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A nod to the Birchers

rainey

One of the professional pleasures I’ve enjoyed in broadcasting and writing opinion journalism has been the freedom to occasionally chew on the nut cases of the far right. That enjoyment has been especially heightened when one or more ”targets” gets all outraged and feels personally persecuted.

That was especially true in the late 1960's when the targets were often the Birchers and Liberty Lobby as they railed against “Communists-behind-every-tree” and “big government taking away our freedoms.” They made an awful noise.

While I still enjoy targeting those “paranoid patriots,” I’ve lately begun to feel some of their pain. My pain, however, has a more solid basis in fact than those conspiracy believers.

We’re seeing more and more evidence that government, at all levels, has taken on the role of master rather than constitutional servant. It’s happening along the Potomac and it’s happening - in spades - in Idaho.

Case in point: the legally protected right of the people to make laws by referendum and to do so freely.

The traditional Idaho Republican-controlled legislature tried to make future public petition efforts nearly impossible. In plain language, to stop the public from exercising a constitutional guarantee so legislators can do their work without “interference.”

The basis for Republican efforts to castrate the public referendum process was in response to the overwhelming 2018 success of a petition drive to expand Medicaid coverage. But, with petitions still warm on the desk, Republicans quickly moved to kill the idea. And, to clamp down on future petition drives to make sure John and Jane Q. Public would face more hurdles trying again. On anything.

Gov. Little vetoed one bill but for the wrong reason. He agreed with content but feared expensive court challenges - and high defense costs sure to come - challenges that would likely be successful as they have been in other states. Little tried to mollify both Republican legislative friends and the public. Most Idahoans wanted the referendum bills killed. So, the GOPers in the Statehouse went back to work, rewriting for another try.

Little signed a Medicaid expansion bill which tries to add work requirements. Even if the feds approve, there’ll be a court fight on that one, too. More tax dollars down the rat hole. Little didn’t seem to care how high the legal bills will be on that one. Wonder why.

Utah and several other states have been involved in similar efforts to mute public input and kill attempts to expand Medicaid in their locales, even after similar overwhelming public support.

One can sense the deformed hand of the American Legislative Exchange Council in all this. ALEC. Funded by billionaires and large corporations, ALEC works with state legislatures and Congress - and some local governments - creating and passing out copies of “master” bills to do this-and-that. Nearly always something for the “fat cats” at the expense of the public.

ALEC has positioned itself as a sort of another level of government. I’d guess most of the public would be strongly opposed to ALEC if it knew ALEC existed and why. But, most folks don’t.

There are many cases in which our national government actively works against the interests of most of us. Though reliable public polling may show large majorities supporting a national issue like needing immediate action on climate change, Congress - especially the Senate - ignores it. If we overwhelmingly oppose something like the Kavanaugh SCOTUS nomination - they’ll do it anyway.

Members of Congress - especially many Republicans - have sealed themselves off from voters. Try to get Idaho Senators Risch or Crapo on the phone. Even harder, to meet with them face-to-face. When’s the last time they took questions at a constituent meeting? Or, even had a legitimate constituent meeting? Same in Utah with Lee and Romney.

Many elected officials - especially federal - have separated themselves from citizens. You see more and more instances of the “servant” becoming the “master.” Rather than responding to issues and concerns of the populace, we see governments - especially the elected portions thereof - going their own way while ignoring our input.

Added to this, we have a racist, narcissistic, chronic liar in the Oval Office hellbent on destroying any parts of government he doesn’t like. Which is most of it. And, he’s telling various authorities of that government to lie and ignore federal laws - even subpoenas - to get done whatever he wants done.

In the ‘50's and ‘60's, the Birchers and others were wrong. At the top of their voices. We’ve not been devoured by Communism, we haven’t needed the gold standard and their hero, Joe McCarthy, was a sick, loud-mouthed drunk who enjoyed destroying people.

But, they may have been onto something with their fear of government turning on the people and challenging some of our freedoms.

I’ll give ‘em that. But, that’s all.
 

No help for Souza

malloy

When Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene decided to leave her seat and run for secretary of state, she assumed she’d have generous support from North Idaho – and especially her longtime friends on Kootenai County’s Republican Central Committee.

And why not? Former Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs was the last person from North Idaho to hold a seat in a state constitutional office, and that was 20 years ago. No one from North Idaho has held a seat on the state Land Board.

Souza was hoping to change that, and she seemed to have all the credentials that her hometown folks would want. She served eight terms in the Idaho Senate and probably would have been a lock to win a ninth term if she had run. Before that, she made her mark by aggressively challenging the spending practices and decisions by local government entities. She also backed conservative candidates in local elections.

There was nothing “liberal” about what Souza was doing back in those days, and she’s hardly viewed as a liberal in the Legislature. Except for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, that is. That organization has given Souza failing marks on its “Freedom Index,” aimed at defining conservatism.

Suddenly, Souza was not “Republican enough” for Kootenai County’s central committee. That group endorsed Rep. Dorothy Moon of Stanley, who has based her legislative career on getting near-perfect marks on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s scorecard.

