Day: April 10, 2017

Jews, Muslims “Common Cause” To Oppose European Nationalists: Europe’s Top Rabbi

Jews and Muslims in Europe have a “common cause” in opposing the rise of pro-European parties, Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, has announced.

 Speaking during his annual Passover message, Goldschmidt called on Jews to “show solidarity with Muslims.”

Goldschmidt warned that the rise of ultra-nationalist parties and damage to the European Union caused by Brexit threatened the security of Jewish and Muslim minorities.

“When there is tolerance for other languages, other cultures, religions, traditions, we Jews feel more accepted,” Goldschmidt, who is also chief rabbi of Moscow, said.

“At the moment when an ultra-nationalist wind begins to blow, it makes Jews, as a minority, uncomfortable.”

Goldschmidt said that Europe was heading into a period of fluidity and turbulence, “which raises the question to what extent can you ensure the continuity of the Jewish community in Europe.”

“In general what we see is a reaction to immigration from the Middle East which has brought millions of Muslims to Europe,” he continued.

“Europe is now engaging in anti-immigration measures and [dealing with] the fear of Islamic terrorism.

“We [Jews and Muslims] definitely have a common cause in fighting for religious freedoms.”

Goldschmidt cited calls to close mosques, ban ritual slaughter in the production of halal and kosher meat (which involves cutting the throats of non-stunned animals and letting them painfully bleed to death), outlaw circumcision—practiced by Jews and Muslims—and last month’s European court of justice ruling that employers could ban workers from wearing religious symbols or clothing.

Goldschmidt went on to discuss Muslim terrorism, saying that it could not be countered by “fighting Islam,” saying that there is a “red line” between Islam and “radical Islam.”

“We are the last ones to say it is not a problem. But what we are saying is that you don’t counter and fight Islamic terrorism by fighting Islam.

“But populist parties in France, Holland, Austria, and Germany are trying not to see this red line. It’s imperative for us and millions of Muslims living in Europe to show everyone this red line exists.”

Donald Trump’s victory in last year’s U.S. elections had raised fears that ultra-nationalist parties in Europe might benefit from a “tailwind,” he said.

The anti-Islam, anti-EU, populist Geert Wilders had been defeated in the Dutch elections last month, “but we need to see what happens in France and Germany.”

Goldschmidt added: “With the victory of Trump, we have ultra-nationalist parties feeling invigorated and strengthened, and they hope to have more influence in European politics. So it’s important to retain European common values and European unity.

Goldschmidt also warned against “covert antisemitism” under the banner of the movement to boycott Israel in protest of its 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories.

“It’s not politically correct to be an all-out anti-Semite, but in many instances the state of Israel has replaced the Jew. To some extent, organizations … which are trying to delegitimize the state of Israel is a covert expression of antisemitism.”

Of course, Goldschmidt ignored the fact that the state of Israel—which he fanatically supports—implements all of the policies to which he declared himself allegedly so opposed to in Europe: Israel is meant to be a Jews-only state, and has immigration, marriage, and social laws (including segregation) based on race and religion.

* The festival of Passover, during which Jews claim they commemorate the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, as told in the biblical story of the Exodus, begins at sunset on Monday and lasts for eight days.

The word “pass over” refers specifically to the incident in the book of Exodus, where God helps the Jews escape Egypt by inflicting ten plagues upon the ancient Egyptians.

The tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the Egyptian firstborn.


The Jews were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the angel of death sent by God to kill the firstborn of each house knew to “pass over” the firstborn in these homes, hence the name of the commemoration.





Power, for Vladimir Putin, has always been closely linked to terrorism. Back in 1999, as an unknown and untried prime minister, he first showed Russians his steely character after a series of unexplained bombings demolished four apartment buildings and killed more than 300 people. Putin, in his trademark brand of clipped tough-talk, announced that the those responsible would be “rubbed out, even if they’re in the outhouse,” and launched a renewed war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya. The resulting wave of approval, stoked by fear of terrorism, carried Putin to the presidency months later.

Eighteen years on and Putin has fulfilled his promise by rubbing out many thousands of extremists—with his army in Chechnya and all over the North Caucasus, via Federal Security Service assassins in Turkey and Yemen, and most recently from the air and by the hand of special forces in Syria. What’s more, he has expanded the definition of extremists to include not just Islamist militants but also Ukrainian filmmakers and gay activists who share digitally altered images of Putin in garish makeup on social media. Nonetheless, as the deadly bombing in St. Petersburg’s metro on April 2 showed, neither violence nor repression has put an end to terrorist attacks in Russia.

Post-Attack Playbook

Even as the 14 dead and at least 60 wounded were being stretchered out of the smoke-filled Technology Institute metro station and bomb disposal experts carefully defused an unexploded second device, the usual conspiracy theories began to circulate. Murderous jihadis, of course, were most people’s default assumption. The St. Petersburg news site Fontanka showed closed-circuit TV images of a bearded Muslim in a skull cap leaving the station, naming him as a prime suspect. He “looks like he stepped right out of a poster for…ISIS,” fulminated columnist Denis Korotkov. Ilyas Nikitin was indeed a Muslim from Bashkortostan—but also a law-abiding reserve army captain and Chechnya veteran on the Russian side. Hard-line patriots were quick to blame Ukrainians or supporters of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who brought some 60,000 protesters onto the streets of scores of Russian cities the previous weekend to protest against government sleaze. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, social media was buzzing with unsubstantiated theories that the bombing was a false-flag attack organized by the Russian state as a pretext for a renewed assault on Ukraine.

RELATED: What to know about Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s showdown with Medvedev

The Kremlin’s reaction was also one Russians have seen many times before. Putin appeared on television looking grim and promising a full investigation, as well as swift retribution for the guilty. Members of the Russian Duma railed against enemies inside and outside Russia. Large numbers of police with metal detectors and dogs appeared at stations, shopping malls and movie theaters across the country in a massive show of force to reassure the public. (There was a difference, though, from the response to the recent attacks in Europe—a glaring absence of international solidarity. No Russian flag was projected onto Berlin’s Reichstag, as Britain’s had been after an attack on Parliament in March. Tel Aviv was the only Western city to illuminate a public building in the Russian tricolor.)

Another part of the Kremlin’s post-attack playbook that was depressingly familiar was using the bombing as an excuse for a new round of crackdowns on dissent. Over the 18 years of Putin’s rule, every major terrorist outrage has been followed by a crackdown. In 2004, he scrapped direct elections of governors after Chechen militants massacred schoolchildren in Beslan; in 2010, after suicide attacks on the Moscow metro, he enacted legislation to control the internet; in 2013, when Moscow’s Domodedovo airport was bombed, he expanded the definition of extremism to include dissidents of every stripe, from environmentalists to historians.

