Famous former neo-Nazi shifts focus: America is becoming 'the skinhead's dream of the 1990s'

"I've been at war for 30 years," Christian Picciolini says, intensity widening his eyes, "I'm ready to go home."

His homeward journey involves leaving the work that has consumed his life for the past two decades: disengaging white extremists from neo-Nazi organizations or similar groups. Physically and emotionally exhausted, wrestling with PTSD and panic attacks, and dealing with death threats on a regular basis, Picciolini says he has no choice but to stop working one-on-one with white extremists attempting to reform their lives.

This article first appeared in Salon.

"If I don't stop doing this, I could burn out and be no good to anybody, or I could die," Picciolini said, explaining that it's not just his own psyche he is trying to save, but also multiracial democracy in the United States. "There is a greater danger on the horizon, and I'm going to focus on that full time," he said.

As former leader of Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH) and lead singer of the hate-rock band the Final Solution, Picciolini has devoted the past 21 years of his life to anti-racism advocacy and outreach young extremists. He makes no excuses for the brutal reality of his past. "I hurt many people, and the music I made as a teenager influenced people like Dylann Roof" — the young white man who murdered nine Black worshipers at a South Carolina church in 2015.

"I'll have to live with that," Picciolini said. What began more than two decades ago with asking for forgiveness directly from the people he had harassed or assaulted, along with their communities, eventually grew into the world's most successful effort at disengagement or "deradicalization" — a word Picciolini avoids — effort in the world. That work has given him an up-close view of how the political and legal institutions of the United States are failing, he says, to adequately address the rising tide of white hate. Democratic politicians and most mainstream media reporters and commentators, he believes, are also frozen in denial regarding the escalation of fascist politics in the Republican Party.

RELATED: Ex-neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini: "The words I used to say are now part of the mainstream"

Citing his experience, observations and research, Picciolini offers a devastating rebuttal to those who believe American democracy is indestructible.

I recently sat down with him for an interview in a quiet restaurant in suburban Chicago, where we both grew up. I asked how he feels about America's future, particularly Donald Trump's apparent consolidation of power within the increasingly autocratic Republican Party, and Trump's likely candidacy for the presidency in 2024. He said, "I'm terrified."

In 2017, Picciolini spoke to an audience in Hungary: "I told them, 'Based on everything I know and everything I've seen throughout my life, you are in big trouble." Three years later, the international nonprofit House of Freedom demoted Hungary from a "semi-consolidated democracy" to a "hybrid regime," reflecting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's autocratic assault against the nation's remaining democratic institutions.

Picciolini recently spoke with the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, and sounded the same theme he has repeated to American officials and voters for decades. There is perhaps a painful irony here: In some ways, American society has gone the opposite direction from the trajectory of Picciolini's life.

At age of 14, in the late 1980s, Picciolini met a charismatic neo-Nazi recruiter in a dark alleyway of Blue Island, Illinois, a working-class Chicago suburb. Within a few years, he would rise to the top of his recruiter's violent, white supremacist organization, recruiting other members, committing hate crimes and even exporting "white power" propaganda on a trip to Europe. Picciolini tells the fascinating details of his redemption story, and how he renounced the white power movement, becoming both antiracist and anti-capitalist, in his memoir, "White American Youth: My Descent Into America's Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out."

The most heartbreaking element in Piccioini's chronicle of transformation is the murder of his younger brother. They were 10 years apart in age, but Picciolini says when they were young, they were inseparable: "We were each other's entire world." he said. Then Picciolini's world became the white hate movement, and his brother's world fell apart. Two of his close friends became members of the Latin Kings, a criminal street gang on the South Side of Chicago. Picciolini, having left his own violent gang, tried to warn his brother what lay ahead. "I told him, 'I've been on the road you're on, and it is going to end badly,'" he recalled. But his brother's anger over Picciolini's earlier abandonment of the family undermined any advice he could offer.

In 2004, at the age of 20, Picciolini's brother, riding in a car with his friends to an apparent drug transaction, was killed by members of a rival gang. "For a long time, I felt like my brother got the bullet that was meant for me," Picciolini said. "I've tried to be the guy for other young men that my brother needed before he died. I've tried to be the guy who can help people like my brother. When everyone else sees the monster, I can still see the child, and I try bringing that child back."

Since Picciolini's disavowal of white supremacy, he has worked as an advocate for hate crime prevention, racial equity and progressive politics, through books, speaking tours and a three-episode documentary series for MSNBC, which shares the title of his second book, "Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism." Picciolini now describes himself as a "white nationalist translator," saying, "I still understand their language, symbols and movements. That enables me to go to law enforcement, policymakers and journalists and explain what is happening."