“Overnight, when my name was not chosen for endorsement, they went from being my friends and biggest supporters to not speaking to me,” Souza said.

The Coeur d’Alene senator finished a distant third in a race won by Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane.

Kootenai County wasn’t the only place where Souza received the cold shoulder. Central committees in Bonner, Boundary, Nez Perce and Shoshone counties also backed Moon and other right-wing candidates. She said the Bonneville County central committee invited Souza for a “personal” interview – after endorsing Moon and giving her $5,000.

“They thought I should go all the way to Idaho Falls to interview with them after they had already chosen their candidate,” Souza said. “That was not happening.”

Central Committees shouldn’t be the ones endorsing candidates, she said. “The voters in a Republican primary are supposed to be the vetting process. That’s why we have a primary. Some of the central committees have been taken over by libertarian/anarchists.”

Says Souza, “The Republican Party is the party of Ronald Reagan, where there are differences. But if we agree about 80 percent of the time, then we can work together. Libertarians say we have to agree 100 percent of the time, and you are a terrible person if you don’t.”

And those who don’t agree with the IFF almost down the line are viewed as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). Souza has been called that many times in the last year.

As Souza sees it, the Idaho Freedom Foundation has done much to influence people moving to Idaho to escape the liberal policies of other states. “They’re saying that ‘if you don’t vote down this line, then Idaho will end up like California, Oregon.’”

In her conversations with voters and constituents, Souza explains the diversity in Idaho. The citizen’s Legislature is a mix of people representing different cultures, geographic areas and industries. And laws passed affect parts of the state in different ways.

“The Idaho Freedom Foundation doesn’t take any of this into consideration,” Souza says. “Idaho doesn’t work that way.”

Idaho’s GOP will suffer if central committees continue to be taken over by libertarians, or the John Birch Society, she says. “They operate with intimidation and ridicule. They are mean and really dishonest, and yet they call themselves Christians. They are not Christians, I can tell you that.”

Although Souza lost her bid for secretary of state, don’t expect her to disappear from politics. She won’t say what’s next in her immediate future, but she’s not one to sit on the sidelines. As folks from Coeur d’Alene can attest, Souza is a relentless fighter. Knowing her, don’t be surprised to see her making life at least a bit uncomfortable for the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

Stay tuned.

ctmalloy@outlook. Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com
 

The disinformation of our age

johnson

Vladimir Putin’s criminally deadly war on Ukraine provides huge warnings to the democratic world about what happens when an entire population becomes captive to a thuggish authoritarian who lies with the kind of ease that most of us associate with taking the next breath.

Putin has been in power for 22 years, having successfully looted the country to enrich himself and a handful of his billionaire cronies, he now owns something even more valuable – the minds of most Russians. This ownership of public opinion appears so complete that Putin can transform the reality of his brutal invasion into a narrative that claims Ukrainians are the aggressors. The dead of Mariupol or Kharvik are, in Putin’s world, the “Nazis” threatening Mother Russia rather than the other way round.

We are witnessing a profound, real-time display of the power of misinformation, lies, hypocrisy and deception that truly is a warning as much as it is a tragedy.

It has been impossible this week to miss the horrific pictures and extensive first-hand reporting from Bucha, the Kiev suburb destroyed by Putin’s genocidal army. Yet, Putin and his henchmen have dismissed the images as propaganda. It’s an old, tired and disgusting tactic.

As the Associated Press has noted: “Denouncing news as fake or spreading false reports to sow confusion and undermine its adversaries are tactics that Moscow has used for years and refined with the advent of social media in places like Syria.”

Russian television, a veritable Fox News of lies and distortion and totally controlled by Putin, dishes a daily misinformation diet to people who have been lied to for so long that many have given up trying to ascertain the truth. While it would be foolish to put much faith in public opinion polling emanating from a country so thoroughly brainwashed, it appears most Russians, without ready access to independent reporting about the war, believe the lies pushed by the former KGB agent who is responsible for this madness.

Here’s how this disinformation reality connects to domestic politics, and the clear and present danger it presents to American democracy. For a decade or more the politics of the United States have been swamped by a deluge of lies with much of the lying amplified by people in high places and by cynical and manipulative media figures. Where to start?

The lies about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The lies about school shootings being “false flag” operations. The lies about a pedophile ring operating from a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. The lies about a presidential election being stolen.

The purpose of all this lying is, of course, to fuel grievance – make people mad – but also to confuse. Is there really a world-wide child sex abuse network, as QAnon has claimed? Did presidential election ballots disappear in Michigan? Was Covid-19 a Chinese communist plot?

The confusion has worked. The lies have penetrated deeply into the political world. A December opinion poll “found that 17 percent of Americans believed that the core falsehood of QAnon – that ‘a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media’ – was true.”

This helps explain, indeed may explain in its entirety, why a handful of the most craven Republican members of Congress verbally assaulted Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing over the lie, advanced by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, that Jackson’s jurisprudence might “endanger children.”

