Trump is the face of American Fascism

When memes become true.

I do not want to write this column, but I must. I can remain silent no longer. There is a name for a government that:

·      Concentrates power in a supposedly infallible leader
·      Surrounds that leader with a cadre of fanatical loyalists
·      Worships militarism
·      Manufactures external and internal enemies
·      Uses violence and the threat of violence to rule
·      Strives to become a monolithic one-party state
·      Seeks to eliminate all critics and opposition
·      Co-opts social institutions such as business, churches, and the media
·      Uses fear to manipulate the masses

It is called fascism and the United States of America is tottering on the edge of a fascist precipice. Der Fuhrer Trump and the fascist Republican Party are pushing from the front and the only the thing preventing the fall is spirited but shrinking rearguard opposition.

Surely not in the United States, you protest, the U.S. defeated fascism in World War II. No, it defeated German, Italian, and Japanese fascism, but its American variant thrives.  Trump is the culmination of plans hatched in the Progressive Era to oppose business regulation, immigration, and the electoral success of democratic socialism. Socialists were demonized and the Big Lie caught on: that the Soviet Union was a "socialist" state. Later we were told that Nazis were "socialists." In each case, American fascists  used a multi-faceted term, distilled it to a single meaning, and called it "reality." It was the same slight of hand that today allows any fascist who wears an American flag pin to call himself a "loyal American." But hiding in plain sight is what fascists do well.You never hear that no one was more opposed to communism and fascism than democratic socialists.

American fascists gathered force during the Depression. Roosevelt's New Deal both stymied them and instilled a sense of urgency. They were the America First crowd, the German Bund, Father Coughlin followers, the second Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow politicians, Silver Shirts, devotees of Gerald Winrod, and the few with the guts to admit they belonged to the American Nazi Party. Who knows how American fascism would have fared had not the Japanese ruined everything by bombing Pearl Harbor.

After World War II American fascists helped smuggle Nazis out of Germany, stoked the Red Scare, beat the drums of the Cold War, built the CIA, trumpeted McCarthyism, made Atlas Shrugged the new gospel, joined the John Birch Society and the Heritage Foundation, became Dixiecrats, and fashioned the National Rifle Association into one of the nation's largest lobby groups. Later these forces masterminded COINTELPRO, finagled bloated military budgets to dismantle social program through budget attrition, militarized cops, unleashed the NRA, took over evangelical Protestantism, smashed labor unions, marginalized great swaths of the populace, and built a fear-based corpocracy in which power pools at the top like fetid sewage. Their followers include skinheads, survivalists, the Klan, Aryan Nation racists, Christian identity members, unreconstructed neo-Confederates, cultural biogts, rogue investors, Wall Street predators, the American Family Association, Citizens United, Freedom Watch and hundreds of other groups that hide their intent behind neutral-sounding monikers. Rich fascists such as the Koch brothers fund them and the Republican Party has become their public vehicle.

Perhaps you protest that you've always been a Republican, and these people are not you. But they are. You can no longer pretend you support the Republican agenda of the 1950s or 1980s. You are like the villagers near Auschwitz who claimed they had no idea there were extermination camps. They knew. You know. Pipe bombs have been mailed: to the Clintons, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, former CIA Director John Brennan, investor George Soros, Representative Maxine Walters, and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. More bombs are being discovered as you read. No one has been harmed—yet. But you know who is really responsible.

We also know how this will end. We've seen it before. Eventually someone will be arrested and Republicans—through their official propaganda organ, Fox News—will tell us that he (and it's almost always a he) was a "lone wolf." A back-story will emerge, probably some combination of job loss, a workplace dispute, trouble in high school, mental health issues, a broken marriage, and a record of previous encounters with the law. If fascists hit the jackpot, he will have had a bad experience with an immigrant. They will tell us that he is "unbalanced," but there was no way to predict that he would attempt such a "heinous crime." They will pat themselves on the back for catching this "deranged criminal" before he did any serious damage.

