and it’s about Rosenstein.”
Publication: Los Angeles Times
Author: Jonah Goldberg is a frontbencher at National Review and an indefatigable conservative talking head. With the publication of his book Liberal Fascism, he cemented his position as the nation’s leading purveyor of false equivalencies and pretzel-shaped historical arguments.
Why you should read it: Trump’s trashing of democratic norms is – get this – actually liberals’ fault, if you really think about it. When Trump sees a crude Stephen Colbert monologue, or hears a judge editorializing about his policies, it emboldens him to, say, fire the director of the FBI who is investigating his campaign. This is the way “movement” conservatives will avoid examining their own role in the rise of Trump: by making convoluted arguments that pin his outrages on the left.
Excerpt: “Reasonable people can disagree with the policy merits of the ban, legally, morally, politically and strategically. But what I find troubling is the way various judges have taken to acting like pundits weighing in on Trump’s campaign rhetoric. For instance, Hawaii judge Derrick Watson, of the ninth circuit, responded to the idea that Trump’s past utterances are irrelevant with this preening statement: ‘The Court will not crawl into a corner, pull the shutters closed, and pretend it has not seen what it has.’
Historically, paying such deference to political rhetoric is highly irregular. The motivations of politicians, real or perceived, are not normally given any weight and virtually never disqualify legal language ‘between the four corners of the page’ – the text of the executive order itself, in this case.”
Publication: Conservative Review
Author: Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor at Conservative Review. He used to be at Breitbart, and appeared on Steve Bannon’s radio show. He also has his own podcast, The Conservative Conscience.
Why you should read it: Improbably, Horowitz argues that Comey was insufficiently tough on the hard right’s designated internal enemies. He urges the appointment of a new director who will enact more surveillance on Muslim communities in the US, and effectively halt refugee inflows from the Middle East – or, in rightwing jargon, “ignore political correctness and confront the truth”. Expect this drumbeat to get louder among the “creeping Sharia” crowd, for whom no amount of repression of Muslims will ever be enough.
Excerpt: “If the president truly wants to distract from the ‘Russia issue’, he should choose a new director and make it all about counter-terrorism and homeland security. He must also fire the deputy director, Andrew McCabe, who is a liberal hack who failed to disclose his wife’s ties to the Clinton network and Terry McAuliffe. Trump should appoint a director and deputy director who not only have a distinguished reputation in law enforcement but who actually understand the threat doctrine of Islamism and how Islamist terrorists infiltrate the west with that doctrine. They must understand the Muslim Brotherhood, Sharia doctrine, and the threat of the Hijra – conquest through immigration.”
There are so many shocking aspects to Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of the FBI director, James Comey, it’s almost hard to put into words, but one facet sticks out above all else: Trump has essentially declared that the president is above the law, and Americans of all political stripes should be incredibly disturbed by that thought.
I have harshlycriticized James Comey in the pages of the Guardian almost too many times to count, but no matter one’s views of Comey’s positions, the fact that the president can suddenly fire the FBI director who is currently investigating him means that the president quite literally considers himself immune from accountability. As John Cassidy of the New Yorker wrote, “It amounts to a premeditated and terrifying attack on the American system of government.”
It’s hard to tell what’s worse: that Trump thinks he can get away with it, or the fact that the justice department and his White House are so nakedly hiding the true reason for Comey’s firing.
When the news hit on Tuesday night, the attorney general and his deputy released a letter and a memo which ostensibly cited, of all things, Comey’s behavior during the Clinton investigation before the election. But it immediately became clear that Trump was trying to find any excuse to dampen the current frenzy in Washington around his campaign’s relationship to the Russian government.
Just as with his Muslim ban, Trump’s own hubris and inability to keep his mouth shut trumped any semblance of hiding behind his lawyers. In his own letter to Comey, Trump indicated that his firing had nothing to do with Clinton and everything to do with the investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau,” Trump wrote in one of the more eye-popping paragraphs in the modern history of official letters.
And if his letter wasn’t clear enough, leaks from within the Trump administration confirmed as much: the idea that Trump was doing this at the “recommendation” of the attorney general is ludicrous. As Politico reported, several people “familiar with the events said Trump had talked about the firing for over a week, and the letters were written to give him rationale to fire Comey”.
The Washington Post reported Trump was furious that Comey would not more aggressively investigate leaks coming out of the FBI and White House. The Wall Street Journal said Trump was apparently jealous of the television coverage Comey had been receiving in recent weeks, and he couldn’t believe how much television time the Russia investigation was getting. In typical Trump style, “he would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe,” a source said to Politico.
The New York Times also reported on Wednesday that just a week earlier, Comey had requested more resources from the justice department to expand his investigation into the Trump administration’s Russian ties. The person Comey requested the information from was the deputy attorney general, Rod J Rosenstein, the same man who wrote the memo “recommending” Comey be fired.
As usual, Trump has horribly miscalculated the situation. Apparently, he assumed there wouldn’t be such a big backlash to his decision, given how unpopular Comey is within the Democratic party for his alleged role in preventing a Hillary Clinton presidency, and how unpopular he is now with the Republican rank and file for his investigation of Trump.
