The First Shall Be Last – One for the money

Story and photos by Diane Joy Schmidt
Winner, Personal Columns, Society Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies, 2017 2nd place.

The forces of light and darkness are fighting for control of the soul of Donald Trump. Suddenly overnight, Trump seems to have turned into a beacon of light to Jews, after getting Egypt to withdraw their UN resolution on Thursday, after his condemnation of the U.S. abstention Friday, and the very pro-Israel policies that he is signaling. It is as if the scales have fallen from our eyes and the seeming enormous dark shadowy monster has turned out to be a normal person after all. But I believe that the dramatically oversimplified, heavy-handed approach we have to expect Trump will favor will not, in the long run, serve Israel. So, I returned to reading the very critical words I wrote earlier this month, if only to remind myself that while he may do things now and then that are redemptive, most of what he has set in motion is not. I believe we must actively pray for his very mercurial soul to seek the light, as we increase the light for the next eight days of Hanukkah. No, we don’t want it darker.

The first shall be last – One for the money.

At 27, I was a young photojournalist on my first foreign assignment, covering the civil war in El Salvador. It was 1981. I had joined the ABC-TV crew, and we learned there had been a massacre of a family in San Jose Primero, a mountain village. After a tortuous sharp climb on dirt packed roads that cut through narrow passes we encountered a man in a straw hat carrying a machete who waved to us to follow him. He was a relative of the family that had been killed during the night. He took us to the hut and acted out how the men had come shooting through the door, kicking it open and finishing off everyone inside. There were fresh bullet holes in the door of the adobe hut and pools of blood still coagulated on the floor inside and outside in the dirt.

The man was tall, and very thin and bony, and as his hand arched into the air and pointed into the hut it seemed to take on a separate existence, horrified itself by the words of his retelling.  As he talked, a man dressed in city clothes, wearing black sunglasses and a watch, sauntered up and stood watching with his arms crossed, the local paramilitary informer. With the TV camera trained on him and this other man watching, the campesino told us it must have been leftist guerrillas who had done the shooting. Two of those killed had been little girls, aged five and seven. He told us there was one survivor, his brother, who lay dying in the charity hospital in San Salvador.
We hurried back to the capital to the hospital, and found the dying man, who said that it was not leftist guerrillas, that it was the soldiers from the local cuartel who had come in the middle of the night.

Later I was having dinner in the palace with Carlos, press attaché to the president appointed to head the military junta. I said, “The only person I believe is a man who is dying.”

Who killed them. El Salvador Photo © 1981 Diane Joy Schmidt

He smiled. “You are learning, gringita.”
This and other experiences like it shaped my approach to journalism; to drill down, to find out the truth behind what may be politically expedient or distorted. I believe most journalists are driven by a passion for and dedication to finding out the truth.

Most of the newspapers in the U.S. did not endorse Trump for president. This had little influence. Belatedly, we have come to realize, people are no longer getting their news from reading newspapers. Instead, they get the news now from what their friends share on social media, and that much of that will continue to be completely fake news. Opinions are formed and swayed by taunts and slogans and simplistic promises.

The first shall be last – Two for the show.
Leonard Cohen, the great poet-bard, grandson of an orthodox rabbi, wrote his greatest album “You Want It Darker” at age 82 while dying of cancer. The album was released on his birthday, October 21 and then he passed away, the result of a fall, sometime during the night of November 7th, making his exit like a staged pratfall just a quick step ahead of the triumph of Trump, Election Day, Nov. 8th. The title song is his parting gift to us, and lays bare what we are facing today in the way that only truly great poetry can.

The wisdom of his years only added strength and clarity and sharpness to his lyrics. In an interview shortly before he died, he said that when he writes, “that if I write enough verses, and keep discarding the slogans, even the hip ones, even the subtle ones, that something will emerge that represents.” (represents, I took to mean, a higher spiritual reality.)

When I first heard “You Want It Darker” in late October, the central stanza in the lyrics spoke directly to me, about the crowds of people who were flocking to the Trump rallies and who were unashamedly kicking and beating anti-Trump protestors.

