Battle Cry of Freedom (Modern Library Nonfiction #77)

(This is the twenty-third entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Why We Can’t Wait.)

In his 1966 essay “The White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin — never a man to mince words or to refrain from expressing searing clarity — declared that white Americans were incapable of facing the deep wounds suppurating in the national fabric because of their refusal to acknowledge their complicity in abusive history. Pointing to the repugnant privilege that, even today, hinders many white people from altering their lives, their attitudes, and the baleful bigotry summoned by their nascent advantages, much less their relationships to people of color, Baldwin noted:

For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

Fifty-four years after Baldwin, America now finds itself enmired within its most seminal (and long delayed) civil rights movement in decades, awakened from its somnambulistic malaise through the neck-stomping snap of systemic racism casually and ignobly practiced by crooked cops who are afforded impunity rather than significant consequences. The institution of slavery has been replaced by the indignities of racial profiling, income disparity, wanton brutality, constant belittlement, and a crass cabal of Karens who are more than eager to rat out people of color so that they can scarf down their soy milk lattes and avocado toast, rarely deviating from the hideous cues that a culture — one that prioritizes discrimination first and equality last — rewards with all the perfunctory mechanics of a slot machine jackpot.

Thus, one must approach James McPherson’s mighty and incredibly impressive Civil War volume with mindfulness and assiduity. It is not, as Baldwin says, a book that can merely be read — even though it is something of a miracle that McPherson has packed as much detail and as many considerations as he has within more than 900 pages. McPherson’s volume is an invaluable start for anyone hoping to move beyond mere reading, to significantly considering the palpable legacy of how the hideous shadow of white supremacy and belittlement still plagues us in the present. Why does the Confederate flag still fly? Why do imperialist statues — especially monuments that celebrate a failed and racist breakaway coalition of upstart states rightly starved and humiliated and destroyed by Grant and Sherman — still stand? Battle Cry of Freedom beckons us to pay careful attention to the unjust and bestial influences that erupted before the war and that flickered afterwards. It is thankfully not just a compilation of battle summaries — although it does do much to mark the moments in which the North was on the run and geography and weather and lack of supplies often stood in its way. The book pays welcome scrutiny to the underlying environment that inspired the South to secede and required a newly inaugurated Lincoln to call for 75,000 volunteers a little more than a month after he had been sworn in as President and just after the South Carolina militia had attacked Fort Sumter.

* * *

It was technological innovation in the 1840s and the 1850s — the new machines putting out watches and furniture and bolts and damn near anything into the market at a rapid clip previously unseen — that helped sow the seeds of labor unrest. To use the new tools, a worker had to go to a factory rather than operating out of his home. To turn the most profit possible and sustain his venal wealth, the aspiring robber baron had to exploit the worker at subhuman wages. The South was more willing to enslave people. A barbaric racist of that era ranting in a saloon could, much like one of Trump’s acolytes today, point to the dip in the agricultural labor force from 1800 to 1860. In the North, 70% of labor was in agriculture, but this fell to 40%. But in the South, the rate remained steady at 80%. But this, of course, was an artificial win built on the backs of Black lives.

You had increasing territory in the West annexed to the United States and, with this, vivacious crusaders who were feeling bolder about their causes. David Wilmot, a freshman Congressional Representative, saw the Mexican War as an opportunity to lay down a proviso on August 8, 1846. “[N]either slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory” were the words that Wilmot added to an appropriations bill amendment. Like any politician, Wilmot was interested in settling scores. The Wilmot Proviso was as much the result of long pent-up frustration among a cluster of Northern Democrats who cared more about holding onto power than pushing forward abolition. The proviso kept being reintroduced and the Democratic Party of the time — much of it composed of racists from the South — began to splinter.