As Picciolini has transitioned from hate leader to democratic healer, he has watched significant sectors of American society, including a major political parties, defend, excuse and sometimes embrace the ideology of white supremacy.

"Everything happening right now is the skinhead's dream of the 1990s coming true," Picciolini told me. "Donald Trump's ideas are not new, but he has made people in influential positions comfortable in expressing racism. In a relatively short time, we've gone from not talking about these things, even if they were always there, to no longer feeling shame about it. Tucker Carlson, other right-wing pundits, congressional representatives like Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks, are saying exactly what I was saying when I was a Nazi. They are using softer terms, but the message is the same."

Picciolini says he understands how this strategy has played out. "We advised infiltration," he said, "infiltration of law enforcement, the military and political offices with low barrier of entry, like the school board, town council, county election positions. And that's exactly what we are seeing now: a widespread, coordinated effort for the far right to take power at the local level."

He specifically means the use of racial paranoia and panic, through invented culture-war issues like "critical race theory" and "voter fraud," as a pretext for far-right political victories.

RELATED: Right's cynical attack on "critical race theory": Old racist poison in a new bottle

What hangs in the balance is the survival of American democracy. Picciolini sees all the political momentum on the right, aided by disruptive foreign agents who manipulate social media to encourage hatred, division and extreme partisanship. Meanwhile, the combination of voter suppression and the "big lie" subversion of faith in fair elections has brought America, in his words, "to the edge of disaster." At the more immediate level, Picciolini joins many experts, such as genocide scholar Alexander Laban Hinton and political scientist Anthony DiMaggio, in predicting the possibility of mass violence.

White supremacists, according to all the available data, are already responsible for more political violence than any faction since the 9/11 attacks. Hate crimes from lone actors or small groups have steadily increased over the past 12 years, and Picciolini warns, "With people becoming more radicalized, it isn't a big step for these groups to coordinate larger attacks, especially with leaders like Donald Trump giving encouragement."

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He worries that law enforcement's tactical approach is the equivalent of "fighting the war on drugs by going after addicts, and maybe a few street-corner pushers. The traffickers are still out there, and there is an endless supply of addicts and pushers."

But with the U.S. at a flashpoint, Picciolini stands at a crossroads. For the past 14 years, as he chronicles in "Breaking Hate," he has counseled members of hate groups on an individual basis, pairing them with psychologists, teachers, clergy members, life coaches or anyone else who can give them the mental health assistance and treatment they desperately need to reform their lives and, even more important, stop them from hurting other people. As he told Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer — the antifascist protester killed in Charlottesville in 2017 — "We need to work so other mothers don't lose their children." But the grueling requirements of that work, along with the "endless supply" of people who need it, have left Picciolini exhausted.

Picciolini officially shut down his disengagement services organization, Free Radicals Project, in early November. Meetings with those who have suffered at the hands of American hate, such as Bro, capture the conflict of Picciolini's decision. "Frankly, I'm tired of helping white men," Picciolini said before adding that when he has done so he has also insisted on measures of accountability. "I have no interest in being their laundromat," he said, explaining that members of extremist organizations may begin as victims, but morph into victimizers. Picciolini believes American society must "spend more time discussing and helping the victims," which mostly means people of color, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ people and members of other marginalized groups.

"Taking bad white men off the street and stopping them from doing bad things stops the cycle of abuse, and does help the victims," Picciolini said, "But radicalization happens very quickly, and so-called deradicalization takes a long time, sometimes years. There is no way that it can work long-term to prevent extremism throughout the United States."

Picciolini's emotional turmoil was palpable as he discussed his change of direction. In his 14 years of disengagement work, he has rarely taken a personal paycheck, instead directing all the funds he receives from speaking fees, donations and book royalties into his organization. He says he is fortunate: His wife has a professional career that can support them both. More debilitating than the material cost, he says, is the pain of constantly contemplating, discussing and dealing with trauma.

Among members of hate groups, he says, a traumatic disturbance of the psyche is perhaps the single most significant commonality. "Trauma creates potholes, and those potholes take a person off the road to a healthy and happy life," Picciolini said. "I'm a pothole fixer." Picciolini said. He began to suffer from panic attacks for the first time two years ago, he reports. Now in therapy, and feeling spiritually depleted, he is no longer able to relive trauma on a daily basis: hearing stories of abuse and heartbreak, and revisiting experiences in the white power movement that still darken his memory with shame, guilt and regret.

He does feel gratification for his successful interventions, which number in the hundreds, and that compounds the difficulty of closing down the Free Radicals Project. Picciolini said he recently convinced a young member of Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi organization, to repudiate white supremacy and rebuild his life. On Jan. 6 of this year, the young man sent Picciolini a text message saying, "Just want to let you know the reason I am not in D.C. now is because of the opportunities you gave me."

