13 posts categorized "Politics"

March 20, 2017

The Splitting Up of the Democratic Party: Why It’s Probably Coming Sooner Than You Think

Photoshopsurfing4Before the election, some pundits were predicting that a Trump defeat would cause the Republican Party to split into at least two discrete new parties — one representing the old GOP’s business establishment, the other for the populist firebrands of the Tea Party. As the fight over gutting Obamacare reveals, those factions are in an uncomfortable marriage. But a full-fledged rupture doesn’t appear imminent.

A bigger story, one the corporate political writers aren’t focused on, is on the left. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Democratic Party split in two.

In my imagined scenario, the liberal Democratic base currently represented by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren file for divorce from the party’s center-right corporatist leadership caste. What next? Led by Sanders/Warren or not (probably not), prepare to see a major new “third” party close to or equal in size to a rump Democratic one.

I even have a name for this new 99%er-focused entity: the New Progressive Party, or simply the Progressive Party. Since this is ahistorical America, no one remembers the Bull Moosers.

Today’s Democratic Party is evenly divided between the Bernie Sanders progressives who focus on class issues and the Hillary Clinton urban liberals who care more about identity politics (gender, race, sexual orientation and so on).

In the short run, a Democratic-Progressive schism would benefit the GOP. In a three-way national contest I guesstimate that Republicans could count on the roughly 45% of the electorate who still approve of Trump after two months of hard-right rule. That leaves the new Progressives and the old Democrats with roughly 27.5% each — hardly a positive outlook for the left in the first few post-schism elections.

But as the cereal box warning goes, some settling may — in this case will — occur…and sooner than you’d think.

First, some “Republicans” in the Trump coalition — those Obama and Sanders voters who switched to Trump — will migrate left, attracted to a Progressive left-nationalist economic message that puts working-class Americans first minus the racism and nativism of the anti-NAFTA Trump right. Doesn’t feel like it this second, but bigotry is finding fewer adherents.

Second, demographic trends favor any left-of-the-Democrats party. Slightly more than half of Americans age 18 to 29 oppose capitalism in its current form. Some Millennials will move right over time, John Adams style — but most will not, mainly because the capitalist economy isn’t likely to reward them with better-paying jobs as they age. A strong Progressive Party — and 27.5% of the vote is strong, guaranteeing access all the way down the ballot to minor races and a spot on the national presidential debate stage — would be the natural home for America’s long-disenfranchised political left.

Third, the Progressives would attract sustained media attention. Excitement generates enthusiasm.

Finally, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that some mainstream Republicans disgusted by a Trump/Tea Party-dominated Republican Party might scoot over to the old Democrats — whose current politics are Republican Party circa 1980, so it’s not like it would be an uncomfortable fit — adding to their numbers.

Granted, this is all very back of the envelope. But my instincts tell me we’ll probably wind up with three surprisingly evenly matched parties before too long.

To be clear, a Democratic split isn’t inevitable. It may not even be more likely than not, not in the next few years anyway. But 10 or 20 years out? The further you extend the timeline, I’d bet a tidy sum that the left will finally hear what the Democratic Party leadership has been telling them for half a century — we don’t need you, we don’t owe you, we won’t do anything for you — and walk.

Why am I so convinced that today’s Dems will go the way of the Whigs?

Still controlled by center-right Clintonistas, the Democratic National Committee continues to snub progressives and leftists despite the fact that Bernie could have beaten Trump.

Throughout the campaign, polls showed Bernie would outperform Hillary in the fall. Still, the DNC cheated on her behalf. And they sleazily lined up the superdelegates for her.

She never considered him for veep. She didn’t even promise to appoint him to the cabinet. Big mistake.

She didn’t adopt any of his signature platform planks.

After the debacle Democratic leaders blamed everyone but themselves: WikiLeaks, Russia, the FBI, the media, even Bernie voters. They didn’t think they did anything wrong.

In the race for DNC chair and thus for the soul of the party, they picked the establishment choice over the progressive.

If you’re a Bernie Sanders Democrat, you have to be a complete idiot to believe that the Democratic Party has learned the lesson of 2016: lean left or go home. Even after it became clear that Trump was putting together the most right-wing administration in American history, Democrats were still voting in favor of Republican appointees.

I can’t predict how the great split-up of the former Democratic Party will play out. But given the escalating rage of the party’s progressive base in the Age of Trump and the absolute refusal of the DNC leadership to grant them concessions, it’s hard to imagine this restive crowd staying calm and keeping Democratic.

The tsunami is coming. Lefties have a choice: get washed away, or grab a surfboard.

By Ted Rall

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

January 31, 2017

SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Case for Left Nationalism

Make America Great Again. Trump’s campaign slogan was a direct appeal to nationalism. As a son of the Rust Belt city of Dayton, Ohio, I wasn’t surprised to see that it worked. 

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People in the postindustrial Midwest and in much of the rest of flyover country are tired of being ignored by the urban coastal elites who seem to think laid-off factory workers should shake off their blues and get a job as a coder. Not that the children of the dispossessed stand a better chance: Silicon Valley is a great wealth generator but a lousy job creator. Many highly skilled American tech workers are unemployed, cheated out of jobs by sleazy companies who abuse the H1B visa program to hire compliant foreigners for a fraction of the cost.

If you’re one of the millions of left-leaning Americans shocked and awed at Donald Trump’s first week as president, his “America First” inauguration speech, his orders to build his Mexican border wall, tear up NAFTA, start a trade war, and especially the sudden brutalism of his Muslim travel ban, I have news for you: there are just as many others who are cheering him on, thrilled that he’s keeping his campaign promises. As far as they’re concerned, the rest of the world — including refugees from countries whose wars were started by the U.S. — can go to hell.

After all, their hometowns already have.

As Sabrina Tavernise recently wrote in The New York Times, victims of economic decline and their attendant societal ills — depression, alcoholism, the meth and opioid epidemics — revolted in the 2016 election against elites “who lived in isolated islands of economic opportunity and sneered at people who didn’t.” She cited NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who sees a clash between globalists and nationalists. “The globalists, who tend to be urban and college-educated, want a world like the one described in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ — no religion, walls or borders dividing people. The nationalists see that as a vision of hell…They also want to limit immigration, an instinct that globalists are often to quick to condemn as racist.”

Globalism dominates economic policymaking in the Democratic Party. Beginning with the takeover of the party by the Clintons’ Democratic Leadership Council in the early 1990s, Democrats have pushed through free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, and the creation of the World Trade Organization. This has not come without consequences: Globalization eroded the power of Big Labor, formerly a major source of income and manpower for the party. It also turned off people in Ohio and Michigan and Illinois and Pennsylvania — those who lost their own jobs, as well as their friends, families and neighbors. Democratic politicians have been so blind to the suffering all around that they never even once proposed a bill that would have helped victims of outsourcing with money or job retraining. Some even publicly praised the fact that wages were going up in places like Mexico! Trump gave long-seething Americans an outlet for their rage.

The globalist left vs. nationalist right paradigm is, however, is a recent thing. In fact, the right part of that equation only dates back to last summer; pre-Trump, exporting American jobs via trade deals was a point of bipartisan consensus.

The short history of Democratic globalism suggests that one way back from defeat and political irrelevance, both for the party and for the broader Left, is to make the case for a leftist nationalism.

Until the 1970s, Republicans promoted free trade agreements. Democrats opposed them. Protecting workers, especially the highly-paid blue-collar laborers, from foreign competition, kept union donations pouring into party coffers. But then party fundraisers found Wall Street. Big finance craves freedom of movement for capital so business owners can find the cheapest raw materials, supplies and workers in the world — and a broken, dispirited workforce unable to organize and bargain collectively. Wall Street told the Democrats: dump your other girlfriend. You can’t have us as well as big labor. Workers have gotten ground up under the bus ever since.

The grassroots campaign of Bernie Sanders — and of Donald Trump, whose fundraising tactics and social media-driven campaign emulated Sanders’ down to the fonts and spacing of his email solicitations — have broken big corporate donors’ hold on campaign financing. Meanwhile, look what happened to Hillary Clinton (“My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders“) and her base of corporate and wealthy individual backers. Nationalism, not globalism, is the future of American politics — but right now, it’s only the right that’s riding the wave.