Hawley’s nonsense was immediately rejected by a review of the facts of Judge Jackson’s record, but as Georgetown professor Donald Moynihan pointed out in the Washington Post the allegation was never about facts. “The goal,” Moynihan wrote, “was to portray Jackson, and by extension Democrats, as players in the QAnon narrative that public institutions are overrun with child predators.” This line was immediately advanced by Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn, each clearly vying for the title of worst United States senator in the modern era.

The child predator narrative has become so prevalent among the fact-free alt right that when Utah Republican Mitt Romney said he would vote to confirm Jackson to the high court he was attacked online, an assault barely short of accusing the former Republican presidential candidate – a Mormon in good standing – of being soft on child abusers.

The disinformation – the lies – have become so prevalent that it is nearly impossible to keep track, and that is another aspect of what one-time Donald Trump “strategist” Steve Bannon infamously called “flooding the zone with shit.” This is the fatigue of confusion. Putin has mastered this, and Trump has long mimicked the man he called a “genius” for invading Ukraine. And it has worked, especially in this deadly moment for Putin who increasingly can count on a pro-Putin wing of the GOP to spread his lies.

From Tucker Carlson, the Russian propaganda peddling Fox News star, to 63 House Republicans – including Idaho’s Russ Fulcher and Montana’s Matt Rosendale – who voted this week against a resolution of support for continuing U.S. engagement with NATO, Putin’s disinformation has broadly entered the country’s conservative political bloodstream.

Altogether, as Will Saletan noted in The Bulwark, 21 Republicans have opposed, or sought to constrain, aid to Ukraine or sanctions on Russia. “That’s a group three times the size of ‘the Squad,’ which Republicans claim is in control of every aspect of Democratic policy. Imagine how much power those 21 Republicans would wield in a GOP-controlled House.” And lest we forget a former and potentially future American president has been his willing accomplice, while once responsible members of the Republican Party have aided and abetted his repeated lying.

“Disinformation is the story of our age,” says The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. I would take the observation a bit farther. It seems entirely possible that we are living in the advanced stages of a Putin-like capture of millions of American minds; minds filled with mush and grotesque nonsense, the kind of rank garbage that poisons democracy.

But who is really to blame for this softening of American minds? And is what we are experiencing really any different than the John Birch Society’s communist under every bed conspiracy of the 1950’s or who killed JFK narratives that have never ended?

The answer is a definitive – yes. This is different. An entire political party has willingly permitted this to ripen and grow rancid. That party, preparing to regain control of Congress this year, has proven beyond any doubt it will use disinformation to not only discredit its opponents, but delegitimize democratic institutions, including courts and elections.

As for who is to blame – we are, all of us. While we’ve been busy with the myriad distractions and trivialities of modern life, we allowed our democratic system to crumble into terrible disrepair, electing unserious, craven people and acting as though truth and character no longer matter.

While hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fight for their lives and their democracy, we can’t bring ourselves to discard the liars who threaten ours.
 

The GOP’s militia problem

johnson

Across the vast expanse of the American West the Republican Party has a militia problem. Most Republican elected officials are either in denial that a real problem exists or they are quietly hoping it somehow goes away.

It isn’t going away, and its existence should worry everyone who cares about the future of our democracy.

Journalist Heath Druzin has been reporting on anti-government militia groups in the West for years. He knows and frequently speaks with the leaders and members of groups like The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters. Druzin keeps tabs on Ammon Bundy, the rancher turned politician who led the armed takeover of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016 and who was until this week a Republican candidate for governor of Idaho. Bundy now says he’ll run as an independent.

Druzin’s current NPR podcast – “Extremely American” – focuses on what he calls “the ascendent patriot movement,” a collection of “militia members and far-right activists who are simultaneously preparing to fight the government and become part of it.”

Druzin’s reporting, and ample evidence on the ground in Idaho, Montana, Washington and elsewhere, demonstrate the increasing connections between the so called “militia movement” and the Republican Party.

“More and more I started seeing these guys in the Statehouse not out in the mountains shooting guns,” Druzin told me recently. “They were walking into a representative or senator’s office – that is different. They are extremely distrustful of the government, but now they are trying to be part of it.”

The evidence is impossible to ignore.

While Bundy runs for governor in Idaho, Eric Parker, founder of a group he calls “Real 3%ers Idaho,” is a Republican candidate for a state senate seat. Parker’s polished campaign website features a photo of the candidate with Idaho lieutenant governor Janice McGeachin, who has close ties to various militia groups and leaders and is running against incumbent governor Brad Little. Parker has endorsed McGeachin.

Parker’s website has the obligatory bio and statements about his positions. He will base his legislative votes, Parker says, on the Constitution, and he pledges to “work to address all constitutional breakdowns and to re-establish checks-and-balances to our State government.” Parker claims his group helped expand gun rights in Idaho and he wants more state control over public lands and more school choice.

Parker has repeatedly insisted his group – he says it has 2,500 members – is not a militia, and his political rhetoric, laced with references to the Constitution and demanding absolutist rights for gun owners, represents a typical issue mix for a very conservative western Republican. But missing, not surprisingly, from Parker’s bio is any mention of his guilty plea for obstructing a court order related to his involvement with another Bundy family standoff in Nevada in 2014. A widely circulated photo of Parker during the encounter shows him aiming his rifle at federal agents from behind a barricade.