Northern Democrats shifted their support from the Wilmot Proviso to an idea known as popular sovereignity, which placed the decision on whether to sustain or abolish slavery into the hands of settlers moving into the new territories. But Wilmot’s more universal abolition approach still had the enthusiastic support of northern Whigs. The Whigs, for those who may not recall, were essentially middle-class conservatives living it large. They represented the alternative to Democrats before the Republican Party was created in 1854. The Whigs emerged from the ashes of the Nullification Crisis of 1832 — which you may recall me getting into when I was tackling Herbert Croly a few years ago. Yes, Andrew Jackson was responsible for (a) destroying the national bank, thus creating an economically volatile environment and (b) creating enough fury for Henry Clay and company to form an anti-Jackson opposition party. What’s most interesting here is that opposing Jackson also meant opposing one of his pet causes: slavery. And, mind you, these were pro-business conservatives who wanted to live the good life. This is a bit like day trading bros dolled up in Brooks Brothers suits suddenly announcing that they want universal healthcare. Politics may make strange bedfellows, but sometimes a searing laser directed at an enemy who has jilted you in the boudoir creates an entirely unexpected bloc.

Many of the “liberals” of that era, especially in the South, were very much in favor of keeping slavery going. (This historical fact has regrettably caused many Republicans to chirp “Party of Lincoln!” in an attempt to excuse the more fascistic and racist overtures that these same smug burghers wallow in today.) Much like Black Lives Matter today and the Occupy Wall Street movement nine years ago, a significant plurality of the Whigs, who resented the fact that their slave-owning presidential candidate Zachary Taylor refused to take a position on the Wilmot Proviso, were able to create a broad coalition at the Free Soil convention of 1848. Slavery then became one of the 1848 presidential election’s major issues.

In Battle Cry, McPherson nimbly points to how all of these developments led to a great deal of political unrest that made the Civil War inevitable. Prominent Republican William H. Seward (later Lincoln’s Secretary of State) came out swinging against slavery, claiming that compromise on the issue was impossible. “You cannot roll back the tide of social progress,” he said. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (authored by Stephen Douglas) repealed the Missouri Compromise, which in turn led to “Bleeding Kansas” — a series of armed and violent struggles over the legality of slavery that carried on for the next seven years. (Curiously, McPheron downplays Daniel Webster’s 1850 turncoat “Seventh of March” speech, which signaled Webster’s willingness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and forever altered his base and political career.) And while all this was happening, cotton prices in the South were rising and a dying faction of Southern unionists led the Southern states to increasingly consider secession. The maps of 1860 reveal the inescapable problem:

* * *

The Whigs were crumbling. Enter Lincoln, speaking eloquently on a Peroria stage on October 16, 1854, and representing the future of the newly minted Republican Party:

When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.

Enter the Know Nothings, a third party filling a niche left by the eroding Whigs and the increasingly splintered Democratic Party. The Know Nothings were arguably the Proud Boys of their time. They ushered in a wave of nationalism and xenophobia that was thoughtfully considered by the Smithsonian‘s Lorraine Boissoneault. What killed the Know Nothings was their failure to take a stand on slavery. You couldn’t afford to stay silent on the issue when the likes of Dred Scott and John Brown were in the newspapers. The Know Nothings further scattered political difference to the winds, giving Lincoln the opportunity to unite numerous strands under the new Republican Party and win the Presidency during the 1860 election, despite not being on the ballot in ten Southern states.

With Lincoln’s win, seven slave states seceded from the union. And the beginnings of the Confederacy began. Historians have been arguing for years over the precise reasons for this disunion. If you’re a bit of a wonk like me, I highly recommend this 2011 panel in which three historians offer entirely different takeaways. McPherson, to his credit, allows the events to unfold and refrains from too much editorializing. Although throughout the book, McPherson does speak from the perspective of the Union.

* * *

As I noted when I tackled John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, one of my failings as an all-encompassing dilettante resides with military history, which I find about as pleasurable to read as sprawling myself naked, sans hat or suntan lotion, upon some burning metal bed on a Brooklyn rooftop during a hot August afternoon — watching tar congeal over my epidermis until I transform into some ugly onyx crust while various spectators, saddled with boredom and the need to make a quick buck, film me with their phones and later email me demands to pay up in Bitcoin, lest my mindless frolicking be publicly uploaded to the Internet and distributed to every pornographic website from here to Helsinki.

That’s definitely laying it on thicker than you need to hear. But it is essential that you understand just how much military history rankles me.

