Tear gas is deployed against pro-Trump rioters breeching the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the most aggressive generals of his generation, and after his military service ended in a bitter fashion, he went home to Tennessee and found a new way to fight. A defeated general in the Confederate army, Forrest joined the Ku Klux Klan and was named its inaugural “grand wizard.”
Forrest was in the first wave of American veterans who turned to domestic terror once they returned home. It also happened after World War I and II, after the Korean and Vietnam wars — and it is happening after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sedition trial now taking place in Washington, D.C., features five defendants accused of trying to overthrow the government on January 6, 2021, and four are veterans, including Stewart Rhodes, who founded the Oath Keepers militia. In December, another sedition trial is set for five members of the Proud Boys militia — four of whom served in the military.
A relatively small number of veterans are having an outsized impact on white supremacist violence.
The point here is not that all or most veterans are dangerous. Those who engage in far-right extremism are a fraction of the more than 18 million Americans who have served in the armed forces and returned to civilian life without indulging in political violence. Of 897 people indicted after the January 6 insurrection, 118 have military backgrounds, according to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. The point is that a relatively small number of veterans are having an outsized impact on white supremacist violence, thanks to the respect that flows from their military service. While they are outliers from the mass of law-abiding vets, they are the tentpoles of domestic terror.
“When these guys get involved in extremism, they shoot to the top of the ranks and they are very effective at recruiting more people to the cause,” noted Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
This is a consequence of our society venerating a massive army and going to war at regular intervals: The last 50 years of far-right terror have been dominated by men with military backgrounds. Most infamously, there was Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh, who set off the Oklahoma City bomb in 1995 that killed 168 people. There was Eric Rudolph, an Army vet who planted bombs at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as two abortion clinics and a gay bar. There was Louis Beam, a Vietnam veteran and Klansman who became a dark visionary of the white power movement in the 1980s and was tried for sedition in 1988 (he was acquitted, along with 13 other defendants). The list is nearly endless: A founder of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division was a vet, while the founder of the Base, another neo-Nazi group, was an intelligence contractor for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the man who attacked an FBI office in Cincinnati after federal agents searched the Mar-a-Lago home of former President Donald Trump in August was — you guessed it — a veteran.
Adjacent to the violence, key figures in far-right politics come from the military and boast of their wartime service, such as former Gen. Michael Flynn, who has emerged as a high-profile promoter of QAnon-ish conspiracy theories as well as an election denialist. In New Hampshire, former Gen. Donald Bolduc is the GOP candidate for Senate and a spreader of lunatic ideas that include the notion that school children are allowed to identify as cats and use litter boxes (do a web search of “Bolduc litter box”). GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, reportedly the “point person” for Trump’s fake elector scheme in Pennsylvania, blanketed his campaign with so much military imagery that the Pentagon told him to dial it back.
The “why” of this pattern is complex. When wars are drenched in as many high-level lies and pointless deaths as the ones in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, there is no shortage of good reasons for veterans to feel betrayed by their government. Leaving the service can be a fraught process even without that baggage. After years in an institution that brought order and meaning to their lives — and that defined the world in a simplistic binary of good versus evil — veterans can feel adrift at home and yearn for the purpose and camaraderie they had in the military. As the special forces veteran-turned-journalist Jack Murphy wrote of his comrades who fell into QAnon and other conspiratorial mindsets, “You get to be part of a movement of like-minded people, you’re fighting evil in a worldview that you have become comfortable with. Now you know why you don’t recognize America, not because you had a silly preconception of it from the beginning, but rather because it has been undermined by a satanic cabal.”
There is an added twist that historian Kathleen Belew points out: that while the role of veterans in domestic terror is underappreciated, they are not the only ones unhinged by war.
“The biggest factor [in domestic terror] seems not to be what we have often assumed, be it populism, immigration, poverty, major civil rights legislation,” Belew noted in a recent podcast. “It seems to be the aftermath of war. This is significant not only because of the presence of veterans and active-duty troops within these groups. But I think it’s reflective of something bigger, which is that the measure of violence of all kinds in our society spikes in the aftermath of war. That measure goes across men and women, it goes across people who have and have not served, it goes across age group. There’s something about all of us that is more available for violent activity in the aftermath of conflict.”
In 2005 the so-called war on terror was justified by President George W. Bush as “taking the fight to the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.” The irony is that those wars — which cost trillions of dollars and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians — instead radicalized a generation of American zealots who for years to come will inflict violence on the country they were supposed to protect. This is yet another stupendous offense for which our political and military leaders should face history’s vengeance.
Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, speaks during a news conference following a Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2, 2022.
Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve raised its target for interest rates by another 0.75 percent. The target has now gone up overall by 3.75 percent since earlier this year, a steep increase that is essentially an attempt by the Fed to slam the brakes on the U.S. economy and stomp out inflation.
All 12 members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee voted for the increase. One of them was Esther George, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. George then did something unusual in an interview with National Public Radio: She told the truth about what the Fed does.
“We see today that there is a bit of a savings buffer still sitting for households, that may allow them to continue to spend in a way that keeps demand strong,” she said. “That suggests we may have to keep at this for a while.”
In other words, the problem today as seen by the Fed is that regular Americanshave too much money. And the Fed is going to keep bludgeoning the economy until this is no longer the case.
This is essentially what Paul Volcker famously said in 1979 soon after he took over as chair of the Fed: “The standard of living of the average American has to decline.”
To the ears of normal people, statements like those of George and Volcker sound appalling and outrageous. And perhaps they are. But George is not a monster; she also expressed concern that the Fed was going too far, saying, “I have been in the camp of steadier and slower [rate increases], to begin to see how those effects from a lag will unfold.” You could honestly argue that she should be celebrated rather than blamed for her words: She was being honest about the Fed’s mission and how it functions.
Esther George, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, speaks virtually during the Jackson Hole economic symposium in Tiskilwa, Illinois, on Aug. 27, 2021.
Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
In 1977, Congress formally instructed the Fed that its mission was to “promote effectively the goals of maximum employment [and] stable prices.” But what does this mean? And what happens when these two goals conflict?
In theory unemployment could get so low that regular workers could bid up their wages so fast that inflation would skyrocket. Definitely in practice we know unemployment can be so high that the workers can’t get higher wages, and as the economy grows, all the gains flow to the top.
The Fed sits directly on the fault line generated by the oldest, most fundamental conflict in history: that between rich creditors and working-class debtors.
In any society with huge wealth disparities like the U.S., creditors are always terrified that debtors will get control of the monetary system, print tons of money, and destroy the value of the creditors’ financial assets.
Right now, U.S. households have about $16 trillion in debt, $11.4 trillion of which is mortgages. Another $1.59 trillion is student debt. But thanks to the 14 percent cumulative inflation over the past two years, this $16 trillion today is only worth what $14 trillion was this time in 2020. I.e., $2 trillion has been effectively transferred from creditors to debtors.
This is by no means a straight $2 trillion transfer from the rich to the poor. It’s complicated. Lots of rich people have big mortgages, for instance. But on net, it is indeed a big loss of wealth for the affluent, and a gain for people further down the income scale.
The Fed’s job is to mediate between these two directly opposed interests. Creditors generally want lower inflation and higher unemployment; debtors generally will benefit from the opposite. The Fed’s preferred approach is to pretend that these interests are not opposed. But George just busted out with the truth: They are.
After a huge increase over the past several years, poorer Americans now enjoy a higher net worth than they’ve ever had in U.S. history. This gives them a little unaccustomed leverage, some wiggle room, the chance to quit their job for a better one, even while, as George puts it, they “can continue to spend in a way that keeps demand strong.”
This is a nightmare for rich creditors. They want this working-class leverage eliminated ASAP and inflation crushed.
The Federal Reserve responds to pressure from rich creditors with alacrity, in part because rich creditors are mostly the only ones who understand the Fed and yell at it. So the Fed is now purposefully trying to slow the economy until people’s savings are gone and they can’t afford to keep buying stuff.