It is the same story we heard after every school shooting. We also heard it after gunmen murdered 59 in Las Vegas, 50 in Orlando, and 27 in a Texas church. We heard it when James Alex Fields plowed his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is a lie. Do you remember how President Trump said there were "bad actors on both sides" after Charlottesville? This time he said, "We want both sides to come together in peace and harmony." That lasted all of 24-hours before he reverted to the fascist practice of blaming the crisis on a convenient enemy: the media. The culprit will not be a lone wolf. He will be from a rabid pack that contains Gregory Bush, Nickolas Cruz, Omar Mateen, Dylann Roof, George Zimmerman, and dozens of racist cops who murdered black men "in the line of duty." Surely, you will say, leftists have done such things. Yes, three percent of the time; in 71 percent of mass violent crime cases a right-wing extremist is the culprit. I'll lay odds the pipe bomber is not a journalist or leftist.

Fascists always try to change the tune. They rally outside the Clinton compound to scream, "Lock her up." They take to the airwaves, keyboards, and streets to proclaim they are battling to "make America great again." They repeat and re-Tweet Der Fuhrer's every utterance. They scream, "fake news!" when they are evidence-challenged. They claim everything except their real agenda: to preserve with their last breath and bullet a white male-dominated America. They know that history is against them; America is already a multicultural society and is on the cusp of becoming a minority majority nation. The only way to derail this is through violence. And fear.

If you thought Nixon's enemy list was distressing, check Trump's target list: Muslims, fraudulent voters, illegal immigrants, liberals, socialists, gays, the transgendered, protesting sports figures, scientists, intellectual "elites," hysterical women, Democrats, journalists…. Trumpinistas change enemies at the drop of a hat. Latinos marching toward the US border in hope of crossing are mostly Hondurans fleeing brutal right-wing repression. Trump told us that there were "Middle Eastern" terrorists in their ranks. That was so patently absurd—not to mention racist—that he decided they were Venezuelans instead, though how they got across the Panama Canal and walked more than 2,700 miles is left unexplained.

Time is running out. The Democratic Party looks a lot like Germany's Social Democratic Party before Hitler emasculated it. The SDP was once a party of the left, but moved to the center, then to the oxymoronic "center-right," and was easily toppled. America's center-right Democratic Party applauds the silencing of its left (or blames it for its own ineptitude). Can it awaken from self-induced torpor and embrace the siren call sounded by the left? We better hope so. American politics is no longer conservatives against liberals. It is fascism versus democracy, and fascism is winning. It is time to push back as if the future depends on it. It does.  

Tannahill Weavers: October 2018 Album of the Month

Tannahill Weavers
Compass Records

Òrach is the Gaelic word for golden and, believe it or not, The Tannahill Weavers have been touring continuously for 50 years. To put that in perspective, only folks such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and The Chieftains have sojourned longer without a break or two. To commemorate this milestone, The Tannies have invited some alums and friends to assist this them on Òrach, their 18th recording. A lot of those guests—Kenny Forsyth, Iain MacInnes, Colin Melville, Duncan Nicholson, and Hudson Swan—are bagpipers, though current piper Lorne MacDougall is certainly a worthy peer.

Roy Gullane (vocals, guitar) and Phil Smillie (vocals, flute, whistles, percussion) are the Ur-core of the Tannies, and fiddler John Martin has been with them since Ossian disbanded in 1989. No matter the personnel, The Tannies have long been masters of the legendary Big Set—usually a march, strathspey, and reel combination—hence it is appropriate that they kick off with the title track, which is in that vein. The formula always works; let instruments drift in (keys, whistle, guitar, and fiddle), then add the pipes, pick up the pace, and then open the throttle. I will never forget seeing the band in one of their first American tours in the 1970s, when they let loose and the pipes peeled the paint from the walls. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever heard though, objectively, back then the execution was sometimes more loud than precise.