"When I leave, there is going to be a void," Picciolini says. "No one else is really doing what I do right now."

That assertion might surprise many Americans, given the newfound focus on white supremacy after Charlottesville and Jan. 6. There are certainly other organizations ostensibly committed to "deradicalization," but Picciolini expresses suspicion about their authenticity and efficacy. He says he has heard from some hate group members that when they reach out to recently created nonprofit organizations, they hear nothing back.

"After 9/11, there was a cottage industry of terrorism prevention and so-called deradicalization of militant Islamists," he said. "Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security gave $20 million in grant money to organizations claiming to fight homegrown extremism. My worry is we are going to see an ineffective but lucrative 'deradicalization industry.'"

Some organizations he declines to name, he says, have become "grant machines" by looking for "poster boys," whether sincere or otherwise, to herald as conversion success stories. The grift, he suggests, is transactional: The organization obtains the grant and a flashy news story, while the supposedly repentant extremist "gets his reputation laundered."

Those who are genuinely interested in assisting extremists in leaving white-power groups can follow the "blueprint" Picciolini has established, he says. But his concern is that even for those with the best intentions, "It cannot scale to meet the need."

"It is like I've been sent to a hospital emergency room, and there are hundreds of people about to flatline, because they've been poisoned, and I'm supposed to save them all," he said. "In the meantime, the poison is still out there, and I know that within days, another hundred patients are going to come into the ER."

Picciolini's former organization, Life After Hate, received a grant during the final months of the Obama administration only to have the incoming Trump administration immediately revoke it — a devastating early harbinger of a presidency that internally passed along articles from white nationalist websites, complimented white supremacists as "very fine people," and asked the Proud Boys, a violent hate group, to "stand by."

Picciolini says he will now focus on administering the antidote for the poison of racism, white supremacy and far-right violence" "long term prevention." Cultivating a society that diminishes the viability of hate organizations and demolishes the ideologies they promulgate, will require a mass political movement, he believes, to reorient public policy toward community, equality and solidarity. Progressive economic policies, expressed through reliable social services, such as education, health care and vibrant public institutions, will create healthier and happier people. Picciloni told me, "Healthy and happy people do not join hate groups." Central to the policy prevention agenda, he argues, is the demolition of systemic racism. "Institutional racism breeds racists because it creates privilege, and people will fight to keep their privilege," he said.

Such a political program, Picciolini says, is "the only way to turn off the bigot spigot," as opposed to dealing exclusively with the outflow on a piecemeal basis. That kind of long term solution is obviously difficult to achieve, since it demands an inversion of political priorities and cultural biases, but he thinks current efforts aimed at short-term mitigation of white extremism are even less likely to succeed.

Among Picciolini's reasons for ending the Free Radicals Project, perhaps the most alarming is his claim that no one in government or law enforcement is really listening. He recalls giving lectures to police officers and feeling them withdraw, cross their arms and stare at the ceiling. The only questions he receives from most officers concern the supposed dangers of antifa or Black Lives Matter activists. "Police union leaders, whether they're talking about BLM or vaccines, sound exactly like right-wing extremists," he said.

Citing recent research by political scientist Robert Pape, Picciolini noted that at least 21 million Americans appear willing to support violence as a pathway toward political victory. "What if research found that millions of Muslim Americans were supportive of ISIS, or millions of Black Lives Matter activists were supportive of violence?" Picciolini asked, leaving the obvious answer hanging in the air.

Recent reporting that Attorney General Merrick Garland fears sentencing Jan. 6 insurrectionists to lengthy prison terms at risk of "further radicalizing them" underlines Picciolini's condemnation of the Democratic Party: "You've heard the phrase, 'Don't bring a knife to a gunfight,'" he said. "They're not even bringing a knife."

Picciolini is certainly not alone in his sense of foreboding. The Brennan Center for Justice has documented that many police departments have officers with white supremacist sympathies, which clearly compromises efforts to investigate hate organizations and likely leads to more episodes of racial profiling and police brutality. The Brennan report describes internal attempts to combat white extremism within law enforcement as "strikingly insufficient." A similar problem exists in the military, with the Military Times reporting on the high number of extremists in the armed services. As the Brookings Institution has noted, these crises became viciously manifest on Jan. 6, when law enforcement reacted with leniency, especially compared to the often-violent response to BLM protesters during the summer of 2020.

Ryan Greer, national security director for the Anti-Defamation League, applauds the FBI for allocating more resources to combating the threat of white extremism, and welcomes increased political discussion of the problem, but also warns, "We simply have failed to see the massive scale of effort that is truly needed."