Though patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and the first of the nativist, history shows us a long and honorable record of left-wing nationalism. The Chinese civil war turned in favor of the Communists over Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists after Mao Tse-Tung directed his cadres to lead the patriotic resistance against Japanese occupation. Most members of the French Resistance against the Nazis were communist. Fidel Castro was an ardent patriot/nationalist; so was Ho Chi Minh. These leftists understood that the oppression of workers by the ruling class often manifests itself via forms of globalization: invasions, colonialism, the establishment of puppet states via imperialism. It is not necessary to succumb to the dark forces of bigotry, or to deny refuge to victims of war as Trump did last week, to stand up for the citizens of your own country against those who would exploit or abuse them.

There’s nothing wrong with imagining a world without borders. It’s good for Americans, and for decency, when wages of workers in other nations increase — there are fewer wars and more consumers. As things stand today, however, nation-states are here to stay. In fact, there are more of them than ever before.

Is it really so unreasonable for American workers to expect the leftists who claim to care about them, to fight for them to earn higher wages? A left unable to appeal to nationalism has no future.

By Ted Rall

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

January 03, 2017

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why Useless Impotent Democrats Will Not Lift a Finger to Fight Trump

By TED RALL

Donald“There’s no savior out there.” That’s a line from “Lord’s Prayer,” a song written by TV Smith for the Lords of the Church, a band that trafficked in 1980s melodic punk. Here’s some more:

“There ain’t no savior out there

Your stairway to heaven leads nowhere

Don’t look to me for emancipation

You are your only salvation.”

That’s my message to Americans who want to resist Donald Trump and his works — or more precisely the policies of the most right-wing cabinet in American history. Waiting for divine intervention is lunacy. If you’re serious about slowing down the Pencites, you’d better get ready to take them on yourselves.

You sure won’t be able to count on the Democratic Party.

Take Trump’s cabinet nominees — please! In the old days, Democrats would only have needed 40 senate seats to filibuster a would-be attorney general accused of racism, an energy secretary who forgot the name of his own department and a sitting CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary of state.

Unfortunately for the republic, then-majority leader Harry Reid was such a fool that he thought Democrats would never lose another election. So, in a fit of staggering ahistoricity, he eliminated the filibuster for most nominees in 2013. As a result Trump will probably get all his picks, perhaps minus Sessions because he’s widely disliked by his colleagues.

OK, so unless you’re a character in the too generously reviewed movie “Arrival,” what’s past is past, no do-overs. But Democrats don’t seem to have much appetite for anti-Trump combat even when you consider their new self-imposed limits.

Democrats’ approach to policy is likely to boil down to “let the Republicans do what they want, then take the blame when they overreach.” They may even let the GOP repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Obama Administration’s sole major policy achievement. “Republicans are about to learn that there’s a big difference between being against something and being for something,” said Steve Israel (D-New York). “They’ve already stumbled out of the gate, and we should let them continue to stumble.” Unasked: How many Americans will die for a smart tactic?

On the nominees, look for bureaucratic foot-dragging of approvals with procedural votes and other stalling tactics. “I don’t want to needlessly prevent President Trump from being successful,” Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) told The Politico. “But accelerating the confirmation of unacceptable candidates who have views that are outside the mainstream is not constructive.” In the end, though, those unacceptable candidates will get their gigs.

Dems even plan to try to find common ground on rebuilding infrastructure — an admirable goal that I’ve pushed for years. But Trumpism is already so extreme that Democrats ought to ask themselves whether they’re missing the fuhrer for the trees: is it possible to get behind an autobahn without endorsing the tyrant who builds it?

If they really wanted to mount a resistance to Trump, Congressional Democrats could do so with considerably more vigor.

Notably, any single senator can place a personal “hold” on a nominee or bill. There’s no time limit or limit on the number of holds. In 2008, for example, Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) placed a hold against a funding bill for 12 federal programs. A hold only goes away one of two ways: the senator lifts it, or the 60% of the Senate votes against it. Democrats could use the hold to replace the filibuster Reid got rid of.

But there’s no reason to believe Democrats will put up a serious fight against the Trumpists. “In the end, a hybrid strategy might make the most sense for Democrats — use Trump and the GOP as a foil and slow them where they can — while seeking to pick one or two areas where his aspirations coincide with their values,” CNN muses. “A las Barricadas!” this is not.

Democratic impotence is nothing new; since the 1970s leaders have pushed the party’s ideology to the right while abandoning every pretense of resistance to the expansion of the corporate gangster capitalism that grinds up working and middle-class people’s hopes and aspirations. Now that Trump is about to impose an especially right-wing (here’s another punk reference, to The Clash) clampdown on ordinary Americans, the Democratic Party will lie completely exposed in the full glory of its uselessness.

Screw the Dems. You are your only salvation.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

December 27, 2016

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Please Stop the Fear and Loathing of 2017

By Ted Rall

THE_RETREAT_FROM_AFGHANISTANI admit it: it’s hard to find empathy for the liberal Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton and are now shocked, shocked, shocked that That Horrible Man Donald Trump is about to become president. We lefties kept saying (and liberals kept scoffing) that Bernie would have beaten Trump; now that we’ve been proven right it’s only natural to want to keep rubbing the Hillarites’ faces in their abject wrongness.

But what’s the point? Empirical evidence can’t convince a squishy liberal to move left. Liberals are congenitally attached to the big status quo, the capitalist system itself. Unlike leftists, liberals just want to reform capitalism into something less savage. This, of course, is impossible. Yet liberals’ fears — of revolution, of violence, of the chance they’ll lose their current status — block their ability to see the truth.

Anyway, many of my best friends are liberals. And they’re terribly depressed at the prospect of four to eight years of President (or more for President-for-life) Trump.

I hate to see so many people so miserable (even though the very same people gloated over their Bernie-supporting brethren’s pain last May). More importantly, they’re right about Trump. He is a dangerous mofo for sure. We on the left, accustomed to do all the protesting and carrying on ourselves, are going to need all the help we can get from sad Hillary Clinton Democrats to take on Trump, his Republican House, his Republican Senate, his soon-to-be Republican Supreme Court and, oh yeah, his thousands of police departments, soldiers and killer drones.

So this, my dear dismayed Democrats, is for you. Things will be OK — eventually. Between now and then, they’re going to get a lot worse. But those eventual improvements will only come about if you buck up, roll up your sleeves and prepare for a lot of hard work.

The first thing I want you to understand is, there are no quick fixes to Trumpism.            You already saw the futility of silly games like asking the Electoral College to throw the election after the fact. Only two “faithless electors” defected from Trump; five dumped Hillary! Also, please stop thinking Trump will be impeached. It’s technically possible, but highly improbable since no president has ever faced impeachment by a Congress controlled by his own party. The system will not correct itself. The system is broken; that’s why Trump won.

So what to do? Work outside the system. Resistance must take many forms, but creating a crisis of governance by militant — i.e., unpermitted, uncooperative — action in the streets is essential to dislodging the tyranny which many of us suspect Trump will bring into being. But not yet. First, we must allow the system’s failure to become evident for all to see.

As Che Guevara wrote: “Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.”

At first, the left-liberal anti-Trump coalition must keep its powder dry. Let Trump and his junta cabinet of ultra-right generals and billionaires commit their atrocities. Let the media report on them, with little result. Watch Congress fail to exercise its constitutionally mandated oversight. Count on Democratic resistance that never materializes. See the Supreme Court validate some of Trump’s horrors and reject others only to be ignored and thus exposed as impotent.

Those of us who follow politics closely know that Trump is a fascist-in-waiting. Most Americans, however, are in wait-and-see mode. If we protest too early (c.f., the anti-Trump demonstrations following Election Day), people won’t support us. Let the possibilities of peaceful struggle exhaust themselves first.

Another advantage of waiting is that it allows us to study our incoming enemy. Trump will inherit Obama’s police state. But he will alter its structure, tactics and strategies in ways no one can predict with certainty. We’re outarmed, outequipped and outnumbered. Let’s watch, and wait to see what we’re up against before lashing out.

Here I take a cue from the Afghans. Poor and remote, these fierce people have repeatedly repelled invasion forces launched by far richer, better-equipped enemies: Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. When foreign armies arrive, the Afghans melt away into the mountains. They let their adversaries settle into Kabul and other cities. They study them, poking and prodding in search of weaknesses. Then, when the time is right — typically many years after the other side declared “victory” — the Afghans unleash a ferocious assault that drives out the interlopers.