This truth about how the world works is an ugly one. The journalist William Greider explained this in his book “Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country”:
The economic liquidation, in fact, resembled the form, though not the content, of a primitive religious practice — the pagan ritual of human sacrifice. Some individuals were chosen to serve as victims for the good of the entire society … in moral terms, the process was sadistic, an example of what Thorstein Veblen called the enduring barbarism of modern society.
The economic victims were chosen at random, but mostly from among the weaker groups in the society. The methodology employed by the Federal Reserve to induce contraction … insured that the strongest individuals and enterprises would be able to evade selection. There was this hierarchy within democracy — a hierarchy of vulnerability.
There almost certainly are better and fairer ways of dealing with inflation than human sacrifice. For instance, the central tension between debtors and creditors at the heart of the Fed’s mission would be greatly reduced if we were a more egalitarian country. But we’ll never be able to figure this out unless we’re willing to look directly at reality.
In a series of little noted Zoom meetings this fall, the city of Oakland, California, grappled with a question whose consequences could shape the future of American policing: Should cops be able to kill people with shotgun-armed robots?
The back-and-forth between the Oakland Police Department and a civilian oversight body concluded with the police relinquishing their push for official language that would have allowed them to kill humans with robots under certain circumstances. It was a concession to the civilian committee, which pushed to bar arming robots with firearms — but a concession only for the time being.
The department said it will continue to pursue lethal options. When asked whether the the Oakland Police Department will continue to advocate for language that would allow killer robots under certain emergency circumstances, Lt. Omar Daza-Quiroz, who represented the department in discussions over the authorized robot use policy, told The Intercept, “Yes, we are looking into that and doing more research at this time.”
The controversy began at the September 21 meeting of an Oakland Police Commission subcommittee, a civilian oversight council addressing what rules should govern the use of the city’s arsenal of military-grade police equipment. According to California state law, police must seek approval from a local governing body, like a city council, to determine permissible uses of military equipment or weapons like stun grenades and drones. Much of the September meeting focused on the staples of modern American policing, with the commissioners debating the permissible uses of flash-bang grenades, tear gas, and other now-standard equipment with representatives from the Oakland Police Department.
Roughly two hours into the meeting, however, the conversation moved on to the Oakland police’s stable of robots and their accessories. One such accessory is the gun-shaped “percussion actuated nonelectric disruptor,” a favorite tool of bomb squads at home and at war. The PAN disruptor affixes to a robot and directs an explosive force — typically a blank shotgun shell or pressurized water — at suspected bombs while human operators remain at a safe distance. Picture a shotgun barrel secured to an 800-pound Roomba on tank treads.
While describing the safety precautions taken while using the PAN disruptor, Daza-Quiroz told the subcommittee that the department takes special care to ensure that it is in fact a blank round loaded into the robot’s gun. This led a clearly bemused Jennifer Tu, a fellow with the American Friends Service Committee and member of the Oakland Police Commission subcommittee on militarized policing, to ask: “Can a live round physically go in, and what happens if a live round goes in?”
“Yeah, physically a live round can go in,” Daza-Quiroz answered. “Absolutely. And you’d be getting a shotgun round.”
After a brief silence, Commissioner Jesse Hsieh asked the next question: “Does the department plan on using a live round in the robot PAN disruptor?”
The answer was immediately provocative. “No,” Daza-Quiroz said, before quickly pivoting to hypothetical scenarios in which, yes, just such a shotgun-armed robot might be useful to police. “I mean, is it possible we have an active shooter in a place we can’t get to? And he’s fortified inside a house? Or we’re trying to get to a person —”
It soon became clear the Oakland Police Department was saying what nearly every security agency says when it asks the public to trust it with an alarming new power: We’ll only use it in emergencies — but we get to decide what’s an emergency.
The question of whether robots originally designed for defusing bombs should be converted into remote-controlled guns taps into several topics at the center of national debates: police using lethal force, the militarization of American life, and, not least of all, killer robots. Critics of the armed robo-cops note that the idea of Predator drones watching American racial justice protests may have seemed similarly far-fetched in the years before it started happening. “It’s not that we don’t want to debate how to use these tools safely,” said Liz O’Sullivan, CEO of the AI bias-auditing startup Parity and a member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. “It’s a question of, if we use them at all, what’s the impact going to be to democracy?”
Some observers say the Oakland police’s robot plan contradicts itself. “It’s billed as a de-escalation facilitator, but they want to keep it open as a potential lethal weapon,” Jaime Omar Yassin, an independent journalist in Oakland who has documented the commission meetings, tweeted. As with any high-tech toy, the temptation to use advanced technology may surpass whatever institutional guardrails the police have in place. Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “The ease of use of weapons as well as the dangerous legal precedence justifying the causal use of weapons makes police less likely to attempt to deescalate situations.”
“It in many ways lowers the psychological hurdle for enacting that violence when it’s just a button on a remote control.”
Tu hopes that by cracking down on shotgun robots before they come to be, Oakland and cities across the country can avoid debates about limits on police powers that only come after those powers are abused. She pointed to the Oakland police ban on using firehoses, a bitter reminder of abuses in American policing from the not-too-distant past. “We have an opportunity right now to prevent the lawsuit that will force the policy to be rewritten,” Tu said. “We have an opportunity to prevent the situation, the harm, the trauma that would occur in order for a lawsuit to need to be initiated.”
Skeptics of robo-policing, including Tu, say these debates need to happen today to preempt the abuses of tomorrow, especially because of the literal and figurative distance robotic killing affords. Guariglia said, “It in many ways lowers the psychological hurdle for enacting that violence when it’s just a button on a remote control.”
Oakland police are seeking to use live shotgun rounds in an attachment to the Remotec Adros Mark V-A1, a robot seen here in a standoff where Dallas police deployed the robot in Dallas, Texas, on June 13, 2015.
Photo: Stewart F. House/Getty Images
As the Oakland commission hearing went on, Daza-Quiroz invoked a controversial 2016 incident in Dallas. Police had strapped a C-4 bomb to a city-owned robot and used it to blow up a sniper who’d killed five police officers during a downtown rally. It is widely considered to be the country’s first instance of robotic police killing. While police generally heralded the ingenuity of the response, others criticized it as summary execution by robot. In an email to The Intercept, Daza-Quiroz said the department imagines weaponizing the PAN disruptor on the department’s $280,000 Northrop Grumman Remotec Andros Mark 5-A1 robot — the very same model used so controversially in Dallas.
Daza-Quiroz noted that the department had never actually attempted to load a live round into the PAN gun for fear of breaking the $3,000 attachment. Yet when Tu asked whether the commission could add policy language that would prohibit arming the robot with lethal 12-gauge shotgun rounds, the department’s vision for robotic policing became clearer. “I don’t want to add a prohibited use,” Daza-Quiroz replied, “because what if we need it for some situation later on?”
Daza-Quiroz explained that a hypothetical lethally armed robot would still be subject to the department’s use of force policy. Oakland Police Department Lt. Joseph Turner, stressing the need to keep extreme options on the table for extreme circumstances, urged the commission to allow such a killer robot in case of “exigencies.” He said, “I’m sure those officers that day in Texas did not anticipate that they were going to deliver a bomb using a robot.”
The Oakland Police Department’s assurances that a shotgun-toting robot would be subject to departmental use-of-force policy did not seem to satisfy critics. Nor did the messenger have a record that inspires confidence. A 2013 East Bay Express report on Daza-Quiroz and another officer’s killing of an unarmed Oakland man found that he had been the subject of over 70 excessive force complaints. (One lawsuit prompted a six-figure settlement from the city and the jury ruled for the officers in another; the officers were never charged with a crime, and an arbitrator overturned the police chief’s decision to discipline the officers. Police spokesperson Candace Keas declined to comment on the dozens of excessive force complaints.)
In the wake of the shooting, which prompted protests, the East Bay Times reported that Daza-Quiroz was asked by an internal investigator why he hadn’t used his Taser instead. He responded, “I wanted to get lethal.”