04_21_Russia_03Police officers detain an opposition supporter during a rally in Vladivostok, Russia, on March 26. Alexei Navalny’s March 26 anti-corruption protests were the largest anti-government rallies Russia has seen since 2011-2012.YURI MALTSEV/REUTERS

A day after the latest attack, Yury Shvytkin, deputy chair of the Duma’s Defense Committee, proposed a moratorium on public protests. Such a move is necessary for public safety, he said, because terrorists time their attacks to “significant events and significant dates…. We should refrain from holding any planned rallies, especially now.” At the same time, authorities announced a series of “anti-terror rallies” across Russia. (Shvytkin didn’t explain how these would be less of a target for terrorists than opposition marches.) A government source told the Kommersant newspaper that the organizers of the Kremlin-backed anti-terrorist marches would be giving “special attention” to cities that had a large turnout for Navalny’s anti-corruption protests on March 26, the largest anti-government rallies Russia has seen since 2011-2012. Another lawmaker, Vitaly Milonov, is introducing legislation that would criminalize online calls for unsanctioned demonstrations and require all social media users to register their passport data with the police.

“No measures can be called excessive if they protect the lives of Russian citizens,” a senior member of Russia’s National Guard, a 250,000-strong force created by Putin last year for internal security, tells Newsweek . (The source, a former member of the State Duma, was not authorized to speak on the record.) “We are facing the same threat from terror as the rest of the civilized world, yet when we take steps to fight it, we are criticized…. This is pure hypocrisy,” the source says. In March, the National Guard created a dedicated cyber division to monitor social network sites and comb the internet for “extremist content” posted online. And last July, Moscow police chief Anatoly Yakunin told journalists that an 86 percent rise in “online extremism” in the capital had been recorded—and that combating extremism would be the Moscow police’s “highest priority.”

It’s not clear how added vigilance of social networks could have stopped Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, the 22-year-old suicide bomber who attacked the St. Petersburg metro. Russian authorities had not identified him as a security risk, and his page on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, shows no obvious links to radical Islamism. The only violence depicted on his pages were videos about combat sports, such as street fighting and boxing, the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported.

A native of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, Dzhalilov was one of the millions of gastarbeiters (guest workers) who have flooded into Russia from the former Soviet empire in search of work. By 2011, he was granted Russian citizenship and moved to St. Petersburg, where he worked in a sushi bar and as a car mechanic alongside his father, also a naturalized Russian. According to the National Guard source, Dzhalilov dropped off the grid in 2015 and apparently became radicalized, though investigators have not established where. One important clue lies in the bomb he detonated. Packed into an empty fire extinguisher, the device may have used homemade explosives based on ammonium nitrate, an ingredient used in industrial fertilizer. The bomb’s core had nails and coins taped around it. Authorities discovered and defused another bomb hidden in a black men’s bag under a bench in St. Petersburg’s Ploshchad Vosstaniya metro station a few hours after the first. The devices “bear some similarities to devices used in Dagestan over the last five or six years,” says the source.

Connections to ISIS

Islamist rebels continue to fight Russian authorities in both Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan, despite the best efforts of Chechnya’s strongman president, Ramzan Kadyrov. He has won Putin’s support and lavish funding, and Kadyrov has been given a free hand to impose his brand of pro-Kremlin Sharia law by ruthlessly crushing insurgents, using methods that include, according to Human Rights Watch, torture and collective punishment of a suspect’s relatives. Nevertheless, as recently as March 24, six soldiers from the Russian National Guard were killed and three were injured during an overnight raid by authorities on the village of Stanitsa Naurskaya, on the northern edge of Chechnya.

The deeper problem for Russia is that the Islamists of the Caucasus are deeply entwined with the world’s most dangerous dynamo of terrorism, ISIS. Estimates of the numbers of Russian citizens fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq vary from 2,500 to 7,000, but it’s clear Russians are its largest non-Arab group of foreign fighters. Many were even helped by the Russian Federal Security Service to leave Russia and travel to Syria. A special report by Reutersin May 2016 revealed that authorities encouraged dozens of suspected Islamist militants to depart before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. “I was in hiding. I was part of an illegal armed group. I was armed,” Saadu Sharapudinov, one of six rebels identified in the investigation, told Reuters. He had been hiding in forests in the North Caucasus, he said, when FSB officers offered him immunity from prosecution, a new passport under a new name and a one-way plane ticket to Istanbul. Shortly after arriving in Turkey, Sharapudinov crossed into Syria and joined an Islamist group that would later pledge allegiance to the ISIS.

Exporting troublemakers worked in the short term. There were no attacks on the Sochi Olympics, despite it being just a few hours’ drive from Chechnya. And violence fell all over the troubled North Caucasus in the past few years. “The departure of Dagestani radicals in large numbers made the situation in the republic healthier,” Magomed Abdurashidov, of Dagestan’s anti-terrorist Commission of Makhachkala, told Reuters.

But the problem remained of what to do with these jihadis if and when they come home, now trained and battle-hardened by ISIS. Russian security officials frequently cite fighting terrorism as one of the main reasons for Putin’s decision to start bombing the forces in Syria fighting against President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015. “There are thousands of our citizens fighting there,” Nikolai Kovalev, head of the FSB from 1996 to 1998 and now a member of the Duma Security committee, told Newsweek in January. “It’s a matter of national security to make sure that they don’t bring that ideology back to Russia.” Leonid Kalashnikov, chairman of the Duma Committee on the Former Soviet Union, agreed: “We remember how many radicals came to fight in Chechnya from the Middle East. The region is right next to Central Asia. That is our underbelly. We have to be in [Syria] in order to prevent the contagion of terrorism from spreading.”

Putin’s bombing campaign did kill ISIS militants. How many isn’t clear. Ashton Carter, then the U.S. secretary of defense, told NBC in January that Russia had done “virtually zero” against ISIS in Syria. Days after Russian bombers began their campaign in Syria, Wilayat Sinai, a new ISIS affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that had been affiliated with Al-Qaeda, decided to attack a Russian target. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, emir of ISIS in Syria and the group’s official spokesman, released an audio message on October 13 urging Islamic youth everywhere to “ignite jihad against the Russians and the Americans in their crusaders’ war against Muslims.” Wilayat Sinai was ready to answer the call. The group had infiltrated a recruit into Sharm el-Sheikh airport’s team of baggage handlers. In the early morning of October 31, 2015, the airport insider smuggled a soda can packed with explosives into the hold of a Russian charter plane bound for St. Petersburg, just below seats 31A and 30A, window seats occupied by 15-year-old Maria Ivleva and 77-year-old Natalia Bashakova. Twenty-two minutes after the Metrojet Airbus pushed back from its stand, the bomb detonated, killing all 224 on board. The Metrojet bombing remains ISIS’s deadliest attack to date.

04_21_Russia_02Russia’s President Vladimir Putin lays flowers in memory of the St. Petersburg metro explosion victims at Tekhnologichesky Institut station on April 3.MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/TASS/GETTY

Other groups inside Russia also heeded Adnani’s call. In June 2015, Amir Khamzat, one of the most wanted Islamist rebels in the North Caucasus, defected from a group previously linked to Al-Qaeda and pledged loyalty to ISIS. Today, two main Islamist groups vie for control of Russia’s homegrown rebels: the Caucasus Emirate, which is affiliated with the Nusra Front, and the Caucasus Governorate, an ISIS affiliate under the control of Dagestani Rustam Asilderov, also known as Abu Muhammad al-Kadarskii. They are united by a shared hatred of two things, Shiites and Putin’s Russia.