Trump was born in Queens. But it helps to think of him as an invader. His mish-mash protofascism, ferocious gracelessness and aversion to linear thinking or consistency are foreign to American politics and culture. He doesn’t belong here. He’s un- and anti-American. He’s got to go.

But we have to be smart about this. That starts with you liberal Democrats: stop staring down the barrel of 2017 with fear and loathing. It’s time to start planning.

We have to take our country back.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

December 07, 2016

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Thanks to Trump, No More Ameri-Splaining

Image result for american exceptionalism

A shining city on a hill,” Ronald Reagan called America (by way of the Puritan authoritarian John Winthrop). “We are great because we are good,” Hillary Clinton said during the campaign (via Tocqueville). Michelle Obama, earlier this year: “This right now is the greatest country on Earth.”

You may have heard of “mansplaining,” which is when a dude patronizingly explains something to a woman, often concerning a subject about which she knows more than he does (c.f., rape culture, workplace discrimination, etc.). Other spin-off portmanteaus mocking pompous people of privilege include whitesplaining (white person explains racism to black person), straightsplaining, Millennialsplaining, and even (during the primaries) Bernie-splaining.

May the victory of Donald Trump mark the long overdue death of Ameri-splaining — when American leaders like Clinton and Obama (and not a few ordinary citizens) pretentiously declaim our nation’s supposed exceptionalism to people in countries that do a better job than we do.

First and foremost, I’d like to thank Trump for his campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. Granted, he wasn’t talking to blacks and other oppressed segments of society for whom the past is more about pain than nostalgia. Trump’s campaign was aimed at whites. Nevertheless, Trump deserves credit for acknowledging that — at least at this time — America is not so great. “A Third World country,” he calls us. Keep reading and you’ll see that he has a point.

The first step is acknowledging that you have a problem.

Problems? Where to start?

Our economic structure sucks. We’re the world’s richest nation. But because we also have the most horrendous wealth inequality, most Americans are poor. According to the UN, our poverty rate is worse than 17 of the 19 OECD countries. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty. But the rich pigs in charge don’t care. Which is why we have the worst social safety net.

Maybe we should stop letting people die of cancer because they’re poor before Ameri-splaining human rights to Iran, where free RouhaniCare for everyone (!) rolls out in 2018. Similarly, we might want to stop executing children before telling the Iranians they’re wrong to do the same thing.

Our infrastructure is outdated and poorly maintained. It would take an additional $3.6 trillion to bring our existing highways, bridges, dams, sewers, water pipes, rail and so on up to code — yet spending on repairs is at a 30-year low. That doesn’t count the $500 billion or more it would cost to build a high-speed rail system like they have in Europe and Japan — you know, moderncountries.

Rather than harassing China over their ridiculous little fake islands, perhaps U.S. officials could invite the brilliant civil engineers creating a high-speed train system to Tibet, complete with pressurization like a plane as it soars through and around some of the biggest mountains on the planet, to show us how to bring our trains into the 21st century.

What is with us? Why do we talk down to the rest of the world from the depths of the lowest swamp below the moral high ground? At his penultimate State of the Union address, President Obama Ameri-splained to Russia’s Vladimir Putin over his “aggressive” annexation of Crimea. At the time, the U.S. was in its 14th year of occupying Afghanistan and its 12th of occupying Iraq. It was bombing the crap out of Yemen. Obama’s death drones were killing thousands of people, most of whom he thought were innocent.

When you stop to imagine what we look like to the rest of the world, we’re lucky we got away with just one wee 9/11.

Will Ameri-splaining continue under Trump? You’d think not, but since he’s already swiveled 180 degrees on so many other issues, he easily could revert to Bush-Obama-style triumphalism from his current, refreshing pessimism. The difference now is, no one — not even here in America where no one reads anything — can possibly take the U.S. government seriously when it scolds some country for, say, torturing people. Whereas Obama condescendingly tells his successor that torture doesn’t work (but not that it’s immoral, or that he still allows the CIA to use it), Trump has said of waterboarding “I like it a lot.”

The United States has always been corrupt, savage and brutal. It has always been wildly dysfunctional and hypocritical. But now, thanks to a president-elect who is loudly ignorant and utterly devoid of impulse control, the mask is off. The horrible truth about the United States can no longer be denied.

Trump epitomizes truth in advertising. We’re a nasty, crappy country.

President Trump suits us fine.

By Ted Rall

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

November 23, 2016

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Now, A Postmortem By Someone Who Actually Saw Trump’s Win Coming

You’ve read post-election analysis by the discredited corporate pundits who thought Hillary was a shoo-in. Since I saw Donald Trump’s “upset” coming, my take on what happened and why may be of more interest.

Image result for trump inaugural

As with any large-scale disaster, the ascent of a spectacularly unqualified buffoon to the most powerful political office on earth came about as the result of numerous system failures and operator errors. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of what went wrong.

System Failures: Problems Hardwired Into the Machine

  1. Democrats took their progressive base for granted.

Following George McGovern’s landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972, the Democrats’ conservative southern wing seized control of the DNC and other leadership apparatus. Center-right Dems won four presidential races with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but at a cost. Election after election, liberals and progressives — the party’s base and thus its greatest potential source of votes, donations and enthusiasm — were taken for granted as the party moved right in search of swing voters. Where else, the Clintonian Brahmins asked smugly, could lefties go? The answer was nowhere: snubbed, unmotivated and disgusted, they stayed home this November.

  1. No safety net for workers displaced by globalization and deindustrialization.

NAFTA wasn’t the beginning; it was the last nail in the coffin of the postwar boom that elevated blue-collar manufacturing jobs to professions paying enough to finance the American Dream. Year after year, millions of workers lost good jobs and were forced to make do with two lousy ones. Inner cities, and not a few suburbs, rotted and died. Neither major party talked about the Making of America Not Great Anymore, much less tried to do anything about it. Trump scored big Rust Belt points merely by acknowledging the long-ignored pain of millions.

  1. In media coverage of the horse race, some candidates are more equal than others.

If you were designing American democracy from scratch, you’d probably make it a rule that every candidate for office receives the same attention from the media. (France does this.) But we’re light years away from that ideal. Trump received more TV minutes and column-inches than his Republican rivals because he was (a) outrageous and (b) a celebrity. Clinton’s coverage overshadowed Sanders’ because media gatekeepers were (a) enamored of their pre-fab “first woman president follows first black president” narrative and (b) couldn’t imagine that an elderly socialist from Vermont could be a serious contender. Who would be president-elect today had Rand Paul, Carla Fiorina and Bernie Sanders been given a fair chance to make their cases to the voters? Probably not Trump.

Operator Errors: Screw-Ups By Individual Politicians and Organizations

  1. Hillary’s campaign partied like it was 1996.

Campaigning has changed since the Clintonian heyday of the ’90s, but Hillary’s strategists didn’t get the memo. Trump ad-libbed outrageous vidbytes at his rallies, making them must-see TV and earning billions in free exposure; Hillary stuck to her deadly dull stump speech, doomed to be ignored. While Trump worked Twitter like a tween at 3 am — ensuring that story-hungry editors would see his hilarious rants when they arrived at their desks — it took 12 Clinton staffers to compose a single tweet whose made-by-committee provenance made it dead on arrival. She spent many millions on a repeat loop of anti-Trump TV ads featuring clips everyone had already seen. Considering that she barely survived Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge, it should have been obvious to her team that the Democratic party has moved left (as has the nation). So why did her 2016 campaign follow the old Dick Morris move-right-for-the-general-election model from 1996, moving right in order to “reach out to Republican megadonors“? Meanwhile, Morris himself understood the new reality. “But Trump is doing more than driving populist Democrats into Republican arms,” Morris wrote. “He is separating the establishment left of the Democratic Party from its populist base. His candidacy separates the blue-collar social populists from their partisan moorings even as his economic populism appeals to the Sanders left.” He wrote that in May.