“You have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
The concern is, then, less that police would use a shotgun robot in “certain catastrophic, high-risk, high-threat, mass casualty events” — as the tentative policy language favored by the department currently reads — but that such a robot would be rolled out when the police simply want to get lethal. The vagaries of what precisely constitutes a “high-risk” event or who determines the meaning of “high threat” affords the police too much latitude, Tu told The Intercept in an interview. “It’s not a technical term, there’s no definition of it,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything.” When asked by email for precise definitions of these terms, Daza-Quiroz said, “High risk, high threat incidents can vary in scope and nature and are among the more challenging aspects of law enforcement.”
Critics say such ambiguous language means Oakland police would get to use a robot to kill someone whenever they decide they need a robot to kill someone. The policy has analogues in more routine police work: After shooting unarmed people, officers frequently offer post-hoc justifications that they felt their life was in danger.
“Anytime anyone has a tool, they’re going to use it more,” said Tu. “You have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And the more that police, in general, have military equipment, have more weapons, those weapons get used.”
After weeks of wrangling, both the commission and the police department agreed on language that will prohibit any offensive use of robots against people, with an exception for delivering pepper spray. The agreement will go for review by the city council on October 18.
Tu suspects the sudden compromise on the killer-robot policy is explained not by any change of heart, but rather by the simple fact that had the debate continued any longer, the department would have missed the deadline for submitting a policy — and risked losing the ability to legally operate its robots altogether.
There is nothing preventing the Oakland Police Department from, as Daza-Quiroz said they will, continuing to push for legally sanctioned killing using a PAN disruptor. No matter how the Oakland policy shakes out in the long term, the issue of robotic policing is likely to remain. “I’m sure Dallas [police] weren’t the only ones who had considered lethal force with their robot before doing so, and Oakland police aren’t the only ones who are thinking about it even more now,” Tu told The Intercept. “They’re just the only ones who thought about it out loud with a committee.”
According to Daza-Quiroz, the department is still looking toward the future. “We will not be arming robots with lethal rounds anytime soon, and if, and when that time comes each event will be assessed prior to such deployment,” he said. When asked if there were other situations beyond a Dallas-style sniper in which police might wish to kill with a robot, Daza-Quiroz added: “Absolutely there are many more scenarios.”
With thousands of Andros robots operated by hundreds of police department across the country, those concerned by the prospect of shotgun robots on the streets of Oakland or elsewhere refer to what they say is a clear antecedent with other militarized hardware: mission creep.
“We’re not really talking about a slippery slope. It’s more like a well-executed playbook to normalize militarization.”
Once a technology is feasible and permitted, it tends to linger. Just as drones, mine-proof trucks, and Stingray devices drifted from Middle Eastern battlefields to American towns, critics of the PAN disruptor proposal say the Oakland police’s claims that lethal robots would only be used in one-in-a-million public emergencies isn’t borne out by history. The recent past is littered with instances of technologies originally intended for warfare mustered instead against, say, constitutionally protected speech, as happened frequently during the George Floyd protests.
“As you do this work for a few years, you come to realize that we’re not really talking about a slippery slope. It’s more like a well-executed playbook to normalize militarization,” said O’Sullivan, of Parity. There’s no reason to think the PAN disruptor will be any different: “One can imagine applications of this particular tool that may seem reasonable, but with a very few modifications, or even just different kinds of ammunition, these tools can easily be weaponized against democratic dissent.”
The sun was just coming up on May 25 when Julie Burkhart’s phone rang.
Burkhart had arrived in Casper, Wyoming, a day earlier to check on renovations to a new abortion clinic she was opening on East Second Street. The final cleaning in preparation for opening day was scheduled for the end of the week. That evening she’d done a walk-through; all looked good. But when she heard the voice of one of her contractors on the other end of the line, she knew something was wrong. “I was thinking there’s a plumbing issue,” she recalled. “‘There was a water break, right?’”
Burkhart has been involved with abortion care for decades. In 1991, she worked at a clinic in downtown Wichita, Kansas, which gave her a front-row seat to the infamous “Summer of Mercy,” when anti-abortion zealots swarmed the city determined to shut down abortion access. She later became a protégé of renowned Wichita doctor George Tiller — the main target of the 1991 protests — and worked with him up until his assassination in 2009 at the hands of a militant anti-abortion acolyte. After Tiller’s murder, Burkhart took over providing abortion care at the clinic he’d run and went on to open clinics in other states.
All of which is to say: Burkhart knows that providing abortion care can be a fraught proposition involving serious threats of violence. So when her contractor called that morning, Burkhart knew it wasn’t going to be good news, but she didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was. “‘Julie,’ he goes, ‘the building’s on fire.’ And I was like, ‘God, what the hell?’”
The clinic was slated to open in mid-June when a woman carrying a gas can broke in and set it on fire.
Burkhart had long eyed Wyoming as a prime candidate for expanding abortion access. At present, the state has one abortion provider, in Jackson, which only provides medication abortion, available up to about 10 weeks into pregnancy. Burkhart’s clinic, Wellspring Health Access, would provide medication and procedural abortion on top of a host of other health services. It would also expand abortion access in the broader region, where population centers are spread out amid a rural landscape — a swath of the country known as an “abortion desert.” In the fall of 2021, she secured the property just blocks from Casper’s bustling downtown drag and began renovations.
Although Wyoming has developed a reputation as a MAGA hotbed in recent years, its politics have always been more complicated, burnished with a live-and-let-live vibe that transcends political party. Wyoming is among a number of Western and Great Plains states that have progressive notions baked into their constitutions, including where equal rights and individual freedoms are concerned. Wyoming was the first territory in the country to grant women suffrage and led the way with a number of other firsts for women’s participation in civic and political life, earning it the nickname the Equality State.
For decades, abortion was legal in Wyoming with scant limitations up to the point of viability. Lawmakers rejected attempts to impose medically dubious restrictions that were proliferating across the country, and in the mid-1990s, voters roundly rejected a statewide ballot measure that would have banned abortion and defined life as beginning at conception.
Given that legal landscape, opening a clinic in Wyoming made sense to Burkhart. But not long after plans got underway, the future of abortion rights in the United States took a draconian turn. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court finished hearing oral arguments in the case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in December, it was clear that the justices were poised to topple nearly 50 years of constitutional protection for abortion. In the wake of those arguments, several states intensified efforts to pass laws banning abortion that would be triggered by the imminent court ruling. Among them was Wyoming, where lawmakers rushed through a near-total ban in early 2022.
Wellspring Health Access was slated to open in mid-June when an unidentified woman carrying a gas can broke into the clinic and set it on fire. The arson remains unsolved. Just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dobbs case, paving the way for Wyoming’s new abortion ban to take effect. “This is a decisive win for those who have fought for the rights of the unborn for the past 50 years,” Republican Gov. Mark Gordon said.
Despite the setbacks, Burkhart and her allies are moving ahead. The Casper clinic is being rebuilt, and a mobile clinic is in the works. If it all sounds a tad optimistic given the bleak outlook for abortion access, that’s because while federal protections for abortion have been decimated, state protections, and specifically those found in state constitutions, have not. Abortion rights advocates in Wyoming are confident that their state’s founding document speaks clearly that abortion is a right, and they’re fighting in state court to prove it.
Abortion rights demonstrators protest the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on June 24, 2022, in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Photo: Natalie Behring/Getty Images
Circling the Wagons
On a hot evening in late August, Jane Ifland welcomed a group of women to the secluded patio of her home just north of downtown Casper. Longtime Wyoming residents from both sides of the political aisle, the women had formed a community advisory committee in the spring of 2021 to support efforts to open the Casper clinic. It was committee member Christine Lichtenfels, founder of the state’s sole abortion fund, who first reached out to Burkhart about coming to Wyoming.
