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Preview: Jesse Walker: Reason Magazine articles.

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Updated: 2017-12-15T00:00:00-05:00

 



Egoism

2017-11-01T12:00:00-04:00

(image) The most famous individualist anarchist journal of 19th century America was Liberty, edited by the fiery polemicist Benjamin Tucker. But Liberty wasn't the movement's only periodical, and anyone interested in that period of libertarian history should welcome any chance to examine the outlets edited by figures with different sensibilities. So it's good to see Georgia and Henry Replogle's journal Egoism reprinted in a hefty new book, Egoism: The First Two Volumes, 1890–1892 (Union of Egoists).

In some ways Tucker and the Replogles were peas in a pod: Each mixed the radical egoism of Max Stirner with the monetary schemes of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. But there are differences here too, with Egoism putting a stronger stress on feminism and free love. Neither Replogle was as talented a writer as Tucker, and the range of contributors here isn't as large as Tucker's stable. But if Egoism wasn't ultimately as good a publication as Liberty, it's still interesting in its own right.

Some introductory material provides historical context for the journal, including the entertaining tale of the editors' brief stay in the town of Liberal, Missouri. Founded as an alleged haven for free thought by George Walser, a man who hoped to ban both churches and saloons from his city, Liberal attracted and then repelled the Replogles, who were driven out for espousing free love. Walser later converted to spiritualism, and in time the town would host vast conventions of people hoping to speak with the dead.




Delaware's Odd, Beautiful, Contentious, Private Utopia

2017-10-14T06:00:00-04:00

They held a town pageant in Arden, Delaware, on September 5, 1910: a medieval procession with performers dressed as knights, troubadours, pages, and squires. One Ardenite, an anarchist shoemaker named George Brown, played a beggar. This annoyed some of the other players, because no such role had actually been written. But Brown decided to add it to the program anyway, so he dressed in rags, caked himself with mud, and invaded the proceedings, taunting the other characters and demanding alms from the audience. Many "onlookers needed assurance," The Single Tax Review reported, that Brown "was only 'part of the show.'" This was a pattern: Brown liked to talk, and not everyone liked to listen to him. According to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who lived at the time in a little Arden house that his neighbors had dubbed the Jungalow, Brown insisted on "discussing sex questions" at the Arden Economic Club. When the club asked him to cut it out, Brown declared his free-speech right to continue and kept talking until he'd broken up the meeting. He broke up the next meeting too, and finally, Sinclair wrote, "declared it his intention to break up all future meetings." At this point some of the locals wanted to have him arrested for disturbing the peace. But that required outside help, because the town of Arden did not have a police force. In fact, the town of Arden didn't have a government at all. Not, at least, in the usual sense of the word. I should back up and explain a few things. Arden's origins go back to the Delaware Invasion of 1895 and '96, when the Single Tax movement tried to take over the state. The Single Taxers were followers of Henry George, a 19th century economist who argued that government should be financed solely by a tax on land values. No income tax, no sales tax, no tax on the improvements to a property—just one tax on land. The campaigners crisscrossed the state in armbands, knapsacks, and Union Army uniforms, delivering streetcorner speeches and singing Single Tax songs ("Get the landlords off your backs/With our little Single Tax/And there's lots of fun ahead for Delaware!"). More than a few got tossed in jail for their efforts. The invasion was a flop. A disaster, really. Not only did their gubernatorial candidate get only 2.4 percent of the vote, but within a year the movement's foes would insert a provision into the state constitution that made a George-style tax impossible. Unable to achieve their ideas at the ballot box, a group of Georgists decided to take another approach. In 1900 they acquired some farmland outside Wilmington, created what amounted to a community land trust, leased out plots to anyone who wanted to move in, levied rents based on the value of the unimproved land, and used the rent money to pay for public goods. In other words, they set up a private town and enacted the Single Tax program contractually. And with that double experiment in communalism and privatization, Arden was born. I just called Arden a "town," but for its first few years it was essentially a summer resort. (Or a summer camp—many of the part-time residents slept in tents.) But by the end of the decade, particularly after the founders made some tweaks to the lease agreement in 1908, a year-round community had formed. It was a largely lower-middle-class crowd, with a high number of artists and craftsmen; it attracted not just Georgists but other sorts of nonconformists, from socialists to vegetarians. And anarchists, like our sexually explicit friend George Brown, who kept a cottage there with his common-law wife. The Ardenfolk had institutions—the trustees who set the rents had a certain degree of power, and there were regular town meetings too—but they weren't a municipality and they didn't have any police. So in July 1911, aggravated by the shoemaker's antics, a group left the town limits, found the appropriate authorities, and swore out a warrant for Brown's arrest. Not everyone in the colony liked this idea. "They did not want any 'laws or lawing in Arden,'" The Ne[...]