  1. The DNC ignored polls that showed Bernie was a better candidate than Hillary.

Trump’s “surprise” win wasn’t shocking to people who were paying attention. Throughout the primary and general election, the DNC brushed off head-to-head tracking polls that showed that Hillary Clinton never enjoyed a commanding lead over, and sometimes fell behind, Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, consistently held a double-digit lead, sometimes as high as 20 percent, over Trump. As it turned out, Trump would have lost to Sanders. In a change year when Americans were in the mood for radical populism, Sanders offered all the stuff voters liked about Trump — his anti-free trade message, economic populism, opposition to stupid foreign wars, the fiery, outspoken energy of a loud New Yorker — minus his manic loopiness and offensive comments about women and minorities. Granted, Bernie’s poll numbers would have suffered under an onslaught of ads depicting the Vermont senator as the second coming of Stalin, Soviet May Day parade footage and “The Internationale” playing incessantly. But the Cold War is over. Americans are more afraid of cost-cutting CEOs than commissars.

  1. Hillary Clinton didn’t appoint Bernie Sanders as vice president, or to a cabinet position.

Democratic voters wanted Hillary — a lifelong right-wing Democrat — to balance the ticket by choosing a progressive running mate like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker or her rival Bernie Sanders. But she never considered any of them, going instead with some guy who’s name I still struggle to remember. Ironically, no one understood the disastrous implications of Hillary’s choice better than right-wing blogger Wayne Allyn Root in The Blaze: ” Hillary desperately needed a shot in the arm; an exciting and edgy vice president by her side…Tim Kaine isn’t just boring… Kaine is an affront to every Bernie Sanders supporter – which happens to be all the youth and energy in the entire Democrat Party.”

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

November 19, 2016

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Trump’s Fascism Picks Up Where Obama’s Leaves Off

Fascists Donald Trump wants to deport three million illegal immigrants, and he’s willing to split up families to do it. Expect resistance: street protests, networks of safe houses, American citizens willing to risk prison to hide undocumented workers.

Barack Obama deported two million — more than any other president. Thousands of kids lost their parents. Yet demonstrations were few. Anglo solidarity was nowhere to be found. Same action, different reaction. Why? As we’ve seen under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, progressives go to sleep when Democrats are in the White House.

Trump will be deplorable. But as the unrest that followed his victory signals, he’ll have a salutary effect on American politics: Liberals will resist the same fascist horrors for which they’ve been making excuses under Obama (and would have continued to tolerate under Hillary Clinton).

Ironically, their struggle will be made all the more challenging due to the fascist moves promulgated by Barack Obama, a president revered by liberals — but whose administration has been characterized by a stream of fascist policies.

Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and other government agencies are spying on all of our communications: phone calls, email, texts, video, even snail mail. But the fiercest reactions came from people outside the U.S. It was 2013 and Obama was president. For the most part liberals — the political faction you’d expect to raise hell — trusted their charming first black president not to abuse his powers.

Trump will inherit Obama’s Orwellian surveillance apparatus. During the campaign, he said “I wish I had that power.”

When Obama took over from Bush in 2009, he issued a symbolic denunciation of the torture his predecessor had legitimized and institutionalized. In practice, however, nothing changed. Sending a clear message that he approved of their actions, Obama ordered his Justice Department not to prosecute anyone for waterboarding or other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” saying infamously that it was time to “look forward, as opposed to looking backwards.” He went to Langley to tell CIA agents he’d watch their backs. He refused to issue a presidential executive order banning torture by the CIA.

Trump will take over that bureaucratic infrastructure of torture, including the legal opinions issued by Bush’s White House counsel that Obama failed to annul. During the campaign, Trump pledged to bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse,” whatever that means.

Obama

Upon taking office Obama tepidly attempted to follow up on his campaign promise to close Guantánamo concentration camp. But he caved in the face of congressional opposition. Though Obama has managed to winnow down the number of inmates in America’s Cuban gulag to double digits, his lackadaisical unwillingness to expend political capital on the issue has left the camp open. It has also legitimized the formerly unthinkable practice of holding prisoners indefinitely without charging them with a crime or putting them on trial.

Trump says he’ll keep the camp open, expand it, and “load it up with some bad dudes,” including American citizens whose politics he doesn’t care for.

Part of the justification given for indefinite detention is the Bush-era Military Commissions Act of 2006, which eliminated the right of habeas corpus, the right to a speedy and fair trial enshrined in Anglo-American law for eight centuries. Under the MCA, the U.S. government can throw you into a concentration camp where you’ll never see your family or a lawyer. As far as we know, Obama never availed himself of this power.

Do you trust Trump to exercise similar restraint? Thanks to Obama’s failure to get rid of the MCA, Trump may make good on his promise to disappear U.S. citizens.

Obama has vastly expanded Bush’s program of drone assassinations of political opponents to nasty American client states like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. His Tuesday “kill list” star chamber has issued hits against thousands of people; 98% of the victims have been hapless bystanders.

Could President Trump deploy drones against American citizens (or non-citizens) on American soil? Yes, he could, says Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder. Obama could have declared that he — and future presidents — did not have that power. Better still, he could have asked Congress to pass a law banning domestic drone killings. Instead, he went golfing.

From what we know of Trump’s likely cabinet appointments, the next few years promise to devolve into a dystopian nightmare of authoritarian repression the likes of which few Americans ever imagined possible. As we head into the maelstrom, it will be tempting to look back fondly upon the Obama years as a period of relative calm and liberalism.

But don’t forget the truth. Fascism under Trump will merely continue Obama’s fascism with a smiley face — a fascism that we let him get away with for far too long.

—Ted Rall

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

October 06, 2016

THE DIRECTORS VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: BY COLE SMITHEY

SAM PECKINPAH: LIBERATOR

 

KEN LOACH: SOCIAL REALIST

 

JOE CARNAHAN: THE BEST-KEPT SECRET

 

CATHERINE BREILLAT: TRANSGRESSOR

 

WERNER HERZOG: MENSCH


DAVID FINCHER: MODERNIST


WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: THE MUSCLE


JOHN CASSAVETES: INDIE ICON


PAUL VERHOEVEN: REBEL


LARS VON TRIER: PROVOCATEUR


QUENTIN TARANTINO: MAVERICK

 

ALFRED HITCHCOCK: MASTER OF SUSPENSE

 

LUIS BUNUEL: FETISHIST

August 14, 2016

Got $75,000? The LA Times Is Trying to Bankrupt Me by TED RALL

Got $75,000?

That’s how much The Los Angeles Times is demanding that I pay them.

After they fired me for phony reasons.

After they published lies about me.

They set out to destroy me, but the truth came out and ruined their plan. So now they’re determined to bankrupt me — by abusing the court system.

One year ago, The Los Angeles Times fired me in what became known as The Ted Rall Scandal. I’ve been their cartoonist since 2009. Never had a problem. Was never late. Never did anything wrong. My bosses never had a complaint — to the contrary, I received nothing but praise.

What I didn’t know, and my editors didn’t know to tell me, was that the political cartoonist of The Los Angeles Times isn’t allowed to criticize the police. I wish I’d been informed. I have principles, but I also have to eat. If they’d told me the cops were off-limits, I wouldn’t have criticized the LAPD, police brutality, corruption or incompetence. If I’d known that LAPD chief Charlie Beck enjoyed special most favored nation status on the LA Times editorial page, I would have left him alone.

But no one told me. So I did what cartoonists are supposed to do: I criticized and ridiculed and made fun of the cops.

Unbeknownst to me, dark forces were aligned against me.

In 2014, Tribune Publishing, the Chicago-based $499 million conglomerate that was the parent company of the LA Times, brought on a brutal, cynical billionaire named Austin Beutner as its new publisher. Beutner had made his money in the 1990s, raping the ruins of post-Soviet Russia. He had big political ambitions: mayor of Los Angeles, perhaps even governor of California.

Beutner had no experience in newspapers. Probably never even delivered one as a boy. But Beutner had what Tribune wanted: a contact list full of potential investors. As for Beutner, he figured he’d use the paper to make up for his lack of name recognition among voters. It was a match made in hell.

Beutner made good on his promise to bring cash into the troubled Tribune organization by midwifing a deal between his only political ally, the LAPD’s police union (the Los Angeles Police Protective League) and Oaktree Capital, a Beverly Hills based investment firm. The LAPPL moved its $16 billion pension fund to Oaktree. At the same time, Oaktree became the number one shareholder in Tribune. The local police owned the local paper.

The LAPPL made no secret of its appreciation. Weeks after being named publisher, Beutner was given the LAPPL’s 2014 Badge and Eagle Award for
“support[ing] the LAPD in all that they do.”

In July 2015, the fuzz called in their chit with Beutner.

As has only recently been revealed by my lawsuit against the LA Times for defamation and wrongful termination, the plot against me began with a conspiracy at the highest levels of city government and the corporate media elite.