Parker ran for the legislature in 2020. He lost but still gathered nearly 44% of the votes in his south-central Idaho district that ironically includes the liberal enclave of Sun Valley, the tony ski and summer resort. The legislative district’s boundaries were recently redrawn and a credible, establishment Republican is also running for what will be an open seat, so it remains to be seen if Parker has a real path to the state senate.

Representative Chad Christensen, a Republican representing a district in extreme southeastern Idaho, found his political path in 2018. Christensen proudly lists his membership in the John Birch Society and the Oath Keepers on his legislative website and says he’s serving in the legislature “to protect the God-given rights and freedom of people. It doesn’t matter who the foe might be, foreign enemies, groups against liberty, or our very own government.”

The Oath Keepers have been a major focus of the Justice Department’s investigation of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The group’s leader, Stewart Rhodes a former paratrooper with a Yale law degree, was arrested in January and charged with seditious conspiracy for what has been described as a wide-ranging plot to storm the Capitol to stop the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election.

“We aren’t getting through this without a civil war,” Rhodes wrote on the encrypted chat app Signal that was included as evidence for his indictment. “Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit.” Small wonder the FBI describes the Oath Keepers as a “paramilitary organization,” a definition the Southern Poverty Law Center expands to include “promoting their own form of vigilante justice.”

Javed Ali, a former senior director of the National Security Council and a counterterrorism official at the FBI, told CBS’s 60 Minutes in June 2021, that among the loosely connected militia groups the Oath Keepers is the most troubling.

“I think what makes the Oath Keepers unique and challenging,” Ali said, “beyond the fact that they are a formal group with chapters all over the country, is that a large percentage have tactical training and operational experience in either the military or law enforcement. That at least gives them a capability that a lot of other people in this far right space don’t have.”

The group also has friends in high Republican places ranging from Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone, who is frequently accompanied by armed Oath Keeper members, to Montana far right Congressman Matt Rosendale. Rosendale spoke at an Oath Keepers’ event in 2014 before he was elected to Congress, but now dismisses any connection with the group. “Didn’t see it, doesn’t impact me,” Rosendale said when asked about the charges against Rhodes.

The Republican Party Chairman in Wyoming, William “Frank” Eathorne, is both an outspoken opponent of his state’s GOP congresswoman Liz Cheney and, according to leaked Oath Keepers documents, a member of the group. Eathorne hasn’t addressed publicly his affiliation, but he been busy undercutting the congressional investigation, including leading the charge to formally condemn Cheney and Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger due to their role investigating the January 6 attack.

The leaked Oath Keepers documents identified at least 28 Republican elected officials as members. Two of them – state representatives Mark Finchem of Arizona and David Eastman of Alaska – were part of the January 6 protest, although neither has been charged as a result.

Once upon a time identifying as a Bircher or being a member of gun-toting groups advocating violent political action would have gotten you ostracized by the Republican Party. Now leaders of the party – governors, senators, state legislators – have chosen silence over repudiation even as evidence of political violence grows daily.

In Idaho, Governor Little has even endorsed legislation that would repeal the state’s 95-year-old ban on private militias.

Republicans who should know better have made a dangerous calculation. By adopting a strategy of appeasing the radicals they have made it even more likely the militant fringe will ultimately prevail in taking over the party.
 

The more things change

johnson

When in the late spring of 1964 the United States Senate defeated the longest filibuster in Senate history and passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, the Senate’s majority leader Mike Mansfield called the matter of insuring fundamental rights to all Americans – the right to fair treatment in accommodations and employment, for example – “the most divisive issue in our history.”

Montana’s Mansfield, a westerner of few words who always chose them well, called passage of the legislation over the committed opposition of southern segregationists and a few very conservative Republicans an “exceptional accomplishment.” It had been the work of both political parties. The bill, years in the making, passed with a large bipartisan majority.

Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who rallied Republicans to the cause of civil rights, hailed the historic accomplishment as “an idea whose time has come.” One holdout who refused to follow Dirksen’s lead was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who became the GOP presidential candidate later in 1964. Goldwater’s refusal to embrace civil rights legislation – he argued it was an unconstitutional federal power grab – is an attitude that still echoes through the Republican Party nearly 60 years later.

What Mike Mansfield, who played a pivotal role in passage of the Civil Rights Act, rarely acknowledged during the often-bitter fight around the legislation was the depth of opposition to the measure from his own voters, not to mention the misguided vehemence of arguments opponents fielded in defense of discrimination.

A Eureka, Montana constituent wrote Mansfield early in 1964, “It is my firm conviction that the Civil Rights Bill is a radical, unconstitutional and thoroughly unacceptable proposal, in that it will destroy the basic rights of all individuals through federal intervention.”

A Billings couple wrote Mansfield, “Individual freedoms cannot be removed, either collectively or one at a time, without leading us along the road to socialism which will enslave us all, black and white alike.”

