(Year Zero/Day Two Hundred and Eighty-Five)
(Year Zero/Day Two Hundred and Eighty-Five)
Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination—all you have to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like, for it was in the logic of such a coup that Kelly advanced his four arguments.
Argument 1. Those who criticize the President don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t served in the military. To demonstrate how little lay people know, Kelly provided a long, detailed explanation of what happens when a soldier is killed in battle: the body is wrapped in whatever is handy, flown by helicopter, then packed in ice, then flown again, then repacked, then flown, then embalmed and dressed in uniform with medals, and then flown home. Kelly provided a similar amount of detail about how family members are notified of the death, when, and by whom. He even recommended a film that dramatized the process of transporting the body of a real-life marine, Private First Class Chance Phelps. This was a Trumpian moment, from the phrasing—“a very, very good movie”—to the message. Kelly stressed that Phelps “was killed under my command, right next to me”; in other words, Kelly’s real-life experience was recreated for television, and that, he seemed to think, bolstered his authority.
Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.”
The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.
The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom. No Soviet general would have dared utter the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”
2. The President did the right thing because he did exactly what his general told him to do. Kelly went on a rambling explication of speaking to the President not once but twice about how to make the call to Myeshia Johnson. After Kelly’s son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, the chief of staff recalled, his own best friend had consoled him by saying that his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one per cent.” Trump apparently tried to replicate this message when he told Johnson that her husband, La David, had known what he was signing up for. The negative reaction to this comment, Kelly said, had “stunned” him.
A week earlier, Kelly had taken over the White House press briefing in an attempt to quash another scandal and ended up using the phrase “I was sent in,” twice, in reference to his job in the White House. Now he seemed to be saying that, since he was sent in to control the President and the President had, this time, more or less carried out his instructions, the President should not be criticized.
–Masha Gessen, John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup
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