September 28, 2017
In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy’s “House Un-American Activities Committee” hung like a noose around the liberal establishment’s neck, ready to draw tight at a witness’s refusal to name his associates in the Communist Party. Initially McCarthy went after bona fide party members, but as the Red Scare deepened, HUAC expanded its reach and began going after anyone suspected of being a little too left for comfort. Artists, peace activists, labor organizers, or just anyone who questioned McCarthy’s methods: they were all suspect. Suddenly, there was a communist hiding under every bed.
Ultimately, McCarthy was disgraced and banished from politics, and the word “McCarthyism” entered the lexicon as a word meaning a culture of denunciation and fear, a method of silencing one’s political opponents through public interrogation and guilt-by-association. Perhaps we thought we’d left the witch hunts of those days behind with the Cold War and hula hoops. If so, we were wrong.
November 2016: In the first days after Donald Trumps election, he began receiving unwelcome gestures of support from far-right political figures. They included white supremacist Richard Spencer, who concluded, from some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric on immigration, that a President Trump would be favorable to Spencer’s white identity politics. Trump was perceived as being slow to denounce Spencer and has made a series of political missteps on race since then, culminating with his equivocal remarks following a mass demonstration by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12.
Many Americans remain frustrated and desperately angry over Trump’s surprise victory, and it’s become common for liberal pundits to attack their opponents by drawing a connection between their opponents and Trump, or Trumpism, which are then linked with racism and other bad things. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in coastal cities that rejected Trump at the polls. Many of these cities, Seattle for instance, have assumed a posture of reflexive opposition to Trump and his policies.
On September 6, a popular and strongly left-leaning Seattle newsweekly called the Stranger published an article entitled “Trump’s America is 10 miles South of Downtown Seattle.” The author, Sydney Brownstone, examined a series of recent political events in the nearby city of Burien (population: 51,000) and claimed to have uncovered a sinister link between Burien and the white nationalist movement that she associated with Donald Trump. The centerpiece of Brownstone’s expose was a group of four Burien City Council candidates calling themselves Burien Proud Burien First. As Republicans and assumed Trump supporters, these candidates were naturally suspect, but to make things worse, some of them had supported an initiative to repeal Burien’s controversial Sanctuary City ordinance. So they were ripe to be attacked as anti-immigrant. Timing was important here too. With the Burien City Council election seven weeks away, a strategically placed hit-piece could do a lot to help Burien Proud’s opponents.
The Burien Sanctuary City law was a copycat of a similar ordinances passed around in the country in the wake of Trump’s election. Sanctuary City policies vary from place to place, but they all represent various degrees of institutionalized civil disobedience to federal immigration law. The Burien ordinance required Burien officials, including the police, to refuse to volunteer information to, or comply with requests from, federal authorities concerning the immigration status of local residents, absent a court order. Burien’s ordinance also removed a check-box on Burien job applications inquiring on whether an applicant was legally entitled to work in the U.S.
Debi Wagner, one of the current Burien CMs (and a member of the Burien Proud slate) told me that she opposed Burien’s Sanctuary City ordinance because it was passed in a rush and using unorthodox procedures. Because of that, and because the ordinance was significant in its scope, she wanted to let the voters of Burien decide on the measure. Accordingly, when an initiative petition was presented to the Council, she supported putting it on the ballot. The petition received the required signatures and was certified as Proposition 1, but it was later struck down by a judge for being a usurpation of the Burien government’s administrative prerogatives.
In her research, the Stranger’s Brownstone uncovered a troubling connection. It seems that repeal initiative’s sponsor, a West Seattle man named Craig Keller is financed in part by an out-of-state anti-immigration group called US Inc.
