GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR
We’ve got a new District Attorney in New York City – but it’s the same old story of entrenched corruption and impunity for criminal elites! Last month, new DA Alvin Bragg decided not to pursue the prosecution of Trump for obvious crimes, and last week, lawyer Mark Pomerantz, who had come out of retirement to aid then-DA Cy Vance in the Trump Crime Cult investigation, published a blistering resignation letter in which he blamed Bragg for stopping the investigation in its tracks. What Pomerantz failed to mention was that Vance had spent his entire tenure protecting criminal elites – including the Trump family! – while lawyers in the know like Pomerantz said nothing until it was too late. Bragg did not create these problems; he inherited them. But now it is Bragg’s job to fix them, and he seems more content to be the fall guy than to act.
GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR
In this episode of Gaslit Nation, we revisit some familiar terrain – you know, like Putin did when he decided to invade Ukraine yet again. In Monday’s bonus episode, available to Gaslit Nation listeners at the Truth-Teller level or higher, we answered questions about particular issues in Putin’s war on Ukraine: nukes, Israel, UK sanctions, and so on. In today’s episode, we revisit the history of the current conflict – since many people still do not grasp that the defense pact of NATO is not what prompted Putin’s invasion – and of the USSR itself.hs!
GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR
Putin’s brutal escalated invasion of Ukraine was predictable – not only because he announced it in advance, but because Russia has carried out extreme military violence in other regions for decades, most notably Chechnya in the 2000s and Syria over the last decade. As Ukraine continues to fight back, Syria suffers due to the partnership of Putin and Assad and the war crimes they carried out on Syrian civilians, which killed hundreds of thousands and displaced several million. To understand what may be in store for Ukraine, we need to understand Syria, so we invited an expert on Syria for an urgent discussion with Gaslit Nation.
In our history, the United States has gone through turning points when we have had to adjust our democratic principles to new circumstances. The alternative is to lose those principles to a small group of people who insist that democracy is outdated and must be replaced by a government run by a few leaders or, now, by a single man.
The Declaration of Independence asserted as “self-evident” that all people are created equal and that God and the laws of nature have given them certain fundamental rights. Those include—but are not limited to—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The role of government was to make sure people enjoyed these rights, and thus governments are legitimate only if those they rule consent to that government.
The Founders’ concept that all men were created equal and had a right to consent to the government under which they lived, the heart of the Declaration of Independence, was revolutionary. For all that it excluded Indigenous Americans, Black colonists, and all women, the very idea that men were not born into a certain place in a hierarchy and could create a government that reflected such an idea upended traditional western beliefs.
From the beginning, though, there were plenty of Americans who doubled down on the idea of human hierarchies in which a few superior men should rule the rest. They argued that the Constitution was designed to protect property alone and that as a few men accumulated wealth, they should run things. Permitting those without property to have a say in their government would mean they could demand that the government provide things that might infringe on the rights of property-owners.
These undercurrents have always tossed our republic, but four times in our history, new pressures have brought these two ideas into open conflict. In the 1850s, 1890s, and 1930s and in the present, we have had to fit our democracy to new circumstances.
In the 1850s, the pressures of western expansion forced Americans to figure out what, exactly, they wanted the nation to stand for. Northern states, whose mixed economy needed educated workers, and thus widely shared economic and political power, opposed the hierarchical system of human enslavement. Southern states, whose economy rested on the production of raw materials by enslaved workers, opposed equality. Aside from occasional flare-ups, the two systems had muddled along together for sixty years, despite the reality that the enslavers were shrinking farther and farther into the minority as population in the North boomed.
The U.S. acquisition of western land with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo opened the opportunity for enslavers to address their weakening position by dominating the national government. If they could spread enslavement into the new territories, they could overawe the North in Congress and pass laws to make their system national. As South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond put it: “I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd, that much lauded but nowhere accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson that ‘all men are born equal.”’
When Congress, under extraordinary pressure from the pro-southern administration, passed the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, overturning the Missouri Compromise and letting slavery spread into the West, northerners of all parties woke up to the looming loss of their democratic government. A railroad lawyer from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, remembered how northerners were “thunderstruck and stunned; and we reeled and fell in utter confusion. But we rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach—a scythe—a pitchfork—a chopping axe, or a butcher’s cleaver” to push back against the slaveowning oligarchy. And while they came from different parties, he said, they were “still Americans; no less devoted to the continued Union and prosperity of the country than heretofore.”