Anyway, despite my great reluctance to don a tricorne of any sort, McPherson’s descriptions of battles (along with the accompanying illustrations) did somehow jolt me out of my aversion and make me care. Little details — such as P.G.T. Beauregard designing a new Confederate battle flag after troops could not distinguish between the Confederate “stars and bars” banner from the Union flag in the fog of battle — helped to clarify the specific innovations brought about by the Civil War. It also had never occurred to me how much the history of ironclad vessels began with the Civil War, thanks in part to the eccentric marine engineer John Ericsson, who designed the famed USS Monitor, designed as a counterpoint to the formidable Confederate vessel Virginia, which had been created to hit the Union blockade at Ronoake Island. What was especially amazing about Ericsson’s ship was that it was built and launched rapidly — without testing. After two hours of fighting, the Monitor finally breached the Virginia‘s hull with a 175-pound shot, operating with barely functioning engines. For whatever reason, McPherson’s vivid description of this sea battle reminded me of the Mutara Nebula battle at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But even for all of McPherson’s synthesizing legerdemain, the one serious thing I have to ding him on is his failure to describe the horrors of slavery in any form. Even William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich devoted significant passages to depicting what was happening in the Holocaust death camps. Despite my high regard for McPherson’s ability to find just the right events to highlight in the Civil War timeline, and his brilliantly subtle way of depicting the shifting fortunes of the North and the South, can one really accept a volume about the Civil War without a description of slavery? McPherson devotes more time to covering Andersonville’s brutal statistics (prisoner mortality was 29% and so forth) before closing his paragraph with this sentence:

The treatment of prisoners during the Civil War was something that neither side could be proud of.

But what of the treatment of Black people? Why does this not merit so much as a paragraph? McPherson is so good at details — such as emphasizing the fact that Grant’s pleas to have all prisoners exchanged — white and Black — in the cartel actually came a year after negotiations had stopped. He’s good enough to show us how southern historians have perceived events (often questionably). Why then would he shy away from the conditions of slavery?

The other major flaw: Why would McPherson skim over the Battle of Gettysburg in just under twenty pages? This was, after all, the decisive battle of the war. McPherson seems to devote more time, for example, on the Confederate raids in 1862. And while all this is useful to understanding the War, it’s still inexplicable to me.

But these are significant nitpicks for a book that was published in 1988 and that is otherwise a masterpiece. Still, I’m not the only one out here kvetching about this problem. The time has come for a new historian — ideally someone who isn’t a white male — to step up to the challenge and outdo both Ken Burns and James McPherson (and Shelby Foote, who I’ll be getting to when we hit MLNF #15 in perhaps a decade or so) and fully convey the evils and brutality of slavery and why this war both altered American life and exacerbated the problems we are still facing today.

Next Up: Lewis Mumford’s The City in History!

The Super Tuesday Hangover

I’m going to be avoiding political news for the rest of the week. I’m doing this for my own sanity. I have an audio drama to finish editing and freelancing jobs to carry on with and lovely actors to record some insert scenes with. And frankly, like many of you who were disappointed in last night’s results, I need to devote my time and energy to summon hope and positivism and joy after the sorrow and sleeplessness caused by Super Tuesday. (I finally did get some sleep. But it wasn’t easy. And I know I wasn’t alone. I was texting with three friends at 4 AM, all of us up, all of us worried, all of us advocating for different candidates, all of us seeing the shocking reality ahead of us. What serious political wonk looking at the long game implications wasn’t up at an ungodly hour contemplating the horrific consequences of four more years of Cheeto?)

The Democratic Establishment, a cowardly entity that prioritized a formula that didn’t work in 2016 and that went all in on a doddering Wonder Bread spokesman who cannot get names, dates, or places right and who is less inspiring than Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and George McGovern combined, decided that Joe Biden would be the man to defeat Trump and coordinated accordingly in Dallas on Monday night. Even the best polls inform us that Biden can barely muster little more than 50% against the worst President that this nation has ever had the misfortune to endure.

I will vote for Biden if he is the frontrunner. But he won’t get a dime from me. I won’t campaign for him. I have no enthusiasm for this man whatsoever. I may as well be voting for a potted plant that can occasionally form coherent sentences while it is being watered. Honestly, someone needs to find Corn Pop and get his side of the story. I’m guessing Biden wasn’t nearly as tough as he thought he was.