Whether ISIS, via its affiliates in the Caucasus or elsewhere, was behind the St. Petersburg attack remains to be proved. According to Kommersant, the FSB had arrested and questioned a Russian man with ties to ISIS, after he returned home from fighting in Syria, and he warned of an impending attack. The man was “low in the organization’s hierarchy and did not have a complete picture of the situation,” according to Kommersant ’s “trusted security source,” so the FSB was unable to take more concrete action.

Propaganda Demonizes Dissidents

The key question is whether this is a one-off attack or the start of a major campaign against Russian targets. And would a sustained terrorist campaign undermine Putin’s regime or strengthen it?

Putin has proved his ability to withstand terrorism. After the Metrojet bombing—a massive attack that would have sparked a major political crisis for any Western leader—he used his well-honed propaganda machine to whip up more public support for his Syria campaign, in the guise of protecting Russians. Putin has maneuvered himself into a position where any threat to Russia—whether it’s sanctions following his annexation of Crimea or the St. Petersburg bombing—becomes just another argument for why Russia needs a strong leader. What’s more, it makes his critics, such as the thousands of young people who turned up to protest corruption in March, not just dissidents but dangerous traitors, criticizing the president when their country is under threat. State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called on lawmakers to defend Russians against Navalny and his vocal anti-corruption campaigns, referring to him as “the voice of the Western security services.”

At the same time, Russia’s diplomats have used the attacks to move the international conversation away from Ukraine and Moscow’s alleged meddling in Western elections to the shared problem of terrorism. The St. Petersburg bombing illustrated “the importance of stepping up joint efforts to combat this evil,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists.

Putin’s reputation was built on being tough on terrorism. Over the years, says Brian Whitmore, author of Radio Free Europe’s influential blog The Power Vertical, “power has been consolidated, dissent has been suppressed—and terrorism has continued.” And throughout it all, Russians keep looking to the Kremlin for protection.

RED ALERT: Russia Responds to Syria Strike

In his first major military action, President Donald Trump authorized on Thursday the launch of dozens of cruise missiles from two ships in the Mediterranean Sea against an airbase in Syria believed to be the site from which the recent suspected chemical attack on civilians had originated.

While much of the world cheered the punishing strike, staunch Syrian ally Russia was none too pleased, according to the U.K. Daily Express.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia viewed the strike as an “aggression against a sovereign nation” based wholly upon a “made-up pretext.” Russia maintains that Syria did not drop toxic gas-filled bombs on civilians, but rather that regular bombs dropped on civilian areas happened to hit an illicit stockpile of chemicals held by rebels.

The spokesman further stated that the attack had damaged U.S.-Russian relations, which were already “in tatters,” and suggested that the strike had been planned prior to the chemical attack and placed on standby until such an attack could be used as a justification for the strike.

According to U.S. News & World Report, Russia has responded to the strike by cutting off the special hotline set up in 2015 to ensure that no midair incidents occurred between Russian aircraft and those of the U.S.-led coalition, the same hotline used by the U.S. to give the Russians a “heads-up” prior to the strike.

The Russian defense ministry also announced that it will immediately begin bolstering Syria’s air defense systems, most likely as a message that any similar strike against Syria in the future would be met with a violent reaction.

Unsurprisingly, Russia was joined in its denunciation of the strike against Syria by the Middle Eastern nation’s only other major ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to Reuters.

Calling the strike “dangerous and destructive,” Iranian media outlet ISNA quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying, “Iran strongly condemns any such unilateral strikes … Such measures will strengthen terrorists in Syria … and will complicate the situation in Syria and the region.”

It remained to be seen if the remarks from Russia and Iran were understandable face-saving bluster or if they instead signaled a move toward escalation and possible retaliatory action either in the region or here at home.

The Völkisch Art of Josef Gerlach


I have to give all the credit in the world to Galleria d’Arte Thule for discovering this ‘obscure’ artist from the Third Reich era to me. Most of the graphic material here seems to come from old magazines of the period, which makes me think if this kind of material had not survived we would have probably lost all information about artists such as Josef Gerlach. I completely ignore if his paintings still exist today (at least I have not found any evidence of his work being sold at any of these auction websites). From this little collection of artworks I have to point out the enigmatic Frau mit Alpenveilchen (Woman with Alpine Violet) (1940) a haunting image which looks to me like some kind of Aryan ‘Mona Lisa’ of sorts, or one of these unique moments in art in which the subject acquires some sort of transcendence due to the way of its representation. Another feature about Josef Gerlach that catches my attention is his very streamlined style (rather contemporary-looking if you ask me) which could have put him on a pair with the great Wolfgang Willrich.


Josef Gerlach was born in Barmen (Wuppertal) on September 9, 1900. He began his art studies in Barmen with the famous painter and ideologue Ludwig Fahrenkrog. From 1920 to 1926 he studied in the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden with the painter Georg Lührig. In 1925 Gerlach participated in the Neue Gruppe association of Dresden artists who were students of the painter and graphic artist Richard Müller. Gerlach took part in the exhibition collective with Dresdner Kunstgenossenschaft and Dresdner Sezession from July to October 1925 with the artists Johannes Maximilian Avenarius, Ernst Christian W. Berger, Ludwig Göbel, Richard Guhr, Karl Hanusch, Olaf Jordan, Hermann Lange, Georg Lührig, Richard Müller, Erich Ockert, Bruno Seener, Georg Siebert, Max Stecher and Wolfgang Willrich. Its proximity to the völkisch circles was clearly evident in his works of ethnic, folk and peasants which appeared in magazines such as Neues Volk, Volk und Rasse, Velhagen & Klasings and Westermanns Monatshefte.

From 1931 to 1941 he was a teacher of painting techniques and murals. From 1941 to 1945 he became a soldier in the Second World War. After the war, due to his close association with the National Socialist ideology, Gerlach was suspended from teaching. Josef Gerlach died in Stockach (Baden-Württemberg) on December 28, 1992.

Evidence That Assad Did Not Conduct Chemical Attacks


The current march to war in Syria is being justified by claiming that Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons on his people. This video demonstrates evidence that Assad did not have chemical weapons because they were all destroyed in 2014.

Wells Fargo to Claw Back $75 Million From 2 Former Executives

Wells Fargo’s board said on Monday that it would claw back an additional $75 million in compensation from the two executives on whom it pinned most of the blame for the company’s scandal over fraudulent accounts: the bank’s former chief executive, John G. Stumpf, and its former head of community banking, Carrie L. Tolstedt.

The clawbacks — or forced return of pay and stock grants — are the largest in banking history and among the largest in corporate America. A four-person committee of Wells Fargo’s directors investigated the extensive fraud.

Wells Fargo’s board said in a report issued on Monday that Mr. Stumpf had turned a blind eye to the fraudulent accounts being created under his nose and that Ms. Tolstedt, who ran the branch system, had focused obsessively on sales targets and withheld information from her boss and the board.

Wells Fargo’s misdeeds, which came to light in September, have at least temporarily become a more widely recognized symbol of the bank than its signature stagecoach. Bankers across Wells Fargo’s giant branch system were tacitly encouraged to meet their sales goals by committing fraud; opening unwanted or unneeded accounts in customers’ names; and, sometimes, moving money into and out of the sham accounts.