In what was clearly a coordinated lobbying effort, several anti-civil rights letters to Mansfield used the same language: “The Civil Rights Bill before the Senate now, is 10% civil rights and 90% take-over of all activities of life.”

Western states in the 1960’s seemed far removed from the civil rights protests and demonstrations in distant Selma or the massive march on Washington in 1963 that helped set the political stage for the legislation that followed.

But the West was, in many ways, a key to passage of both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Idaho’s then-bipartisan Senate delegation – Len Jordan, a very conservative Republican, and Frank Church, a liberal Democrat – voted for both pieces of legislation, even amid a drumbeat of local opposition.

When Jordan, who ran sheep in Hells Canyon during the Great Depression and later became Idaho’s 22nd governor, announced he would vote to end the filibuster that was preventing a Senate vote on a civil rights bill, his comments ran side-by-side in the Idaho Statesman with a story from Baldwin, New York, a community on Long Island. That story reported that the home of a Black family had been defaced with a red swastika and “insulting lettering” that demanded the family “get out now.” Neighbors – all of them white – showed up to repaint the house and signal the community’s “shame” for what had been done.

Senator Jordan indicated his mail was running heavily in favor of support for civil rights, but the sentiment was hardly universal. A doctor in Burley said in a public meeting that he opposed efforts to outlaw racial discrimination because it “would rob doctors and professional men of their rights to refuse service to anyone for any reason.” A John Birch Society sponsored meeting in Boise drew a hundred people who were told a civil rights bill was part of a Communist plot to promote strife. A letter writer to the Twin Falls Times-News said he opposed integration because it was a “stepping stone to mongrelization.”

The country is now locked, as it arguably hasn’t been since 1965 when the Voting Rights Act passed, in a battle over who votes and how in America. One party – Democrats – are trying to make it easier for many Americans to vote. The other party – Republicans – are operating at every level of government to make voting more difficult. The bipartisan consensus represented in the 1960’s by Mansfield and Dirksen and Church and Jordan is as unimaginable today as it was enlightened then.

“The ‘bipartisan tradition’ backing voting rights is, in many ways, a mirage,” Princeton history Kevin Kruse wrote recently. “The liberal and moderate Republicans who helped create the [Civil Rights and] Voting Rights Act are long gone, as are the prominent conservatives who saw no conflict between their ideology and democracy and who were confident their party could win elections even if everyone voted. What remains in the Republican ranks is a core that sees voting rights as a clear and present danger to the party.”

Need proof? Republican legislatures in Texas, Arizona, Florida and Georgia have all enacted new restrictions on voting since the last presidential election. One rural county in Georgia is close to deciding to have only one polling place in the entire county. Democrats have been booted off election boards and one newly reconstituted board eliminated Sunday voting during a recent municipal election, a decision aimed squarely at Black churchgoers, a key Democratic constituency.

The Republican rationale for opposing new federal voting rights legislation is remarkably similar to what passed for arguments against civil rights and voting rights in the 1960’s. “Every single proposed change,” former vice president Mike Pence said recently, “serves one goal, and one goal only: to give leftists a permanent, unfair, and unconstitutional advantage in our political system.”

Other Republicans worry about a federal takeover of elections, a specious argument since the Constitution speaks to a clear federal role in how elections are conducted, and a federal role in elections was precisely why Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in the first place.

Idaho Republican Senator Mike Crapo, like so many in the past who tried to limit voting, invoked the old “state’s rights” argument, channeling the segregationist talking points of the 1950’s and 1960’s. You wonder if these guys know anything about the kind of voter suppression that took place in so many places for so long. Or, more likely they just don’t care.

Some conservatives have been more honest with their objections to the idea of more Americans voting. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” Paul Weyrich, an architect of the modern conservative movement said in 1980. “Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

The structure of the American system is under assault and restricting voting is at the heart of the attack. The assault is just as real now as it was in the 1960’s. Bipartisan good faith triumphed then. What now?

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Same song, second verse

johnson

Forty-eight years ago this week Republican president Richard Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a landmark piece of legislation that, as Nixon said, gave our government tools to protect “the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

This most unlikely environmental president, a guy who walked the beach in wing tips, proclaimed the protection of nature “a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.”

The ESA was largely written by scientists, passed Congress with huge bipartisan majorities, and while it became a controversial law, nearly constantly under attack from the political right, it has worked to preserve many species. I regularly, and happily, watch a healthy population of bald eagles soar past my living room window.

The Endangered Species Act is as good a jumping off point as any to assess the state of the county, particularly the widespread rejection of science and how we have come to politicize absolutely everything. We have gone from a broad consensus about the role of science in public policy to some people attacking health care workers and burning face masks to demonstrate their “freedom.”

Just one example makes the case for the incoherence of the moment. Five Republican dominated states – Arkansas, Iowa, Florida, Tennessee and Kansas – have decided to provide unemployment benefits to workers who have lost jobs for refusing to get a free and very effective vaccine against a disease that in two years has killed nearly 820,000 Americans. Talk about perverted science. We are incentivizing people to get sick, and in many cases die.