The intent of the committee was to help Burkhart navigate the social and political dynamics of a state where even the biggest cities — Casper, the second largest, has roughly 59,000 residents — often feel like places where everybody knows your name. For the committee, this is a good thing; they know who to go to when things need to get done. “That’s how it works,” said committee member Deb Cheatham.
They had a full agenda. There was discussion of fundraising and getting Casper’s young adults more involved. There was talk about a secure place to store the new mobile clinic (handled) and a place to park it while in operation (good leads). And in the wake of the arson, there were issues of security to discuss — and speculation about who might have torched the clinic.
“Whoever knows is not talking.”
Around 3:30 a.m. that morning in late May, a woman wearing a dark hoodie and a surgical mask gained entry to the building. In surveillance video captured by a camera in the reception area, the woman can be seen carrying a gas can toward a hallway, where she squats, pulls down her mask, and struggles to open the can. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has posted a $5,000 reward for information relating to the crime.
After her contractor called to tell her the clinic was in flames, Burkhart threw on clothes and rushed to the scene. She spent the day camped out in the parking lot of a meat market across the street. Leslie Kee, a member of the advisory committee, kept her company. “I pulled my truck in there and we put the tailgate down and sat and drank coffee,” Kee recalled. “And she had to make a gazillion phone calls.”
It wasn’t until the following afternoon that Burkhart was allowed into the building. The destruction took her breath away. Furniture and equipment were charred; windows had been smashed; plastic-covered light fixtures had melted and warped; smoke lines snaked their way across the walls.
The arsonist had started the fire in an exam room, she was told. How she gained entry is, as Burkhart figures, “the $10 million question.” Investigators said it appeared that the woman had broken a front window and climbed into an entryway. Burkhart is skeptical. Flipping through her phone, she found a photo of the window in question, the edges punctuated by spikes of glass. She doesn’t see how the woman could have climbed through without cutting herself. Which makes her wonder: Could the arsonist have gotten the code to enter the building from someone on the inside?
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives posted video footage of the arsonist at the Wellspring Health Access clinic.
Burkhart has other theories. She thinks the arsonist had an accomplice; in a 27-second video clip that police released, Burkhart believes the woman is talking on the phone, perhaps to someone waiting outside in a car. (During questioning, investigators asked Burkhart a lot about various cars.) Burkhart wonders if it might have been someone from out of state, maybe from neighboring South Dakota or Colorado. She acknowledges this would be a long way to travel to torch her clinic, but it would explain why no one in Casper has come forward with any intel.
Holly Waatti-Thompson, who founded the advisory committee, thinks it was someone from Casper, and that the city’s anti-abortion forces, centered in area churches, have circled the wagons to protect the perpetrator. “Unfortunately, their religious beliefs are interfering with their ability to reason and their ability to think,” she said. Other members of the committee agree. “Whoever knows is not talking,” Kee said. But she’s certain that “some people” around town know exactly who was responsible.
About a month before the fire, anti-abortion protesters began gathering outside the clinic on Thursday afternoons. At first it was just a quiet affair, Waatti-Thompson said, but it has since grown into something akin to “street theater.”
The protests are coordinated by Bob Brechtel, a former state representative who has boasted that the anti-abortion demonstrators come from 37 different churches and that he intends to keep protesting as long as necessary. “Rule of law is important,” he told Kaiser Health News, “but what’s more important is that we do have people who are accepting and understanding of our purpose to defend human life at all stages.”
Ironically, it is work Brechtel did while in the Wyoming Legislature that has buoyed the hopes of folks like Burkhart that abortion will remain legal in the state and plans for a brick-and-mortar clinic will be realized.
“Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.”
Back in 2011, Brechtel was a House sponsor of the state Senate’s “Health Care Freedom” resolution, which aimed to enshrine health care access into the state’s constitution. The resolution led with the broad promise that “each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.” Additional provisions included a right to pay for health care out of pocket and a commitment that the state would “act to preserve these rights from undue governmental infringement.”
The resolution was filed in reaction to Congress passing the Affordable Care Act. State lawmakers were dismayed by the notion that Wyomingites might be forced into purchasing health insurance and wanted to push back. Floor debates on the resolution were limited, and while some lawmakers pointed directly to the ACA as the reason for their support, others talked about health care — and government overreach — more broadly. “We don’t agree with government from the highest possible level enforcing something so intimate as the health care decisions that we make for ourselves and for our children,” then-state Rep. Amy Edmonds told her colleagues.
The resolution easily passed, and in November 2012, 73 percent of voters cast a ballot in favor of adding a new section to the state constitution. The right of health care access laid out in Article 1, Section 38 is now at the center of efforts to protect abortion rights in the state.
Two men walk in front of the Wyoming Republican Party headquarters in Cheyenne, Wyo., on July 19, 2022.
Photo: Thomas Peipert/AP
Health Care Freedom
In 1920, the town of Jackson, in Teton County, became the first in Wyoming to be governed entirely by elected women. The press dubbed the administration the “petticoat government.” In 1922, Mayor Grace Miller summed up their approach to governing: “We simply tried to work together,” she said. “What is good government but a breathing space for good citizenship?”
On July 25, Burkhart and five other female plaintiffs picked up that mantle and filed suit in Teton County seeking to block the state’s abortion ban, which was slated to take effect two days later. Burkhart’s clinic and Lichtenfels’s abortion fund joined two doctors, a pregnant emergency room nurse, and a third-year law student to argue that the ban, which contains only narrow exceptions, violated multiple provisions of the Wyoming Constitution, including the explicit guarantee of Article 1, Section 38.
If the law went into effect, they argued, “Wyomingites, and especially women, lose their right to decide whether and when to become parents; their right to determine the composition of their families; their entitlement to be free from discriminatory state laws that perpetuate stereotypes about women and their proper societal role; their right to bodily integrity and to be free from involuntary servitude; their freedom of conscience; their right to access appropriate health care and make private health care decisions; and their right to bodily autonomy and liberty.”
In response, the state has tossed a mishmash of arguments at District Judge Melissa Owens to explain why the Wyoming Constitution doesn’t protect abortion. Special Assistant Attorney General Jay argues that interpretation of the state constitution is somehow tethered to Supreme Court interpretations of the federal Constitution — in other words, that because the Supreme Court says there’s no federal protection for abortion, one can’t be found anywhere in the Wyoming Constitution.
“There’s nothing vague about this statement: ‘No abortion shall be performed.’”
As for concerns that the state’s ban is vague — and would leave doctors and patients unsure of the conditions under which abortion is legal, as has happened across the country — there is a simple fix, Jerde says: Just remove the ban’s exceptions for the health of the pregnant person and cases of rape and incest. “There’s nothing vague about this statement: ‘No abortion shall be performed,’” he told Owens during an August court hearing.
Then there are the state’s claims about why the protections afforded by Article 1, Section 38 simply don’t apply. For starters, the amendment only protects an individual’s right to choose among “health care services” that Wyoming politicians have decided are legal, according to Jerde; if the Legislature has decided abortion isn’t legal, then there’s no right to it.
And he argues that the point of the amendment was solely to protect Wyoming residents from having to pay for insurance under the ACA — that is, the promise to defend health care freedom from “undue government infringement” only applies to federal overreach, not state infringements.
To properly understand the amendment’s guarantees, Jerde argues, the court must determine what lawmakers intended in passing the resolution and what voters thought when they cast their ballots. And since the amendment doesn’t contain the word abortion, “no voter … could reasonably believe that, in voting to ratify section 38, she was amending the Wyoming Constitution to implicitly confer the right to abortion.”
Wyoming Special Assistant Attorney General Jay Jerde listens to oral arguments from plaintiffs’ attorneys in Ninth District Court on Aug. 9, 2022.
Photo: Bradly J. Boner/Jackson Hole News via AP
Our Own Rights
To Sharon Breitweiser, executive director of Pro-Choice Wyoming, Jerde’s assertions are nonsense.