Secret Hitler

2017-08-01T12:00:00-04:00

(image) Five to 10 people sit around a table. Most of them are liberals, in the broad sense of favoring civil liberties and self-government. Some of them are fascists. And one of them is, as the kids say, literally Hitler.

They're playing Secret Hitler, a board-and-card game for anyone eager to conjure the spirit of late Weimar Germany in the comfort of his living room. The fascists want to install a dictatorship; the liberals want to stop them. And the fascists are all posing as liberals, a fact that can make the liberals as paranoid and purge-happy as their opponents.

One of the designers behind Secret Hitler is Max Temkin, co-creator of the card game Cards Against Humanity, and like his previous project this one has attracted accusations of bad taste. But this isn't some simple-mindedly transgressive entertainment that tosses around words like Hitler to get a rise out of people. To the extent that it's possible for a strategy game to engage real issues, this one deals seriously with political power, political fear, and—in its creators' words—"the disastrous temptation to solve systemic problems by giving more power to the 'right people.'"

And it does all that without preaching. Indeed, like any good game, it does it while being fun.




The Indestructible Idea of the Basic Income

2017-06-03T00:00:00-04:00

Andy Stern is a former president of the Service Employees International Union. Charles Murray may be America's most prominent right-wing critic of the welfare state. So when they appeared onstage together in Washington, D.C., last fall to discuss the basic income—the idea of keeping people out of poverty by giving them regular unconditional cash payments—the most striking thing about the event was that they kept agreeing with each other. It isn't necessarily surprising that Stern and Murray both back some version of the concept. It has supporters across the political spectrum, from Silicon Valley capitalists to academic communists. But this diverse support leads naturally to diverse versions of the proposal, not all of which are compatible with one another. Some people want to means-test the checks so that only Americans below a certain income threshold receive them; others want a fully universal program, given without exceptions. Some want to replace the existing welfare state; others want to tack a basic income onto it. There have been tons of suggestions for how to fund the payments and for how big they should be. When it comes to the basic income, superficial agreement is common but actual convergence can be fleeting. In Stern's case, the central issue driving his interest in the idea is the turmoil he expects automation to bring to the economy. In the future, he and Lee Kravitz predict in their 2016 book Raising the Floor, tens of millions of jobs will disappear, leaving much of the country stuck with work that is "contingent, part-time, and driven largely by people's own motivation, creativity, and the ability to make a job out of 'nothing.'" A basic income, he hopes, would bring some economic security to their lives. Read Murray's first detailed pitch for a guaranteed income, the 2006 book In Our Hands, and you won't see anything like that. Its chief concern is shifting power from government bureaucracies to civil society. It doesn't just propose a new transfer program; it calls for repealing every other transfer program. And automation isn't a part of its argument at all. But onstage at the Cato Institute in D.C., Murray was as worried as Stern about technological job loss, warning that "we are going to be carving out millions of white-collar jobs, because artificial intelligence, after years of being overhyped, has finally come of age." Meanwhile, Stern signaled that he was open not just to replacing welfare programs for the disadvantaged but possibly even to rethinking Social Security, provided that people still have to contribute money to some sort of retirement system and that Americans who have already paid in don't get shortchanged. He drew the line at eliminating the government's health insurance programs—but the other guy on the stage agreed that health care was different. Under Murray's plan, citizens would be required to use part of their grant to buy health insurance, and insurance companies would be required to treat the population as a single pool. The Murray/Stern convergence comes as the basic income is enjoying a wave of interest and enthusiasm. The concept comes up in debates over everything from unemployment to climate change. Pilot programs testing various versions of the idea are in the works everywhere from Oakland to Kenya, and last year Swiss voters considered a plan to introduce a guaranteed income nationwide. (They wound up rejecting the referendum overwhelmingly, with only 23 percent voting in favor. I didn't say everyone was enthusiastic.) This isn't the first time the basic income or an idea like it has edged its way onto the agenda. It isn't even the first time we've seemed to see an ideological convergence. This patchwork of sometimes-overlapping movements with sometimes-overlapping proposals has a history that stretches back centuries. It Usually Begins with Tom Paine Just where you pinpoint the start of that history depends on how broadly you're willing to define basic income. The i[...]