Chief Beck secretly met with Beutner. He handed him documents, as well as a CD-ROM containing an audio recording, that he convinced Beutner would be adequate proof that I was a liar and a fabulist, and therefore sufficient legal cause for firing me. And not just for firing me. They wanted to make an example out of me. They were out to destroy me. So they published not one, but two articles — something they’d never done before, ever — calling me a liar.

I was freelance. Why not just tell me I was no longer needed? Because Beck and Beutner thought I’d be a pushover. And because they wanted to send a message to every journalist in Southern California. Don’t criticize law enforcement. If you do, your career will be over.

Times readers have never been told the source of these documents. I would never have found them if I hadn’t filed my lawsuit. In brazen violation of the newspaper’s own rulesgoverning the ethical conduct of journalism (ironically written by the author of the second smear piece, Deirdre Edgar), Beutner and his minion who wrote the first smear piece, editorial page editor Nick Goldberg, protected Beck as an anonymous source.

The key evidence used against me, both to fire me and to use as the focus of two unusual articles published by the Times in their campaign to destroy my journalistic career, was the audio file. It contained about 20 seconds of audible speech and over six minutes of road noise.

That recording, secretly made by a police officer who arrested me for jaywalking in 2001, supposedly proved that I had been treated politely by the cop, not rudely handcuffed as I had written in the Times. Cheap and/or careless, the Times didn’t have the “evidence” authenticated or analyzed. Big mistake.

Things fell apart for the Times after my firing.

I paid to have the tape professionally enhanced. Turned out, there was a woman shouting “take off his handcuffs!” buried under all that static. I was vindicated. Independent journalists and other media outlets agreed.

Driving the point home, the LAPD public information office said that the audio never came out via official means. In other words, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck ginned up the evidence from somewhere else: probably a self-made, crappy dub made by the police officer himself 14 years before. It wasn’t official evidence. It wouldn’t have been admitted in court and it shouldn’t have been used to fire anyone — something a real journalist, not a billionaire financier, would have known.

I eventually obtained a copy of the official audio file from the police department itself via a public records act request. What a difference! It was clean. It looked different. And it wasdifferent. Without any enhancement at all, you could hear an angry crowd of people yelling at the officer about my mistreatment.

By this time, the Times’ ridiculous assault on free expression had blown up in their faces. Social media and the Internet had gone crazy. Journalists of all political stripes had come to my defense. Tribune, knowing that they had screwed up, fired Beutner so unceremoniously that he wasn’t allowed to use his own email account to say goodbye, and was escorted by security guards out of the building.

All I wanted was my job back and a retraction. An apology would be nice too. I don’t know why, even after all this, the Times is fighting this lawsuit. The way they’re acting, you would think that I was the one who had hurt them.

Their latest legal maneuver is beyond belief. Although discovery hasn’t begun yet, things haven’t been going well for them during initial hearings in court. That’s how it goes when you don’t have a legitimate defense for your indefensible actions. So their lawyer is resorting to scorched earth tactics. The last thing they want is for 12 Angelenos to listen to my case, consider both sides, and render justice.

The sleazy move their lawyer cooked up is to file an “anti-SLAPP” motion against me. California legislature passed the anti-SLAPP law to stop the following scenario: “A deep-pocketed corporation, developer or government official files a lawsuit whose real purpose is to silence a critic, punish a whistleblower or win a commercial dispute.” (Those words are by the LA Times’ editorial board, written two weeks after they smeared me!)

I’m not a deep pocketed corporation. I’m not a developer. And I’m not a government official. I’m a critic. So I’m the one this law was designed to protect.

Incredibly, the Times’ lawyer is arguing that I, an individual freelance cartoonist with a five-figure income, is quashing the Times’ free-speech rights! If they convince the judge that they are right, my case gets thrown out and – get this – I’m going to have to pay their attorneys’ fees!

Even more incredibly, they asked the judge to force me to post a $300,000 bond now, in advance, to guarantee their attorneys’ fees if they win their anti-SLAPP motion. She knocked it down to $75,000. But it’s not like the 10% bail that you hear about on TV. I owe the entire $75,000 on or before Thursday, August 18. My lawyers and I prepared a brief to fight it, but because the Los Angeles court system is so backed up, we can’t get a hearing until next summer. So another words, I either cough up $75,000 by next Thursday, or the Times gets away with what they did to me.

If you like to read more about the case and/or contribute to my fundraiser – I am not going down without a fight – please click here or go directly to http://gofundme.com/tedrall.

Thanks to my lawsuit, we know that the LAPD asked the LA Times to fire me as a favor to the cops because I was constantly criticizing them and their police chief. But, as Sartre said, individual actions require accountability. In that spirit, here’s a rogues gallery of the principal players and their roles in the conspiracy behind my firing last July.

LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck

Beck

Until a few months ago, when the LA Times was forced to submit affidavits in their defense to my lawsuit for wrongful termination and defamation, Beck’s role was unknown. In multiple articles, the Times was too cute by half, claiming that they had received the sketchy audiotape and the dubious documents from the LAPD. As the following evidence shows, however, the police chief took a break from fighting crime and beating up black people to walk over to the LA Times to complain about my cartoon and accompanying blog in which I described having been roughed up by an LAPD officer who arrested me for jaywalking in 2001:

SmithDepo

They say that law-enforcement officers like him work in order to protect our freedoms. But Beck obviously never heard of the First Amendment. The First Amendment doesn’t really protect free-speech as broadly as similar statutes do in other countries, but the one thing that it does do is prevent government agencies – like the LAPD – from interfering with journalism and criticism. Beck hates the Constitution; he is un-American.

If there’s any justice, Beck will soon resign. He and the Times are claiming that he raided the LAPD evidence locker and gave the material to the paper. If that’s true, he should go. However, it looks like he’s lying. Most likely, he got the stuff from the arresting officer’s personal files. Which means that he lied about the stuff being official evidence. In that case too, he should go.

LA Times Ex-Publisher Austin Beutner

Beutner

As far as I can tell, Beutner is even more stupid than he is evil. And he is evil.

The billionaire who made his bucks raping the former Soviet Union in the 1990s is the guy at the Times who took the meeting with the police chief about little old me. The LAPD police union, the LAPPL, was a major political ally for him, so he kind of had to. However, he also should’ve thought about journalistic ethics. The last thing that the publisher of the paper that covers the police should be doing is hanging out with them. And the very last thing that he should be doing is hanging out with a guy who is asking him to fire one of the cops’ critics.

The reason I say he’s stupid is because it never occurred to him that he might be getting played by the police chief. He took Beck at face value. He wasn’t careful. He just accepted the evidence the cops gave him, handed it over to his editorial page editor, and ordered him to fire me. At least that’s how it looks right now. We’ll learn more during the discovery phase of the pre-trial.

If he’d been a journalist, or knew anything about journalism, or had any common sense, it might’ve occurred to him that the chief of police had a vested interest in getting rid of a cartoonist who keeps making fun of the chief of police. Of course, that would’ve also interfered with his own interest. After all, he was too cozy with the police to say no.

The paper let him go after I was fired.

LA Times Editorial Page Editor Nick Goldberg

Nick Goldberg

Goldberg, the editor of the editorial pages, was a guy I barely had anything to do with. He wasn’t my usual editor. But he supervised my usual editors. He got the order to fire me from Beutner.

Now back in the day, when I started out, if a publisher had asked an editor to do something like this, to fire someone on the flimsiest of evidence, evidence that hadn’t been properly evaluated or analyzed or authenticated, evidence that really didn’t show much at all, said editor would have told said publisher to fuck himself. Probably would’ve resigned. But that’s not what Goldberg did.

Like many newspapermen nowadays, Goldberg was terrified. Most of his colleagues have been laid off. All he wanted to do was to keep his head down long enough to retire. So he was a wimp. When Beutner ordered him to let me go, he said yes sir. Without letting me talk to my editors. And not only that. He signed my death warrant. He signed the first article, the “a note to readers” intended to end my journalistic career.

Within days, Goldberg had in his hand solid proof that everything he had written was untrue. That he had lied for the cops. Even then, he kept quiet. No retraction. No resignation letter. He’s still there, drawing a six-figure salary despite his utter lack of decency.