Cohen sang,
“They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker”
People don’t want to believe that Trump is going to do what he promised he would, but every day that goes by, every cabinet pick, every tweet, shows that he will.
Next Cohen intones, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my lord.” It sounds as much like a dirge as a profession of faith and willingness to do what God asks of us. Hineni, “Here I am” is the Hebrew word in the Bible that Abraham, and then later Moses, spoke to God, an offer of willingness to serve even to sacrifice.

Then the second stanza repeats:

“Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame”

The song ends with a repetition of the word Hineni, sung with a holy quaver by the cantor of the synagogue in Montreal where Cohen grew up and was bar mitzvahed. Hearing it following Cohen’s words, my mind suddenly coalesced and understood the eternal sacrifices, the anguish of the sublime, made by the Jewish people over the centuries to seek the light.

The first shall be last – three to get ready.
The ferocious bombing by Russia that targeted all the hospitals of Aleppo came green-lighted by Trump’s election. I was reminded of how a month after Reagan was elected in 1980, and just after his advance team made a visit to El Salvador, on December 4th, four American churchwomen were kidnapped, raped and murdered by six National Guardsmen.

George Orwell wrote an essay in 1944 called “What is Fascism?” He noted a survey that found that most people really didn’t know what Fascism was. He said, “It is usually assumed, for instance, that Fascism is inherently warlike, that it thrives in an atmosphere of war hysteria and can only solve its economic problems by means of war preparation or foreign conquests.” He concluded by saying that a fascist regime may take different forms, but that in all cases, it is not a democracy, and a fascist is always a bully.

War hysteria was certainly true during Hitler’s rise to power during a worldwide depression caused by the U.S. stock market collapse of 1929. In 1931 in Germany, people were starving, there were no jobs, and it took a barrel of paper money to buy a loaf of bread. It took that precarious of an economic climate, and the burning of the Reichstag, conveniently pinned on the Communists, to open the way for the house painter, Hitler, to become supreme chancellor.

Today it seems we only need the barest of excuses, any potential threat to America, to rally the troops, to point out an ‘other,’ a foreigner, an enemy. Trump’s pick for national security advisor, Lt. General Michael Flynn, said in a speech in August at a synagogue in Massachusetts, “We are facing another ‘ism,’ just like we faced Nazism, and fascism, and imperialism and communism. This is Islamism, it is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised.”  How lovely, he’s found the perfect disease that keeps on giving, a war without end.

The first shall be last – four to go.

In Orwell’s best-known book “1984,” any vestige of history, any newspaper clipping that contradicted the official party line, was incinerated. Today, the ephemeral, glittery world of social media, particularly FaceBook, has become a hive mind fed by endless and malleable propaganda that can influence real events. Not exactly the noosphere that Teilhard de Chardin posited as the next step up of human evolution.

America is not in a Great Depression – not yet anyway, and hardly in the dire straits of Germany, 1931. Yet, to convince people today to throw over democratic ideals, we’ve only needed a pervasive sense of having been lied to, an awareness that things aren’t getting better for Main Street while Wall Street is scooping up billions, and a vague uneasiness that the digital age is leaving most white collar workers behind, (while new jobs for blue collar workers require retraining, and service workers barely survive on minimum wages). Throw in the promise of a few prizes in the crackerjack box. Yet, everything is moving so much faster.

What concerns me now is that as events unfold here and reverberate around the world in the coming months, our electorate will not understand them; that having put their faith in this new president-elect they will not be able to see why the economy does not become ‘great again,’ except to blame others. They will not have the opportunity to learn the truth from the lips of a man who is dying.

Trump, the Religious

“You are the movement, I am the messenger. I’m really just the messenger.” Trump speaking at victory speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, Dec. 1, 2016, at 50:54 in speech, as posted on YouTube, screenshot capture.