Theft: A History of Music

2017-06-01T12:00:00-04:00

"Classical musicians borrowed from each other all the time!" a historian declares. "It's like an insane game of musical Chutes and Ladders." An actual game of Chutes and Ladders follows, with annotations explaining where Beethoven borrowed from Handel, Brahms from Beethoven, Mahler from Brahms. Sampling and remixing, we're reminded, are a lot older than hip-hop.

That sequence comes about a fifth of the way through Theft: A History of Music, a 259-page comic about an art form's evolving interactions with markets, technology, and the law. With a scope that stretches from medieval troubadours to modern rappers, Theft shows not just how common borrowing has been but how music is shaped by the social context that produces it. In the baroque era, for example, composers created pieces for particular occasions, so it was widely seen as acceptable to revise an old tune for a new setting. Later composers started to make money from sales of sheet music, and—in a related development—"original genius" became more prized.

The text does its share of borrowing itself: There are allusions to everything from Kafka to The Jetsons. Some of the jokes fall flat, but the book has only one big drawback: It can't play the music it describes. Some creative borrower should turn it into an animated movie.




The Realist Cartoons

2016-12-30T21:00:00-05:00

(image) It's 1967, and an old woman is handing an "End the Draft" sign to a young man. "Take it, Norbert," she says, "and bear it well: your great-grandfather carried it against the Lincoln administration."

So goes one of the gags collected in The Realist Cartoons (Fantagraphics), an anthology drawn from Paul Krassner's great satiric magazine The Realist. The mag originally ran from 1958 to 1974, with a return engagement in the '80s and '90s; inevitably, some stuff here that once seemed daring now hardly feels bold at all. (Several of the cartoons about religion no longer look particularly brave. And we're long past the days when a four-letter word could carry a joke all by itself.) But the book's best material holds up. In one cartoon, a white liberal decides a civil rights march is the right place to hire a cleaning lady. In another, Woody Allen, having married Soon-Yi, starts doing mother-in-law jokes. One infamous illustration stars the Disney characters in an elaborately detailed orgy.

Some of these cartoons are angry; some are wry. Some critique the country's most powerful institutions; some just seem happy breaking taboos (including, at times, the taboos of the typical Realist reader). They all exude irreverence, just like the journal that published them.




The Best Books, Films, Music, and Television of 2016

2016-12-22T08:15:00-05:00

As the year drew to a close, we asked Reason's staff to select some of the best books, movies, and other media released in 2016. Our picks range from a novel about economic apocalypse to a sitcom about aliens, from a book about cocktails to a film about Hannah Arendt. Dig in. —Jesse Walker Eric Boehm, reporter With Painkillers, former Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon leaves his Springsteen-meets-the-Replacements roots for a folksy-rock exploration of failed relationships, nostalgic romances, and the freedom that comes from letting go of the past, even if you'll never be rid of it. "You can't make me whole, I have to do that on my own," Fallon sings on the album's introspective closing number, a reference in equal parts to his recent divorce and to the breakup of his band. The simple Americana arrangements here put Fallon's skills as a songwriter—and he's one of the best out there right now—in the spotlight, particularly on "Rosemary," "Among Other Foolish Things," and "Smoke." He may be going in a new direction, but Fallon spends most of Painkillers looking back, examining hazy memories or half-remembered dreams of what might have been. There's borrowed cars, girls who love whiskey, and Rites of Spring. The good times, Fallon sings, are "lost in the songs they don't write anymore." Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a documentary by the Israeli director Ada Ushpiz, may not be the best offering of 2016, but it is arguably the most relevant. The West is experiencing a rise of demagogues, fuelled partly by right-wing populist movements. It is possible that in resisting them, Western liberalism will strengthen itself. It could also collapse into something horrible, as Weimar Germany did. The film, which hit select American theaters this year, offers a glimpse into the mass psychology that would allow that to happen. Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, fled to America from Nazi Germany. The documentary delves into her thought to understand how the land that produced the greatest minds in philosophy, literature, and music collapsed into the barbarism of Auschwitz. It excavates rare footage of Germany during Hitler's rule to show the campaign to dehumanize Jews that preceded the Holocaust. But the more crucial step, per Arendt, was the triumph of what Frankfurt School philosophers call instrumental or technocratic rationality over critical rationality. The film depicts Arendt's 1961 journey to Israel for The New Yorker to cover the famous trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi accused of war crimes. After observing months of testimony, Arendt coined her phrase "banality of evil" to convey that Eichmann, a diminutive and soft-spoken man, wasn't motivated so much by hatred of Jews. Rather, he believed that his job was to find the most efficient way to execute his assigned tasks, not raise big questions. Arendt was condemned for soft-peddling the Satanic nature of the Nazi regime. But the documentary shows that she was laying bare something still more horrible: how ordinary people can stumble into unspeakable evil when they let their civilizational guard down. Anthony Fisher, associate editor Louis CK blew up the concept of the 30-minute sitcom with his FX show Louie, where the main character's backstory would change without explanation and where excruciatingly painful situations could be both hilarious and cathartic. Now he may have blown up the episodic television show itself with the eight-part miniseries Horace and Pete, originally released on his own website but now available on Hulu. Though occasionally funny, this is no comedy—in fact, it's as much of a horror show as a drama. Set in the hellscape of a 100-year-old Irish bar in Brooklyn, the show's depiction of boredom, dumb arguments, sexism, familial abuse, mental illness, and pathological self-destruction make for perhaps the most honest depiction of barfly cultu[...]