LA Times Readers Representative Deirdre Edgar

Deirdre Edgar

Deirdre Edgar seems like a relatively obscure figure in this whole fiasco. Actually, she’s very important. She wrote the second hit piece against me, the one that came out three weeks after the paper found out that I have been telling the truth and that the cops have been lying about me.

Ironically, she’s the so-called “Readers representative” – the equivalent of an ombudsman at other newspapers. She’s the person who supposed to stand up for journalistic ethics. In fact, when the paper rewrote their ethical guidelines back in 2014, she got the byline.

The irony is that among other things, those ethical guidelines require reporters to give equal time to the subjects of critical articles in order to respond. She didn’t do that. Never called. Never wrote. The same guidelines say that the reporter should meet in person with the subject of a critical article. She didn’t try to do that. There’s other stuff too. Like, you’re not supposed to willfully lie about the subject of an article. Which she did.

LA Times Editor/Publisher Davan Maharaj

Davan Maharaj

Maharaj was the editor-in-chief when all this went down last year. His role at the time remains obscure. Tribune Publishing decided to name him the new publisher after they fired Beutner.

Whatever his role last summer, he has been at the helm since early fall 2015. All the time, he has allowed those two libelous articles about me to remain on the newspaper’s website. This, of course, despite the fact that the information inside them is false and everyone knows they’re false. If this guy had an ounce of integrity, he would resign.

Support free speech! Fight the LA Times’ demand that I pay them $75,000: gofundme.com/tedrall

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. His new book, the graphic biography “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” is now available.)

The happy footnote to this situation is that Ted did indeed raise the $75,000 to stay in the fight against the LA Times! The battle goes on. Will Ted end up winning the case? Let's just say the LA Times may end up with a new publisher with the last name of Rall.

March 06, 2016

THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY:
 The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway
 by Ted Rall

Back in 1999 I went on a wild and wolly trip on the Karakoram Highway with my friend Ted Rall. Ted was doing a piece for POV Magazine, and needed a travel companion to the lands that Genghis Khan famously conquered. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. Besides, we bought some awesome rugs while we were there. Anyway, here's Ted's telling of our trip through the Stans. 

A slightly longer version of this piece originally appeared in P.O.V. magazine in 1999:

THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY:
 The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway
 by Ted Rall

KKH

On your standard map it’s a thousand miles of pavement connecting China to Pakistan. Of course, on that same map New York City is just a black circle with a big fat dot in the middle. The truth is, the Karakoram Highway is a nexus of madness in a place already chock full of every conceivable form of lunacy. Understanding that psychosis, however, requires experiencing it firsthand. In the course of traveling over those thousand miles, my pal Cole Smithey and I braved wild animals, a military coup and a full-fledged invasion by Taliban terrorists.

It was all par for the course for a road trip on the world’s most dangerous highway.

The first thing you need to understand about the KKH, as it’s called on the Pakistani side of the border, is that this expanse of asphalt may well be the most staggering engineering achievement since the Great Wall—1,400 kilometers of two-lane roadway clinging to the side of immense, crumbling mountains, running alongside racing white water rivers prone to flooding and constant erosion, soaring the whole time through elevations anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 feet through areas so politically unstable that it’s impossible to find two maps depicting the same borders dated a year apart. Whereas Germany’s autobahn represents the ultimate triumph of man over nature, on the KKH it’s still up in the air as to which side will win in the end.

The KKH twists and turns through the Pamir, Kunlun, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges; it’s a geological collision zone between tectonic plates that makes this junction between Asia and the subcontinent the world’s most seismically active place, period. Immense earthquakes that would flatten American cities in seconds are routine; fortunately, there’s nothing much here except animals, a lot of cool history and the highway itself. The mountains are constantly falling apart, and down on, the KKH; rock slides close down the road all the time.

At many points the highway, built from 1966 to 1986 as the result of a diplomatic resolution of a border dispute between Pakistan and China, runs alongside rivers that range from dry washes in late summer to vast, wide torrents during the spring. The rivers eat under the pavement, creating lethal sinkholes. They often close the narrow roadway until they’re repaired—and that can take weeks or even months.

KKH2

An extension of the Tibetan plateau, nowhere on earth is it so high for so long. This fact makes June blizzards commonplace and forces the closure of the road from October through April or May. Even in the middle of summer it can be closed for weeks or longer. Altitude sickness starts killing people at 9,000 feet above sea level; you’re rarely ever that low on the KKH. In short, the Karakoram Highway is a doomed, psychotic project that may no longer exist as a viable transportation link by the time you read this. But if it does, and you can survive the landslides, terrorists and snow leopards, the Karakoram Highway offers a cat’s-eye view to some of the world’s most dazzling eye candy.

Kashgar

Getting There

The KKH begins at the Silk Road trading town of Kashgar in western China and ends up in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Because we went in September, we traveled south (from Kashgar to Islamabad) in order to minimize the effects of the already incipient Himalayan winter; in May you’d want to go the other way. You’ll need visas for China and Pakistan, obviously, but these may be hard to get because the KKH passes through the heart of Kashmir Province, where a war that began in 1947 over a Hindu chieftain’s decision to attach his Muslim region to India seems destined to continue forever.

Getting to Kashgar by air requires so many changes of plane through shitty airstrips that it’s virtually impossible; the most direct overland route from an international airport is the two-days-plus journey from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (that means a third visa). But there’s a catch—in Central Asia, there’s always a catch—the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, through the Torugart Pass, is permanently closed to foreigners. That means you, Americano.

The good thing about Central Asia, on the other hand, is that as it has for millennia along this ancient road between the Western and Eastern worlds, cash opens sealed frontiers. Conversely, the budget-traveler approach is extremely risky; we met a trio of Dutch tourists who took the bus to the border, were released by Kyrgyz customs cops but had failed to arrange for transportation to pick them up on the Chinese side of the old Soviet triumphal arch that’s still there, riddled with bullet holes. The Chinese won’t let you in unless someone meets you and going back to Kyrgyzstan isn’t allowed. The woman and two men we met were in bad shape; they’d been trapped in windswept no-man’s land between minefields at the roof of the world for 29 days with no hope in sight. Severely sunburned, without tents or sleeping bags and totally out of food, they’d been reduced to eating grass and whatever leftovers passing Kyrgyz troops deigned to give them. Without official papers we couldn’t take them with us. For all I know, they could still be up there.

It took three days and cost about $600 for the two of us to get to Kashgar from Bishkek; we hired a pair of Ukrainian guides who knew which guards to bribe and how to bypass the worst police checkpoints on back roads.

Kashgar’s history is remote and romantic, but only the first remains—it’s a shithole. This legendary trading city still draws hundreds of thousands of people from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and western China every Sunday to sell everything from camels to silk cushions to Soviet-made missile detonators in the Muslim Uyghur neighborhood downtown, but the Chinese government has decimated the city’s glorious past with vile concrete apartment blocks and factories that produce a putrid dusty haze that would clog the lungs of the most hardened Angeleno. Moreover, Muslim militants backed by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan have passed the last few years bombing public buildings and assassinating Chinese officials. This has lead to the city being subjected to a sort of martial law lite.

Try as we did to enjoy Kashgar, Cole was still suffering from altitude sickness encountered at the Torugart Pass. I spent most of the time doubled over with stomach cramps and a brand of diarrhea that’s impossible to explain to the uninitiated. Fortunately the food was so putrid—they wash bowls with filthy cold water and zero soap—that I didn’t mind skipping the local laghman noodles.

It Begins

We caught the faux-lux “International” bus bound for Sost, Pakistan, the next day, so named because it departs from the former British embassy compound shut down during the 1949 Communist revolution. Trouble began within minutes: A Pakistani smuggler with an astonishing resemblance to Ted Danson ordered me to move my 6’2” frame to the back of the bus so that he and his brother could enjoy my front-seat view. “But I need to stretch my—” I began to reason.

“Hey asshole! What part of ‘no’ do you not understand?” Cole barked from the other side of the aisle at the guy. Danson backed off, but that outburst set the tone for our journey. Here we were on a bus full of pissed-off Pakistanis and Afghans, some of them visibly armed, heading straight into the Kashmir war zone.

Like a hot chick who talks dirty but never puts out, the KKH (the Chinese call it the China-Pakistan Highway, or just the G314) teases drivers with perfectly-maintained pavement—complete with painted markers every tenth of a kilometer—the first few hours out of Kashgar. Then the road enters the immense Ghez Darya River canyon. That’s where road maintenance ends for good, and the KKH really begins.

