It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.

His political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built. But long before birtherism, Trump had made his worldview clear. He fought to keep blacks out of his buildings, according to the U.S. government; called for the death penalty for the eventually exonerated Central Park Five; and railed against “lazy” black employees. “Black guys counting my money! I hate it,” Trump was once quoted as saying. “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” After his cabal of conspiracy theorists forced Barack Obama to present his birth certificate, Trump demanded the president’s college grades (offering $5 million in exchange for them), insisting that Obama was not intelligent enough to have gone to an Ivy League school, and that his acclaimed memoir, Dreams From My Father, had been ghostwritten by a white man, Bill Ayers.

It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint. Trump’s rise was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as “cucks.” The word, derived from cuckold, is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy—the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men. That the slur cuck casts white men as victims aligns with the dicta of whiteness, which seek to alchemize one’s profligate sins into virtue. So it was with Virginia slaveholders claiming that Britain sought to make slaves of them. So it was with marauding Klansmen organized against alleged rapes and other outrages. So it was with a candidate who called for a foreign power to hack his opponent’s email and who now, as president, is claiming to be the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”

In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own.

–Ta-Nahisi Coates, The First White President

Recently at the state level, legislators have authored Bircher-esque bills that have made it further through the lawmaking process than many thought possible in Texas, even just a few years ago—though these are less the cause of the John Birch Society’s influence than an indication of the rise of its particular strain of politics. These include bills that would forbid any government entity from participating in “Agenda 21,” a UN sustainable development effort which JBS pamphlets describe as central to the “UN’s plan to establish control over all human activity”; prevent the theoretical sale of the Alamo to foreigners (since 1885 the state has owned the former mission, Texas’ most visited historic landmark, where the most famous battle of the Texas Revolution occurred); and repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. And last month, Governor Greg Abbott signed the “American Laws for American Courts” Act into law, guarding against what the society has called “Sharia-creep” by prohibiting the use of Islamic Sharia law in Texas’ court system.

This is what the 21st-century John Birch Society looks like. Gone is the organization’s past obsession with ending the supposed communist plot to achieve mind-control through water fluoridation. What remains is a hodgepodge of isolationist, religious and right-wing goals that vary from concrete to abstract, from legitimate to conspiracy minded—goals that don’t look so different from the ideology coming out of the White House. It wants to pull the United States out of NAFTA (which it sees as the slippery slope that will lead us to a single-government North American Union), return America to what they call its Christian foundations, defund the UN, abolish the departments of education and energy, and slash the federal government drastically. The John Birch Society once fulminated on the idea of Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government; now, it wants to stop the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling and possible collusion with the campaign of President Donald Trump.

The Society’s ideas, once on the fringe, are increasingly commonplace in today’s Republican Party. And where Birchers once looked upon national Republican leaders as mortal enemies, the ones I met in Texas see an ally in the president. “All of us here voted for Trump,” says Carter. “And we’re optimistic about what he will do.”

The John Birch Society formed on a frigid Monday morning in December 1958, when 11 of the nation’s richest businessmen braved single-digit temperatures to attend a mysterious meeting in suburban Indianapolis.

They had arrived at the behest of candy magnate Robert Welch, who had made a fortune with his caramel-on-a-stick confection known as the “Sugar Daddy,” and now intended to spend that money defeating the wide-slung Communist conspiracy he was certain had infiltrated the federal government. Welch had invited these men to Indianapolis without giving a reason, and asked them to stay for two days.

After exchanging firm handshakes in the breakfast room of a sprawling, Tudor-style house in the tony Meridian Park neighborhood, Welch explained why he had brought this group together: The United States faced an existential threat from an “international Communist conspiracy” hatched by an “amoral gang of sophisticated criminals.” The power-hungry, God-hating, government worshipers had infiltrated newsrooms, public schools, legislative chambers and houses of worship. They were frighteningly close to total victory—Welch felt it in his gut. “These cunning megalomaniacs seek to make themselves the absolute rulers of a human race of enslaved robots, in which every civilized trait has been destroyed,” Welch wrote in The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, the organization’s founding history.

The chosen few gathered here would form the vanguard of a new political movement, an army of brave American patriots dedicated to preserving the country’s Christian and constitutional foundations. Welch christened the group the John Birch Society—named in memory of a U.S. soldier-turned-Baptist missionary killed by Chinese Communists in 1945—and laid out its goal: Destroying the “Communist conspiracy … or at least breaking its grip on our government and shattering its power within the United States.”

Chip Berlet, former senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts, a left-leaning think tank, and co-author of “Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort,” has studied the John Birch Society for three decades.