Sure, we have to vote for him in November if it comes to that. We have little choice. But Joe Biden is not a man for the people. He is not a unity candidate. He is meaner than Bernie and more of a bully. Biden’s needless attacks and insults on voters — such as berating the two vets who bravely confronted his pro-war record in Oakland, calling an Iowa voter “a damn liar,” and telling another voter questioning his policy that he was fat — are not the stuff of a President who must consider the viewpoints of others and remain coolheaded and respectful when facing justified criticism. Frankly, Biden’s conduct here is far more Trumpian than any comparisons that have been applied to Bernie.

And poor Elizabeth Warren. She couldn’t even carry her own state. She refused to see the writing on the wall and stayed in the race too long. And now Warren and Sanders supporters are at each other’s throats on social media. Fractiousness and divisiveness. The stuff we don’t need right now. The best thing that Warren can do — if she truly believes in progressive policy — is to drop out of the race and persuade her followers to vote for Bernie. That’s the only way we’ll get a progressive President at this point. But it’s not likely. It looks like we’re all going to be holding the bag for a gaffe machine.

November will be the equivalent of attending a mandatory corporate meeting and falling asleep and getting reprimanded for not paying attention to the floundering and boring old man, devoid of innovation and originality and true awareness, spearheading the PowerPoint shitshow that expresses little more than vanilla platitudes and the status quo and a remarkably uninspiring litany of mainstream awfulness. I will vote — like many, without a shred of passion or conviction, holding my nose the entire way, much like someone disposing of a rat caught in a glue trap, feeling the sense that I am not changing a damn thing and knowing that Biden is as inspiring as accidentally walking into a giant heap of moldy white bread during a morning stroll — and I will probably go home right after my vote and drink many shots of whiskey, contemplating how the DNC cowered and caved when they could have created hope and dreams and inspiration and built upon Bernie’s coalition and given more than a few fucks about universal healthcare and a world in which people didn’t have to go bankrupt to stay healthy. Amy, Beto, Pete — all easily purchased pawns. When Trump wins again in November, they will have to live with this. I’m sure they’ll sleep quite well. After all, they had to be promised something. The worst thing about all this is that all of America will fall victims to authoritarianism and abject cruelty and a nation in which income inequality and exploiting the poor and the middle class is ever more the status quo. Good hard-working American people who clearly don’t deserve to be sacrificed to the corporate gods worshipped by neoliberal centrist cowards — this will be the new normal. And it will take at least a decade to recover from this madness. That’s the best case scenario.

Yes, it’s vital to accept realism. But we cannot lose hope despite these nightmarish truths. It fills me with sadness to see a remarkable progressive movement manipulated and short-changed so expertly by an Establishment instilling fear in swing voters who were, only days before yesterday, completely in the tank for Bernie. Perhaps we were fools in believing that progressive momentum would continue unabated. Still, it was the best kind of foolishness: the one that involved taking care of others, standing for something bigger than ourselves, believing that people were worthy of human rights and dignity, feeling empathy and passion and conviction, and placing pure energy in a beautiful dream that the Democrats could once again return to their roots and alter the national landscape and improve wellbeing much as they had with the New Deal and the Great Society. Still, it’s equally important to not have your hopes and spirits and idealism and ambitions paralyzed by the truth. And who wants to listen to hopelessness? I certainly don’t want to be guided by it.

We will rise again. We will fight again. Bernie is still a long shot. But do we want to tell our grandchildren that we didn’t go the distance? It may take years, but we have no other choice. For now, let us regroup and be gentle and be true and be bold and crack jokes so that we can find the faith again. That is what gets people eventually on the right side. That is the true path to unity.

The Right to Work and the Shameful Devaluation of American Labor

In a world hopelessly committed to selfie sticks, endless cat videos, and Instagram posts memorializing the infernal ubiquity of avocado toast and overpriced mimosas, there are never enough thoughts and heartfelt sentiments for the American worker. Purchasing power has barely budged in forty years. There are endless statistics showing a pernicious inequality. This demands our swift correction. But we are very far away from the days in which the image of Sally Field boldly holding a UNION cardboard sign above her head represented a cultural symbol of inclusive American pride.