River Madness

High-altitude roads often follow riverbeds because they offer the straightest path through mountains; thus the KKH runs alongside massive flows of snowmelt. Rock slides occur frequently; our bus repeatedly had to drive around huge boulders that had fallen thousands of feet down the side of the Pamir range within the previous few days. On the left side of the bus, the road vanished wherever the Ghez made a turn—in a monumental testimony to short-sighted stupidity, the Chinese side of the KKH has no levies to hold back the water. Washouts are indicated by rocks lined up at a 45-degree angle by road workers; rocks are the one thing that aren’t in short supply along the KKH. In a scene out of the classic movie “Wages of Fear,” the bus was forced to go off-road, rocking at wild angles over three-foot rocks at a fraction of a mile per hour, sections of shattered asphalt cracking and falling off into the torrent below. It’s just the water, the mountain and you, and you’re in the middle the whole way.

Judging from their green faces, even grizzled locals seemed not to take these side trips very well. But I was suffering particularly badly, having undergone a hernia operation a month before. You just haven’t lived until you become fully aware of your large intestines, I always say.
 Passing a vehicle coming from the opposite direction involves a perverse game of Central Asian chicken; both drivers seize the middle of the road and floor the gas. It doesn’t matter if you were both all the way to the right to begin with—you move left as soon as you see the other bastard. At the last possible second before collision (and, according to locals, sometimes afterwards) the smaller vehicle of the two scoots over; it’s not rare for one tire to slip momentarily off the road over nothingness. At blind curves, it’s customary to speed up while honking ominously at whatever might be coming around the other side. Despite its low volume of traffic—it’s not unusual to go hours without seeing anything else—cars and trucks tumble off the KKH every few days.

I didn’t ask about the buses.

Aside from sheer rock faces and incredibly bleak vistas, the mountains are home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including the long-horned ibex, Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards. Man and nature collide in spectacular ways here, as demonstrated by the snow leopard that leapt from its perch on top of a passing Volga sedan a few weeks before our arrival. The animal died on impact, the car was totaled, and there was no word on the driver. But while car and beast routinely mix it up on rural roads throughout the Third World, nothing beats the KKH for sheer volume of animal traffic. You pass herds of goats or sheep every few hundred meters; I lost count of how many suicidal yaks and bulls jumped out in front of us. There are lots of Bactrian camels (they’re of the double-humped variety) too, but they’re smart enough to edge off the roadway when a double-tractor-trailer piled thirty-feet high with God-knows-what passes them at 70.

The Ugly Americans Reach Out

About five hours out of Kashgar, at least 200 miles from the nearest village, we rounded a turn to find a line of trucks at a dead stop. The driver of the one in front of us was fast asleep on a red blanket on the ground. I took this as a bad sign.

We got out and walked ahead; it turned out that someone had abandoned a fully-loaded fuel tanker in the middle of the road on an incline up ahead. As guys have since time immemorial, we carefully examined the situation and pondered how to resolve it.

More accurately, a hundred guys yelled at each other in Mandarin, Uyghur, Urdu and Tajik, which are languages that don’t sound anything alike. Inexplicably, the Chinese men saw the rocks in front of the tires as the main problem—never mind that the thing was parked uphill. The Uyghurs appeared to agreed with Cole’s plan, which was to remove the rocks from behind the tires, thus allowing the truck to go over the edge of the cliff into the Ghez Darya. And the Pakistanis turned to Allah, praying at wildly-divergent angles towards Mecca.

After several hours during which the Chinese occupied themselves by moving the same huge rocks back and forth, but with great enthusiasm, a truck appeared from the opposite direction. The driver backed up and parked just far enough away from the gas truck to make it impossible to hook up a single cable. Then the guys began arguing about how to tie the cable. All in all, the arguing process took four hours. Cole and I shouted and pointed to our watches, which was, I realize now, futile: In Central Asia, nobody’s time is valuable, much less yours.

“This is China!” one guy in a business suit yelled at us while lugging a dusty hundred-pound boulder to the side of the road, evidently to imply that we ugly Americans would do well to mind our own national business. The Chinese guys gave out an exaggerated guffaw. The Uyghurs, who chafe under Chinese military occupation, grumbled ominously, but I couldn’t tell if they were siding with us or merely expressing a general disgust with the situation. Tired, humiliated, and certain that these nimrods were going to blow the KKH into nearby Tajikistan, Cole and I returned to the bus. Somehow the gas truck got moved. This would have made for a better story had it exploded, but life often fails to deliver on desired drama.

Anyway, our sadly low-powered bus rumbled on, dodging goats, boulders, holes and gaudy Pakistani trucks in a furious attempt to make up time. Just before nightfall the Ghez valley opened up into a lush, green plain containing the idyllic ethnic Kyrgyz enclave of Karakul. Karakul features a few hundred people, thousands of yaks and cattle and a few stone houses. Cole passed the two hours we waited there—Chinese army troops were filling in a spot where twenty feet of road had been sucked into the sandy ground—passing out dozens of those free postcards they have in American restaurants downstairs by the restroom to local kids. They featured the cover of the previous month’s Playboy.

Five hours late, exhausted and covered with soot, we slouched into our freezing cold seats as an exquisite blackness enveloped the bus. Suddenly, to the right of the bus over a row of snow-capped mountains, a huge, dazzling light lit up everything. For about a minute a bright yellow ball streaked across the sky perhaps a mile away, a trail of light behind it. Then the meteor was gone, smashed into the countryside in an explosion of fire. OK, so you could see that in Wisconsin, but you could also live your entire life without ever seeing a meteor hit the ground—and I saw mine in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region from my seat on the KKH.

The Rooster Crows For Thee

Everyone has a rooster with his name on it. It’s only a matter of time before you and that rooster come together, and when you do, it’s never a beautiful thing.

I met my cock at 4:30 in the morning after barely four hours of fitful sleep in a dismal dump of a hotel in the backwater hamlet of Tashkurgan, the last town before the border. The rooster kept up the audio entertainment of the program until 5:30, when patriotic Communist songs and news updates, announced by a woman with an amazingly grating voice, began blasting from loudspeakers outside.

The bus picked us up first thing in the morning, and drove us to the Chinese customs office, where every single book, bottle of aspirin and banana on the bus was carefully inspected while every gun and fat wad of cash was duly ignored. This took three hours, during which our driver got nice and loaded out of a brown paper bag. Then we set off across an empty scrub of desert along the bed of the then-dry Tashkurgan River—the bus overheated twice—and climbed slowly up into the Pamir mountains, well into the snow line—and finally, majestically, inevitably—we arrived at the magnificent, wind-blasted Khunjerab Pass. By this point our driver was thoroughly shitfaced, a fact which with I had no problem. I don’t think I could have navigated that bus up those mountains without a little help either.

At 16,000 feet, breathing becomes an exhilarating, triumphant act. The pass marks a change from crumbling Pamirs to stony Karakoram mountains, as well as to far superior road maintenance. The Pakistani side of the KKH features better levies and walls to keep rocks and water at bay, but the flip side of better engineering is greater risk: Here the highway runs anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet above the river. Glaciers turn the mountains wet, releasing them occasionally in the form of mudslides. Downed power lines criss-cross the road; the bus just drove right over sparking high-tension wires. (I lifted my feet off the floor.) Missing guardrails and telephone poles—and small Muslim death memorials topped with a crescent moon—offer mute testimony to those who came before but never left. Nonetheless, crossing the border into Pakistani-held Kashmir was far more frightening for something else that was missing: no one was guarding the border.

The Khunjerab Security Force outpost, supposedly controlled by the Pakistani army as the main passport control checkpoint, was unmanned. We continued about sixty miles down the road before we encountered a small shack where the bus’ passengers were asked to sign a register book full of phony signatures like “Joe Blow, the Lover Man.” The sleepy guard didn’t even bother to look at our passports; we’d find out why all semblance of authority was missing soon enough. 
The bus dropped us off at Sost, from which we caught a taxi to the stunning Kashmiri village of Passu. Surrounded by three magnificent glaciers, rope suspension bridges crossing the legendary Hunza River and clouds so close you can actually touch them, our stay at the Passu Inn was a case study in low-tech life. Electricity comes and goes every few minutes; phones actually use a crank! (The phone number for our hotel was 7.) We spent the next morning trekking and negotiated with a surly local jeep driver to take us to Gilgit for $30. We were glad to get out of town; no matter how spectacular terrain is, once you’ve seen it you’re done.

