The New Witch Hunters

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.

Trump’s America

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.

Sydney Brownstone wrote an article on political trends in the Seattle exurb of Burien. This is a graphical representation of her. I had a photo of her but the Stranger asked that I take it down. If you want to see that picture, go here: –D.P.

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.

Darla Green is one of the Burien Proud Burien First candidates. She was singled out for special treatment, first by the Stranger and then the 34th District Democrats.

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.

David Ginsberg chairs the 34th District Democrats party organization. He published a newsletter, seen by tens of thousands of people, that accused Darla Green and the other Burien Proud candidates of being “white nationalists.” Image: 34th District Democrats

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 Web page. I tried to contact Mr. Ginsberg for this story, but he didn’t return messages.

Senator Joe McCarthy confers with attorney Roy Cohn before grilling American citizens on their associations with communism. Cohn survived his own association with the soon-to-be disgraced and went on to advise a number of wealthy clients, including, notably, Donald Trump.

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.”

–David Preston

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.

Bonus Material


Additional image credits: Burien City Hall by Shiels Obletz and Johnsen

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13 Responses to The New Witch Hunters

  1. domenic feeney says:

    we should lend sawant to our burien neighbors to do a thorough trump proofing and thereby find their way back to the strangers good graces

  2. Terri Lindeke says:

    Your piece sir is clearly biased and lacks thorough investigation. This is only another letter to the editor to support one viewpoint and offers no well researched evidence – it’s just your opinion after having talked to BPBF candidates.

    Why are there no interviews with the other candidates? Why are there no interviews with others who have been attacked by these folks? Or the attacks on the judge who ruled the iniative invalid on solid legal grounds? Or the fact that Burien’s laws on Initiatives is antiquated, has glaring errors and sites laws not used by any other municipality in King County?

    Or how about looking at their Facebook page and reading for yourself the vile hatred and attacks on regular citizens of Burien that occur every hour of every day.

    Your bias is showing sir by your lack of thorough reasearch and it means nothing.

    If you want to hold yourself up as some sort of authority whose opinion should matter do a better job. Till then you are just another blowhard hatchet man for hire to be ignored.

  3. DBP says:

    >>Why are there no interviews with the other candidates? Why are there no interviews with others who have been attacked by these folks? Or the attacks on the judge who ruled the initative invalid on solid legal grounds?

    This story isn’t about Burien’s initiative process or the candidates Teri. It’s about how The Stranger and the 34th District Democrats tried to bully and intimidate people up for exercising their Constitutional rights. The reason I spoke with Darla Green is because she was the target of the bullying. Her life was affected by it. If the left-wing candidates had been similarly bullied, I would’ve spoken to them. But in any case, you don’t need to worry about the left-wing candidates. They got plenty of free publicity in the Stranger.


  4. PhilW-S says:

    Mr. Preston: The first time I finished your unironically paranoid screed, I was outraged at its misleading arguments. After rereading, I find myself more mystified, even charmed, at your seeming naivety. Throughout your post you show no real inclination to weigh the merits of the Burien First candidates’ positions. Your only concern is with the Left’s excessive condemnation of actions that you apparently deem inscrutable.
    So, you start by noting that Trump has received “unwelcome” support from the far-Right, and maybe he was a little “slow to denounce” the murderous white nationalists in Charlottesville. So what? It’s simply not Trump’s way to launch an attack without knowing all the facts, or ever presume to know what’s in someone’s heart. You tell readers that Brownstone “claimed” to uncover a link between the sanctuary-repeal initiative and the white nationalists. Sure, the initiative’s organizers (Respect Washington) are mostly funded by US Inc., which publishes tracts about immigrant “invaders” and which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group–but that has nothing to do with white nationalism!
    Rather than being “passed in a rush,” Ordinance 651 was debated over two full council meetings (each about three hours) in December and January. I don’t know what “unorthodox procedures” Wagner is thinking of: in December the ordinance was passed by a majority of a quorum. After it was found that the rules require a majority of the full council, a majority of the full council passed it in January.

  5. PhilW-S says:

    As for knowing of Keller’s associations, anyone who has observed his public comments at council meetings could not seriously be surprised to learn of Keller’s white nationalist funders. Keller has repeatedly used his time to read gruesome stories of rape and gang violence, emphasizing the suspects’ Spanish surnames as if that proved anything. Brownstone may not have personally interviewed the Burien First candidates, but she attended last winter’s council meetings, where several of said candidates contributed to the debate.
    Oh, and the “alleged hate crime in Burien” you mention actually involved someone spray-painting “F—ING MEXICANS” on the side of an RV–but we may never know for sure what was in the graffiti artist’s heart.
    Finally, although name-calling can be counterproductive, and it is truly important to distinguish between varying levels of extremism on the Right, it’s unrealistic and disingenuous to demand that critics ignore the broader implications of someone’s political stance. Thankfully, Burien is not yet overrun with neo-Nazis, but there is real danger in the anti-anti-Trump crowd’s dismissal of anything the “social justice machine” has to offer. The Burien First candidates stubbornly fight against progressive policies, but offer no alternatives to address their opponents’ concerns. That blind intransigence amounts to direct or indirect support for the extremists who seek to advance their own agenda. You may prefer to stick your head in the sand at such irresponsible leadership. Many others fear what will come of it, and would rather call out the danger now.