While the amount of money customers lost was relatively small — the company has refunded $3.2 million — the scope of the fraud was huge: 5,300 bankers were fired for creating as many as two million unwanted bank and credit card accounts. In one detail revealed by the report, a branch manager had a teenage daughter with 24 accounts and a husband with 21.


“Stumpf was by nature an optimistic executive who refused to believe that the sales model was seriously impaired. His reaction invariably was that a few bad employees were causing issues, but that the overwhelming majority of employees were behaving properly. He was too late and too slowto call for inspection of or critical challenge to the basic business model.”

Read the full report.

The warning signs were glaring and could be traced back at least to 2004, the investigators said. Ms. Tolstedt, who ran the national network of Wells Fargo branches, set up ruthless sales goals that even she acknowledged were unreachable. Mr. Stumpf, who had a long and trusting relationship with Ms. Tolstedt, left her on her own to run her department, the investigators said in the scathing 113-page report.

Neither Ms. Tolstedt, who was allowed to retire in July but was subsequently fired, nor Mr. Stumpf, who was permitted to retire in October after being castigated during congressional hearings on the scandal, was available on Monday to comment. Mr. Stumpf cooperated with the board’s investigation; Ms. Tolstedt declined to be interviewed.

All told, Mr. Stumpf will surrender $69 million, and Ms. Tolstedt will lose $67 million, including stock options that they forfeited last year. While those figures are bigger than any previous bank clawback, they fall far short of the largest clawback in corporate history. In 2007, William W. McGuire of UnitedHealthGroup was forced to give back $618 million over backdating options.

Ms. Tolstedt’s lawyer, Enu Mainigi of the Washington firm Williams & Connolly, issued a statement challenging the board’s findings.

“We strongly disagree with the report and its attempt to lay blame with Ms. Tolstedt,” Ms. Mainigi said. “A full and fair examination of the facts will produce a different conclusion.”

The board’s report, compiled by the law firm Shearman & Sterling after interviews with 100 current and former employees and a review of 35 million documents, said it was obvious where the problems lay. Structurally, the bank was too decentralized, with department heads like Ms. Tolstedt given the mantra of “run it like you own it” and granted broad authority to shake off questions from superiors, subordinates or lateral colleagues.


For years, Wells Fargo employees secretly set up fake accounts without customers’ consent.

  • $185 Million Fine

    Regulators said the illegal practices, first reported in 2013, reflected serious flaws. The bank fired 5,300 mostly low-level employees.

  • Sales Goals, Broken Rules

    “They warned us about this type of behavior,” said an ex-worker, “but the reality was that people had to meet their goals.”

  • Ex-Workers File Suits

    “These are the people who have been left holding the bag,” said a lawyer for the workers.

  • Alarms Raised in 2005

    “Everybody knew there was fraud going on, and the people trying to flag it were the ones who got in trouble,” said a manager who was fired.

  • ‘Lions Hunting Zebras’

    The bank targeted immigrants who spoke little English and older adults with memory problems, ex-workers said.

  • Scrutiny for U5 Files

    “It’s like being blackballed,” said a lawyer who specializes in Finra arbitration. “It can be a showstopper for a career.”

  • Smothering Customer Lawsuits

    The bank is killing lawsuits by moving them into private arbitration. “It is ridiculous,” said a woman suing over sham accounts.

Many things collectively should have raised suspicion, the report said. Customers were failing to fund, or put money into, their new accounts at alarming rates. Regional managers were imploring their bosses to drop sales goals, saying they were unrealistic and bad for customers.

Particularly in Arizona and Los Angeles, where the toxic culture was most pronounced, some managers explicitly told subordinates to sell people accounts even if they did not need them.

Because of the bank’s decentralized structure, the problem went unnoticed for a long time. When it finally came to light — thanks in part to an investigation by The Los Angeles Times — the bank was slow to take action.

Mr. Stumpf was warned as early as 2012 about “numerous” complaints about the company’s sales tactics — from both customers and employees — but he ignored growing evidence that the problem was pervasive, the board said in its report.

Much of the pressure-cooker climate, the report said, stemmed from Ms. Tolstedt, who led Wells Fargo’s retail branch network for eight years. The report casts her as a powerful and insular leader who set unreasonable targets, castigated those who criticized them and actively ignored signs that some managers and employees were cheating to meet them.

“She resisted and rejected the near unanimous view of senior regional bank leaders that the sales goals were unreasonable and led to negative outcomes and improper behavior,” the report said.

Timothy J. Sloan, who succeeded Mr. Stumpf as chief executive, was largely exonerated by the report, even though he was also a career Wells Fargo executive. As president and chief operating officer, he became Ms. Tolstedt’s immediate supervisor in November 2015. At that point, the report said, he “assessed her performance over several months before deciding that she should not continue to lead the community bank.”

Mr. Stumpf, who retired in October, exercised all of his remaining options and converted them to stock — which he retained — in the months before Wells Fargo announced its $185 million settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Los Angeles city attorney in September. He held 2.5 million shares as of late February, currently valued at $137 million.

Asked about the timing of Mr. Stumpf’s options exercise, Stephen W. Sanger, the board’s chairman and the leader of its investigation, said at a news conference on Monday that it was a routine move that did not raise concern. The $28 million that the board is taking back from Mr. Stumpf — the proceeds of a 2013 equity grant — will be deducted from his retirement plan payouts, Mr. Sanger said.

Nearly all public companies have clawback provisions, but boards are typically loath to invoke them. Wells Fargo’s example may inspire future directors, said Charles M. Elson, a professor of finance at the University of Delaware and an expert on corporate governance.

“I welcome the move,” he said. “I’m a shareholder of Wells Fargo, and I’m glad they did it.”

Mr. Sanger took over as the board’s chairman from Mr. Stumpf. All four members of Wells Fargo’s independent investigation group were on the board before the settlement was announced.

John G. Stumpf, the chief executive of Wells Fargo when the sham accounts scandal was made public, testified before Congress in September. CreditAl Drago/The New York Times

The report depicted the board as hoodwinked by bank executives who withheld important facts. It praised the changes the bank had made recently, which include ending sales goals for its retail bank employees.

Such conclusions are unlikely to quiet the bank’s critics. Better Markets, a nonprofit organization that advocates stricter regulation of Wall Street, called the report a compendium of “too-little, too-late cosmetic actions” and called on shareholders to oust all of Wells Fargo’s board members at the company’s annual meeting on April 25.

Two influential advisory firms have also recommended significant changes to the company’s board.

Mr. Sanger said that the report issued on Monday concluded nearly all of the bank’s investigation and that no further terminations or clawbacks were expected. But other investigations — including criminal inquiries by the Justice Department and several state attorneys general — remain in progress, raising the possibility of criminal charges.

The board’s law firm is still looking into reports that the bank retaliated against former employees who tried to blow the whistle on its wrongdoing. Last week, a federal regulator, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the Labor Department, ordered Wells Fargo to rehire and pay $5.4 million to a former employee who said he was fired after making internal complaints about wrongdoing that he had observed.