Slavery apologists urged white voters not to worry about Black Americans held in slavery, but Lincoln urged Americans to come together to protect the Declaration of Independence. “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop?… If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out!”
When voters agreed with Lincoln and elected him to the presidency in 1860, southerners tried to create their own nation based on human inequality. As Georgia Senator Alexander Stephens, soon to be the vice president of the Confederacy, explained in March 1861: “Our new government is founded…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
In office, Lincoln reached back to the Declaration—written “four score and seven years ago”— and charged Americans to “resolve that…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The victory of the United States government in the Civil War ended the power of enslavers in the government, but new crises in the future would revive the conflict between the idea of equality and a nation of hierarchies.
In the 1890s, the rise of industrialism led to the concentration of wealth at the top of the economy. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie celebrated the “contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer,” for although industrialization created “castes,” it created “wonderful material development,” and “while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.” Those at the top were there because of their “special ability,” and anyone seeking a fairer distribution of wealth was a “Socialist or Anarchist…attacking the foundation upon which civilization rests.” Instead, he said, society worked best when a few wealthy men ran the world, for “wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made a much more potent force for the elevation of our race than if it had been distributed in small sums to the people themselves.”
Once again, people of all political parties came together to reclaim American democracy. Although Democrat Grover Cleveland was the first to complain that “corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters,” it was Republican Theodore Roosevelt who is now popularly associated with the development of a government that regulated the excesses of big business. He complained about that “small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power,” and ushered in the Progressive Era with government regulation of business to protect the ability of individuals to participate in American society as equals.
The rise of a global economy in the twentieth century repeated the pattern. After socialists took control of Russia in 1917, American men of property insisted that any restrictions on their control of resources or the government were a form of “Bolshevism,” but in the 1930s a worldwide depression brought voters of all parties behind President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used the government to provide a “New Deal for the American people.” His government regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and promoted infrastructure. Then, after Black and Brown veterans coming home from World War II demanded equality, that New Deal government, under Democratic president Harry Truman and Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, worked to end racial and, later, gender hierarchies in American society.
Now, once again, we are at an inflection point. The rise of global oligarchs and the internet, which enables those oligarchs to spread disinformation, has made significant numbers of American voters once again slide away from democracy to embrace the idea that the country would work better with a few leaders making the rules for the rest of us. In nineteen states, Republican-dominated legislatures have passed laws that restrict the vote and entrench minority rule, even up to allowing state legislatures to overturn election results. If that is permitted to stand, that minority can choose our president, and it is increasingly backing one single man, one individual, to rule over the rest of us.
If history is any guide, we are at the point when voters of all parties must push back, to say that we do, in fact, believe in the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal, and that our government is legitimate only if we have a say in it.
On June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day operation in which the Allied forces in World War II invaded German-occupied western Europe, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his 29th Fireside Chat.
Roosevelt told the American people that Rome had fallen to American and Allied troops the previous day. He used the talk not only to announce this important milestone in the deadly war, but also to remind Americans they were engaged in a war between democracy and fascism. And while fascists insisted their ideology made countries more efficient and able to serve their people, the Allies’ victory in Rome illustrated that the ideology of fascism, which maintained that a few men should rule over the majority of the population, was hollow.
Rome was the seat of fascism, FDR told his listeners, and under that government, “the Italian people were enslaved.” He explained: “In Italy the people had lived so long under the corrupt rule of Mussolini that, in spite of the tinsel at the top—you have seen the pictures of him—their economic condition had grown steadily worse. Our troops have found starvation, malnutrition, disease, a deteriorating education and lowered public health—all by-products of the Fascist misrule.”
FDR continued: “We and the British will do and are doing everything we can to bring them relief. Anticipating the fall of Rome, we made preparations to ship food supplies to the city…we have already begun to save the lives of the men, women and children of Rome…. This, I think, is an example of the magnificent ability and energy of the American people in growing the crops, building the merchant ships, in making and collecting the cargoes, in getting the supplies over thousands of miles of water, and thinking ahead to meet emergencies—all this spells, I think, an amazing efficiency on the part of our armed forces, all the various agencies working with them, and American industry and labor as a whole.”