  6. PhilW-S says:

    One more thing: It’s simply wrong to characterize the Ordinance 651 as requiring “civil disobedience” or that officials “refuse to volunteer information to, or comply with requests from, federal authorities.” What Ordinance 651 actually prohibits is (1) conditioning service on, (2) requesting documents about, (3) initiating inquiry or enforcement solely due to, or (4) using forms requiring disclosure of immigration status, unless otherwise required by state or federal law. Ordinance 651 specifically provides that officials are not prohibited from cooperating with federal authorities, and that the ordinance is intended to be consistent with federal laws including 8 USC 1373.

  7. Rusty says:

    Wow, it must be weird living in a leftist bubble, as there don’t appear to be any mirrors – or anything resembling cogent thought. Have you seen the Venona papers by the way?

  8. Stephen says:

    How ’bout the fact the ‘law & order’ Burien Proud Burien First candidates are all in violation of city law about unlawful placement of campaign signs on city property? Further, Ms Wagner is in violation of her oath of office to uphold the law.

    This has been brought to the city’s attention more than twice and nothing has changed: the signs are still attached to city property; candidates are still defiant they will not be removed; they still claim to be law and order (mostly against poverty).

    The online Highline Times posted the issue on 10/25, then quickly withdrew the story as the publisher claimed it was a pinprick. So, breaking the law is only a pinprick?

    When elected officials openly violate the law it encourages others to do so. The “broken window” theory.

  9. DBP says:

    Thanks for your question, Stephen. CM Debi Wagner of the Burien City Council had this response:

    The city is suspending the rules not just over the fence (structures) our signs are attached to but also
    For all planter boxes along 152nd (structures) full of signs. City will be tightening up the code and being specific in future.
    Meanwhile ALL candidates are violating the rules in signs!

  10. Trollificus says:

    Hmm…ordinances requiring city employees to disregard immigration and citizenship laws-okay (only a pinprick?). Putting a campaign sign in an improper location-OMFG!! Call in the SWAT team!! This is what leads to rape, murder and theft! IT’S A SLIPPERY BROKEN WINDOW!!

    I guess people who lack the self-awareness to note how their own positions conflict with each other can’t be expected to note that the “They espoused a position that was close to a position taken by people who are supported by groups in which are people who have inadequately denounced WHITE SUPREMACY, therefore they are NeoNazis” approach to reverse McCarthyism is about as logical as tasking US socialists for the deaths caused by Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot…I mean, they’re connected by the same logic used to connect ANY imperfectly PC opinion to Nazis. I understand that the progressive rhetorical approach to such logical equivalences is to hand-wave them away (“These are not the arguments you’re looking for.”) or just claim “that’s different”. But it isn’t.

  11. Trollificus says:

    Also, since I am apparently not done, Mr. Prestons’ article dealt less with the actual positions of the candidates (which do not appear to have been a strong emphasis in The Stranger article or Mr. Ginsburgs’ embarrassing screed either), and more with the nature and practice of “witch hunts” in the 21st century. The methodological correspondences between the practices of the professional “witch finders” in the 17th century, purveyors of McCarthyism in the 20th and the authors of those articles are undeniable. Note first that they all posit an enemy who MUST BE DESTROYED, who CANNOT BE TOLERATED. (witches, Communists, White Supremacists)

    From there, the manipulation of fearful people by tawdry illogic is very similar.

    I won’t do your homework for you, but see if, in Brownstone and Ginsburgs’ pieces, you can find examples of : anecdotal evidence (and questionably-relevant anecdotal evidence at that!), guilt by association, false binary, unexamined assumptions, appeal to emotion, false characterization, straw man fallacy, and plain old hyperbole. And that’s probably not all, but after a quick skim. I thought Preston was mild in his criticism, but some commentors seem determined to reproduce the errors and fallacies, as if to double down on the fact that they have no intention of convincing people through rational argument, but rather through sheer social pressure: witch hunts, if you will.

    Mr. Prestons’ observations, confirmed.

  12. DBP says:

    Thanks for your supportive comments, trollificus! Keep talking about me on the Seattle Times. That helps a lot. –David

  13. Liz says:

    We are Darla’s neighbors. We don’t vote for because Darla. She doesn’t play well with others. No other reason needed.

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