Trump, the Religious  By Diane Joy Schmidt

Events are moving so quickly. We all want understand what happened on November 8th when Donald Trump won the election, what to make of what is happening right now with his top staff and cabinet picks, and what is going to happen.

How concerned should we be about the future and what can happen here? Suddenly no worry seems too far-fetched. I jokingly commented to my like-minded pals on Facebook last week “Well, at least we’ll get to say ‘I told you so.’”  “No, but the surviving cockroaches will,” replied my friend Eugene Finerman.

Arguments among my friends about who elected Trump revolve around these issues: it was the less educated, or the unemployed, or the white folks because they wanted a white male president who promised them jobs.

Instead, I think Michael Leeden, a very conservative writer close to Trump’s inner circle, got it right, way back in May, when he wrote that Trump would win because he is a “religious leader,” who is charismatic and appeals to the irrational. The cult of personality. But, let’s step back to examine this process.

The Pew Research Center came out with a cogent analysis the day after the election, “How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysis.” A significant voting block that Pew analysts have followed since 2004, that they call “White, born-again/evangelical Christians,” and that have for the last three elections constituted 26% of the American electorate, voted overwhelmingly for Trump. He received 81% of their vote, 3% more even than Romney did in 2012.

Why did this particular block of white voters chose Trump over Clinton?

Race – Although many assume that this group votes only by racial preference, and certainly people of color that I have spoken to hold to this view, in 2008 24%, and in 2012 21% of these white, born-again/evangelical Christians, voted for Obama, a black man. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got even less of their vote, 16%.

Some remorseful Democrats say this group voted for Trump because Clinton didn’t bother to go after their vote the way Obama had. Others argue that Trump won over the clergy because he promised he would revoke the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and other non-profits with the 501c3 designation from endorsing or opposing political candidates. And then of course there was his pick for running-mate, Governor Mike Pence.

Jobs Donald Trump told them whatever they wanted to hear, and they believed him. Leeden states: “The crowd wants him, not necessarily his platform.” So, those for whom jobs and economic opportunity are most important voted for him because he said that he was for the little guy, and the little guy would rather identify himself with a winner. And what symbolizes success in America? A successful, rich, blond, white man, with a trophy wife on his arm.

Behind the other door: Belief. Nonetheless for the group that brought Trump to power, the over-arching issue is not faith but belief—a very different issue.

There was another interesting statistic from the Pew report that applied to all voters: the more often people attended worship services (of whatever faith, and with disparately prioritized values), the more likely they were to vote for Trump.

Beliefs, by definition, do not require facts. Beliefs are triggered by signs and symbols. Signs and symbols come from, reach and activate the psyche, and if they correspond  to a need in the core of the person, there is an automatic response. When these messages include constant repetitive falsehoods, the recipient, by willingly suspending  disbelief, is made easier to manipulate. This is not about belief in God, but belief in general, which can be put at the service of an ideology, or a strong leader. This is the cult of personality.

It may also be that belief, as opposed to faith, literally comes from an older, fight-or-flight part of our makeup, which is felt in the gut. Faith can be a more intellectual experience – still experiential, but tied to mental activity. Faith also may involve intuition – which may be felt in the heart rather than the gut. The ancients believed wisdom was in the heart.

Trump, “religious leader”

I pondered why this group voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Why were born-again Christians so willing to suspend disbelief and support Trump, despite the fact that he has shown himself to be the most patently false pretender to Christian values in the most outlandish ways possible?

After Trump won the Republican primary, a variety of commentators wrote that the Republicans had brought Trump on themselves. Some contended it was by waging a corporate-financed campaign against bleeding-heart liberals, going back practically since the New Deal. Certainly, said more, it was through the agency of Rush Limbaugh, who has been hammering an ever-growing swath of listeners since the early 1980s with paranoid ideas, and who has softened and cultivated a fertile ground for just such a leader.