The consequences of failure are potentially catastrophic. "People always ask me about all the talk of 'war' and 'civil war' on the right," Picciolini said. "They say, 'Do you think there's going to be war?' I tell them, 'It doesn't matter what I think. If they believe there's going to be war, they will make sure of it. We're going to have a war.'"

Christian Picciolini's description of his own work varied over the course of our conversation. He called himself a "pothole fixer," a "white nationalist translator" and, by implication, an emergency physician. Although he didn't use the term, perhaps this is the best way to capture how he hopes to meet this historic moment: He aims to be a peacemaker.

Leaders like Liz Cheney and George W. Bush are the reason the GOP is having a civil war

The fate of American democracy rests in the hands of Michelle Obama, or more precisely, in her arms. Should she choose to give Donald Trump a hug, the Democratic Party — the high-salaried commentariat and the various jesters of pop culture — will ostensibly have no choice but to forgive him for his catalogue of atrocities. If Trump had even a little strategic savvy, rather than pathetically throwing inane grievances "From the Desk of Donald J. Trump," Geocities-style, he would position himself next to the former first lady at a televised public gathering, and carefully drop a lozenge into her palm.

Having a few slightly human exchanges with Michelle Obama, of course, worked wonders for George W. Bush. Over the past five years, the grotesquery of Bush's presidency has undergone such a thorough rehabilitation that, according to many polls, even a majority of Democrats have a favorable view of the retired war criminal.

Appearances with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, along with a newly published collection of kitschy paintings of immigrants, have led far too many members of the public to swoon over Bush — the man Karl Rove saw as a safe bet because he thought Americans would prefer to "have a beer with him" as opposed to his wonky political adversaries, Al Gore and John Kerry. Those guys might want to talk about boring stuff like climate change, whereas Bush would make a few wisecracks and then tell that great story about the time he bombed, invaded and occupied a country for no good reason. "The whole thing was a lie!" he would announce as his punchline.

At press time, no journalist has inquired of any Iraqis whether they too are moved by the exchange of Lifesavers between Bush and Michelle Obama. Needless to say, more than a million Iraqis cannot comment or leave an Amazon rating of Bush's book, because they're dead. Perhaps because the Iraq war is over (more or less), there's a general feeling that the United States should "move on," as is the country's tendency whenever it violates international law. Forgiving and forgetting might not be so easy for those still in Iraq. Award-winning toxicologist Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani reports that birth defects, premature death, mental disabilities and other forms of medical misery are common in Iraq due to the widespread contamination of the environment, largely resulting from U.S. bombs, munitions, burn pits and toxic chemicals.

Apparently, journalists cannot discuss the Iraq war because they are too busy lionizing Rep. Liz Cheney, whose father was not only vice president to George W. Bush, but the chief architect of that war. As recently as 2015, the father-daughter duo co-wrote a psychotic foreign policy manifesto, "Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America"; in it, they chastised then-President Barack Obama, who himself bombed multiple countries with dubious reasons, for failing to "maintain American supremacy."

Donald Trump recently derided Liz Cheney as a "big shot warmonger." It is painful to admit that Trump might be right about anything, and even more painful to have no choice but to take the side of the big shot warmonger. Cheney and Trump are at each others' political throats, representing hostile factions of the Republican Party, because the congresswoman from Wyoming acknowledges the unremarkable fact that Joe Biden was the lawful and legitimate winner of the 2020 election. Cheney's refusal to mindlessly fall into the personality cult of Trump, and parrot the Big Lie of a massive voter fraud conspiracy, has significantly shortened her political life expectancy. Her most significant break with Trump occurred when she voted for his impeachment as penalty for inciting the insurrection of Jan. 6.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, has indicated that Cheney will lose her leadership position as House Republican Conference chair. Meanwhile, a bipartisan consensus of observers, ranging all the way from Rep. Jim Jordan to Sen. Bernie Sanders, has predicted that Cheney may not survive the 2022 midterm elections.

One of America's two major political parties appears to have gone full fascist — elevating the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has promoted a conspiracy theory involving Jewish-controlled space lasers, and Sen. Josh Hawley, who the New York Times reports is raking in the cash at unprecedented levels since he provided aid, comfort and support to the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol with the intention of murdering elected officials and destroying our democratic system of governance.

Cheney, who has an 80 percent rating from the Heritage Foundation, and on most issues is slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, is suddenly persona non grata, because of a range of anti-Trump offenses that includes the crime of fist-bumping with Joe Biden.