Breitweiser has lobbied in the halls of the state Capitol for decades, working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to keep abortion legal in the state. Her organization led the fight against the 1994 constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion and defined life at conception; in a landslide vote, the amendment was rejected. During debate over the health care resolution in 2011, she said it was “absolutely” obvious that the proposed amendment would include abortion. People came up to her and said, “Do they realize that they just protected abortion?” she recalled. In 2012, Breitweiser began adding information about the amendment’s protections to abortion fact sheets the organization provides to lawmakers. “Every single legislative session,” she said.
Legal experts say that the state’s interpretation, not only of the amendment but also the constitution more broadly, is just wrong. Wyoming’s constitution has robust protections for “personal autonomy and individual freedoms,” said Kenneth Chestek, a law professor at the University of Wyoming. “That is not a partisan thing, I don’t think. It’s something that everybody really can get behind who lives out here.”
Chestek says he thinks a lot of residents would be shocked by the notion that the Wyoming Constitution is somehow cramped by whatever the U.S. Supreme Court says about the federal Constitution. “Are you kidding me? The biggest sin that a politician can have in the state of Wyoming is to be beholden to people in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We have our own power, our own rights, and we are not beholden to anybody, especially not the federal government.”
“We don’t care why it was adopted. It was adopted, it is clear, it is enforced.”
Where Article 1, Section 38 is concerned, he says the arguments about whether lawmakers or voters intended their rights to be limited to battling ACA mandates is inconsequential. Rules of statutory interpretation require that the law be enforced as written. “Whatever it says, you enforce it. And if it’s clear, you’re done.” He sees the amendment as unambiguously granting individuals the right to their own health care decisions. “Abortion is a health care choice for the woman. Absolutely. I can’t think of any argument to say that it is not a health care choice,” he said. The amendment is “directly applicable. There is nothing to interpret. We don’t care why it was adopted. It was adopted, it is clear, it is enforced.”
Robert Keiter, a former Wyoming law professor who literally wrote the book on the Wyoming Constitution, agrees. Although Jerde cited Keiter’s work for the proposition that the health care amendment should be cabined to the ACA, Keiter says it’s clear that its protections are much broader. “The language goes way beyond any immediate reaction to Obamacare,” he said. “I don’t know how you get beyond the language.”
Keiter also notes that the state constitution is explicit in granting equal rights for women. In 1869, when Wyoming was still a territory, it granted women voting rights, and women quickly gained positions of power and influence in broader civic life. When Wyoming codified its state constitution, it included “an explicit equal protection provision referring to gender,” he said, “which is highly unusual.”
“Since equality in the enjoyment of natural and civil rights is only made sure through political equality,” that section reads, state laws “shall be without distinction of race, color, sex, or any circumstance or condition whatsoever other than individual incompetency.”
Taken together, Keiter says, the constitution’s health care and equality amendments “recognize a fundamental right to reproductive choice on the part of a woman.”
In August, Owens, the district judge, concluded that the state’s abortion ban should be blocked during the pendency of the litigation. She noted that because the ban singles out those who can become pregnant and impermissibly “restricts” their health care rights, the plaintiffs would likely be successful on several of their constitutional claims. “Discrimination on the basis of sex is explicitly prohibited under the Wyoming Constitution,” she wrote.
Julie Burkhart, founder of Wellspring Health Access in Casper, Wyo., stands outside the clinic following an arson attack in May 2022.
Photo: Mead Gruver/AP
Live and Let Live
When state Rep. Pat Sweeney joined the Wyoming House in 2017 as a Republican representing Natrona County, where Casper is located, he didn’t consider himself pro-choice. He’d spent years in the hospitality business, owning a hotel, bar, and steak joint in town. He worked around employees from all walks of life and saw abortion as health care, but he hadn’t really thought much more about it.
But after nearly 30 years of rejecting abortion restrictions, state lawmakers appeared on track to pass several that year. Sweeney sat on the Labor, Health, and Social Services Committee. He remembers listening to hours of testimony and thinking to himself, “What gives a bunch of older white men in the Legislature … the right to take these fundamental rights away from women?” After he voted no on one measure, he recalls being confronted by Brechtel, the former state representative behind the anti-abortion protests, and Frank Eathorne, now the controversial chair of the state GOP. “‘You claim to be a Republican?’” he says Eathorne asked. “Very insulting and very demeaning, he and Bob Brechtel … so that has stuck with me.”
“Just open your mind a little bit, would you? But she didn’t.”
That kind of nastiness has washed over the state Republican Party, said Sweeney — who voted for Donald Trump twice (his policies were good for the state’s extraction industries, he said) and recently lost his reelection bid — and was on full display during debates over the trigger bill in February. Sweeney recalled watching as a female colleague made an impassioned speech against the measure while the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, stared her down, “just won’t take her eyes off her, with a shit-eating grin. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, do you have no respect for anybody except your point of view, and only your point of view?’” he said. “Just open your mind a little bit, would you? But she didn’t.”
Rodriguez-Williams, the executive director of a crisis pregnancy center in Cody, has now joined with Right to Life of Wyoming in an attempt to intervene in the lawsuit over the ban. In a brief filed in Owens’s court, lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a far-right Christian legal organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group, argued that the state wasn’t putting on the kind of evidence needed to demonstrate the legality of the ban — including an assertion that abortion isn’t actually health care. Owens hasn’t yet ruled on their request.
In the meantime, Burkhart’s mobile abortion clinic is on track to open in November. A new round of renovations to Wellspring Health Access is well underway. The clinic still sees weekly anti-abortion protests, and the investigation into the arson is ongoing. With all the setbacks and legal wrangling, Burkhart says that people have asked her why she’s pressing forward. She’s motivated by the patients who need care and the memory of her mentor, George Tiller. “Tiller always said, ‘solutions, not problems.’”
Sweeney joined Burkhart for an abortion rights rally in Casper this spring, where he urged people to vote and run for office. He hopes that Wyomingites can return to talking respectfully to one another and to their live-and-let-live roots. Members of the advisory committee were at the rally too: Kee, Waatti-Thompson, and Ifland spoke. So did Riata Little Walker.
Back on Ifland’s patio in Casper, Little Walker, a native Wyomingite and “traditional Republican,” said that if you’d asked her a few years ago, she would’ve said she was pro-life, with exceptions for incest and rape. “That’s all that had ever been presented to me as an issue,” she said. “My perspective … was very narrow.” Then she got married and pregnant. “And everything was wonderful,” she said. Until it wasn’t. At 21 weeks, they found out the fetus was very sick. Little Walker had to travel to Denver for help, where she had a choice of termination or induced labor and delivery. She chose the latter. The couple held their daughter “and she died in our arms.”
The experience was transformative. Little Walker realized that the notion that all terminations were of pregnancies that would have developed into healthy babies was nonsense. She thought that discussing termination for medical reasons would be a “good bridge for the people who are uncomfortable with the whole abortion thing and thinking that you’re killing a perfectly healthy, innocent baby just because somebody doesn’t want it,” she said. “And we all know how absurd that argument is.”
She reached out to Breitweiser of Pro-Choice Wyoming and began testifying at the legislature. Her message: “It’s not black and white.” Her goal is to get people to think more deeply about the issue, and to understand that legislation like Wyoming’s ban takes choice and health care away from everyone in every situation, including the most dire. If you can “get them to start thinking about it,” she said, then “you can slowly get there.”
Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy, party during a press conference in Rome on Sept. 26, 2022.
Photo: Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Early this month, Hillary Clinton made some embarrassing comments about the then-forthcoming election of Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s first woman prime minister. “The election of the first woman prime minister in a country always represents a break with the past, and that is certainly a good thing,” the former secretary of state said.
Clinton has been rightlypilloried. After all, she was talking about the leader of the fascist Brothers of Italy party, the most extreme right-wing party to govern Italy since Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship.
Meloni claimed victory in Sunday night’s general election with considerable ease, leading a far-right coalition that now holds a significant majority in both Italy’s houses of parliament.
White supremacy has always relied on active enforcement by white women.