But how exactly does it happen, what is the mechanism, the active ingredient? I found answers in two opposing corners for an as yet unarticulated intuition that was forming.  First, I talked with a clinical psychologist who teaches in psychiatry departments in the US and Europe, and who has lectured on anxiety disorders. He cited a cognitive-behavioral theory that when emotions are inappropriate, that when danger is misperceived or exaggerated, the problem lies in “cognitive schemata where reality is continually interpreted as dangerous.” (Anxiety and Its Disorders, David H. Barlow, p. 53)

This build-up of anxiety and unease, that Limbaugh and others have stoked in his followers for so long, reflexively found in Trump a vessel to pour their emotional angst in to, in an almost uncontrollable spasm, an actual instinctual fear-based survival mechanism.

Another answer came unexpectedly out of right-field, from Michael Leeden at the powerful conservative think-tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, founded after 9/11.  Leeden just co-authored a book, released this summer, The Field of Fight: How to Win the War against Radical Islam and its Allies, with Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s pick to be his national security advisor at the White House, a position that does not require congressional approval.  General Flynn’s principal message is that we must fear, and fight, radical Islam, everywhere, and that it’s a cancer inside Muslims.

Leeden wrote a blog for the foundation back on May 10, 2016, entitled “Trump’s Secret? Religion,” about Trump’s charisma. He explained that Trump’s followers are entranced by him. Leeden openly describes this process which is an astonishingly bald hypocrisy for one in Trump’s inner circle.

Leeden writes, “I used to lecture about political crowds, from the fascists to contemporary Western leaders,” and he described the many different temperaments of crowds, for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and then on to Roosevelt, and the Kennedys. He’d also intently studied the leadership of an Italian war-hero of WWI, Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom Leeden considers the first true Italian fascist.

Leeden has dismissively rejected the idea that Trump is a fascist, but his objections to the descriptor seem largely a matter of historical asymmetries, not what new forms fascism might take under the forthcoming Trump presidency.

In his blog on May 10th, he wrote: “D’Annunzio’s exchanges with the crowd were clearly based on Catholic rituals, reminding us that political ritual owes a lot to religion. That remains true today. I think Rush (Limbaugh) is right when he tells his listeners that Trump’s popularity has little to do with political issues. Yes, immigration is an important theme, but the main thing about Trump is himself. He excites a lot of people, there’s a sort of magic at work at his rallies, and his followers are wild about him. He’s the only candidate who is really charismatic […]

“Trump’s incoherence on issue after issue matters less than it would for the others. His crowd wants him, not necessarily his platform. They want the anti-pol [ . . . ] Although I’m talking about an intensely emotional and in many ways irrational phenomenon, it is driven by real and very rational contempt for the current ruling class.

“Yes it’s funny that a man who doesn’t much care about religion is in large part a religious leader, but it’s quite a common historical phenomenon. And sometimes such leaders are triumphant.”

A few weeks ago, I received a newsletter from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Inside was a quote from the late Congressman Tom Lantos. He said: “We must remember that the veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians and we can never rest.” His legacy is now ours.

Swastika graffiti on UNM campus, how headlines got it wrong, and why it matters

Sieg Heil (Hail, Victory), Swastika symbol, Trump graffiti night of Trump election, on The Center of the Universe sculpture on UNM campus. Photo by UNM student Curtison Badonie 7:01 A.M.
The New Mexico Jewish Link, December 2016 Vol. 46, No. 4
January 4, 2017 Gallup Independent, page 4 News Analysis “Swastika graffiti on UNM Campus: How headlines got it wrong and why it matters”

SWASTIKA GRAFFITI ON UNM CAMPUS: How headlines got it wrong, and why it matters.   Story by Diane Joy Schmidt

ALBUQUERQUE What happened, what really happened.
Sometime late in the night after the election, graffiti artists expressed their pleasure with Trump’s win by spraying graffiti with the words Sieg Heil (Hail, Victory!) and Trump and a swastika on a storefront in Philadelphia. Very similar graffiti appeared on the campus of the University of New Mexico. A student on his way to Zimmerman Library captured a photo of the graffiti at 7:01 a.m., before the university grounds crew had a chance to cover it.  Curtison Badonie posted his single photo on Facebook and other social media. Spray-painted in purple paint in large block letters across a bare expanse of a sculpture called The Center of the Universe was SIEG HEIL, then a drawn Swastika symbol, and then TRUMP.