Christmas Horrors

2016-11-25T12:00:00-05:00

(image) Over the last decade or so, American pop culture has discovered the Krampus: a demonic Austrian counterpart to St. Nicholas who threatens kids with cruel punishments while the saint promises them rewards. In The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas (Feral House), Al Ridenour explores the Old World's spooky, raucous Krampus festivities, with side trips that cover Yuletide witches, Yuletide werewolves, and other signs of "a deep-rooted European understanding of Christmas as a time of supernatural mayhem."

In theory, Ridenour writes, the Krampus today is "an enforcer of social norms," punishing children who misbehave. But any close look at Krampus practices reveals a rather different impulse at work as well: In these carnivalesque traditions, participants are "freed to act out" and to "create tumult wherever they go." Over the centuries, anxious authorities have tried to ban or tightly regulate these anarchic rites. But whatever short-term victories they won, the idea of the Krampus kept thriving.




Seeing Trump on the Silver Screen

2016-11-06T06:00:00-05:00

In the year of Trump, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd has had more cameos in the political columns than any other revival-house staple. Pundit after pundit has pointed to the picture to explain the rise of the Republican nominee. That may say more about a certain segment of Donald Trump's foes than it does about Trump or his following. The movie traces its roots to a tipsy conversation screenwriter Budd Schulberg once had with Will Rogers Jr., the son of the folksy cowboy humorist. "My father was so full of shit," Rogers declared, "because he pretends he's just one of the people, just one of the guys...but in our house the only people that ever came as guests were the richest people in town, the bankers and the power brokers of L.A." That comment inspired Schulberg's short story "Your Arkansas Traveler," and that story became the seed of A Face in the Crowd, scripted by Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. The picture has long been popular with people who fear the place where populism meets pop culture. The movie begins with Marcia Jeffries visiting a county jail in Arkansas. Jeffries is a starry-eyed Sarah Lawrence grad who works for her uncle's rural radio station; she learned in college that "real American music comes from the bottom up," and she's delighted to discover a singing and storytelling drifter doing time for drunk and disorderly conduct. The prisoner is Lonesome Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith as a magnetic bundle of appetites, and his mix of country music and unfiltered philosophizing becomes popular on her uncle's radio outlet, and then on a larger-market television outlet, and finally on a national TV show transmitted from New York. Rhodes turns out to be not just a natural entertainer but a natural advertiser: Between his charisma and his frenzied fan base, he boosts the sales of everything from mattresses to energy supplements. The story takes a turn when Rhodes starts applying his techniques to politics, pitching an ultraconservative senator with the talents he'd been using to pitch consumer goods. (The movie signals that the senator is a bad guy by calling him "the last of the isolationists" and by having him criticize Social Security.) Just as the dark night of reaction is about to fall upon the land, Jeffries sabotages Rhodes by flicking his mic back on when he thinks a TV broadcast is over. Suddenly his audience hears him mocking them: "Those morons out there? Shucks, I sell them chicken fertilizer as caviar....They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers." His former fans rebel and the republic is saved. The movie wasn't a hit when it came out, but it has had a long shelf life. That's partly because of Griffith, who gave the best performance of his career: a vortex of villainous charm that can shock viewers used to the genial TV sheriff he played later. But it's also because the picture speaks to a set of social anxieties that haven't disappeared: fears of television, advertising, popular culture, and demotic demagoguery. If a politician wanders over from the entertainment industry, and if his views even superficially resemble Rhodes', someone is bound to bring up Kazan and Schulberg's picture. (Kazan himself declared that it "anticipated Ronald Reagan.") It's no surprise that we've been hearing about it throughout this election season. "Rarely and perhaps not in modern times has a presidential campaign more resembled the classic 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd," the conservative columnist Cal Thomas announced. At the other end of the spectrum, a scribe at The Nation informed us that "Lonesome Rhodes has come to life in the form of Donald Trump." CNN ran a story headlined "Did this movie predict Trump's rise?" The Washington Post's Marc Fisher declared that A Face in the Crowd set "the template" for "Trump's rule-smashing ro[...]