It’s clear that Wagner, and possibly other members of Burien Proud, knew that Keller was behind the repeal initiative. It’s not at all clear that they knew of Keller’s other associations, or that they would have approved of them if they had. Yet Brownstone, in her story, discusses Keller, Keller’s connections, and the Burien Proud candidates as if they were all part of the same organization, and as if they had some connection to other events happening around Burien, as described to her by immigrants. She uses the words “hate,” “hate group,” “racist,” or “white-nationalist” over a dozen times. The piece opens with a story about an alleged hate crime in Burien (it was never solved), moves through a series of anecdotes about Burien’s Mexican population being fearful after Donald Trump’s election, and ends with a link to another Stranger story about “Islamophobia” being on the rise.
Where was the evidence?
Brownstone never spoke or met with any of the Burien Proud candidates. She did have a brief and testy exchange with Councilmember Debi Wagner, but that’s the extent of her personal knowledge of the people who were the central focus of her 3700-word article. There were no Web meetings or phone calls. And just one short e-mail exchange. There’s no evidence that any of the Burien candidates knew what US Inc. espouses, or of US Inc.’s relationship with Keller. Most important, there is no evidence that any of the Burien Proud candidates have ever belonged to a hate group, espoused racialist views, or harassed immigrants. Brownstone didn’t explicitly claim that the Burien Proud group were white nationalists but she didn’t have to, because her implication was unmistakable. In her view, apparently, there’s no need to distinguish individuals and groups on the right from each other, because they’re all part of Trump’s America.
News of the Stranger piece flashed back to the Burien community. As Brownstone pointed out in her story, Burien is only 10 miles from downtown Seattle, and the magazine is read widely there, both in print and online. (Note: There are four Stranger distribution points in downtown as well.) Burien doesn’t make Seattle headlines often, so when it does, it’s a big deal to the people there. Burien-related Facebook pages and local neighborhood blogs began lighting up, with many people scratching their heads, and some even echoing Brownstone’s insinuations against the Burien Proud group. The candidates themselves were reeling, shell-shocked. Darla Green, whom I’d met two weeks earlier and interviewed for the Safe Seattle Facebook page, texted me: “Did you see the Stranger’s hit-piece about us?” I asked her if she’d gotten threats. “No,” she replied, “but some friends have told me they’re worried for my safety.” It was the same with the other Burien Proud candidates. No one had approached them in person, but some of their friends and family had read the story or seen the Facebook chatter and had come to them with questions: “Why are people calling you a racist?”
Meanwhile, the opposition candidates were exultant. Their foes had just been given the equivalent of a blacklisting by HUAC, branded with the twenty-first century equivalent of witchery: white nationalism. And the story was getting legs back in Seattle.
Have you heard the news?
The 34th District Democrats is an official organization of the Democratic Party. The 34th Legislative District encompasses Burien and the southwest quarter of Seattle and accounts for about 130,000 residents. Notwithstanding the presence of “Trump’s America” within its boundaries, the 34th LD is deep blue and has been represented in Olympia and Washington, D.C. solely by Democrats for decades. It was the home turf of one the U.S. House of Representatives’ most liberal members. Jim “Baghdad Jim” McDermott.
On September 11, five days after the “Trump’s America” piece came out, David Ginsberg, chair of the 34th Dems, published a newsletter opening with an appeal based on the Stranger article. Ginsberg saw an even stronger connection between the Burien Proud candidates and white supremacy. He didn’t bother checking facts or contacting the principles; he simply repeated and amplified Brownstone’s charges. In his newsletter Ginsberg spoke of the “fight between fascism and democracy” (!) claiming that the white supremacists have “allies” on the Burien City Council. Following standard strategy Ginsberg refused to name any Burien Proud candidates directly, but he did mention one of them in unmistakable terms: Darla Green. Riffing off Brownstone, Ginsberg spoke of a “lunatic white nationalist beauty salon owner.” Brownstone had mentioned that Green owned a beauty salon. The “lunatic”part was Ginsberg’s personal touch.
Unlike Brownstone, who knows how to run a proper smear, Ginsberg parachuted himself right into libel country. Where Brownstone dropped insinuations about the Burien Proud group and then pulled back, Ginsberg leaped forward into full-on accusations: These people don’t just hang with white nationalists, he claimed. They are white nationalists.