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, coined one of his boss's most famous phrases in an address against affirmative action: "the soft bigotry of low expectations." It is a rich irony that Bush now benefits from that exact form of "soft bigotry" as he is lavished with praise for not being a fascist or a nativist.

Liz Cheney's current status in mainstream media is similar. The Republican Party has descended to such depths of cruelty and stupidity that honoring free and fair elections, and giving a polite greeting to the actual president, is enough to earn contempt.

Difficult as it is to sympathize with Cheney, who is such an extreme anti-environmentalist that she once called on the Department of Justice to investigate the National Resources Defense Council for espionage, anyone with the slightest hint of loyalty to democracy should hope that the Trumpian right's insane campaign against her inflicts some permanent damage on the Republican Party.

All the same, anyone curious to learn how that party could have become such a severe threat to the American democracy need look no further than Cheney herself, or watch any of the recent banal and servile TV interviews of George W. Bush.

That dark story dates back much further than Bush's destructive tenure as president. Detailing the extent of America's collective ability to deny, sugarcoat or forget its own atrocities would be impossible here. Gore Vidal coined the phrase "United States of Amnesia" for a reason, and joked that his biggest disagreement with legendary oral historian Studs Terkel was over that quip. (Terkel preferred to say that USA stood for "United States of Alzheimer's.")

Over the closing credits of Oliver Stone's film "Nixon," there is actual footage from the disgraced president's funeral. The entire American political establishment sits in attention as then-President Bill Clinton pays mawkish tribute to Nixon's "service to his country," for which the country, Clinton explains, is forever in his debt. Other than one brief reference to the creation of the EPA, Clinton does not offer any specific examples of Nixon's "service." It is safe to assume that he probably didn't mean the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the COINTELPRO persecution of antiwar and civil rights activists or the creation of the "Southern strategy."

If one of Trump's most grievous attacks on American life was the overt use of racism as a campaign tactic, then the road to ruin in many ways starts with Nixon, whose own political staffers even admitted that racist appeals were their most effective means of winning votes in the South and parts of the Midwest.

Gerald Ford has often been praised for pardoning Nixon, because allowing his predecessor to evade any serious consequences for authorizing and lying about the burglary of the Democratic Party Headquarters, was deemed the "best way to stanch the open wound of Watergate." Commentators are still fond of tossing out the pro-pardon bromide even though Trump once again demonstrated the danger of allowing the president to remain above the law.

If Nixon pioneered the Southern strategy, Ronald Reagan mastered it. One of Reagan's early campaign events in 1980 took place at the Neshoba County Fair, merely seven miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where members of the Ku Klux Klan, with the assistance of local law enforcement, had murdered the Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964. It was more a bullhorn than a "dog whistle": Reagan discussed the importance of "states' rights" in that speech. As president, he pumped out the "welfare queen" myth, accusing Black women in inner cities of picking up their food stamps and welfare checks while sporting mink coats and diamond rings. That racist stereotype became central to the bipartisan destruction of social programs and public goods, reinforcing the prevalent attitude among white moderates and conservatives that poor people, especially if they were Black, were freeloaders who refused to work.

For all the ugliness of his rhetoric, Reagan's policies were even worse. He waged a proxy war of aggression against several Latin American countries — condemned as terrorism by the World Court — and funded on-the-ground forces in Nicaragua through the illegal sale of arms to Iran.

None of which prevented Barack Obama from repeatedly praising Reagan in speeches and interviews. Obama's encomiums to Reagan were so effusive and consistent that Douglas Brinkley, the popular historian and editor of Reagan's diaries, posited that Reagan was Obama's "role model."

It is now almost obligatory for TV pundits to break out the world's smallest violin and wax nostalgic for the "party of Reagan" while lamenting what Republicans have become under Trump. But the party of Reagan, setting aside the public grace and everyday eloquence of the "Great Communicator," was in many ways an early incarnation of the party of Trump. Those who fail to make the connection are being willfully ignorant. Now, it's also true Reagan signed international nuclear treaties that Trump tried to destroy, and offered amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants. Trump was measurably worse on several important issues, but that's not a good reason to delude ourselves about the fundamental nature of the Republican Party, and the right-wing cultural and media movement that empowers it.

Trump was especially destructive because he and his gaggle of ghouls actively sought to undermine important government agencies, deliberately violated democratic norms and civil liberties, and made a mockery of the rule of law. It's impossible to imagine that if George W. Bush lost to Kerry in 2004, he would have rambled incoherently about how the election was "rigged," or urged a violent band of fanatics to storm the Capitol and terrorize Dick Cheney.