It’s hard to see how this won’t spectacularly backfire on Trump. Members of Congress are already calling on Comey to testify again in front of the Senate. (Comey is no stranger to dramatic testimony, as he almost upended the Bush administration when he told the story of how the justice department was on the verge of mass resignations following his objections to aspects of Bush’s illegal surveillance program.)
If Trump thought that Comey was too soft on leaks, you can expect an absolute torrent of leaks from all corners of the justice department and FBI over the coming days. And just as in Nixon’s Saturday night massacre, in which he fired his attorney general in the face of the Watergate investigation, who knows if we’ll now see mass resignations from other government officials.
As with many scandals, the cover-up is often worse than the crime, especially given intelligence officials and Democratic senators have already indicated that so far there’s not much evidence that Trump officials’ dealings with Russian representatives rose to the level of a crime.
Trump is about to learn that lesson in the most public way possible.
It’s a question we ask ourselves at concerts, sporting events and other times we don’t want to miss a minute of the action. And when women decide we can’t hold it any longer, we often have to wait longer than men in those daunting arena lines.
Female sports fans were in an uproar after the Edmonton Oilers converted two women’s restrooms into men’s bathrooms during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Female fans were upset that they weren’t informed of the decision ahead of time, and some said the wait time was up to half an hour.
“When you purchase a ticket, you should expect to get access to a bathroom,” Kathryn Anthony, a professor and author of books such as Defined by Design that discuss gender bias in architecture, said of the wait times. “It’s just unfair, and it makes women feel unwelcome.”
The team said that a survey showed playoff attendance skewed male – a tough thing to prove when you account for re-selling tickets and who ticket holders bring as guests. Representatives for the Oilers did not respond to a request for the survey results or information about ticket holders.
“You’ll never make everyone happy,” Oilers general manager Susan Darrington told Global News about the change, adding: “The men are getting through faster, the women are seeing a little more of a delay.”
There are biological reasons why women’s bathrooms lines are typically longer: we need to sit; we menstruate; we pee more often than men, especially when we’re pregnant. Then there are societal reasons: we’re more likely to have children with us; we need to take off more clothing than men, which is often tighter and takes more time.
“People make jokes that we’re vain,” said Soraya Chemaly, an activist whose work focuses on the role of gender. “But we’re not standing in line for mirrors. We just need to use the bathroom.”
Women’s bathroom lines are so infamous that we’ve created funnels such as SheWees and LadyPs that let women pee standing up (presumably for outside use, but desperate times call for desperate measures).
Robert Brubaker of the American Restroom Association said that most states in the US require new venues to have three women’s toilets for every man’s toilet. Older sports stadiums, which are grandfathered in and don’t have to comply with new building codes, typically have an equal number of toilets for women and men.
“They literally did this thinking they were helping women, but they found that 1:1 wasn’t enough,” Robert Brubaker said.
That’s because even when there are an equal number of bathrooms, there is still a disparity. As the New York Times pointed out when renovations brought relief for some female baseball fans, “potty parity” isn’t measured by having the same number of toilets – it’s measured by wait times. Equal speed of access is the key, Anthony argues.
If the problem is so bad, why haven’t we done anything about it? Partly it’s because we are conditioned to think this is normal.
“Women are constantly standing in line, sometimes 60 people deep, and they do it quietly while men breeze through, and you have to ask how it’s possible that we’re still at this stage,” Chemaly said.
When men have to wait in longer lines and they make enough noise about it, the rules change. We’re seeing it now with the Oilers, and we saw it when male Chicago Bears fans were upset about new equal bathroom rules and complained until five women’s rooms were converted to men’s at Soldier Field.
“When the situation is improving for men but women have to wait longer, that’s a clear and obvious gender bias,” Anthony said.
But the issue is so much bigger than bathrooms: it’s indicative of the kind of hostile response that women often face in the sports world – that our needs don’t matter as much a man’s, and that we should just stay quiet and be thankful that we’re even allowed to participate.
Women – whether they are fans, reporters (like myself) or team employees – have to deal with sexual harassment from fans, players and staff. Female journalists are subject to verbal and online abuse at an alarming scale. And when teams do try to include us, we get mansplainy events like Baseball 101 – complete with complimentary beauty treatments! – or Hockey and Heels featuring a soap opera star.
Women on the Seattle city council were told to “rot in hell” and “go back to the kitchen” when they rejected a land-use deal that would have allowed the creation of a pro-basketball stadium, the New York Times reported. (Seattle doesn’t even have a basketball team and there are no promises they’ll get one anytime soon, which was their main argument for shooting it down.)
So, how can we make these spaces more welcoming for women?
These spaces will become more accommodating for women when building codes and legislation improve, but groups are still pushing to improve the facilities at existing arenas. The American Restroom Association has worked to create more family restrooms in public spaces such as arenas, which can be used when children or people with disabilities need assistance. They have also been used as gender-neutral bathrooms.
Many argue that a gender-neutral bathroom system could alleviate unequal wait times. In such a system, “the next available toilet would go to the next available person,” Brubaker said. “It wouldn’t matter what their gender is.”
And that’s what we should strive for: to have equal and shorter wait times for all. Because we all have to use the bathroom, but nobody wants to miss a goal.