Disaster Progressivism

2016-10-01T12:00:00-04:00

Spontaneous cooperation, not social chaos, is the norm after a natural or technological disaster. That fact looms large in Jacob Remes' Disaster Citizenship (University of Illinois Press), a book that looks at two devastating events—a 1914 fire in Salem, Massachusetts, and a 1917 shipyard explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia—and shows what happened when that grassroots mutual aid ran headfirst into the Progressive Era's passion for rule by "expert" professionals.

Remes examines everything from ethnic networks to labor politics to the battle for control of government aid. (The people of Salem and Halifax were often happy to take the help, but only on their own terms.) As an undergrad at Yale, Remes took a class from Seeing Like a State author James C. Scott, and a very Scottian theme runs through all of the book's nuances and distinctions: the clash between an "organic, emergent order" and a power structure for whom that order was "inherently illegible and unknowable."




Traffic Court Piracy

2016-08-01T12:00:00-04:00

Many Missouri towns, especially in the St. Louis area, are infamous for using speed traps, draconian court fees, and other types of traffic-court piracy to keep their budgets in the black. A recent reform was aimed at reining in these abuses, but in March a judge struck down several aspects of the law.

Before the bill took effect earlier this year, towns could get as much as 30 percent of their revenue from traffic enforcement. Under the new order, the ceiling in most of the state was lowered to 20 percent. But in "any county with a charter form of government and with more than nine hundred fifty thousand inhabitants"—that is, in St. Louis County only—it was pushed much lower, to 12.5 percent.

The law was clearly having an effect. St. Ann, a tiny town that relied on a speed trap for much of its revenue, responded by laying off 10 cops. Another mini-city, Charlack, dissolved its force entirely and contracted instead with a local police cooperative. But on March 28, Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem ruled that the provisions singling out St. Louis County were forbidden under the Missouri constitution. The 20 percent cap will now be imposed across the state evenly.

Beetem also struck down a statewide requirement that towns submit annual reports on the revenues they receive from traffic violations and related court costs, deeming this an unfunded mandate. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster plans to appeal the ruling.




Yesterday's Future

2016-08-01T12:00:00-04:00

(image) "Hippie modernism" may sound like a contradiction in terms. But it's not a bad description for a certain sensibility of the 1960s and '70s, when the counterculture's utopian dreams found room for cybernetic technology, experimental architecture, new media, and avant-garde art.

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center), a mammoth book pegged to an exhibition now touring the country, aims to illuminate that era of Fuller domes and Be-Ins. Its essays are a mixed bag: There is interesting history here, and sometimes there are thoughtful critiques, but there is also a lot of jargon and ideological ax-grinding. (Inevitably, someone links the Whole Earth Catalog to "the dawn of neoliberalism.")

But it's always great to look at—not just for the old art and artifacts that it reproduces but for its own retro hippie-modernist design, with pages that look like they were torn from the Catalog or Radical Software or, for that matter, an early issue of reason.




Clinton vs. Trump: Who's Worse?