The agency has also warned Wells Fargo that it is likely to order the bank to reinstate another worker who said she was fired in 2011 after trying to call her supervisors’ attention to accounts that she said had been fraudulently created.

So far, Shearman & Sterling has found no evidence of retaliation, said Stuart J. Baskin, a partner at the firm.

Carrie L. Tolstedt, center, with Heidi Miller, left, and Barbara Desoer at a 2007 awards ceremony for women in banking. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

“We still have a few loose ends, but we don’t think it’s likely to change any findings,” he said.

Wells Fargo is eager to put its sales scandal behind it, but customers are not quite so willing to move on. The number of consumer checking accounts opened in February dropped 43 percent compared with a year earlier, and credit card applications declined 55 percent.

The financial damage caused to customers by Wells Fargo’s fraudulent acts was relatively minimal, but the issue has loomed large in the public imagination in part because the bank’s transgressions were so blatant — and so simple.

“People getting accounts they didn’t sign up for?” said Stephen Beck, the founder of CG42, a strategy company that studies banks’ brand perception. “I don’t need an M.B.A. in finance to understand that’s wrong. Our expectation is that it is going to take quite a bit of time for Wells to recover. You can’t just advertise ‘Trust me,’ which is what they’ve tried to do so far.”

Mr. Sloan, the bank president, said at a news conference after the report was issued that he had some regrets about how the bank’s leadership — and he in particular — had handled the years of warnings.

“In hindsight, I wish we would have taken more action and would have done things more quickly,” he said. The bank’s sales incentives should have been eliminated sooner, he said.

A Harsh Dose of Electoral Reality: Democrats Have Uphill Battle in ’18 and Need to Elect Governors to Fight Gerrymandered GOP Monopoly

Since President Donald Trump and the GOP-led Congress took office, Democrats are taking to the streets to defend women’s rights, immigrants and Obamacare, and thousands are contacting party officials and progressive groups to explore running for state and federal office in 2018. But do these would-be candidates, fired-up grassroots groups and energized party officials know how steep and difficult their climb back into power will be?

Yes, say the party organizers who assure skeptics they’re paying attention to the electoral nuts and bolts in a way not seen during a Democratic presidency when they lost nearly 1,000 state legislative and House seats.

“There is no question that Republican-led gerrymandering in 2011 has rigged the system against Democrats….What we need to do is level the playing field, unrig that system, so that Democrats can compete and we can translate those campaign tactics into electoral success that actually reflects the will of the voters, which is not happening right now,” Kelly Ward, executive director of the newly formed National Democratic Redistricting Committee said recently on WAMU-FM, a Washington, D.C. public radio station. “That is what the National Democratic Redistricting Committee is trying to lead.”

But the nation’s leading reporter on the darkest and least understood art of tilting elections before votes are cast doesn’t think so.

“They fundamentally don’t understand the structural problems the Democratic Party faces,” replied David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, which describes the GOP plan that created a lock on the House this decade and 31 red-state trifectas, or statehouse and gubernatorial monopolies last November, after losing the presidency and Congress in 2008.

“If the Democrats luck out and they draw the inside straight that it takes to take back the House of Representatives, they will gain an emergency brake on Trump that is valuable,” Daley said. “But it will do nothing, zero, as far as redistricting in 2020, because Congress does not make these lines. State legislatures make these lines. So Democrats are 20, 30, 40 seats behind in some of these states. They’ve made up nothing in the first three cycles [of this decade]. They are not going to make back all of that in two cycles.”

Redistricting? Gerrymandering?

Every decade there is a U.S. Census, after which state legislatures redraw the lines for their states’ legislative districts and U.S. House districts to account for population shifts. That process, redistricting, doesn’t have to be inherently partisan, but it almost always is. And the results last for a decade.

Think of 2016’s presidential election results. In Pennsylvania, Trump won by 44,000 or so votes. In Wisconsin, it was 23,000 or so votes. In Michigan, 11,000 or so. But in all of these states, the GOP won two-thirds of their state legislature’s Senate and House districts, and won two-thirds or more of the U.S. House seats. How is that possible, when their statewide votes are roughly 50-50, differing by less than 1 percent, while in these other races the Republicans are winning serious majorities?

The answer lies in partisan redistricting. It’s not the elephant in the political living room, in the way Republicans facetiously talk about voter fraud while they’re passing racist laws to discourage non-white voter turnout. Partisan redistricting, known as gerrymandering, is the living room. The question, again, is do would-be Democratic candidates for state and congressional really understand that lay of the electoral landscape after the GOP drew its maps after the 2010 Census?

Daley’s book describes the stakes and what happened. In short, Republicans drew maps that packed their voters who regularly turned out for elections into new districts—at the same time that they filled those same districts with unreliable Democratic voters. There are a few other variations on this theme. Republicans would cite the 1965 Voting Rights Act and create districts where they knew a black or Latino would win a House seat by 70 percent or more, but in doing so they’d bleed Democrats from bordering House districts and ensure that more House seats would stay in GOP hands with smaller winning majorities.

“The Democrats fell asleep at the switch,” Daley said. “They did not pay attention to it. They did not pay attention to it even after Karl Rove laid out the playbook in the Wall Street Journal. They didn’t have the strategic imagination to come up with a plan or even the tactical ability to play defense once Karl Rove spelled it out on the op-ed page of the country’s largest newspaper. That’s bad. And they have paid the consequences for that this entire decade.”

Engineering the GOP Comeback

Today, Democrats are looking at the 2018 elections and 2020 in much the same way the GOP looked at 2010 and our current decade. Daley’s book describes what they did to create the “structural problem” that as of last November, resulted in Republicans winning the Congress, gaining complete control of 32 state legislatures and 33 governor’s mansions. He describes how a small GOP team executed a two-part plan before and after the 2010 election that gave us today’s Republican House and red-state monopolies.

This team realized that if it won 100 state legislative races in key states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2010, as well as a few governors’ races, nothing could stop the GOP from engineering a national comeback via redistricting. The Republicans’ two-stage plan worked.

First they ran some of the most vicious ads ever seen in state elections, often non-stop radio, TV or mailers landing 10 days before the 2010s election, when it was too late to respond via media buys. They won enough key races in key states to position themselves to control the redistricting process.

The results were seen immediately after 2012’s Election Day. President Obama was re-elected with a 3.5 million popular vote majority, showing that when there are no boundaries inside states based on voter preferences, Democrats have a winning majority. But when it came to the U.S. House, even as Democrats had 1.4 million more votes nationwide, the GOP ended up with 33 more seats. Democrats who won often had higher percentages than Republican victors, but the GOP took more seats.

The new maps packed or splintered—re-segregated Democratic voters, essentially erasing competitive state and U.S. House races. The result is what Democrats looking to 2018 face: Republicans have a built-in lead in the predictable voter turnout, barring a landslide.

How big a built-in head start do they have?

“It takes 55 to 56 percent of the popular vote [turnout of Democrats in gerrymandered districts] to have a 50-50 chance at a majority,” Daley says. Other number-crunching analysts say that figure is closer to 10 percent, after adding in other GOP-designed voter deterrents like tougher ID laws targeting minorities, students and poor people.