Ginsberg carried on with his over-the-top narrative, declaring that “if white nationalists are successful in Burien [ . . . ] they will do terrible things. Expect raids on homes of people who ‘don’t look American.'” He concludes by rallying the troops, urging Democrats to set aside their differences and vote for the Democratic slate. Overall it was what you’d expect from a pre-election newsletter. Just a lot more vicious.
Sorry, not sorry
Ginsberg’s broadside was felt like an aftershock in Burien and throughout the 34th legislative district. It likely went out to tens of thousands of e-mail subscribers, in addition to being posted on the 34th Democrats Web page. A number of constituents who received the mailing immediately complained to Ginsberg, who responded two days later with a limp apology message that reiterated and expanded the basic charge against the Burien group:
In the same breath that Ginsberg admitted to his “poor word choice,” he restated the claim that Green and the other Burien Proud candidates had “aligned themselves” with a white nationalist group. He followed up with an anecdote about a frightened Somali girl who felt compelled to tell passersby that she was not a terrorist – as if that had something to do with Green – and ended with a somewhat more sincere promise by Ginsberg to live up to his own ideals and to “listen to those we disagree with.”
In his response, Ginsberg uses the words “sorry” and “apology” once each. He uses the term “white nationalist” four times.
Notwithstanding Ginsberg’s formal apology, he never issued a public retraction on the 34th Dem’s Web page. Nor did he send the apology to Ms. Green; she found out about it through third parties. Worse still, Ginsberg left the newsletter up with its original defamatory text. As of the this publication, the newsletter was still online. Here is the complete document, downloaded from the 34Dems.org Web page. I tried to contact Mr. Ginsberg for this story, but he didn’t return messages.
The New Witch Hunters
The Stranger didn’t necessarily collaborate with the 34th District Democrats to discredit the Burien Proud group. But they didn’t have to. Once Brownstone’s article hit the news stands, it was inevitable that the local Democrats would pick it up. And pick it up they did.
A reasonable person would infer that the Stranger was trying to sway a political race. They make no bones about their interference in Seattle politics, and they devote two full issues each year to telling readers how they should cast their ballots. But the message they set with the “Trump’s America” piece goes far beyond a council race in a sleepy exurb. It’s a warning shot from Seattle’s social justice machine to anyone within earshot: Don’t challenge us on social policy or we’ll do to you we did to those hicks in Burien. We’ll paint you as a Trump-loving, sheet-wearing Nazi. All we have to do is dig up some connection between you and some hate group somewhere and you’re gone. There are no more Democrats and Republicans around here. There’s just us and the devil. Take your pick.
The terror of the 1950s wasn’t like this. Yes, it was pervasive. And horrible. But in the end, it was easier to get a handle on, because it originated in a single malevolent individual, Joe McCarthy, and the clique around him. McCarthy ran the operation, and when he fell, the terror ended. The new terror is a whole other level of cruel. Much handier than a government tribunal, less detectable than a naked accusation. It creeps like miasma, oozing out from a thousand blogs and Facebook pages, propagated by a new legion of right-thinking citizens who want to signal their own virtue and tag those who question the faith as evil.
The new McCarthyism will be harder to stomp out, because it has no center. But in the end it will be destroyed in the same way. And by the same thing. Courage.
I spoke with Darla Green about the damage the witch hunters did to her personally. She’s putting on a brave face but admits that both her personal life and her business have been affected. She gave me examples but asked that I not publish them, since they might make people feel sorry for, and that’s not what she wants.
“I know they’re doing this to intimidate me,” she said, “but I’m not going to let them get away with it.”
Bias Disclosure: I don’t live in Burien, but over the last month I have gotten to know the Burien Proud Burien First candidates well. They’re nice folks and I hope they win. I’ve also had a chance to observe their opponents and, as far as I can tell, they’re nice folks too. But I want them to lose. –D.P.
Additional image credits: Burien City Hall by Shiels Obletz and Johnsen