Whatever “break” from the past having a woman leader signals, “Meloni would also represent continuity with Italy’s darkest episode,” historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted in The Atlantic. And the continuance is very real: The Brothers of Italy’s direct forebears, the neofascist Italian Social Movement, was formed by supporters of Il Duce after World War II.
The idea that a woman leader “opens doors” for other women, as Clinton suggested, is of course laughable. That’s especially true when that leader is a fascist keen to stop abortions and do away with employment quotas that favor women — quite literally shuttering women in the nuclear home — while locking out immigrant women from Italy’s body politic all together.
The media got this right much of the time, giving prominentbilling to Meloni’s far-right nationalism, but numerous English-language headlines focusedsolely on her being Italy’s first woman prime minister.
It’s tempting to say that her position as a woman leader should be considered irrelevant, given her and her party’s vile anti-immigrant, nationalist, racist, anti-LQBTQ+ politics. But ignoring her womanhood misses some crucial points about her political ideology.
Being a woman — a white woman, that is — is not in conflict with Meloni’s fascism. White supremacy has always relied on active enforcement by white women, particularly when it comes to upholding racist, pro-natalist narratives.
Italy may never have had a woman prime minister, but white women in leadership roles within the forces of reaction is hardly a new phenomenon. Consider Phyllis Schlafly, the paleoconservative, anti-abortion leader of the anti-Equal Rights Act campaign in the 1970s, who made much of her role as a traditional wife and urged other women to stay in the home.
The fact that Schlafly was herself a powerful conservative activist was no threat to her political vision; the same is true for the rabidly traditionalist Meloni. A fascist society is also a society of rigid class structure; a woman leader is no impediment to keeping working-class women in their place.
Meloni, like her less polished far-right counterparts in the U.S. Congress — Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, among others — weaponizes her role as woman and mother to police the boundaries of womanhood and reproduction. She has framed her poisonous anti-immigrant positions as a defense of Italian (white) women’s safety, conjuring well-worn tropes of migrants “importing” sexual violence.
Her party’s white supremacist platform is explicitly pro-natalist, seeking to bolster the low birth rate of native Italians as a bulwark to “ethnic substitution,” or what fascists here call the “great replacement.” Meloni’s far-right coalition is expected to usher in more stringent abortion restrictions nationwide. Abortions, which have been legalized in Italy since 1978, are already difficult to access in many areas, especially where Brothers of Italy has locally governed.
Meanwhile, in line with the typical allocation of resources in Herrenvolk democracies, Meloni’s social welfare proposals are aimed specifically at Italian families, while excluding immigrants and those outside the bounds of the straight, cis family. Meloni is thus continuing the legacy of what Ben-Ghiat called Mussolini’s “natalist obsession.”
It’s no accident, and certainly no surprise, that Meloni paired her deeply reactionary reproductive politics with attacks on Italy’s LGBTQ+ communities. Like Republicans in the U.S., Italy’s first woman prime minister is a fervid enforcer of traditional gender roles. Brothers of Italy, alongside other far-right parties, last year voted down a bill that would have made violence against queer and trans people a hate crime.
Meloni has consistently denounced “gender ideology” — a term used with increasing frequency by anti-trans ideologues who deny the fact that neither gender nor sex function as strict binaries. “Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby,” Meloni said earlier this summer. “Yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology. Yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death,” she added, while campaigning on a platform that will endanger the lives of immigrants and Italian minorities.
For those who would like to defend women’s reproductive freedoms but not support trans rights, Meloni, like the U.S. far right, offers another reminder that these issues must not be disentangled. Attacking gender-divergent people is as much a centerpiece of fascism as is pro-natalism. And, as with the Brothers of Italy’s entire program, it’s no less fascist when a woman says it.
On Thursday, following reports that the Federal Reserve would likely soon jack up the federal interest rate again — this time by 0.75 percentage points — Chair Jerome Powell tried to allay fears that the Fed’s strategy would cause an economic downturn, insisting that another rate hike was unlikely to cause a deep recession.
The interest rate hikes, which nominally serve as a way for the Federal Reserve to tamp down inflation, are also a way to put economic power back in the hands of the very rich by driving up unemployment, since higher interest rates make it more expensive for banks to loan people money, leading to scarcer investment and therefore fewer jobs.
Powell downplayed the effect the Federal Reserve’s moves were likely to have on working people. “We think we can avoid the very high social costs that Paul Volcker and the Fed had to bring into play to get inflation back down,” Powell said, referring to the period in the 1980s when the Fed similarly hiked interest rates and engineered a recession.
The Fed’s own research suggests otherwise. Powell’s remarks reflect an attitude common among financial elites that the Fed can execute a “soft landing” in which enough pain can be inflicted on the economy to reduce inflation but not so much that the economy slides into recession. But an extraordinary yet little-noticed Federal Reserve study undercuts the exact case Powell is trying to make — published while he was making it. The study warns that the Fed’s aggressive interest rate hikes this year echo a strategy it undertook a century ago that led to a depression because the Fed did not account for how quickly unemployment can spike in response to rate hikes.
“Strong (tight) labor markets can become weak (slack) faster than policymakers may anticipate,” the authors write. “Indeed, our results demonstrate that labor demand reacted sharply and quickly to the tightening of monetary policy, at a speed which can outpace policymakers’ abilities to track current economic conditions.”
The study, published July 27 by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, looks at the depression of 1920, the circumstances of which are eerily similar to today. The Federal Reserve Board, the main governing body of the Fed, has over 400 economists who conduct research for consideration by other economists, a board spokesperson, Joseph Pavel, explained.
The U.S. had just come out of a pandemic — the Spanish flu — that killed 657,000 Americans. Since many of those who died were workers, this meant that there were more job openings than workers to fill them, granting the surviving workers more bargaining power. “A tight labor market naturally led to high employment and rising real wages,” the study notes. (Though the study doesn’t mention it, labor strikes were also proliferating, spurred by the low unemployment rate.)
Like today, consumer spending was also recovering — then because World War I had ended; now because the disruptive effects of the coronavirus pandemic are wearing off. Despite the strong job market, inflation was also relatively high, and for similar reasons. “At the end of World War I, the United States was experiencing strong growth and unruly inflation, driven in part by an expansionary fiscal policy and an accommodative monetary policy,” the study observes.
In March 2020, the U.S. government likewise responded to the plunging economy brought on by the pandemic with an unprecedented financial stimulus package in the form of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — “expansionary fiscal policy,” to borrow the study’s words — while the Fed kept interest rates at historic lows — “accomodative monetary policy.” Together, these policies averted an economic downturn.
While the Fed’s aggressive policy in 1920 did succeed in tamping down inflation, the study found that it also had a devastating effect on workers. “In 1920, the Federal Reserve Banks hiked their discount rates to tame inflation, and the U.S. economy entered a severe recession, now known as the Depression of 1920,” the study says, drawing on labor market data that was only systematically assembled in recent years. The result was that “labor demand sharply contracted, with manufacturing and other industrial sectors leading the way with large reductions in job vacancies.”
Asked how the Fed squares its rate hikes with the contrary findings of its own study, Pavel, the spokesperson for the Fed Board of Governors, pointed to a disclaimer on the study that states, “The analysis and conclusions set forth are those of the authors and do not indicate concurrence by other members of the research staff or the Board of Governors.” The study’s authors, Jin Wook B. Chang, a Federal Reserve Board of Governors senior economist, and Haelim Anderson, a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation economist, did not respond to requests for comment.
Though the authors of the study aren’t opposed to Fed interest rate hikes wholesale, they caution against using rate hikes in rapid succession — as the Fed is currently doing — due to the delay it takes for the economic effects of rate hikes to register.
In December 1919, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York hiked interest rates from 4 percent to 4.75 percent and then, in June 1920, all the way up to 7 percent. The study explains what happened next: “As the Federal Reserve Banks were increasing rates, a sharp, deep recession began in 1920 lasting until 1921,” the study says. “Up to that point, the recession was one of the deepest measured and is still often referred to as the Depression of 1920. Manufacturing production declined by 22 percent, and unemployment rate rose by 11 percent, from 5.2 percent to 11.3 percent.”