“The mapmakers know the voters who turn out,” Daley said. “These districts are drawn by people with all that information preloaded into their software. They draw these lines knowing who turns out and knowing what kind of elections they turn out for.”

The Republicans didn’t just seal a House majority for this decade; they also sealed state majorities. That’s what enabled all the state-level rollbacks in recent years against voting rights, union collective bargaining, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, etc.

What Can Democrats Do?

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s Ward said that what Democrats need to do in 2018 and 2020 is roughly what the GOP did after Obama’s 2008 election and the 2010 U.S. Census (which triggers the once-a-decade redistricting). First they need to win seats at the map-drawing table, and then they need the power to approve fairer maps—or veto power to block bad ones.

“We are approaching it from a holistic viewpoint,” she told WAMU. “The very first thing we need to do is elect Democrats into those positions that will most impact redistricting. You asked earlier, what are some of the most egregious states? When you look at Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, those elections that are happening this cycle affect redistricting in 2021. So for example, the governors who are elected in 2018 are the governors who will sign maps. There are 36 states around the country where the redistricting process is the map written by the legislatures and signed by the governors.”

Ward went on to say that other state-level elections in 2018 also would affect who draws the maps, or who votes on them when they’re done in late 2020 or early 2021.

“I mention the 38 governors’ races around the country that are up,” she said. “You also have 322 state senate seats around the country that are elected as four-year terms this cycle, meaning those state senators will be the people who draw maps and vote on maps in 2021. So we really need to start now by electing the Democrats. But for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, we are looking at what’s the game in 2021.”

By the “game,” Ward is referring to a deeper level in this fight that’s the subject of multiple redistricting federal lawsuits across the country, including some before the Supreme Court. She means what states can and can’t do when they return to the drafting process after the 2020 Census. How far can a red state go in packing Democrats into fewer, more concentrated districts, or cracking them apart as minorities in GOP-winning districts?

“For 2021, because the system is so rigged, not only do we need to elect those Democrats in key positions, but we also need to look at the unconstitutionality of the maps as they stand and make sure that we have an aggressive legal effort,” Ward said. “We need to make sure that we’re looking at opportunities to change the rules, like ballot initiatives and other ways….We are really tackling this from a holistic perspective that prepares for 2021.”

Is Holistic Smart?

Author Daley, who is now a senior fellow with the election reform group FairVote, said the Democrats need to be as surgically precise as the Republicans if their redistricting comeback is to succeed. He doesn’t see quick fixes on the horizon even with the grassroots fervor to defy Trump and defeat the Republicans in 2018.

“The system is knotted up in so many different ways that it will years and multiple strategies to undo,” he said. “And if the Democrats do not approach this with an electoral strategy, with a reform strategy, and with a litigation strategy, they have no chance of leveling the playing field. They need to do all of those things. My concern is they are doing all of those things in the wrong order.”

What matters most is winning the handful of governors’ races in 2018, Daley said, because it’s very unlikely that Democrats will win back legislative majorities in formerly blue and purple states where the GOP completely gerrymandered the districts. While it is laudable that the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has recruited more state legislative candidates in Virginia than in recent years, as it announced last week, Daley argued that it’s an example of the party not looking at what matters most.

“They are getting ahead of themselves on the electoral side and focusing on the wrong races,” he said. “There’s one race that matters in Virginia; it’s the governor’s race. Their statehouse is almost a two-to-one Republican majority. The Democrats are not going to take back the statehouse in Virginia this year. I am sorry to be the dose of realism on this.”

As you might expect, Democrats working on state races don’t agree with that analysis.

“Strong candidates in a favorable electoral environment can overcome structural disadvantages, as we saw last decade,” Carolyn Fiddler, national communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, replied via email. “Republicans controlled most of redistricting after the 2001 elections, too, but during the last midterm election during a Republican presidency, Democrats picked up majorities in 10 legislative chambers (and won a U.S. House majority for the first time that decade).”

Fiddler is being upbeat; the election cycle she’s referring to is 2006 under President George W. Bush.

“Additionally, the special elections already held this year demonstrate a clear trend of Democratic energy translating into electoral over-performance,” she continued. “We definitely expect to cut significantly into the GOP majority in the Virginia House this fall (as well as maintain our strong majorities in New Jersey and flip the Washington state senate by way of a special election there in November).”

While it is true that the Republican advantage baked into redistricting is so big its majorities in key states can override gubernatorial vetoes (Ohio) or are a few seats short of being able to do that (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin), the DLCC’s Fiddler is suggesting that Democrats can pick up seats in some of those states this cycle, not winning majorities, but chipping away at the GOP march to super-majorities.

Recovery From Rock Bottom

The 2018 elections are 18 months away. Democrats might be more passionate now than they have been at this point in past federal election cycles. But they are at a historical nadir. The party of the president in power has typically lost 450 state legislative seats in the 75 years since World War II ended. Under Obama, the loss has been more than double that.

The reason is partisan redistricting in 2010, which the GOP focused on like a laser and the Democratic Party’s national leaders ignored. The GOP identified and segregated reliable voters from both parties, and padded districts with enough infrequent Democratic voters to win legislative and House races again and again.

“The numbers have not budged over the course of this decade,” Daley said, first citing state legislative figures. “The Ohio House is 66-33 Republican. Pennsylvania’s is 121-82 Republican. Michigan’s is 63-47. But what’s really interesting to note is that it hasn’t budged in those states in 2012, 2014, 2016—it’s pretty much the exact same place. They have taken all of the swing districts out of these states and Democrats have not been able to make even the slightest incremental gains in the most important states over this decade. To which I would add North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin and Florida.”

Daley continued, citing the impact of redistricting on these states’ U.S. House of Representative’s delegations.

“When you add them all up, it’s 13-5 [Republican vs. Democratic congressman] in Pennsylvania. It’s 12-4 in Ohio It’s 9-5 in Michigan. It’s 7-4 in Virginia, it’s 10-3 in North Carolina and it’s 16-11 in Florida. Republicans have about 60 to 62 percent of the seats in the swing states that usually go Democratic. You can’t take back the House of Representatives unless you gain some seats in those states.”

Daley isn’t suggesting Democrats shouldn’t try to win back a U.S. House majority in 2018. He’s explaining why it will be much harder than many progressive groups and party activists anticipate.

“You can try to flip those 24 seats in the House in 2018. Sure, why not try?” he said. “This is not an argument against trying. I don’t know where you are going to find them [comeback districts]. If you can’t find them in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia, I don’t know where you will find them.”

Other Democrats reply by saying that Hillary Clinton won 23 House districts currently where Republicans also won. That means Democrats must retake all of those, plus one more district elsewhere. Those are long odds and underscore how important and little-understood redistricting is. It’s so powerful that some Republicans are now responding to the Democrats’ rediscovery of the issue by downplaying its importance, essentially playing dumb, which is what their testimony has been in recent federal lawsuits, according to extensive accounts in Daley’s book.

Democrats might be upbeat about their chances to start a comeback in 2018, but Daley says they need to maintain a longer-term focus, so they are not in the political wilderness for another decade.