“No great effort like this can be a hundred percent perfect,” he said, “but the batting average is very, very high.”
That speech highlighting logistics as a key difference between democracy and fascism comes to mind these days as we watch democracy and authoritarianism clash in Ukraine.
A report last month by Washington, D.C., nonprofit Freedom House, which studies democracy, political freedom, and human rights, painted a bleak picture. “Global freedom faces a dire threat,” authors Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz wrote. “Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy—a form of self-government in which human rights are recognized and every individual is entitled to equal treatment under law—are accelerating their attacks.”
In 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that the ideology of liberalism on which democracy is based has “outlived its purpose.” Multiculturalism, freedom, and human rights must give way to “the culture, traditions, and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has been open about his determination to replace western-style democracy with what he has, on different occasions, called “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy,” ending the immigration that he believes undermines Hungarian culture and rejecting “adaptable family models” with “the Christian family model.”
According to President Joe Biden, Chinese president Xi Jinping believes that autocracies are “the wave of the future—democracy can’t function in an ever complex world.”
Freedom House documents that for sixteen years, global freedom has declined. Authoritarians are undermining basic liberties, abusing power, and violating human rights, and their growing global influence is shifting global incentives toward autocratic governments and away from democracy, “jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security, while encouraging more authoritarian approaches to governance.” Over the past year, 60 countries became less free, while only 25 improved.
“They’re going to write about this point in history,” Biden told a group of news anchors in April 2021, shortly after he took office. “Not about any of us in here, but about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century…. Things are changing so rapidly in the world, in science and technology and a whole range of other issues, that—the question is: In a democracy that’s such a genius as ours, can you get consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?”
The last few weeks have demonstrated the same advantage of democracy over authoritarianism that FDR saw in the fall of Rome. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supposed to demonstrate the efficient juggernaut of authoritarianism. But Putin’s lightning attack on a neighboring state did not go as planned. Ukrainians have insisted on their right to self-determination, demonstrating the power of democracy with their lives.
At the same time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the weakness of modern authoritarianism. Putin expected to overrun a democratic neighbor quickly, but his failure to do so has revealed that his army’s perceived power was FDR’s “tinsel at the top”: lots of bells and whistles but outdated food, a lack of support vehicles, conscripted and confused soldiers, and compromised communications. The corruption inherent in a one-party state of loyalists, unafflicted by oversight, has hollowed out the Russian military, making it unable to feed or supply its troops.
That authoritarian government, it turns out, depended on democracies. As businesses pull out of Russia, the economy has collapsed. The ruble is worth less than a penny, and the Russian stock market remains closed. Today, the Russian economic ministry announced it would take the property of businesses leaving the country. Notably, it claimed the right to take about $10 billion of jets that had been leased to Russian airlines, quite possibly a way to get spare parts for the airplanes the huge country needs and can no longer get.
Putin is trying to prop up his power by insisting his people believe lies: on Friday, he signed a law making it a crime for media to produce any coverage the government says is “false information” about the invasion. He is now pushing the false claim that the U.S. is developing biological weapons in Ukraine, and has requested a meeting of the U.N. Security Council tomorrow to discuss this issue. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called the story “classic Russian propaganda.”
In contrast, democracies and allies, marshaled into a unified force in large part by Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the U.S. State Department, have done the boring, complicated, hard work of logistics, diplomacy, and intelligence, a combination that has crushed the Russian economy and is enabling the Ukrainian army to hold off an army 8 times its size. While there is a horrific humanitarian crisis inside Ukraine, those over the borders have managed the extraordinary logistics of processing and moving 2 million refugees from Ukraine in two weeks.
In 1944, FDR pointed out that democratic government was messy but it freed its people to work and think and fight in ways that authoritarian governments could not. In Fireside Chat 29, he warned his listeners not to read too much into the fall of Rome, because fascism had “not yet been driven to the point where [it] will be unable to recommence world conquest a generation hence…. Therefore, the victory still lies some distance ahead.” But, he added, “That distance will be covered in due time—have no fear of that.”