“The Federal Reserve miscalculated the lag times inherent in monetary policy changes, leading the central bank to raise interest rates during the early stages of a recession,” the authors continue. “While it is important for the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy and manage inflation, it is also important to adjust policy rates at an appropriate pace.”
The warning seems prudent in light of the fact that the U.S. gross domestic product just contracted for a second consecutive quarter — the traditional definition of a recession.
The Federal Reserve has hiked rates four times this year so far: in March, May, June, and July, cumulatively bringing the federal interest rate from 0.25 percent to between 2.25 percent and 2.5 percent. These represent the first rate increases since 2018; the hike in June was the largest rate hike since 1994. During his closely watched annual address at the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium late last month, Powell indicated that the rate hikes would continue. “Reducing inflation is likely to require a sustained period of below-trend growth. Moreover, there will very likely be some softening of labor market conditions,” the Fed chair said. “While higher interest rates, slower growth, and softer labor market conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses. These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation.”
By contrast, the Federal Reserve hiked rates in smaller increments of 0.25 percent on seven occasions between 2017 and 2018, reaching 2.25-2.5 percent by December 2018 — the same rate levels we’re at today. Then-President Donald Trump responded by launching a relentless pressure campaign to get the Fed to lower rates, going so far as threatening to fire Powell. By August 2019, the Fed began to reverse course, gradually slashing interest rates until March 2020, when it rapidly dropped the rate to nearly zero, where it remained until earlier this year.
Powell has been plenty candid about his intentions, declaring his desire “to get wages down and then get inflation down.”
President Joe Biden has shown no such willingness to publicly criticize the Fed, an institution that, much like the Supreme Court, has historically styled itself as above the political fray. In May, Biden vowed “never interfere with the Fed’s judgments, decisions, or tell them what they have to do.” Biden came under criticism by progressives for reappointing Powell, a registered Republican first appointed Fed chair by Trump. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., opposed Powell’s renomination, calling him “a dangerous man to head up the Fed.”
“Renominating you means gambling that for the next five years, a Republican majority at the Federal Reserve, with a Republican chair who has regularly voted to deregulate Wall Street, won’t drive this economy over a financial cliff again,” Warren told Powell while he testified before the Senate Banking Committee in September 2021.
Powell has been plenty candid about his intentions, declaring his desire “to get wages down and then get inflation down” at a press conference in May. As Powell sees it, worker pay is too high. “Wages are running high, the highest they’ve run in quite some time,” Powell said. “And they are one good example of — or good illustration, really — of how tight the labor market really is, the fact that wages are running at the highest level in many decades.”
Anxiety among financial elites about the tight labor market — i.e., workers having some relative leverage — has scarcely been concealed. Also on Thursday, Larry Summers, a top economist in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, said that tackling inflation “will likely require a significant recession.” In recent months, Summers has also called for a 10 percent unemployment rate — a figure that would mean putting millions of Americans out of work.
In a corporate earnings call last month, the CEO of the multibillion-dollar real estate company Douglas Emmett remarked that a recession could be “good” for the commercial real estate business “if it comes with a level of unemployment that puts employers back in the driver seat,” as The Intercept reported. Though recessions can be bad for business in many ways, they’re great for crushing growing labor power.
While it’s true that inflation hurts workers by making consumer goods more expensive, inflation disproportionately hurts the rich and benefits debtors. The effects of inflation are not evenly felt across the board. For example, wage hikes are outpacing inflation in some of the lowest-paid jobs, like leisure and hospitality workers. What’s more, the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation for decades.
This summer, Warren again raised alarm about Powell, this time over the risks of the Fed’s rate hikes, warning that the decision to increase rates “risks triggering a devastating recession.”
According to the Fed’s own research, Warren is correct.
With the vociferous debate over President Joe Biden’s announcement that the federal government will cancel a portion of outstanding student debt, it’s important to understand how Americans came to owe the current cumulative total of more than $1.6 trillion for higher education.
In 1970, Ronald Reagan was running for reelection as governor of California. He had first won in 1966 with confrontational rhetoric toward the University of California public college system and executed confrontational policies when in office. In May 1970, Reagan had shut down all 28 UC campuses in the midst of student protests against the Vietnam War and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. On October 29, less than a week before the election, his education adviser Roger A. Freeman spoke at a press conference to defend him.
Freeman’s remarks were reported the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Professor Sees Peril in Education.” According to the Chronicle article, Freeman said, “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. … That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow [to go to college].”
“If not,” Freeman continued, “we will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people. Freeman also said — taking a highly idiosyncratic perspective on the cause of fascism — “that’s what happened in Germany. I saw it happen.”
As Biden cancels (some) student debt, remember why the debt exists. A key Reagan advisor warned in 1970 that free college was producing the dangerously explosive “dynamite” of an “educated proletariat,” and “we have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education”: pic.twitter.com/SWqZFRRTuN
Freeman was born in 1904 in Vienna, Austria, and emigrated to the United States after the rise of Hitler. An economist who became a longtime fixture in conservative politics, he served on the White House staff during both the Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon administrations. In 1970 he was seconded from the Nixon administration to work on Reagan’s campaign. He was also a senior fellow at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution. In one of his books, he asked “can Western Civilization survive” what he believed to be excessive government spending on education, Social Security, etc.
A core theme of Reagan’s first gubernatorial campaign in 1966 was resentment toward California’s public colleges, in particular UC Berkeley, with Reagan repeatedly vowing “to clean up the mess” there. Berkeley, then nearly free to attend for California residents, had become a national center of organizing against the Vietnam War. Deep anxiety about this reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. John McCone, the head of the CIA, requested a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, to discuss “communist influence” at Berkeley, a situation that “definitely required some corrective action.”
During the 1966 campaign, Reagan regularly communicated with the FBI about its concerns about Clark Kerr, the president of the entire University of California system. Despite requests from Hoover, Kerr had not cracked down on Berkeley protesters. Within weeks of Reagan taking office, Kerr was fired. A subsequent FBI memo stated that Reagan was “dedicated to the destruction of disruptive elements on California campuses.”
Reagan pushed to cut state funding for California’s public colleges but did not reveal his ideological motivation. Rather, he said, the state simply needed to save money. To cover the funding shortfall, Reagan suggested that California public college could charge residents tuition for the first time. This, he complained, “resulted in the almost hysterical charge that this would deny educational opportunities to those of the most moderate means. This is obviously untrue. … We made it plain that tuition must be accompanied by adequate loans to be paid back after graduation.”
The success of Reagan’s attacks on California public colleges inspired conservative politicians across the U.S. Nixon decried “campus revolt.” Spiro Agnew, his vice president, proclaimed that thanks to open admissions policies, “unqualified students are being swept into college on the wave of the new socialism.”
Prominent conservative intellectuals also took up the charge. Privately one worried that free education “may be producing a positively dangerous class situation” by raising the expectations of working-class students. Another referred to college students as “a parasite feeding on the rest of society” who exhibited a “failure to understand and to appreciate the crucial role played [by] the reward-punishment structure of the market.” The answer was “to close off the parasitic option.”
In practice, this meant to the National Review, a “system of full tuition charges supplemented by loans which students must pay out of their future income.”
In retrospect, this period was the clear turning point in America’s policies toward higher education. For decades, there had been enthusiastic bipartisan agreement that states should fund high-quality public colleges so that their youth could receive higher education for free or nearly so. That has now vanished. In 1968, California residents paid a $300 yearly fee to attend Berkeley, the equivalent of about $2,000 now. Now tuition at Berkeley is $15,000, with total yearly student costs reaching almost $40,000.
Student debt, which had played a minor role in American life through the 1960s, increased during the Reagan administration and then shot up after the 2007-2009 Great Recession as states made huge cuts to funding for their college systems.