The discovery of grace took the Tannies to the next level. On songs such as “Jessie the Floo’er of Dunblane” and “Battle of Sheriffmuir” we can hear some wear and tear on the voices, but it remains the case that few Celtic ensembles have mastered three-part harmonies as well as Gullane, Smillie, and Martin. (The band's namesake, the 18th century poet Robert Tannahill wrote the first song, and the second comes from some guy named Robert Burns!) You will hear harmonies in their glory on “Jennie A’ Things” and “The Jeannie C.” If the latter title sounds familiar, it’s a classic Stan Rogers sea song. All you need to know to determine its arc is its repeating line: I’ll go to sea no more. The most surprisingly song is “Oh No!” Alison Brown guests on banjo and it sounds as if The Tannies have taken up bluegrass, though the piece was actually penned by actor/comedian Billy Connolly. As the Scots and Irish say, it’s great craic (fun, merriment).

I enjoyed each track on this anniversary album immensely, though four really knocked me kilt over tam. “The Asturian Sessions” takes the Tannies to the Celtic region of northwest Spain, where the band collaborates with members of Llan de Cubel. It’s an unusual piece made all the more so by added didgeridoo from ex-Tannie Dougie MacLean. This rousing set buzzes to the pace of the Scottish small pipes. 

Two pieces memorialize World War I. “Sunset Over the Somme” is a sweeping instrumental with vaporous vocals subsumed in an anthemic mix. “The Ghost of Mick McDonnell” takes us a step deeper into the mindless tragedy of war, with its beyond-the-grave account from a young Irishman who perished in the conflict. It’s a haunting piece, adorned with just a splash of sanguinary Highland pipes.

That instrument is aired out in the “Gordon Duncan Set,” written in honor of one of Scotland’s most respected masters and teachers of the pipes. Alas, Duncan struggled with alcoholism and died in 2005, either from ill health or suicide, depending on whose version you believe. This piece would have made him smile. It has a joyful opening, with the small pipes chirping away, but its gathering pace combo explodes into another Big Set, this one driven by the Highland pipes. The tune evolve into a dance-until-you-drop groove. The Tannies have been making us do that for a half century and the constant infusion of younger talent like Lorne MacDougall—who has also shown up with the Red Hot Chili Peppers—gives hope that 50 years hence there will be a centenary Tannahill Weavers’ album.

Rob Weir

If you want to snippets of Tannahill Weavers’ road stories, see the band’s Website, where they’ve excerpted a piece I once wrote for Sing Out! Magazine

And here's a link that captures The Tannahill Weavers live.  If this isn't rowdy enough for you, seek help!


National Portrait Gallery Part Two


Few people recognize that the National Portrait Gallery, housed in the Old Patent Building, is actually a dual museum; the same facility also is also the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. If official portraits aren’t to your liking, there’s plenty more to entertain and amaze.

Richard Avedon
First, though, can we just get past the whole lives of the rich and famous thing?  Adjacent to the Hall of Presidents is a large gallery devoted to workers, common folks, and those down on their luck. You will find iconic images from Lewis Hine, Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, and others, but also things you probably haven’t seen in textbooks. There is, for instance, a series of photos and paintings of newsies, the kids who used to hawk papers on the streets and have done so since Colonial times. A few of then images that really grabbed me included a heartbreaking image of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century orphan girl. On the triumphant end of the scale, how about a real-life Rosie the Riveter in vivid Kodachrome? I also admired the subtle curation of this gallery. Norman Rockwell’s well-known image of a coal miner tells us one kind of story, but it’s not the same narrative as an enormous portrait rendered by Richard Avedon. 


The facility is also a real superb repository of American folk art—much of which is stored behind glass in accessible archives. This is the museum equivalent of a library’s open stacks, and it’s something most museums don’t do. Usually curators choose a small sampling of a museum’s collection; the bulk is in storage. There’s a roving-about-an-attic quality to open archives that turns the viewing experience into a treasure hunt. I could have spent hours there. Alas, I had to rendezvous with my traveling companions in less than one, so here are just a few discoveries.