Berlet tells me the resurgence of the John Birch Society taps into populism which surfaces periodically, especially during times of cultural and demographic upheaval. The nation’s demographic landscape has undergone dramatic shifts since the Birchers’ heyday. From 1955 to 2014, the percentage of U.S. citizens who identified as Protestant sunk from 70 percent to 46 percent, according to polls by Gallup. The percentage of citizens who identified as non-Hispanic white decreased from 89 percent to 63 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Such changes, mixed with man’s evolutionary tendency toward tribalism, means that many white Christian Americans are full of anxiety.

“The John Birch Society views white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethnocentrism as the true expression of America,” Berlet says. “They use constitutionalist arguments and conspiracist scapegoating to mask this.”

Placing blame on conspiracies is seductive to social conservatives because of the way their brains are hardwired, says Colin Holbrook, an evolutionary psychologist and research scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s not a pathology, nor because they’re less intelligent,” Holbrook tells me.

–John Savage, The John Birch Society Is Back

Magnitsky was the target of investigations, arrested by authorities and kept in jail without charges. He was beaten and later died under mysterious circumstances in jail just days before his possible release.

Independent investigators found “inhuman detention conditions, the isolation from his family, the lack of regular access to his lawyers and the intentional refusal to provide adequate medical assistance resulted in the deliberate infliction of severe pain and suffering, and ultimately his death.”

The Magnitsky Act was signed by President Barack Obama in December 2012 as a retaliation against the human rights abuses suffered by Magnitsky. The law at first blocked 18 Russian government officials and businessmen from entering the United States, froze any assets held by U.S. banks and banned their future use of U.S. banking systems. The act was expanded in 2016, and now sanctions apply to 44 suspected human rights abusers worldwide.

Its official title is a mouthful — the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. In most news stories and accounts, the shorthand is simply — the Magnitsky Act.

Bill Browder, an American hedge fund manager who hired Magnitsky for the corruption investigation that eventually led to his death, was a central figure in the bill’s passage.

When pressed on the details of his meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. appeared to downplay its significance by linking it to concerns over an issue that appears uncontroversial on its surface: adoption. But the barring of U.S. adoptions of Russian children is a flash point of tense diplomatic relations and tied directly to the Magnitsky Act.

Two weeks after Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill that blocked adoption of Russian children by parents in the United States. Russia then also imposed sanctions on Browder and found Magnitsky posthumously guilty of crimes.

Supporters of the bill at the time cited mistreatment of Russian children by adoptive U.S. parents as the reason for its passage. But it was widely viewed as a retaliatory act, and the issues have been linked since.

Trump Jr. said that despite assurances that Veselnitskaya would come bearing incriminating information about Hillary Clinton in their 2016 meeting, the topic quickly shifted to the Magnitsky Act and U.S. adoptions from Russia.

Browder described Veselnitskaya in an NPR interview as a longtime foil to him in her efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act. She represents a member of the Katsyv family, whose company is under investigation by the Justice Department in connection with the laundering of real estate money in New York. Denis Katsyv has lobbied to overturn Magnitsky and to end Russia’s American adoption ban.

–Alex Horton, The Magnitsky Act, Explained

 

The diversions of the times are not ill-suited to the genius of this incongruis monster, called The Public. Give it noise, confusion, glare, and glitter; it has no idea of elegance and propriety – what are the amusements of Ranelagh?  One half of the company are following at the other’s tails, in an eternal circle; like so many blind asses in an olive-mill, where they can neither discourse, distinguish, nor be distinguished…

–Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)

But today, the [Southern Poverty Law Center] is best known for its “Intelligence Project,” which has essentially cornered the market on identifying and tracking hate groups, as well as extremists and “hate incidents.” The Intelligence Project’s 15 full-time and two part-time staffers (it’s in the process of hiring five more) pump out reports that are regularly cited by just about every major mainstream media outlet, including Politico, and their researchers have become the go-to experts for quotes on those topics.

The SPLC’s hate group and extremist labels are effective. Groups slapped with them have lost funding, been targeted by activists and generally been banished from mainstream legitimacy. This makes SPLC the de facto cop in this realm of American politics, with all the friction that kind of policing engenders.

The organization has been criticized for spending more of its money on fundraising and overhead and less on litigation than comparable groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. And it has taken flak for amassing a huge endowment—more than $200 million—that is disproportionately large for its operating costs. SPLC President Richard Cohen defends the endowment as necessary to ensure the group can survive legal battles that might last for years. (As for Dees himself, he made $337,000 in 2015, according to the watchdog group Charity Navigator; Cohen made $333,000 the same year.) In 1994, the local paper, the Montgomery Advertiser, ran a series investigating the group’s marketing, finances and personnel practices that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. (Dees responded—according to a transcript from a 1999 Nieman Foundation discussion on journalism about nonprofits—by mobilizing prominent liberal politicians for whom he had raised money to lobby the Pulitzer Board not to award the prize to the Advertiser.)