2016-07-17T06:00:00-04:00

P.J. O'Rourke once called Hillary Clinton "a chowder-skull" and "a bossy little rich snoot of a goody-two-shoes." So it surprised a lot of people when the political humorist announced that he's voting for her. Clinton, O'Rourke said on the May 7 episode of the NPR show Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me!, was "the second worst thing that could happen to this country. But she's way behind in second place, you know? She's wrong about absolutely everything. But she's wrong within normal parameters!" Of the presumptive Republican nominee, he warned: "They've got this button, you know? It's in a briefcase. He's gonna find it." Rand Paul once called Donald Trump "a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag" and said "a speck of dirt is way more qualified to be president." But the Kentucky senator—who, like O'Rourke, occupies the ideological space between a libertarian and a conservative—affirmed in April that if Trump won the Republican nomination, he would support him. "I think we never get the candidate we exactly want unless you're the candidate," he said at a press conference. "Think about it from this perspective. I'm from Kentucky, and Hillary Clinton recently said she would put coal miners out of business, and she would put coal companies out of business." It's not unusual for libertarians to have a hard time backing either major party's presidential candidate, but the dispiriting choice between Clinton and Trump has even the most Republican-friendly members of the movement holding their noses. So reason decided to ask some prominent libertarian and libertarian-leaning figures which candidate offends them more. Unlike O'Rourke and Paul, the people surveyed below are not making endorsements here—many will be voting for a third-party candidate or staying home. They're answering a simpler question: not Who will you vote for? but Which one of these two is worse? Radley BalkoWashington Post blogger and former reason staffer"Ugh. I guess I'd say Trump is worse. Clinton is at least a known commodity, and clearly better on trade and immigration, though even those are grading on a steep curve. Trump seems marginally less enthusiastic about starting wars, but who knows? He's been all over the place. On criminal justice, Clinton has a proven record of awfulness, but has vaguely vowed to do better. Trump has a record of demagoguing crime, has brought horrendous people like Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie into his campaign, and has vowed a heaping pile of more awfulness as president. So I guess that one goes to Clinton. I'd imagine Clinton would be a standard center-left Democrat on tax, spend, and regulatory issues. Trump's policies could well be economically calamitous. So again, a begrudging nod to Clinton. "It's probably also worth noting that as a white guy, I'm of a demographic that has the least to fear from a Trump presidency (and there's still plenty to fear). For Latinos, blacks, and Muslims, the prospect must be terrifying. So I guess in short, I'm thinking Clinton would be terrible. But Trump would be worse, and could be catastrophic." Dave Barrynovelist and newspaper columnist"Speaking strictly as humor columnist, I believe that a Trump presidency would probably be funnier, assuming you don't care what happens to the nation. Whereas a Clinton presidency would be mainly grim. On the other hand—again, assuming you don't care what happens to the nation—it might be SO grim that it would actually be funny. "So bottom line, I think that when the time comes to go into the voting booth and make a decision, I will just kill myself." David Boazexecutive vice president of the Cato Institute"I've heard libertarians say, 'We know how bad Hillary is, so the mysterious Trump is a better bet[...]



Trumpland

2016-07-15T06:00:00-04:00

No two Trump rallies are alike, but the same tribes seem to form at every one. There are the supporters, a varied assortment of locals who want Donald Trump to be president. There are the protesters, a varied assortment of locals who want Donald Trump to get lost. There are the cops, who are supposed to keep the supporters and the protesters from killing each other. There are the vendors, self-employed peddlers who follow the candidate from town to town, hawking T-shirts, buttons, playing cards, hats, and other Trump-themed products. There are the gawkers, curiosity-seekers who blend in with the supporters but sometimes give themselves away by making wry jokes about the carnival bustling around them. And there is the press, stumbling about with pens and cameras, awkwardly asking strangers if they'd be willing to answer a few questions. That's me. By the time I arrived at my first Trump rally, at the Times Union Center in Albany eight days before the New York primary, the events had acquired a reputation as incubators of mob violence. At an October speech in Miami, some Trump fans had attacked a group of protesters as the latter were ejected from the venue, kicking one in the knee and slamming another on the back with a Trump sign. At a November rally in Birmingham, a demonstrator had been punched, kicked, and choked. There were a flurry of assaults in March: the Louisville Trump supporters who shoved a woman; the guy who sucker-punched a protester as he was being led out of a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina; the Tucson man who snatched a sign from a heckler and started hitting and kicking him with abandon. In Chicago, brawls broke out between pro- and anti-Trump factions as they waited for the candidate to appear. Trump wound up cancelling the rally, citing safety concerns and claiming that police had advised him to pull the plug. (The Chicago police deny that any such advice was issued.) So when the pundits discuss Trump rallies, the talk tends to take on an apocalyptic tone. Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan described the disorder as the "embryonic form" of fascistic "organized street violence." The Hartford Courant ran an op-ed under the headline "Hostile Trump Rallies Echo Days Of Mob Rule." Rachel Maddow declared on MSNBC that Trump was "inarguably" ginning up violence on purpose, the plan being then to present himself as the strongman who can stop it. The Trump team, for its part, argues that it's the protesters who are the really violent ones, a line that goes at least as far as the candidate's comment on March 10 that some demonstrators were "bad dudes" who "get in there and start hitting people." No one has been able to corroborate that claim, though some protesters have been violent since then—besides the fighting in Chicago, there were the anti-Trump militants in Costa Mesa, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, who threw rocks and beer bottles outside rallies. And at press time, protesters at a Trump event in San Jose randomly punched and threw eggs at the candidate's supporters. So there are just enough cherry-pickable facts for two rival narratives to emerge, one where the Trump fans are a mindless mob being incited by a demagogue and one where they're merely defending themselves from a mob on the other side. Yet most of the people who come to these rallies are peaceful, whether they love Trump or hate him; any portrait that reduces either side to a feral gang isn't accurate. Crowds are not big Borgs that sap people of their individuality, and the culture of these particular crowds is complicated, especially when you start comparing one rally to another. In Albany, most of the supporters and protesters I encountered took a f[...]