That brings us to today. Biden’s actions, while positive, are merely a Band-Aid on a crisis 50 years in the making. In 1822, founding father James Madison wrote to a friend that “the liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded. … Enlightened patriotism … is now providing for the State a Plan of Education embracing every class of Citizens.”
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance,” Madison explained, “and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Freeman and Reagan and their compatriots agreed with Madison’s perspective but wanted to prevent Americans from gaining this power. If we want to take another path, the U.S. will have to recover a vision of a well-educated populace not as a terrible threat, but as a positive force that makes the nation better for everyone — and so should largely be paid for by all of us.
The FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., seen beyond barbed wire fencing surrounding a construction zone, on Aug. 14, 2022.
Photo: Bryan Olin Dozier/NurPhoto via AP
The brutal days since the FBI’s search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home have brought America a slow-motion rerun of the January 6 insurrection.
Pro-Trump cultists have once again declared war on the U.S. government, just as they did on January 6, 2021, and are once again bent on overturning the rule of law. It is yet another warning of what the pro-Trump Republican Party has become: a violent, apocalyptic cult of personality. The nation is on notice of what will happen if Trump once again becomes president.
Ricky Shiffer, who died at age 42 for Trump’s sake, is the perfect symbol of Trump’s rage-filled GOP.
Shiffer tried to attack the FBI’s Cincinnati office on August 11 in an act of revenge for the bureau’s court-authorized search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. Just after the FBI’s August 8 search, an account under Shiffer’s name on Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social, urged people to “get whatever you need to be ready for combat.”
He tried to break through a bulletproof barrier outside the FBI’s office by shooting his nail gun, then fled into a running gun battle with police. While he was fleeing, he apparently took time to post on social media again, writing, “Well, I thought I had a way through bullet proof glass, and I didn’t. If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I., and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the F.B.I. got me, or they sent the regular cops.”
Within hours, he was dead in a cornfield after a shootout with police.
Shiffer was just one of many Trump supporters who have engaged in either violence or threats of violence in recent days against the FBI, the Justice Department, and the federal judge who approved the warrant used by the FBI in last week’s search.
Adam Bies, of Mercer, Pennsylvania, was arrested on August 12 after he posted a series of violent threats against the FBI. The hate-filled rhetoric he used underscores just how dangerous the threats from Trump’s disciples have become. “Every single piece of shit who works for the FBI in any capacity, from the director down to the janitor who cleans their fucking toilets deserves to die,” Bies wrote on Gab, a right-wing social media platform. “You’ve declared war on us and now it’s open season on YOU. … HEY FEDS. We the people cannot WAIT to water the trees of liberty with your blood.”
At the same time, a group of heavily armed Trump supporters, including some with assault weapons, stood outside the FBI’s Phoenix office last weekend to protest — and intimidate — after the Mar-a-Lago search. Meanwhile, the threats against the federal judge who approved the search warrant have become increasingly dark; one Trump cultist posted, “I see a rope around his neck.” The threats against the FBI, the Justice Department, and the judge have become so frequent and ominous across the country since the Mar-a-Lago search that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint intelligence bulletin on August 12 warning about them.
Shiffer, Bies, and many others were primed for violence by Trump, who triggered this latest wave of threats on the day of the FBI search by using rhetoric purposefully designed to incite, claiming that Mar-a-Lago was “currently under siege, raided, and occupied.” It was the same type of language of violence mixed with victimhood that Trump used to incite the mob to storm the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.
The insurrection involved a mob of thousands who attacked the building in order to try to stop the congressional certification of the election of Joe Biden as president. Incited to march on the U.S. Capitol by Trump when he spoke to his supporters at a rally near the White House that day, the mob overwhelmed the police guarding the Capitol and succeeded in delaying the certification and nearly stopping it.
Yet today Trump’s followers are unrepentant and unashamed, despite hundreds of arrests, a high-profile House investigation that has revealed the depths of the danger to democracy from the insurrection, and an ongoing Justice Department criminal investigation of January 6 and Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.
None of that matters to the Trump cultists. They are at it again.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather near his residence at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 9, 2022.
Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago was just the latest excuse Trump cultists have used to intensify their attacks, though the militia wing of the Republican Party has been active since January 6, 2021. They have gone after a wide array of targets that they consider enemies: On June 11, for example, just two days after the first House hearing investigating the insurrection, police in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, stopped a U-Haul truck and arrested 31 members of a white nationalist group called Patriot Front. They were on their way to a Pride event, where officials said they planned to start a riot.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the upsurge of violence and threats of violence in the wake of the Mar-a-Lago search are just part of a steady and intensifying march of Trump supporters toward a permanent war against American democracy.
To be sure, right-wing extremist hatred of the federal government goes back long before Trump. That hatred soared over the last few decades, particularly in the wake of the bloody Branch Davidian raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and the Ruby Ridge siege in Idaho by the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service in 1992. Right-wing extremist groups still have as their bible a racist, antisemitic novel written more than 40 years ago called “The Turner Diaries.” The violent and dystopian novel, first published in 1978, depicts a bombing of FBI headquarters as well as the hanging of members of Congress. The parallels between the novel’s plot and the real-life events of the January 6 insurrection, and the most recent threats of violence against the FBI, are unnervingly close. Trump has brought the hellscape of “The Turner Diaries” out of the realm of perverted fantasy and into grim reality.
Trump has brought the hellscape of “The Turner Diaries” out of the realm of perverted fantasy and into grim reality.
Shiffer was a true soldier in Trump’s war. There’s social media evidence that he was at least January 6-adjacent. He appeared in a video at a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House the night before the insurrection, and he apparently posted on Twitter that “I was there” in reply to a photo of January 6 insurrectionists scaling the Capitol’s walls.
Bies, meanwhile, has been an aggressive anti-vaxxer — showing that his newfound hatred of the FBI is part of a larger hatred of the entire government. “I threw away my 25-year career in software and marketing after refusing the vaccine,” Bies wrote on Gab. “I will never treat you scumbag democrats with respect, or be friends with you in any way for the rest of my life. I cannot wait to see all of you stupid pieces of shit drop dead from your vaccine side effects.”
Far from trying to rein in Trump and his brown shirts, GOP leaders have stoked the threats of violence. They quickly followed Trump’s lead in the days after the FBI search in Florida and began issuing calls to defund the FBI, claiming that it was just like the Gestapo. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., compared the search to the actions of “3rd world Marxist dictatorships,” while other Republicans announced that they were now at war with the U.S. government. Carl Paladino, a Republican congressional candidate in New York, said in a radio interview with right-wing Breitbart News that Attorney General Merrick Garland should “probably be executed” before quickly claiming that he was being facetious. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., threatened the Justice Department with an investigation if Republicans retake the House, while saying that the Justice Department was now in an “intolerable state of weaponized politicization.”
Far from trying to rein in Trump and his brown shirts, GOP leaders have stoked the threats of violence.
Republican politicians have also worked to purge all anti-Trump dissidents from the party, filling key state posts that will have influence over future elections with radical-right figures who still question the 2020 presidential election. The purification of the party extends to affiliated groups that once sought to bring new ideas to conservatism but now are nothing more than shills for Trump. That was clear earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, where a fake jail cell holding a supposed January 6 insurrectionist was set up; it was meant to symbolize how Republicans now view the insurrectionists as political martyrs. (Reporters at the conference wrote that a right-wing group run by Brandon Straka was responsible for the cage and that Straka may have been the person inside, although his identity couldn’t be confirmed. Straka was convicted for his role in the January 6 insurrection and later cooperated with the FBI.)
Like a mafia leader, Trump is seeking to exploit the violence, threats of violence, and the GOP’s broad acceptance of his agenda. Last weekend, he reportedly had an ally try to contact Garland about lowering the political temperature surrounding the FBI search — even as he continued to rail against the raid as a witch hunt. It was straight out of Trump’s long-standing playbook: Pretend to be the victim, rant and rave, and then play games with his adversary.