There are paintings of all sorts in the galleries, many of which have been reproduced for books, posters, and websites. These names are also familiar: Benton, Cassatt, Catlin, Durand, Hassam, Hopper, O'Keeffe, Lawrence, Naguchi…

The Old Patent Building lends itself well to smaller special exhibits. Let me just highlight two, the first devoted to the photos of Diane Arbus (1923-71), arguably the most celebrated female shutterbug of the post-World War Two years. She had an eye for sharp focus, but also for anything unusual and bizarre. Some detractors called her work carnivalesque and accused her of freak show sensationalism. In retrospect, she was on to something. Forget the land of the free and the home of the brave, the United States has long been a nation of wide margins.  Arbus spent most of her life in New York City—that sprawling polyglot American dynamo where rules have exceptions and even the exceptions are meant to be broken. Were her images manipulative? During her lifetime many thought so. Today, some think she was prescient in making the marginalized visible. So did her image of a woman holding a monkey dressed in baby clothes stretch the definition of the mainstream? Should we applaud the “Yeah, so what?” insouciance of a transvestite in the process of a makeover? Do we marvel over a Jewish giant, or feel sorry for him? Is Arbus’ work transgressive or transformational? Frankly, I’m not sure how to answer those questions. I can say, though, that she was never boring and that you know a Diane Arbus photograph when you see one. And no one ever accused her of catering to popular demand. 


It’s been (gulp!) 50 years since 1968, a pivotal year in American history: The Tet Offensive, the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, urban riots, the Chicago Democratic convention, Nixon’s election…. Conservatives like to label it the year America took a wrong turn but of course, it’s not that simple. The year before, the so-called Summer of Love, was just as filled with myth, merriment, and mischief as the one that followed—as is every year of every era. This summer the National Portrait Gallery had a small show on 1968 that at first underwhelmed me. It’s small, I had seen most of what was in it in various contexts, and it was almost entirely visual with only the slightest nod given to context or analysis. Then I recalled what Todd Gitlin said about how the Sixties are recalled as fragmented, disconnected events and images that are reduced to stand-ins for an entire era. He’s right. The Sixties have become the image equivalent of a play list set on shuffle. What did it mean? It depends on who loads the images and why they chose one set over another. All that’s clear is that the Sixties mattered. 

The NPG show focuses mostly on snap shots of the counterculture: a day-glo Jimi Hendrix poster, a collage of the Grateful Dead, an anti-Vietnam poster, a side-by-side of the Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company that will make Baby Boomers yearn for their youth…. Two pieces stand out as poignant harbingers—Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art down-the-barrel POV of a gun we have come to worship, and the Black Power protest salute of John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the Mexico City Olympics. It is easy/facile for conservatives to blame the Sixties for all manner of perceived woes, but it really boils down to this. American stood at a crossroads in 1968. One path pointed toward the Age of Aquarius, the other to five more years of Vietnam, repressed civil liberties in the name of law and order, and a rollback of the Great Society. We have no idea what the Age of Aquarius would have yielded—perhaps a nightmare of a different order. But we know what the second path brought: Sandy Hook and associated mass slaughters, the return of the Gilded Age, and the need for Black Lives Matter. The more I thought of the NPG kaleidoscope look at 1968, the more nostalgic and sadder it made me.



National Portrait Gallery Part One: Art Road Trip

 Clicking on images opens a bigger file.

Most art lovers who find themselves in Washington, DC seldom venture very far. That’s understandable, given that you can take in five major art museums without straying from the National Mall. But if you wander four blocks up 8th Street from the National Gallery of Art, you’ll come to an underappreciated gem: the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Don’t be put off by the name; there’s a whole lot more there than stiff formal portraits. I’d even go so far as to suggest that it's one of the best places in the city to get (ahem!) a good picture of America. 

In Part Two I’ll discuss some of the more unusual things you’ll find at the NPG, but first let’s consider lessons embedded within the namesake images of well-known people, beginning with those who have served as President of the United States. Many of these provide insight into the character of the individual represented and the times in which they served. I will skip most of the early portraits, as images of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and other such figures are precisely the ones you’ve seen in textbooks since the time you were in primary school. I was, however, quite taken with a Lincoln portrait painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. It shows Lincoln chin on hand, as if he were pondering the nation’s future. That’s exactly what he was doing. Remember that seven Southern states had left the Union before Lincoln even took office. No president other than Franklin Roosevelt ever faced such perilous burdens or had a shorter honeymoon transition period.