On the other side of the ledger, however, most people have forgotten that in 2001, the state of Florida reached a settlement with the NAACP over illegally purging Black voters from the polls prior to the 2000 presidential election. Infamously, Bush won the state by only 537 votes (even assuming that was a fair and accurate count, which it certainly wasn't). As president, Bush oversaw the violation of millions of Americans' civil rights after the passage of the PATRIOT Act; authorized the use of torture against "enemy combatants"; and created ICE, the barbaric agency most responsible for the Trump-era persecution and abuse of newly-arrived immigrants, including children and asylum applicants.

Bush's disregard for good governance reached its nadir during Hurricane Katrina. The predominantly poor and Black residents of New Orleans went five days without federal intervention. While people drowned in their homes, or lived in the filthy conditions of the Superdome, Bush told FEMA administrator Michael Brown, previously the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job."

Brownie now hosts a talk radio program in Denver, where he warns that the "republic is faltering" under President Biden's leadership. In promotional press for the radio program, Brown's colleagues actually use the "Brownie" nickname with pride and affection. Kris Olinger, who oversees radio programming for the Denver Clear Channel affiliate that airs Brown's show, has said that Brown's experience with Hurricane Katrina is a "definite positive" which offers him "great insight into how government works." Brown's FEMA tenure involved the deaths of 1,833 people during and after Katrina.

Brown's new role as political expert is frankly no worse than CNN's insistence on regularly featuring New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as oracular genius and valiant defender of democracy. Arguably Donald Trump has never said anything as loathsome as Friedman's full-throated endorsement of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, claiming it would send a clear message to "Islamic extremists": "Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? You think this (terrorism) fantasy you have — we're just gonna let it grow? Well, suck. on. this."

As the media and even some Democrats praise Liz Cheney for showing minimal fidelity to law and democracy, it is crucial to keep in mind that while Cheney and does not represent the personality cult of Trump's deadly narcissism, she represents the party of the Southern Strategy, the party of Iran-Contra, the party of disenfranchising Black voters, and the party of "suck on this." As Salon's Chauncey DeVega wrote in his analysis of the Cheney-Trump feud, Cheney is not a genuine believer or practitioner of democracy — she is a "friendly fascist."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, one of the country's most intelligent public officials — and unlike Liz Cheney, an actual public servant acting in the interest of his society — has warned that the U.S. risks internal assaults worse than Jan. 6 if Congress, the Justice Department and the FBI do not investigate (and potentially prosecute) Trump administration officials for the their manipulation of science during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their role in Trump's attempted coup-d'état.

Referring to the Obama administration's refusal to pursue charges against the Bush administration for the use of torture, Whitehouse recently told the New Republic, "If Obama had not [said], 'We're not going to look back, we're only going to look forward,' the Trumpsters would have been a lot less bold about doing the reckless damage that they did."

How Bruce Springsteen – and the left – can reclaim and cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism

The American flag has become a symbol of right-wing politics. Democrats can insist otherwise, but honest observers will concede that when they see a house, vehicle, or wardrobe adorned with the stars and stripes, it probably belongs to an American whose conception of patriotism allows everyone to have easy access to a firearm arsenal, but medicine to remain a high-priced luxury item.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

The success of the right wing in their co-optation of patriotic language and symbols reached its absurd zenith on Jan. 6 when a mob of domestic terrorists proudly waved the flag and chanted, "USA!" before assaulting police officers and attempting to murder elected officials in their aspiration to replace American democracy with a dynastic dictatorship.

Beyond the ignorance of the Trump insurrectionists, it is essential for the left to evaluate how the far right monopolized patriotism and the hallmarks of Americana without much difficulty. The left has always demonstrated a healthy aversion to displays of national pride. Understanding the manipulative power of the flag, and that maudlin tributes to "God and country" typically shadow the ongoing injustices that take place under their invocation, progressives have largely neglected to offer a counterargument to operationally anti-American pundits and politicians who personify the words of Jewish activist and journalist James Wise, often misattributed to Sinclar Lewis: "If fascism comes to America . . . it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty."

Despite a justifiable reticence surrounding pious displays of American pride, the left has made a critical error by not forcefully confronting the right's self-serving, deceitful, and hateful brand of chauvinism. Most Americans – left, right, and apolitical – desire to feel some affection toward their country, especially considering that people have the tendency to associate their own community with their country, distilling the abstract "America" into the concrete hometown of their youth.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty brilliantly describes the contradictions of patriotism, and the self-inflicted wound of the left in refusing to cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism, in his prescient collection of lectures, "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America." Rorty begins with the assertion that "National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement."

"Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself," Rorty argues, "need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of." The right wing is clearly childlike and delusional in its familiar refrain that any denunciation of American policy or history is tantamount to treason, but Rorty insists that by only associating patriotism with atrocity and oppression, the left disarms itself in debates about the identity of the country, and how best to advance a national construct that makes words like "liberty and justice for all" actionable and real. Rorty devotes most of his search for edifying patriotism to the beautiful and magisterial poetry of Walt Whitman, wisely celebrating the American bard's tributes to democracy, paeans to the working class, and lyrical advancement of the idea that the "password primeval" of America is in the voices of the "diseased, despairing, those whose rights others are down upon."

In democratic practice, Martin Luther King famously argued that the civil rights movement was an effort to cash the "promissory note" of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. When I asked Jesse Jackson, who was one of King's aides, about the common sight of American flags at voting rights marches and Black freedom rallies in the 1960s, he said, "We used the flag and the cross for equality and justice. We made a convincing case that we represented a true form of patriotism because we had the Constitution on our side."

The poetry of Whitman, and the leadership of King and Jackson offer insight into the distinction that the British poet and pamphleteer, Samuel Johnson, made in his essay on patriotism. Famous for the warning, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," Johnson wasn't condemning natural feelings of affection for one's country, but in his time and place, scoundrels like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, who are "self-professed patriots," more concerned with their own power and profit than any abiding sense of national prosperity or unity. "True patriotism," Johnson declared, is not only possible, but important.

In recent years, as Trump invoked the flag to encourage hostility toward Black people, immigrants, and Muslims, and actually hugged and kissed the flag in a bizarre psychosexual display at a rally, more thoughtful and compassionate cultural figures have attempted to express "true patriotism" in rebuttal to "self-professed patriotism."

No musician has a more all-American image than Bruce Springsteen. Committed to progressive causes since the late 1970s, he has consistently used his music to spotlight injustice, and as he puts it with no small measure of modesty, "measure the distance between the American reality and ideal." The widespread misinterpretation of "Born in the USA," for which he was partially responsible, is infamous, but the song itself is one of the most powerful explorations of an unjust war and societal neglect of working class veterans.

In the past few months, Springsteen has made a concerted effort to communicate with his own predominantly white, Baby Boomer audience, seemingly with the awareness that many of his fans voted for Trump. First, there was a grievously ill-advised Super Bowl commercial for Jeep in which the rock and roll legend drives around a small town in Kansas in search of a chapel located at the geographic middle of the continental United States. While wearing a cowboy hat and impersonating Clint Eastwood, Springsteen suggests that Americans of diametrically opposed ideologies "find the middle." He offers no indication of how any Americans, irrespective of political persuasion, can find unity with the Trump cult that has not only rejected the possibility of compromise, but also empirical reality.

Even more bothersome in terms of content is the replication of the imagery of Christian nationalism that is central to the far right fascist movement. Halfway into the Jeep ad, the camera zooms in on a cross hanging over a red, white, and blue map of the United States. Where this leaves Jews, Muslims, atheists and others who do not identify patriotism with Christianity is out of the realm of discussion. One should not expect too much from a multinational corporation making a major contribution to the climate crisis. It is disappointing at this late stage of his career, that Springsteen would shill for big business, breaking a record of integrity that dates back to when he rejected Chrysler's multimillion dollar offer of appear in one of their ads in the 1980s.

Springsteen's investment in his own heroic myth seems to motivate his other recent attempt at rescuing patriotism from the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic sewer of right wing outrage. Together with his friend, former president Barack Obama, he has launched a podcast, "Renegades: Born in the USA." The two eloquent speakers explore American identity, race, and masculinity throughout the eight episodes of the series, but they do so in constant reference to themselves. They make a fine argument for social liberalism, and as the title would suggest, attempt to identify patriotism with diversity, acceptance of outsiders, and hospitality for those who are unconventional, but the larger message is lost in their unabashed egomania.

During the first episode, Springsteen declares "My Hometown," his 1985 hit about communal conflict and loyalty, a "great song," and in the second episode, speaks at length about the "power of the idealism of the E Street Band." Not to let his friend outdo him, Obama, without any hesitation, offers as conclusion to part one, "People often ask me, 'What is your favorite speech'?" Then, proceeds to name one of his own speeches, and recite it verbatim.

The natural question in response to such self-aggrandizement is "why?" Why is a former president squandering his authority and influence on a meandering podcast about his youth, and in the words of the Springsteen song, "boring stories of glory days?"

It would appear that Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are coequal partners in the icon business. Believing that they can use their iconography to the advantage of liberalism, they are attempting to present their own stories as patriotic myths. As the banality of the podcast would illustrate, it is a poor political project; doomed to fail with anyone who does not already adore both the former president and rock and roll legend.