Before Trump, There Was Pappy

2016-05-01T12:00:00-04:00

The Texas press didn't know what to make of Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, the eccentric businessman, broadcaster, and bandleader who plunged suddenly into the Democratic primary during the state's 1938 gubernatorial race. They certainly didn't expect O'Daniel to get anywhere. He had no political experience. For most of his life, he hadn't been a Democrat. He hadn't paid his poll tax, so he couldn't even vote for himself. Surely, they reasoned, the voters would instead choose one of the established leaders in the race—probably Railroad Commissioner Ernest Thompson or Attorney General William McCraw. Or maybe Tom Hunter, an oilman from Wichita Falls who had run for the office several times before. Meanwhile, O'Daniel embarked on a 20,000-mile trek across Texas. The candidate would roll into town in a long white bus with a little stage atop it. Huge crowds would swarm in to see the show: 3,000 in Colorado City, 15,000 in Cleburne, 22,000 in Austin, 25,000 in Waco. Pappy's band would play a few country tunes, and then the solidly built radio star with the slicked-back hair would join them, alternating parts of his stump speech with more songs. They come to town with their guitars/And now they're smoking' big cigars, he'd croon. Them hillbillies are politicians now. At first the papers barely noticed O'Daniel's tour through the state. (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram didn't bother to mention his massive Waco rally until three days after it happened.) When it became clear that something big was afoot, they argued that no one could tell whether the crowds consisted of supporters or just gawkers. Did those mobs actually agree with O'Daniel's vague platform? the pundits asked. Or were they only there to enjoy, in the words of the syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, "a mellifluous radio voice that women gush over and a hill-billy band that delights both young and old"? When the Star-Telegram finally acknowledged that Pappy was attracting "larger and more enthusiastic crowds than any other candidate," it added that many members of those audiences were nonvoters and wondered whether the movement was a "bubble." All the while the carnival kept getting bigger, until finally it took over the Lone Star State. When the Democrats of Texas cast their ballots, O'Daniel won about 30,000 more votes than every other candidate combined. He went on to defeat the Republican (in Texas in those days, the Democrat always defeated the Republican) and moved his broadcast base into the governor's mansion. Long before Donald Trump threw his hair into the ring, Pappy O'Daniel's radio-sparked campaigns ushered in an era that effaced the lines between popular culture and politics, paving the way not just for Trump but for Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kinky Friedman, and every other politician who started with a fan base instead of an exploratory committee. If you want to know how a reality TV star can open a presidential primary season with a second-place finish in Iowa and then victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, O'Daniel's tale is a fine place to begin. 'That's What Brings 'Em In, Boys' Pappy O'Daniel was not the first man to mix mass culture with political power. William Randolph Hearst had used his newspapers to propel himself into Congress several decades earlier, and before then the circus impresario P.T. Barnum had gotten himself elected to a couple of offices in Connecticut. Nor was O'Daniel the first to use radio as a political tool. Earlier in the '30s, the broadcaster-cum-quack John R. Brinkley, best known for telling listeners he could cure their ailments by transplanting goat glands into their bodies, had run f[...]