The Albuquerque Journal quickly came out with the story online that morning, Nov. 9, at 9:27. Their headline read “Vandals deface UNM buildings, artwork with anti-Trump graffiti,” with two photos provided by UNM, and the following morning, Nov. 10, in the print edition, ran the same headline and story with the main photo, which was almost identical to Badonie’s, shown here. The story reported that a number of buildings and public artwork had been tagged “with messages comparing President-elect Donald Trump to Nazis. A student reported the lilac-colored graffiti to UNM early Wednesday morning, said Dianne Anderson, a university spokeswoman. Someone defaced a popular piece of artwork, a sculpture called the Center of the Universe, with the words, “Sieg Heil Trump” and a swastika symbol. In another case, a vandal wrote, “I (heart image) fascism” with the word “Trump” superimposed over the heart.”

The reporter, Chris Quintana, did not say anywhere in the body of the story whether this was pro- or anti- Trump graffiti. However, there was an ambiguity left in the story, which the reporter did not explain, given the only two images presented, and the headline certainly was not.

The Associated Press very quickly picked up the Journal story, adding an even more perplexing headline, “Anti-semitic, Anti-Trump graffiti found on UNM sculpture,” and mis-spoke by erroneously reporting that “University of New Mexico officials say an unknown person has defaced several buildings on campus with anti-Donald Trump graffiti.” The AP story was picked up by thousands of news outlets and later on social media.

I reached out to Badonie on Friday, and asked what he thought about the newspaper coverage. “I don’t know if it’s anti- or pro- Trump but seeing that just worried me and [for] our society. Especially, for us people of color & queer people of color.” Badonie, an undergraduate student majoring in communications & journalism, is Diné (Navajo) from Chinle, Arizona.

On that first day after the election, and the next, and continuing into the following week, there was a great deal of confusion and anxiety among Hillel students and Jewish community leaders over the graffiti and the lack of clarity in the reporting.

The UNM campus has seen  repeated efforts to pass Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions resolutions by the Students for Justice in Palestine group on campus that were fought off successfully, to date, by a tiny group of Hillel students.

Hispanic students on campus were very anxious,with many who are dreamers, here with uncertain citizenship status, and so were Muslim students. UNM President Robert Frank issued a statement Wednesday condemning the graffiti.

The Anti-Defamation League regional director here, Suki Halevi, immediately made inquiries to the university but was only able to ascertain that the matter was under investigation. She issued a statement Thursday condemning the Nazi words and symbolism and  wrote that “Regardless of who the messengers are, the use of these hateful words and symbols is offensive and alarming, especially to the Jewish community.”

Later that week, a freshman student reported that a classmate wearing a Trump shirt had attempted to pull off her hijab in Zimmerman Library on Election Day and students marched across campus to the president’s office demanding a safer campus.

I emailed UNM’s Director of Media Relations Dianne Anderson, the well-known former TV news anchor here who has now been at UNM for almost five years, to clarify whether or not her office had said the graffiti was anti-Trump. I noted that reporters are usually not the ones who write the headlines.

Anderson had never characterized the graffiti as pro- or anti- Trump. She sent me a copy of a brief email she had sent out to media that Wednesday morning, in which she called the graffiti “Nazi signs and Trump references.”

She included a list of facts sent to her by a member of her maintenance crew she had sent out in a second email, which read: “We have approximately a dozen tags. Same person, same color of paint, multiple locations. Located on buildings, artwork and sidewalks. All political address at President Elect Trump. Nazi and fascist are the primary reference [. . .]”

Both emails made clear that neither she nor the grounds crew ever said the graffiti was anti-Trump. Anderson added in her email, “I don’t believe the Journal’s story ever uses the reference “anti-Trump”. It is exclusively in the headline, which as a reporter you know, is not usually written by the reporter, but by a headline writer. I did not speak to the Associated Press about this issue.”