Now, thanks to the unfathomable hubris of a petulant President who cleaves to a government shutdown with all the grace and humanity of a sociopathic schoolboy holding a magnifying glass to a quivering fly, the American worker faces needless ruin and further humiliation as an estimated 800,000 federal workers have been asked to toil without a paycheck. This is, in short, a national disgrace: the kind of callous development that people used to riot in the streets over. In a prosperous nation such as ours, there is simply no excuse to settle for this indifference and to let anyone suffer.

Sure, there have been gestures – such as the seven restaurants in Phoenix offering free food to furloughed federal workers and the numerous companies in San Antonio that have gallantly stepped up to the plate. But this munificence, as noble and as considerate as it may be, doesn’t go nearly far enough in recognizing that a steady gig (rather than a rapacious gig economy) should be a basic American right and that the American worker must be granted an easy and human respect.

There are unseen stories of federal workers, many of them living paycheck to paycheck, who have been forced to take on loans to pay their bills. In some cases, workers may be lucky enough to land a zero interst loan from a credit union. But what of those who must approach predatory payday lenders? What of callous property managers in Arkansas who do not possess a shred of compassion for those facing hard times? And what of the loss of dignity to any American who is ordered to show up for a shift but who is denied the right of being promptly compensated?

The devaluation of American labor extends far beyond all this: it can be seen in the erosion of union power over the last four decades, the underreported fight for fifteen, and the ways in which “liberal” social media mobs call for perceived transgressors to lose their livelihoods. The noblesse oblige once granted to every American worker irrespective of who she was or where she worked has been replaced by a shameful notion that anyone who remains unemployed or underemployed should be able to fend for herself. And when the worker is this devalued, how then can she be inspired to fight on behalf of all Americans? 133 years after seven people died in Milwaukee to stand up for the eight hour day and in which the Haymarket Affair aroused national sympathy for the worker, we now find ourselves living in a nation in which such valor and courage is not only completely forgotten but entirely unfathomable.

On January 11, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opted to sidestep Congress and deliver his State of the Union directly to the people in the form of a Fireside Chat. In this famous speech, Roosevelt called for “a Second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”

Roosevelt insisted that the first and foremost duty of this new pledge was “the right to a useful and reumnerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.”

In the decades since these more progressive times, Democrats have ignobly shirked their duties in standing up for the American worker and have lacked the smooth acumen to speak common language. Blue collar workers fled to a megalomaniac because they were ignored and abandoned by a party that refused to understand them and believed that it knew best. And this needlessly condescending and contradictory approach, perhaps best epitomized by Bill Clinton heartlessly signing the 1996 Welfare Reform Act into law, has rightfully caused the Democrats to suffer. A guarantee of full employment was once a cornerstone of the Democratic Party, but a 2013 analysis from The Daily Kos revealed that no Democratic presidential contender has stood up for this right since. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders picked up on this while Hillary Clinton (you will not find a right to work guarantee on her position page) could not ardently commit to this honorable tradition, leaving the idea of guaranteed employment behind with other bedrock principles. The last prominent display of consolidated demoracy was probably Mario Cuomo’s eloquent speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, in which he declared that the heart of liberal constituency was:

the middle class, the people not rich enough to be worry-free, but not poor enough to be on welfare; the middle class — those people who work for a living because they have to, not because some psychiatrist told them it was a convenient way to fill the interval between birth and eternity. White collar and blue collar. Young professionals. Men and women in small business desperate for the capital and contracts that they need to prove their worth.

Last year, The Nation’s Ady Barkan called for progressives to adopt a good jobs guarantee, pointing out how the Service Employees International Union played hardball with Democratic candidates. The SEIU declared that it would not endorse any Democratic presidential candidate unless it made universal healthcare part of her platform. John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton were all forced to adopt this position. And within two years, the Affordable Care Act was written into law.