And the stories continue to accumulate of people who refused a life-saving medicine believing the disease would never catch them, but then did.

For 75 years or so, the conservative movement in America held at bay its most reactionary, violent and conspiracy addled adherents. Beginning with the witch hunting demagogue Joseph McCarthy, the Republican Party flirted with, embraced but ultimately rejected the dividers and the poison spreaders.

William F. Buckley, once regarded as the intellectual godfather of modern conservatism, read the John Birch Society out of the Republican Party in the 1960’s, but the conspiracy crowd never went away. Goldwater lost in a historic landslide, but remains the godfather of the modern GOP.

Now the crowd that would have supported him in the 1960’s is in control, and armed, full of grievance and wallowing in a pond of scummy nonsense.

No state has ridden this wave more shockingly than Idaho. The state has always been a conservative bastion, only infrequently trusting a Democrat with high office. An argument can be made that the seeds of the state’s current hard right lurch were sown in 1964 when Idaho Republicans largely rejected the moderate leadership of then-governor Robert Smylie. Two strands of Idaho Republican politics – conservative and utterly reactionary – have been at war ever since.

Smylie became the target of the hard right when he less than enthusiastically supported Barry Goldwater’s presidential aspirations in 1964. As a governor and former attorney general, Smylie was well known and widely respected nationally and in the West. He was considered, as one regional columnist put it, “one of the shrewdest politicians the GOP has.” Smylie was regularly mentioned as a legitimate vice-presidential candidate or as a cabinet secretary in a Republican administration.

But Goldwaterites took over the party in 1964 and Smylie lost in a Republican primary two years later to one of the most conservative, and as it turned out least capable, candidates to ever reach the governor’s office. After Don Samuelson flamed out doing what the hard right wanted him to do – nothing really – Democrats held the governor’s office for a quarter century. The reactionaries retreated but never went away.

In a way, political history is repeating, but this time it’s worse. Many elected Idaho Republicans have embraced an anti-science, anti-public health and anti-education agenda more radical than anything in the 1960’s. More traditional conservatives like a former attorney general, secretary of state and house speaker have been forced to undertake independent efforts to “take back” the state from the modern heirs of earlier Birch Society crackpots.

Meanwhile, a supporter of radical militias and opponent of public education challenges the incumbent governor who has been pushed nearly as far to the right as Samuelson was sixty years ago.

Idaho’s federal delegation, rarely willing to stand against the intolerance and negativity of the most reactionary elements in the Republican Party, has predictably stood idly by while the state’s politics have been polluted and radicalized. The “big lie” about the presidential election has metastasized without so much as a Tweet of opposition from this group of career politicians. They remain more concerned about re-election than the threats of violence that grow louder by the day.

Political courage in the elected ranks of the Republican Party is as endangered as the species that Richard Nixon sought to protect nearly 50 years ago. There is no Bob Smylie, who battled the reactionaries of his day, and few examples to rival that of then-Oregon governor Mark Hatfield who used the big stage of the keynote speech at the Republican convention in 1964 to denounce embittered conservatives.

“There are bigots in this nation,” Hatfield said in 1964, “who spew forth their venom of hate.” He called them out by name – the Birch Society, the Klan and Communist groups. Hatfield, a deeply religious man, was denounced, as the New York Times reported, as “a demagogue and hate monger” who was “anti-Christian.” One critic asked of Hatfield, perfectly in tune with the current moment, “is there no one with courage to make a speech to say ‘I am for white folks?’”

There was a time not that long ago when Idaho Republican leaders tried to foster a broad consensus approach to the state’s governance. Then-governor Dirk Kempthorne, for example, recognized the danger of the state’s shockingly low vaccination rates for school aged children in 1999 and launched a high-profile initiative to educate parents. Do nothing Republican legislators carved up the plan to the point it eventually collapsed into ineffectiveness. Idaho’s vaccination rates remained dismal, and over time resistance turned to denial and then death. Not surprisingly the state’s vaccination rates are the worst in the country.

This is not just a failure of politics, but a repudiation of the very concept of government acting in the best interest of the most people.

In a democratic system the sole reason for political parties to exist is to create a forum for competing policy ideas – ideas based on truth, reason and attainable action that can address real issues. We now have one party unwilling – or unable – to engage rationally on real issues.

So sadly, we leave 2021 where we began this dismal year with American democracy in profound peril. It almost makes you long for the 1960’s.
 

McGeachin’s unfitness

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That whooshing sound you hear is the air going out of the McGeachin campaign balloon for governor, evident by her ham-handed interchange with the national news network CNN, the resulting deflation in Idaho and new questions about her basic knowledge of state government.

McGeachin calls attention to herself on many occasions. Her picture with two armed militant thugs at her office door immediately following her 2018 election was a clear indication of who she would listen to. And she has.