Then, unexpectedly, she wrote to me on Nov. 14, “I have been told that other tags in the graffiti from last week included profanity such as F___ Trump.”

Three days later, I sat down with Anderson at her office in the president’s suite and with Willie West, associate director of Environmental Services.  West showed me one photo of more graffiti from that night that had not been released. It had been written on a building near the art sculpture and with the same color spray paint. “F___ ME, TRUMP” was written in a cartoon balloon over a four-legged creature about to be mounted from behind by a Trump figure with a small penis.

West, who has been with UNM for 14 years, was of the opinion that both the Sieg Heil graffiti and this one were both done by the same person. He said that was based on his years of experience with graffiti on campus, that they were both done in purple spray paint, that they were on adjacent buildings, and, in his estimation, in the same handwriting. “And to give you more bearings,” said West pointing, “this is on this building here, so it’s boom, kaboom, kaboom.”

“They’re all very close in proximity,” added Anderson.

I asked West if he recognized the tagger. He said, “It doesn’t look familiar. I don’t recognize the style. You get used to the people.”

Finally, I said, “So, we don’t know what’s in the mind of this person.”

“No, replied West, “but we would like to catch him so we can charge him.”

We compared the two photos side-by-side on Anderson’s computer screen. West said that the F___ Trump and other graffiti had been done after the Sieg Heil Trump graffiti, because he said you could see where the paint had begun to run and the spray can was running out of paint. He said there was also F___ Trump graffiti on the sidewalk that they had also had to cover over, some in purple and then one that was done in yellow. He said the only one with a swastika was the one published.

Was it a supporter or a detractor?  Several possible explanations.

It would seem that there are several possible explanations. To the reader must fall the test of Occam’s razor, that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

After looking at the images, the first possibility is that the tagger was really pro-Trump, and was in sync with other pro-Trump Nazi taggers such as the one in Philadelphia, and had taken this opportunity to celebrate this victory, and then, to cover his tracks, to disguise true intentions, had added the anti-Trump graffiti.

One student had asked on social media: “Was it a supporter or a detractor?” Another responded, “That’s the beauty of Fascism. It keeps you guessing.”

The second possibility is that the tagger really was anti-Trump and wanted to make Trump look bad by making an elaborate and perhaps seemingly ironic, prominent pro-Trump Nazi salute to Trump, and then followed it up with a bunch of anti-Trump graffiti.

One student re-posted the erroneous and misleading AP story (headlined “Anti-Semitic, Anti-Trump graffiti”) to ‘prove’ that the Nazi graffiti really was done by an anti-Trump tagger, and added the (widely circulated but false news) claim that it was known that anti-Trump supporters were being paid to make Trump look bad.

There was, nevertheless, absolutely no evidence to say for certain what was in the mind of the tagger. However, the visual effect of the local newspaper account, by printing a headline with the words “anti-Trump graffiti,” directly above the photo of the graffiti with the swastika and the words Sieg Heil Trump, suggested that the tagger was somehow an anti-Trump agent provocateur, and the subsequent AP story followed their lead with their headline “Anti-Semitic, Anti-Trump graffiti on UNM campus,” and compounded this and added other errors. This legerdemain created unnecessary anguish, uncertainty and confusion for students.

The Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, now writer and political activist, after hearing that NBC had finally reported that Putin had directed the hacking attacks on the American election, (something everyone in Russia had already figured out), tweeted on December 14, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

In retrospect, since the graffiti markings taken as a whole could have been done by either a pro- or anti-Trump person, one could consider it an unintentional political statement, an albeit unlikely ironic conceptual/performance art piece that shows the ugliness of hate at either extreme.

We stand on the cusp of a very different political reality. Perhaps one of the most important lessons to learn in the aftermath of this election is that careful investigation and critical analysis is crucial. We must avoid Orwellian doublespeak. What we call things, and how we name them really matters – now more than ever.