Progressive groups can and must do this again, especially as new candidates enter the 2020 presidential race. It is one thing for doddering dinosaurs like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to stand like stiffs and offer hollow platitudes before the American public. (Incidentally, the word “job” was never mentioned once in their rebuttal to Trump’s racist Oval Office address on January 8, 2019.) It is quite another thing to be pro-active like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who led a group to track down the missing Mitch McConnell, demanding a vote to end the shutdown. Ocasio-Cortez, despite being much younger, is apparently more “old school” than the old dogs.

The Casual Villainy of Feel-Good Neoliberal Bullshit

A few nights ago, a very kind friend took me to a private screening of a film about homelessness, under the presumed theory that my own homeless experience from four years before might be of help to the filmmaker. This filmmaker, who I should point out was an extremely tall and quietly affable man (affable, at least, to anyone who he detected was very much like himself!), believed, like many myopic neoliberals, that he was doing the right thing with his film. But he wasn’t. He was, in fact, contributing dangerously and cruelly to a repulsive dehumanizing myth that has become as seductive as catnip to most of the American population.

The film played. The affluent crowd that gathered in the basement of this tony Manhattan restaurant cheered as some talking head boasted about delivering forty pairs of socks to the homeless. The socks, said this starry-eyed subject, were a way to give the homeless an identity. But I knew damn well that what these people really needed, as I once so desperately begged for, was food, a shelter that wasn’t committed to daily debasement and that actually did something to protect residents from random stabbings, and a stable job that permitted someone who had nothing to save enough resources for first and last month’s rent. This preposterous subject also bragged on film about taking homeless people to a comedy show to cheer them up. Never mind that this is a risible impossibility, considering that shelters impose a draconian curfew each night, usually sometime between 9 PM and 10 PM, that you must hit. If you don’t make this curfew, for which you must factor in a lengthy line in which security guards pat you down and tear through what little you have, you will lose your bed and have all your possessions, meager as they are, thrown into a huge plastic bag and tossed into the street. (This happened to me. And I was forced to haul a very heavy bag with fragile lining, half of what I had damaged and dingy, on a subway, where I could feel the eyes of every commuter looking the other direction.)

I watched as a shoeshine man on-screen bought into the lazy, drug-addled homeless stereotype who never seeks out work (oh, but they do, even when they have a substance abuse problem!). It was a trope no different from the way Reagan had used Linda Taylor, an incredibly rare and unlikely figure hardly representative of homelessness, to establish his staunch conservatism and needlessly demonize the welfare system in 1976. And I was shaking with indignation as the filmmaker, who appeared himself as the film’s first talking head in a bona-fide act of artistic narcissism, bragged about how he had talked to a homeless person, believing her sad face to be an act. He refused to acknowledge her real pain and true fear as he painted himself as a champion of the underprivileged. I looked to my right and I witnessed the filmmaker himself sitting in his chair, responding to his repugnant untruths and counterfactual bromides by bobbing his head up and down to every cinematic cadence he had manufactured.

The film I saw, or at least what I mostly saw (because I bolted after about thirty minutes of this: I was so enraged after one “well-meaning” audience member laughed at a homeless stereotype and chuckled over the film’s bootstraps bullshit, which presented poverty as a “choice,” an emphasis that greatly overshadowed, oh say, examining the details of a rigged system or humanizing the people who are often locked into a nigh inescapable abyss and who are rendered invisible simply because they lost their jobs at a bad time or suffered any number of setbacks that could happen to anyone (hell, it happened to me!), and because this was a “celebration” for the filmmaker and I knew that if I stuck around, I would have gone out of my way to fight fiercely with ruthlessly truthful invective and I am really trying to live a more peaceful life and let things go more — but goddammit you see puffed up privilege like this and it’s not easy!), angered me beyond belief. It was a superficial glimpse of what at least half a million people in this nation go through (and this number is rising): an absolute lie that refused to address vile welfare-to-work realities, the shameful bureaucracy of standing in line for a day arguing to some underpaid heartless stooge why you should get a mere $150 each month to eat (and under Trump, these already svelte and insufficient benefits are in danger of being cut further), the violent and depressing culture within homeless shelters that causes so many to give up and that causes smart people (and let me assure you that there are many smart people who are homeless) to throw in the towel when they shouldn’t have to.