“Given the reality of how far behind they are in states, the only way for them to have a seat at the table in 2020 in a lot of these states is win the governor’s race in 2018 and get a veto power over bad maps,” he said. “The most important races for Democrats in 2018 are the governors’ races in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, and the most important race this year is the governor’s race in Virginia. If Democrats do not win those races, redistricting in 2020 is done on Election Day in 2018. It’s over.”


Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

Donald and Vlad Are Still a Deadly Combo: Either as Partners or Rivals, They’re Waging a War Against Civilization

As the subplots and sub-subplots cascade endlessly around the question of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and the Donald Trump campaign’s possible collusion, it would do us all good to take a few steps back and reflect more deeply on the big picture. Whether or not there was any covert collusion, there was plenty of open hanky-panky, and far too little awareness on where that might lead. Beyond any concerns that these two authoritarian leaders have been working in concert lies the question of why they might have wanted to.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin both believe in democracy of a sort — they believe themselves very popular, and therefore empowered to do whatever they see fit. What they subscribe to is often called “illiberal democracy,” but “anti-liberal democracy” would be closer to the mark, maybe with a second set of quote marks around “democracy.” Liberal democracy operates within a normative framework of rights.  Illiberal democracy ignores that framework, while anti-liberal democracy avidly attacks it. Putin attacks it as an outsider, seeing it as a Western imposition. Trump attacks it as a different kind of outsider — a privileged rich kid who has lived his whole life outside its rules, palling around with a variety of outlaws, and enablers like his mentor Roy Cohn, lawyer for Joe McCarthy and the New York mob.

Modern democracy is a child of the Enlightenment, but Trump and Putin’s opposition goes much deeper than simply being a counter-Enlightenment position. The term “counter-Enlightenment,” first popularized by Isaiah Berlin in the 1970s, has mutated considerably since then. While critiques of the Enlightenment have by now been mounted from almost everywhere along the political spectrum, most of these are not attacks on reason per se, but on how critics see the Enlightenment as having conceived of reason and deployed it.

Trump and Putin, however, can be seen as countering something much earlier and more basic: their shared vision of anti-liberal democracy isn’t just opposition to the 18th century. It’s more like opposition to the 8th century — before Christ. What is sometimes called the Axial Age, roughly from 800 to 200 BCE, is when most major world religions and philosophies first emerged. It was the age of Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, the Upanishads, the Hebrew prophets, Greek natural science and philosophy and so on. Jesus and Muhammad both came after this period, but built on foundations laid at this time. The term was coined by Karl Jaspers, who wrote:

If there is an axis in history, we must find it empirically in profane history, as a set of circumstances significant for all men, including Christians. It must carry conviction for Westerners, Asiatics, and all men, without the support of any particular content of faith, and thus provide all men with a common historical frame of reference.

The spiritual process which took place between 800 and 200 B.C.E. seems to constitute such an axis. It was then that the man with whom we live today came into being. Let us designate this period as the “axial age.”

In short, this is when the world as we know it — and have known it for millennia — was created. The first large, semi-stable civilizations were established, and in that new social world new ways of thinking aroused and spread. (More on the reasons behind this below.) Part of what they had in common was a shift from unquestioned — even unquestionable — ethnocentrism and authoritarianism to universalism and inquiry as foundational principles. The religious traditions that emerged brought together people of different ethnicities and even different races, and birthed monastic and scholastic traditions sprang that have profoundly transformed our world.

Of course ethnocentrism and authoritarianism have never gone away, but they have significantly retreated as primary societal organizing principles, and they’ve never regained their unquestioned status. This is one reason why Nazi Germany stands out as a rare example when the clock was turned so far back. It’s also how the current rise of ethno-nationalist anti-liberal democracy should be understood as well.  Far from defending Christianity from Islam — as Trump and Putin might both suggest — it is a fundamental attack on the universalism that Christianity and Islam hold in common, along with Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism and so forth. It’s not a war of civilizations but a war on civilization, in the name of a more primitive, tribal mode that can justly be called barbarism.

There’s no real way back to a pre-Axial Age, but tremendous destruction can be sown in the effort to get there. This can be seen in Trump’s White House and his contempt for process, described by Greg Sargent in a recent Washington Post post, exploring the president’s “contempt for facts and reality-based policy.” Indeed, Trump’s contempt encompasses everything all the way back to the pre-Socratics, the Axial Age source of the Western scientific tradition.

Sargent pointed to a New York Times report that scores of science and technology officials have departed, and that consequential decisions, including the reversal of Barack Obama’s climate change policies and “proposals to sharply reduce spending for research on climate change, science and health,” have been made without input from those who remain.

But for now, it is hard to avoid viewing all of this in its larger context. As I’ve argued, the Trump White House has been infected from the outset with a kind of deep rot of bad faith — a contempt for legitimate process, fact-based debate and reality-based governing — that has bordered on all-corrosive. This low regard for science may well prove to be another data point illustrating this pattern.

The reason for calling this pre-Axial behavior is straightforward: Science and scientific thinking are products of the Axial Age, along with a whole complex of related critical thinking practices that inform how humanity has flourished since then.

Twitter thread by historian Seth Cotlar commenting on Sargent’s post brought this deeper significance into focus: “There are many ways to ‘message’ resistance to Trump. This WaPo summary points to one particularly effective strategy — focus on PROCESS,” he began, with a screenshot including the above. “There always will be (and should be) disagreement on policy CONTENT. The resistance will never find total consensus on policy content,” he continued. “But the place where progressives, liberals, moderates, & conservatives should be able to find common ground is around PROCEDURES.”

This highlights the broad-based way people across the political spectrum draw on a shared framework of practices, values, and institutional structures that can be traced back to the Axial Age. One thing that binds all these practices together is the glue of social trust. To make sound decisions, we need sound information, sound ways of gathering and analyzing it, and sound ways of reasoning about it. We are all fallible as individuals, but can become less so if we work wisely together, ensuring the soundness of what we do throughout the whole process.

As I noted here in 2014, philosopher Brian L. Keeley has described how conspiracy theories “throw into doubt the various institutions that have been set up to generate reliable data and evidence. In doing so, they reveal just how large a role trust in both institutions and individuals plays in the justification of our beliefs. . . . In modern science, this procedure involves the elaborate mechanisms of publication, peer review, professional reputation, university accreditation and so on. Thus, we are warranted in believing the claims of science because these claims are the result of a social mechanism of warranted belief production.”

That seeds of that social trust did not come from science itself, though it has long flourished there. The trust had to exist first, in however fragile a fashion, in order for science to gain a foothold. But once it did, it became powerfully self-reinforcing.

The expansive framework of social trust embodied in science is but one of multiple strands we can trace back to origins in the Axial Age. Trump’s obsessive embrace of conspiracy theory reflects just one facet of his wide-ranging hostility to the fundamental essence of the Axial Age — to its values and institutions, to everything about it, really, except for the material goodies it has produced in such abundance.

It has also been argued that we’re in the midst of a Second Axial Age, responding to changes that have reshaped our world in the modern era. Theologian Karen Armstrong explains:

All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society. They are finding that the old forms of faith no longer work for them; they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious. Like the reformers and prophets of the first Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves.