The Passu-to-Gilgit bus ride takes eight hours, but if you use the same jeep driver as we did, you can do it in three. Convinced that he was being underpaid—although our hotel owner said $20 was more like it, he kept saying that some Japanese dude had paid $100 a week before—he drove wildly back and forth like a madman, intentionally skimming the edge of the abyss even when there wasn’t any other traffic. To add to the sense of menace, local children and young men threw stones at us whenever we passed through a village. Cole read some film book (he’s a movie critic); I attempted to look bored while I checked out Rakaposhi Peak (26,000 feet) and the Hunza Valley’s terraced agriculture and stone-lined irrigation canals. Looking for the lost kingdom of Shangri-la? The myth places it squarely in the Hunza Valley.

From the perspective of scenery that you simply can’t see anywhere else, this section is the highlight of the KKH. Europeans with months of vacation to spare spend weeks on side trips to villages off the highway in this region. We drove through a canyon that makes the Grand Canyon look like landfill and limped across roped suspension bridges where half the boards were missing (Cole to me: “So this is it, Ted. It’s been nice knowing you”) across a massive, primordial flow of whitewater as impressive as the Mississippi and the Nile combined. Every few hundred feet signs advise: “Relax—Landslide Area Ends,” but that’s hard to do considering that no one has bothered to post where they begin. Because the Hunza is lined with farming communities, animals become a more frequent driving problem—and because the Pakistanis don’t sterilize their cattle the bulls are both huge and fierce.

The Taliban Attacks

Located at the southern bank of the Gilgit River, Gilgit is the spiritual and political center of disputed Kashmir province and a key stop on the KKH. Violence has been a part of life here since Pakistan and India were partitioned in 1947, and the signs of the cheapness of life are everywhere—starving children and maimed old men line the sidewalks. More than 10,000 people have been shot, bombed and lynched there during the ‘90s alone, which is more than live there now. A stone’s throw from the Line of Control between Pakistani- and Indian-held Kashmir, that rumbling in the distance is just as likely to be mortar fire as thunder.

Gilgit

Gilgit is “The Wild Bunch” meets the bar scene in “Star Wars” set in Kabul. Like Kashgar, it’s a dusty town where Pakistani, Afghan, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Chinese traders can get you anything for a price. There’s no electricity, phone or sewage system; even getting a postcard out requires greasing the proper palms. I liked it fine. Where else can you get your old Doc Martens resoled for a buck, munching a roti while watching wild dogs chew each other’s limbs off in the middle of rush-hour donkey-cart traffic? Still, our objective was the end of the KKH. After a few days of relaxation, we boarded a Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) bus for the 16-hour trip to the capital city of Islamabad.

The first thing we noticed as we assumed our customary spots at the front of the vehicle (we booked early) was the uniformed NATCO soldier riding shotgun—literally. He carried a shotgun right on his lap, occasionally pointing it right at me while chatting distractedly with the driver. He sat at the very front in a special seat, intentionally visible from the road. Then we checked out our fellow passengers. I hadn’t seen such a motley collection of smugglers and scoundrels since, well, the bus from Kashgar. Just outside Chilas I saw the first of several official signs stenciled on the rocky face of the mountain: “Ambush Point: 600 meters.” I asked the soldier about this.

“There are many, many bandits,” he explained apologetically. “Sometimes it’s not enough for them just to steal everything. Sometimes they kill everyone on the bus.”

“That’s a problem,” I said blandly.

“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “Then no one wants to take the bus anymore.”

The Gilgit next becomes the Indus River, home to one of the planet’s great ancient civilizations, and the views alternate wildly between lush green valleys and bleak chalky rocks tumbling off canyon after canyon into oblivion. It’s astonishing, but after a while sensory overload sets in; it’s the kind of experience best digested after the fact.

In any event, the bus blew through one switchback after another until, just as darkness began to fall, things started getting weird. Hundreds of turbaned men carrying rocket launchers, automatic rifles and grenades walked along the side of the Karakoram Highway, dragging ammo behind them on the ground. I recognized their outfits from TV news footage.

“Holy shit,” I realized aloud to Cole. “It’s the mujahadeen.”

A week before we’d left for Kyrgyzstan the Taliban had declared Kashmir an “American-free zone.” They reserved for themselves the right to shoot any holder of a U.S. passport on sight, including diplomats. No one had taken the declaration seriously, especially since the KKH was at least a hundred miles from the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. We found out that night that, in the interim, what had formerly been Pakistani-held Kashmir had become half occupied by Taliban militants. Now I understood why the Pakistan-China border had been unguarded; the Pakistanis had allowed themselves to be “invaded” so that the Afghans could fight their war with India on their behalf without provoking a nuclear confrontation. The Taliban, however, were far less interested in taking on the Indians over territory so barren that fighting has to be suspended every winter than its real goal: turning Pakistan into another Islamic fundamentalist state. They’d earned a rep as the Khmer Rouge of the ‘90s for stoning adulterers to death and denying medical care to women. Now, working in conjunction with a Pakistani general in Islamabad (his coup d’etat went down a few weeks later) they were in position to enforce their previous threats.

The bus crossed the border of the North-West Frontier Province and pressed on into the hamlet of Dasu, the northern section of which had obviously been the scene of fighting hours earlier. Fires crackled in brand-new ruins. Broken glass, from God knows what, was everywhere. An orange glow lit up the windows to the left side of the bus; something big had exploded there. Unattended horses wandered aimlessly through the streets, some bleeding from shrapnel wounds. A woman walked crazily in a semicircle—shock? The body of a man, in the generic brown frocks Pakistani Muslims wear, leaned against a storefront. There wasn’t any blood. Burned-out cars lined the KKH as it passed through what had been the bazaar district. On the outskirts of town, three Taliban soldiers flagged us down by making circles on the road with a flashlight.

In the Third World, military checkpoints are a frequent nuisance, sort of the way bridge tolls are to us. With a full-fledged war going on, two holders of American passports that the Pakistani authorities hadn’t bothered to stamp weren’t going to last long under Taliban occupation; checkpoints were bound to spring up everywhere. The bus stopped and the front door opened. The soldiers gave the driver a big grin. My fellow passengers, who’d been glaring at Cole and I for hundreds of miles, looked entirely too pleased about this development for my tastes. The NATCO soldier got up, looked at Cole and I, and walked to the door. Would we be taken off the bus and shot by the side of the road? It was entirely possible; certainly no one on this vehicle would miss us. I seriously doubted that anyone would ever be punished, or that there’d ever be an investigation. I considered that as bad as dying is, dying far away from home surrounded by people who hate your guts is infinitely worse. I thought about the European Community passport in my backpack (I’m a dual French-U.S. citizen); that red booklet would get me off the hook but, unlike me, Cole didn’t have a backup nationality. I thought about the best arguments I could employ to try to save my life. Finally, I was angry at myself for not preparing properly—we could easily have bought guns in Gilgit, but it hadn’t occured to us.

Then the soldier did something for which I will always be grateful. Wearing a bored expression on his face, he nonchalantly pointed his gun straight at the lead mujahadeen and said something to the driver in Urdu. The bus moved forward, and that was it.

The stretch of the KKH between Dasu and Pattan is notoriously violent even in “peacetime”—a number of Western travelers have been beaten up, robbed and raped there. But the military situation was relatively static; mujahadeen trudged along, too dog-tired to care about anything beyond their next footstep. Civilian vehicles, including small cars and trucks, shared the road with hundreds of refugees going south into Pakistan proper and Afghan soldiers walking towards the Line of Control. Finally, at four in the morning, the road made a sharp southern turn, and the KKH became dark and empty. A farmer’s mule darted out into the street; we hit the sucker doing about 50. Our driver never slowed down.

We had three more hours ahead of us, but I figured that it was OK to try to catch some sleep. I was weak, hungry and still processing my brush with death. The last section of KKH is notable for nothing in particular, which means that the road leaves the mountains, becomes straight and flat and the chances of getting killed by another vehicle or a terrorist or a beast of burden are relatively minimal. If it hadn’t been for the Pakistani film music blaring from the speakers directly above our heads, it might even have been peaceful.

Fortunately, Cole had wire cutters.

 

 

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