As many have argued (including Thomas Frank, whom I interviewed about this significant problem here), the Democratic Party has completely divorced itself from advocating for working people and those who need our help. The Democrats haven’t seriously championed for universal aid since Mario Cuomo’s inspiring keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When principled progressives stand against this milquetoast centrism, they are — as this incredible episode of This American Life recently revealed — urged to push the reasons why they are running into the middle if they want access to funds that will help them win elections. And when candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually stand for something and beat out long-time incumbents in a primary, they are, as the disheartening replies to this tweet reveal, declared “a piece of work” and “arrogant” by middle-of-the-road cowards who have never known a day without a hot meal and who refuse to address deeply pernicious realities that people actually live. These weak-kneed and priggish pilgarlics still drop dollars with their colicky hands into the room rental till for their Why Isn’t Hillary President? support groups. They are more interested in wrapping themselves in warm comforting blankets rather than surrendering their bedding to someone sleeping on the streets. They are so enamored and ensnared by this ugly and unsound marriage between capitalism and humanism that they adamantly refuse to listen to the very people they’ve pledged to cure. They ignore any fresh new voice who has the steel to launch a political campaign based on the truth. Their shaky tenure is out of sync with the robust reform we need right now to address our national ills.

I now believe neoliberalism to be just as much of an evil cancer as Trumpism. It needs to be fought hard. Because any ideology that prioritizes supremacy (and neoliberals can be a smug and oh so certain bunch) is a call to dehumanize others.

So how did the film screening conclude? Well, I apologized to my friend, told her that I couldn’t take the film anymore and that I knew this was triggering deep rage in me because it denied and invalidated the horrors that I personally experienced and that I had somehow found the resilience and strength to overcome. I took my leave, tipped the bartender far more than these moneyed types did, and saw that the filmmaker was watching me. What? A man fleeing his unquestionable genius? Why yes, you imperious insensitive clueless dope! So I went up to him and said, “My name is Ed Champion. I was homeless four years ago and your film is a terrible lie. You should be ashamed of yourself.” True to form, he went back to cheering on his own film, paying me no heed whatsoever.

The Silver Lining: A Potential Bipartisan Senate Blockade to Stop Trump

Many agonized observers have been so paralyzed by the shocking appointment of white supremacist Steve Bannon as Trump’s key strategist, to say nothing of a potential paleoconservative Cabinet and the renewed commitment to xenophobia, deportation, and anti-choice sentiments that Trump expressed in an aloof appearance on 60 Minutes, that it has been difficult to remember that politics is a game that Trump may not quite know how to play. Sure, he can whip up the fury of a thoughtless mob to reenact Nuremburg, win votes, and inspire a spate of hate crimes after the election. But being a successful demagogue does not necessarily make one a successful politician. And while the House of Representatives and likely the Supreme Court appears to be on a fearsome rightward trajectory, there is one silver lining to this despotic cloud that Trump and his cohorts have not considered: the power and dynamics of the United States Senate.

As it presently stands, the Senate is likely to be composed of 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats. However, that number could change. There remains a chance to reduce that number to a 51-49 split in favor of the Republicans. The opportunity presents itself with an experienced Louisiana fighter for the people named Foster Campbell. Campbell is running for a Senate seat in Louisiana in a runoff race with Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy (no relation to the 35th President) that is scheduled to take place on December 10, 2016. If Campbell can win, that means the Republicans will only have one majority vote.

That one vote may seem like Trump can push anything he wants through a Republican-controlled Senate, but don’t be so certain. Liberals (myself included) may be looking at this situation the wrong way. Because we keep forgetting that the American political landscape isn’t what it was last week. The new normal isn’t Republican politics as usual, but old Republican politics locked in a potent and quite volatile struggle against the alt-right extremism that Trump and his willing lieutenants will usher in, a strain that a good chunk of the population, including those who voted for Trump, will come to reject once they realize that the “outsider” is a man hobnobbing with insiders and a man who may be unable to deliver on his promises. This brand of right-wing politics is so utterly beyond anything we have seen before, even with Mitch McConnell’s hijacking of the Merrick Garland nomination or anything plotted by Grover Norquist, that we have failed to consider that some Republicans may very well reject it, especially if their phone banks are jammed with constituents regularly calling them.