Lincoln conveys thoughtfulness; FDR opted for confidence. FDR gazes at us with sphinx-like steeliness, a strong leader to guide Americans through the Great Depression. If the splotch of red behind him seems hagiographic, you have but to read accounts from the legions of ordinary Americans who saw Roosevelt as a secular savior. Artist Douglas Chandor used FDR's trademark cigarette holder to contrast his imperial cape and suggest folksiness that resonated with the era’s appeal to ordinary Americans.

Official portraits are often an assemblage of impression, pageantry, stagecraft, and ego. Sometimes they offer unintended psychological insights, or eerily foreshadow fate. Elaine de Kooning painted John F. Kennedy in loose brushstrokes and splotches that give an impression of JFK, not a spitting image. She painted Kennedy in 1963, and it’s hard not to think of Dallas when one sees the tattered texture about Kennedy’s head. The intended message was that JFK heralded a new era and a new spirit. That was the case, but not in the ways anticipated, and de Kooning's (deliberately) indistinct brushstrokes now evoke a torn body and faded hope.

If you wonder if Richard Nixon had a soft spot, the answer is maybe. Norman Rockwell’s image suggests there is one. It’s a surprisingly tender look at a guy almost no one associates with such a quality. Like FDR, Ronald Reagan wanted to invoke the common man. Aaron Shickler’s portrait is very Rockwell-like and shows Reagan in a blue work shirt, as if ready to dispense backwoods wisdom. Anyone familiar with Reagan nostrums knows that’s exactly what he often did.

On the other hand, the terms ego and Bill Clinton interlock like the bubbles of a Chuck Close painting, which is precisely who painted him. The portrait is huge and you can draw your own conclusions from that. I also found it unflattering in cartoonish ways suggestive of clownishness. Is that also telling?

The star of the hall right now is Barack Obama, painted in the style of an African chief by Kehinde Wiley. It’s simultaneously formal and relaxed. You can snap a shot of it from the side, but if you want to stand directly in front for a selfie, be prepared to queue for about 45 minutes. I heard no grumbling, though I did see tears, smiles, and genuine outpourings of respect. The Obama portrait is unique, even if it’s not your cup of tea. I can’t imagine we shall see such enthusiasm when #45 is hung on the wall.

To round off Part One, a few comments are in order on the differences between men and women in high places. There is a quiet dignity to the robed figures that make up the entire pantheon of female Supreme Court Justices. These individuals radiate competence and seriousness—more as if they just want to get on with their jobs rather than casting lines upon the waters of reputation.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait looks a bit like that as well. She has a Mona Lisa-like smile, but she also looks as if she has just come in from puttering about the gardens of her Val-Kill retreat. 

You’ve probably seen the famed painting of Marian Anderson, but it’s even more powerful in person. She looks defiant and strong, as if to say, “You can deny me, but you cannot break me.” If you don’t know what I mean, educate yourself and find out how she and Eleanor Roosevelt said no to racism and turned one of America’s ugly moments into a glorious triumph. I see Anderson and Eleanor as bookend portraits, not to mention examples of American history that is too often left off the table. The Hall of Presidents if history; Eleanor and Anderson represent herstory. 

Currently, one of the NPG’s most controversial portraits is that of Michelle Obama. Many have said that Amy Sherald’s likeness doesn’t look like Mrs. Obama. It doesn’t, actually, but in some ways Sherald succeeded where de Kooning and Close came up short. As we've seen, there's no rule that says an official portrait must look like a painted photograph. The Michelle Obama representation makes more sense if you see it as an icon inspired by African art. Michelle has always been bolder in asserting her heritage than her biracial husband. In this portrait, Obama is both First Lady and mindful of her African heritage. This is Michelle on her own terms. 

Rob Weir