She followed that with hiring a known law-enforcement hater as a security staffer. The individual, Parish Miller, is the cop critic behind the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s rankings of legislative measures. He had a post in which he effectively said it was okay for citizens to murder police. (DailyBeast, 7/25/2021)

But that was just as her campaign was getting going last spring. These days, she headed a do-nothing, self-created task force find examples of critical race theory, social engineering and the evils of communism allegedly being taught in Idaho schools. It turned up nothing.

Then there was her ignorant exchange with the CNN reporter who asked a simple question about her issuing executive orders while the governor is out-of-state on official business. When the reporter pressed her for her logic, she called him an activist and declared the interview at an end, turned on her heels and stomped out. She came across as a disgruntled child, defensive and shaken, a witch of the first order. (CNN, 10/10)

We’re no particular fan of media-in-your-face confrontations, but in this case McGeachin brought the result on herself. The painted lady is already swimming in an ocean of sharks. If you can’t say why you issued a particular executive order, why should people think you would exercise good judgment otherwise?

Just last week, McGeachin raised more questions about her competence when she admitted she didn’t have records showing the actual costs of the $50,000 alleged expenses of so-called legal fees she wants the taxpayers to foot.

McGeachin has a long track record of trying to extract more money from the state to fund her office. Perhaps the legal records don’t really exist. Are they just another McGeachin ploy to sweep up state money? Just asking. Members of the legislature’s Joint Finance & Appropriations Committee are already asking for more records from her office, as is the state Division of Financial Management. (CapitalSun, 10/18).By Wednesday, the records if they exist, had not been turned over.

And that’s where you can feel the air going out of the McGeachin campaign balloon. No one came to her defense, not even the crazies with whom she associates in the House or the John Birchers, whose members believe that President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist plant in American government.

McGeachin uses words like sovereignty, traditional values and freedom as “platform” points, but she seems to have no real understanding of any of these traditional Republican principles except as slogans. When asked about her, former Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones referred to her as the only Lieutenant Governor which Idaho has ever had who qualifies as an “idiot.”

Only slightly less generous was a recent column by political observer Chuck Malloy who up to now has treated her as a legitimate challenger to Gov. Brad Little. But in his column (CapitalSun, 10/12), Malloy relates how McGechin changed following her time in the House (2008-2012) where she was a competent if not leading legislator.

So what happened? It appears McGeachin went back to Idaho Falls to run a bar and began participating in local rightist politics, emerging in 2018 primary election in which she got less than 29% of the vote in a five-way contest. But that was enough. Since then, she has had one gaffe after another and has demonstrated repeatedly that she’s not ready, and may never be ready, for higher office.

The rightists in the House may not agree that she’s an idiot, but they’re not going to stand up time after time with her as she makes a fool of herself on national television and within her own state, with what Malloy calls “showboating” and a “stunt.”

They know intuitively that with an election coming, Janice McGeachin is drawing only small groups of ardent followers. A recent “freedom” rally in Twin Falls brought fewer than 80 people, probably half of whom were her handlers, law enforcement or media.
You can feel it in the political air as alternatives to McGeachin to challenge Little are suddenly getting “second looks.” These down-ticket also-rans are now fighting to gain visibility, media time, and contributions.

Little stretches his fundraising lead to nearly $400,000 over McGeachin ($500,000 to $100,000) and she’s fallen to third place in fundraising. Not a good sign if you’re trying to be the established candidate of the angry unestablished.

In today’s rough-and-tumble media and politics world, candidates need to demonstrate basic media competence. Her CNN pouty walk-off shows just the opposite. Wise political candidates and officeholders know the power of the media, and CNN, no friend of right-wingers or even Republicans, has opened the door for people to see what McGeachin is really like.

She had a great opportunity on CNN to enhance her viability as a candidate for Idaho’s governor, but she muffed it. Lots of folks saw it live on television and she doesn’t come across well. It’s football season, so we’ll call it what it is, a missed clutch kick to the far right.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com
 

Return of the JBS

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Out in the deserts of eastern Idaho, I saw by the side of highways lonely and busy, the billboards promoting - in washed out colors with blunt language - the John Birch Society.

These were not old billboards. They were new.

Just as new as the reports from Kootenai and Benewah counties in northern Idaho, where local Republican Party organizations passed resolutions - and proposed the state party do likewise - supporting and urging endorsement of the John Birch Society. Brent Regen, the chieftain of the Kootenai GOP, backed the measure in his county and was quoted, “The John Birch Society is the intellectual component of conservatism. I fully support them. They are the brain trust.”

This a true throwback to the past, a time more than half a century old, when the JBS was new, growing and exerting influence in places like Idaho. After a show of organizational strength in the sixties, it faded in the seventies, and hasn’t been much visible since. Until lately. And that’s something Idahoans ought to take account of.

The JBS likes to describe itself as a supporter of the federal constitution and of limited government, but if that were all it was about, the group would be no different from half the other political organizations in the country. It has focused on much more, many dark and conspiratorial ideas. William F. Buckley, a name almost synonymous with American conservatism, warned of the organization as a paranoid menace and, a biographer said, “was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn.”