Politics, as we all know, makes strange bedfellows. And while a moderate Senator created gridlock with Democrats in pre-Trump times, there’s a greater likelihood that moderates will side with Democrats if the full monty of Trump’s extremism streaks through the Senate chambers. There may be some bipartisan options to not only deadlock the Senate on key bills, but that could prevent the Senate from confirming one quarter of the 4,000 new positions that the Trump administration needs to fill before January.

Senator Susan Collins may be a Republican from Maine, but her positions resemble a more conservative Democrat. (Indeed, Newsweek called her one of the last moderates in the Northeast.) She’s pro-choice, willing to raise taxes on any income bracket, supports gun restrictions and same-sex marriage, and, according to someone who called her, was willing to support the DREAM Act (a key piece of legislation for immigrants) as a standalone bill. Senator Harry Reid has cut bipartisan deals with her in the past. So there may be a possibility to work with her in the future.

Another dependable moderate Republican-Democratic alignment may be with Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, who expressed dismay over the radical direction of the Republican party in 2012 and has also expressed a desire to do something about climate change. Like Sen. Collins, Sen. Murkowski has some progressive positions. She supported the DREAM Act and she did reject Trump’s call to deport Muslims last year. She also had tough words for Sarah Palin and Joe Miller.

Politics is a numbers game. And if Senators Murkowski and Collins are willing to work with the Democrats in an age of Trump extremism (and I think they will, provided the alt-right doesn’t get to them), then there’s a possibility that many Trump-inspired bills and confirmations will receive a 51 nay with 49 Democrats in the Senate. This does leave Collins and Murkowski in positions of great influence, and they will certainly use this to their advantage, possibly playing both sides against each other, but it’s a two year buffer that may just hold somewhat if the Democrats can succeed in winning back the Senate during the 2018 midterm elections. Historically speaking, there hasn’t been a tie-breaking vote cast by a sitting Vice President since March 13, 2008. (Joe Biden never cast a tie-breaking vote.) It’s possible that Vice President Mike Pence will overturn John Adams’s 28 tie-breaking vote record under a Trump Administration. This is, after all, an unprecedented moment in American political history in which anything can and will happen. But if Pence does this, this may create friction and animosity between the White House and the Republican Senators, who in turn may revolt against the Trump Administration’s autocratic tactics.

Everything I’ve suggested here is contingent upon Foster Campbell winning the Louisiana Senate seat. A Senate composed of 48 Democrats will create stalemates. A Senate composed of 49 Democrats will create possibilities for a formidable blockade with one or two moderate Republicans on their side.

So can Foster Campbell become Senator? For one thing, he’ll need donations. But here’s the math based on the November Senate race:

Republican candidates received the following votes:

John Kennedy (25%); Charles Boustany (15.4%); John Fleming (10.6%); Rob Maness (4.7%); David Duke (3%); Donald Crawford (1.3%); Joseph Cao (1.1%); Charles Marsala (0.2%).

TOTAL REPUBLICAN PERCENTAGE: 61.3%

Democratic candidates received the following votes:

Foster Campbell (17.5%); Caroline Fayard (12.5%); Derrick Edwards (2.7%); Gary Landrieu (2.4%); Josh Pellerin (0.4%); Peter Williams (0.4%); Vinny Mendoza (0.3%).

TOTAL DEMOCRATIC PERCENTAGE: 36.2%

This is quite a margin of voters for Foster Campbell to win over. Trump won 58% of the state in the election. However, the Times-Picayune reported that there was a dropoff this year in African-American voter participation. Polling expert Edward Chervenak pointed out in the article that voters in overwhelmingly white precincts were more likely to vote than voters at overwhelmingly black precincts. If African-American voters (and other Democrats) show up to vote for Campbell in droves during the December 10, 2016 election, then Campbell may stand a chance of winning this seat and creating a quasi-blockade in the Senate. And if it can be done, and it does appear to be a Hail Mary pass at this point, then there remains a very good possibility that the Democrats can stop Donald Trump from enacting his extremist policies with the help of a few moderates.