The mission to become living and breathing icons is particularly fraught in an age of iconoclasm. In San Francisco, Chicago, and cities across the country there are various campaigns to rename schools and public buildings currently christened to honor everyone from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln. There is an opposition to the traditional icons of patriotism emanating out of a new focus on the injustices that they either ordered or observed without intervention. Indiscriminate slaughter of sacred cows also seems like poor politics, destined to alienate even those sympathetic with reinterpretations of American history. The campaign to, for example, remove a statue of Abraham Lincoln from a Chicago city park not only offers a narrow and boringly pious vision of history, but also further surrenders patriotism to the far right. If the left announces, "We don't want Lincoln," intentionally or not, they gift the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the president who saved the Union, to right wing demagogues.

Howard Zinn, the brilliant historian and activist, once rebuffed a question about whether his classic exploration of U.S. history through popular movements, "A People's History of the United States," would influence young students to dislike their own country, and deprive them of patriotic heroes who could inspire them to strive to improve the conditions of their country. Zinn's response offers instruction to those who, like Rorty, are concerned about the future of critical patriotism on the left.

We should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes. Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain — well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don't learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren't told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. No.

We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. And I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, you know, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But people don't learn in school . . . that Helen Keller was a socialist. She was a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.

And so, there are these alternate heroes in American history. There's Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. There are the heroes of the civil rights movement. There are a lot of people who are obscure, who are not known. We have a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. And that was before Rosa Parks. I mean, Rosa Parks is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested, and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and really the beginning of a great movement in the South. But this 15-year-old girl did it first. And so, we have a lot of — we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people back into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, "This is the way to live."

The crucial insight that Zinn offers is that patriotism should spotlight virtuous behavior in service to justice within a shared community. Richard Rorty interprets Whitman according to that definition, and there are living artists who have employed their creativity in the discovery of ways to celebrate what is unique and good about America, without ignoring or lying about what is unjust and oppressive.

Like Zinn, the poet Rita Dove locates patriotic profundity in the life of Rosa Parks. Her 1999 collection of poems, "On the Bus with Rosa Parks," makes the heroic activism of Parks central to American life. The bus not only rides through Montgomery, but all of American history, offering an invitation to anyone who would like to help push the passenger vehicle closer toward freedom, justice, and equality.

"Pull the cord a stop too soon," Dove lyricizes, "And you'll find yourself walking a gauntlet of stares." The immediate impression is that she is describing the inhospitable response, possibly even violent, a Black American will receive in the "wrong" neighborhood, but the perspective soon widens to include the assassination of advocates for civil rights, and how those deaths continue to haunt American history: "Dallas playing its mistake over and over/ until even that sad reel won't stay stuck – there's still / Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis / at every corner the same / scorched brick, darkened windows."

Dove advances an idea of patriotism that demands movement and insists upon forward progress. In her poem, "American Smooth," she not only pays tribute to the multicultural tapestry of American music, but also compares its sociopolitical life to a couple on the dance floor, finding its rhythm, continuing to dance to the sounds that surround them. The only error, Dove seems to warn, is to stop.

As she herself implies with reference to the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, tragedies and atrocities often leave mourners no choice but to stop, and in their pause, reflect on the gravity of the loss.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were many tributes to the victims, especially the firefighters and first responders who risked their own safety to save the lives of strangers. Martin Espada offers one of the most beautiful memorials of Sept. 11 in his poem, "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100."

It is dedicated to the 43 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees 100 who died while working at the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. Espada describes the wide range of countries where these workers – the dishwashers, the cook, the busboy – travelled from to make their home in America. With homage to Whitman's poem, "I Hear America Singing," he praises the majestic and soulful music of their labor, their voices, and their harmonious presence.

Espada ends the poem with the imagery of war – "from Manhattan and Kabul" – and provides a dark, but profound insight into the separation between power and the people who are so often the victims of those who exercise it.

Patriotism, like any feeling of affection, is only as useful as its ability to assist in the alleviation of human suffering, and the flourishing of human potential. In that respect, it is a localized iteration of compassion and justice, calling upon the best traditions of a particular country.

A pandemic should have activated this form of patriotism throughout the United States, but the scoundrels most eager to wave the flag have little interest in helping the people who live underneath it.

An entire set of policies – from voting rights to universal health care – should emerge out of the patriotic instinct. Otherwise, all the red, white, and blue gestures are nothing more than symbolism that is both empty and obfuscating. As John Prine sang in 1971 with eternal relevance:

Well, I got my window shield so filled
With flags I couldn't see.
So, I ran the car upside a curb
And right into a tree.
By the time they got a doctor down
I was already dead.
And I'll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said...
"Your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven…"

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Happy Holidays!