Other critics say the SPLC picks its causes with its bottom line in mind. In the 1980s, the group’s entire legal staff quit to protest Dees’ obsession with the remnants of the KKK—which still captured the imagination of the group’s liberal donor base—at the expense of lower-profile but more relevant targets. In its marketing, the SPLC still touts seven-figure judgments it has won against Klan organizations, even though the plaintiffs have been able to recoup only a tiny fraction of that from the groups, which possessed paltry assets. It has also been criticized for marketing that exaggerates the threat posed by the moribund Klan.

The complaints have trailed the SPLC as the group has expanded beyond its crusade against racial discrimination in the South, increasingly taking up the left flank of the culture wars on issues like LGBT rights, church-state division, Islam and immigration. The new approach has prompted accusations of overreach: The SPLC has included Senator Rand Paul and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists on its extremists lists (Paul for suggesting private businesses shouldn’t have to adhere to the Civil Rights Act and criticizing the Fair Housing Act; Carson for his views opposing same-sex marriage). The group did back down after it put Carson on the 2014 “extremist watch” list—removing his name and issuing an apology that earned a lot of coverage in the conservative media. “This week, as we’ve come under intense criticism for doing so, we’ve reviewed our profile and have concluded that it did not meet our standards,” the organization’s statement said, “so we have taken it down and apologize to Dr. Carson for having posted it.”

But the SPLC did not back down after it labeled Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council—one of the country’s largest and most established Christian conservative advocacy groups—a “hate group” for its positions on homosexuality, and even after an unhinged gay-rights supporter named Floyd Corkins subsequently shot up the FRC’s lobby in an attempt to murder its staff, in 2012. Corkins said he had read on the SPLC’s website that the FRC was an anti-gay group. The episode prompted fierce condemnation of the SPLC from social conservatives, who view FRC’s stances on homosexuality as legitimate and consistent with Christian teachings. But the FRC remains on the SPLC’s list of hate groups, along with a blurb explaining, “The FRC often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science.”

William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell and critic of the SPLC, says the group has wrapped itself in the mantle of the civil rights struggle to engage in partisan political crusading. “Time and again, I see the SPLC using the reputation it gained decades ago fighting the Klan as a tool to bludgeon mainstream politically conservative opponents,” he says. “For groups that do not threaten violence, the use of SPLC ‘hate group’ or ‘extremist’ designations frequently are exploited as an excuse to silence speech and speakers,” Jacobson adds. “It taints not only the group or person, but others who associate with them.”

Ken Silverstein, a liberal journalist and another critic of the group who authored a scathing investigation of its marketing and financial practices for Harper’s in 2000, attributes the growing scope of the SPLC’s censures to a financial imperative to wade into hot-button issues that will rile donors. “The organization has always tried to find ways to milk money out of the public by finding whatever threat they can most credibly promote,” he says.

–Ben Schreckinger, Has a Civil Rights Stalwart Lost Its Way?

The Rand Paul Liberty Report

Good morning, America! Not like the television show, though. It’s a little too COMMUNIST for my tastes.

Summer is upon us at my palatial Kentucky estate. It’s going to be a mild 87 degrees in Bowling Green today, and I’m looking forward to helping Dad write the latest issue of his zine. Yellow-rumped warblers are chirping gaily, my children are laughing as they splash around in the pool, and Joseph Stalin, dictator of Russia, is still dead, thank the maker above.

You probably know I’m a doctor and a United States Senator, but were you aware I’m also an accomplished historian? I give lectures to my friends over at the John Birch Society. Riveting stuff. Why, right now I’m working on the authentic history of Soviet medicine. If you wouldn’t mind, could you look at my introduction and tell me what you think?

“In 1918, a most un-American thing happened to Russia. Czar Nicholas II, appointed by God to keep the peasants in their place, was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. The grim specter of COMMUNISM had arrived.

The serfs were deprived of their right to work the land of their masters, to live and die tilling the soil. These were dark times. Things went from bad to worse when Lenin died and Stalin took over. First thing ol’ Joe did was institute health care reform. ‘Give us your sick,’ he said, ‘that I may heal them.’ He tried, oh how he tried, bringing the infirm before a bust of Karl Marx and commanding ‘Be healed!’ Unlike me, he wasn’t a doctor or a man of God, so it didn’t work quite the way he hoped.

Embarrassed, defeated, Stalin did the worst thing a dictator could do. He sent the Russian people to the Gulag of national health coverage. In this lecture I will explore the unmitigated atrocities committed in the name of medicine.”

Anyway, based on your reaction, it looks like the Birch boys will love it. They always throw me a humdinger of a hootenanny after my talks. We drink moonshine and shoot our guns ’til we can’t see straight. Is there anything more patriotic?

If you’ll excuse me, I need to grab a bite to eat. I’m on the paleo diet.