Buckley spoke with then-presidential candidate Barry Goldwater about taking a stand specifically against it, and Goldwater was sympathetic but largely dodged and weaved on the issue out of fear of alienating key parts of his base. Richard Nixon did denounce the group outright, and even Ronald Reagan warned of a “lunatic fringe” coming to dominate it.

Does this rhyme with today’s environment?

The JBS was the first large-scale purveyor of political conspiracy theories, arguing that Dwight Eisenhower was a knowing communist agent and that Black efforts to secure the right to vote amounted to nothing but a communist front, among much else. Buckley again: “One continues to wonder how it is that the membership of the John Birch Society tolerates such paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”

But in this era of Q anon and election conspiracies, the JBS is seeing a rebirth. It has taken off in parts of Texas and in scattered other parts of the county.

In July, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee unanimously backed a resolution supporting the John Birch Society and urging “Idahoans who do not support our party platform to follow the example of Bill Brooks and voluntarily disaffiliate from the Idaho Republican Party.”

Brooks is a Kootenai County commissioner, elected as a Republican to the Kootenai County commission in 2020 and 2018 (unopposed in the general elections, though winning close primaries each time). He has fired off blasts at Regan and the John Birch Society and local Republicans’ associated with it. Recently he declared himself an independent, saying his “political beliefs have not changed. The local Republican Party has changed. They have shamelessly chosen to bind themselves to the John Birch Society. The Kootenai County Central Committee recently passed a unanimous resolution calling on all Republicans who don’t agree with the John Birch Society to leave the Republican Party.”

Local Republicans have responded with a recall attempt, results of which are expected this month.

It’ll be a referendum in part on the John Birch Society. Watch the numbers closely.

Watch also Republican Party developments in southern Idaho; those billboards didn’t get there by accident.

And keep watch too for how state Republican Party leaders respond to the local organization’s request. They’re probably feeling a little uncomfortable about it right about now.
 

The sad state of the GOP

jones

I can recall a time many years ago when I was proud to call myself a Republican. The Party had many leaders with vision and a dedication to sound public policy. Governor Bob Smylie strongly supported education and was able to get a sales tax enacted in 1965 to better fund Idaho’s public schools. My boss in the early 70s, Senator Len Jordan, supported civil and voting rights for all Americans. Former Governor Phil Batt was a supporter of human rights and good government.

During my service as State Attorney General in the 80s, Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the malicious harassment law and Terrorist Control Act, both of which were aimed at white supremacists. During that timespan, Republicans were conservative to moderate, but truthful, pragmatic, reasonable and honorable.

The present-day Republican Party has strayed so far from those roots that it is almost impossible to recognize. The dysfunctional performance of so many Republicans in the last legislative session drove reasonable folk to despair. Because so many in the GOP refused to support reasonable measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, many Idahoans needlessly died.

Two Republican officeholders are doing their level best to smear Idaho teachers and schools by falsely claiming that school kids are being indoctrinated. Rather than listening to Idahoans who say they are wrong, Lt. Governor McGeachin and Rep. Priscilla Giddings have fawned over a far-right conspiracy theorist who claims schools are pedaling Communism and pedophilia.

Both of these indoctrination theorists are running for higher office where they could wreak much greater havoc on the Gem State. McGeachin hopes to attain the Governor’s office with the help of her extremist friends in Real 3%ers of Idaho. Giddings will have to convince voters that it is fine for a would-be Lt. Governor to disclose the name of a teenage rape victim, lie about it and defame the victim. To their credit, responsible Republicans like Rep. Greg Chaney of Caldwell have acted to call her to account for her inexcusable conduct.

Another candidate for governor on the GOP ticket is Ammon Bundy, who was famously seen being arrested and bundled into a police car, tethered to an innocent office chair, for disrupting proceedings in the Idaho Legislature. The chair was released without bond but Bundy was subsequently convicted and banned from the Capitol grounds.

These are just a few of the misfits that Republican primary voters have unleashed upon the State. I do not contend that all of those voters are as flawed as many of the GOP candidates who prevail nowadays in primary elections. There are numbers of Republicans who are greatly distressed by the people sent to Boise by their fellow party members.

There are several reasons why candidates like McGeachin, Giddings and the top 15 or so on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s “freedom Index” prevail in primaries. The closed Republican primary often produces the candidate who is able to move farthest to the right on the political spectrum. Generally, the primary does not produce a large turnout, which favors the committed radicals.

Also, the party machinery has been taken over by political zealots, making it difficult for worthy candidates to step forward. A prime example is the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, which recently approved a resolution supporting the wacko John Birch Society. That would never have happened years ago. The Birchers were famous back in the 60s for claiming water fluoridation was a Communist plot. They continue to be wild conspiracy theorists.

Unless the Republicans who are concerned about the direction of their party take action to cleanse their ranks, the legislative dysfunction will continue or even worsen. This next primary election could be a wonderful opportunity to cull the herd. Although I became a committed independent in August of 2002, when it became clear that Cheney and Rumsfeld were going to take the country to a disastrous war in Iraq, I still vote in the Republican primary and will be there to help the reasonable Republicans take back their party.