Earlier, in “The Battle for God,” Armstrong explored fundamentalism as a modern, backward-looking reaction to these new conditions. In the political sphere, Trump and Putin represent a similar impulse as well, restoring a lost order that never actually existed. Trump’s anti-science conspiracy thinking is one of the most striking examples of what this entails. This viewpoint also helps explain how two such unlikely figures from the 1980s and ’90s — the KGB spy and the New York playboy — have emerged as supposed champions of “traditional religion.”

The reactionary longing to go back to an earlier time is a recurrent theme throughout history. At the dawn of the Axial Age, Hesiod’s “Works and Days“ looked back to a series of past eras — from the “golden age” when humans lived among the gods through the silver, bronze and heroic ages — each less exalted than the age before, down to the iron age when, Hesiod wrote, “men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.”

If, as Armstrong and others have argued, we’re on the cusp of a Second Axial Age, then it should not be surprising to see reactionary fantasies emerge that call for an unimaginable  leap backward. When what has worked for generations begins to fall apart, it’s far easier to conjure up fantasies of an imaginary perfect past than to do the hard work of grappling with the emerging shape of things to come. So at first reactionaries will have a huge advantage: It’s an easy sell. No fuss, no muss, no need to confront the difficulty of reimagining what it means to be human — which is precisely what the leading figures of the Axial Age and their followers did.

Along with his unseen tax returns, one of the central mysteries of the Trump campaign was the question of when, exactly, America had been so great. What era did his famous campaign slogan mean to conjure up? Of course there was no such time in reality — but there was no such time in Trump’s memory or imagination either. He can now pretend that he’s talking about the Reagan presidency, which Republicans now venerate as a golden age. But Reagan himself was elected on this kind of backward-looking nostalgia, and Trump said the same things he said in the 2016 campaign when Reagan was in office  too.

What Trump has really longed for all along is a return to the pre-Axial world. To better appreciate what that means, I need to make good on my promise to say more about why the Axial Age emerged in the first place. In his 2015 book “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth,” evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin traced the emergence of Axial Age civilizations to the impact of Eurasian steppe dwellers developing a new military technology centered around horse-riding. Earlier, smaller and less stable agricultural civilizations were easily invaded and toppled, at least until a new defensive strategy emerged, which required a larger population base in order to field infantry forces large enough to keep the steppe dwellers’ cavalry at bay. As Turchin summed up:

In the perilous new competitive environment created by the military revolution of the Axial Age, states could not afford to crush their own populations in the manner of Hawaiian chiefs or archaic god-kings. The state’s survival now depended on being able to produce large armies of armed commoners. If you want your soldiers to fight bravely, you cannot oppress them. And if you have been oppressing your own people, it’s foolish to give them weapons. In short, the despotic states couldn’t survive in the new military environment.

In short, the only way such large civilizations could be kept together was to become significantly more cooperative and egalitarian than their smaller predecessors had been. Hence there was fertile ground for the universalist and compassionate ideologies of the great Axial Age figures to take hold. There might still be kings and emperors, but they no longer claimed to be gods themselves, only to represent or be aligned with them. Human sacrifice began to disappear.

The power that rulers and the elites around them held from the Axial Age onward was more dependent on vast cooperative networks than anything their earlier counterparts could have imagined. As creatures themselves of that same world, they too were invisibly constrained by shared norms and a shared worldview that made the extreme inequality and brutality of the pre-Axial world unthinkable.

Until now. No, I don’t think Donald Trump conceives of himself as a god-king. But he does have a record of never having admitted to doing or being wrong.  He couldn’t even pretend, for appearance’s sake, to be a good Christian in this regard. And no, I don’t think Trump wants to reintroduce human sacrifice or slavery. But there’s his long, murky, record of predatory sexual behavior, publicly lusting over young teenagers, and his modeling agency that has been accused of practices treating young women as property. He encouraged his followers to “knock the crap” out of protesters who would ultimately be forced to “bow down to him,” as Omarosa so charmingly put it.  Add to this Trump’s desire to recast America’s diverse immigrant character — “E pluribus unum” — into one homogeneous mass and his profound hostility to Axial Age science, and suddenly it’s not a stretch at all to argue that what Trump really wants is a return to the barbarism and tyranny of the pre-Axial Age world, while hanging onto the consumer goods and luxuries produced by our civilization.

That’s an utterly combination, of course. As is virtually everything Trump proposes, once you figure out what he actually means. Which is why it’s high time we all realized just how far back the “good old days” go for Donald Trump. It’s not just time to reject his ridiculous feel-good fantasy. It’s time to move forward instead, no matter how challenging and difficult it may be. Karen Armstrong is right: Humanity needs to “build upon the insights of the past” in order to build the future.


Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

New Justice Neil Gorsuch (White Freemason) to Have Immediate Impact on Supreme Court


The U.S. Supreme Court term is nearly over, but the influence of the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, is likely to have an immediate effect on one of the most important cases yet to be heard and on helping select cases the court will take up next.

History will be made Monday when Justice Anthony Kennedy administers the judicial oath to Gorsuch at a White House ceremony. Never before has a sitting justice sworn in a former clerk to become a colleague on the high court bench. Chief Justice John Roberts will privately administer the separate constitutional oath earlier in the day.

The court hears the final 13 cases of the term during the last two weeks in April, when it will be back at full strength for the first time since Antonin Scalia died 14 months ago. Gorsuch will not be able to vote on cases that were argued before he arrived at the court, but he may have a decisive role to play in an important freedom of religion case to be heard April 19.

At stake are laws in well over half the states that prohibit spending tax dollars to support churches. The states say the restrictions are necessary to keep the government from meddling in religious affairs. But to the challengers, they’re nothing more than a form of discrimination.

Related: Neil Gorsuch Confirmed to Supreme Court After Senate Uses ‘Nuclear Option’

The case involves a lawsuit brought by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri. It applied for money from a state program that provides grants to non-profits seeking to cover gravel playgrounds with a rubber surface made from recycled tires. The church wanted to improve the playground at its pre-school and daycare center.

But the state rejected the application, citing a provision in the Missouri constitution that says “no money shall ever be taken from the treasury, directly or indirectly, in any of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”

As a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Gorsuch supported a private company and an order of Catholic nuns who argued in two separate cases they should not have to provide contraceptive insurance coverage for their employees — despite Obamacare’s requirements — because doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

Religious freedom is also at the heart of a pending case the court has not yet agreed to hear, testing whether businesses can refuse, on religious grounds, to provide services for same-sex weddings.

Over the past few months, the justices have repeatedly listed the case for discussion at their private conferences where they decide which cases to hear. Gorsuch could provide the fourth vote needed to grant review.

Related: LGBT Job Discrimination Is Prohibited by Civil Rights Law, Federal Appeals Court Rules

That case will likely be among those discussed when Gorsuch meets with the rest of the court in a closed-door conference Friday — his first official act as a justice.

Another case awaiting action asks the court to decide whether the Second Amendment provides the right to carry a gun outside the home.

After issuing its landmark ruling in 2008 that the Second Amendment provides a right to keep a handgun at home for self-defense, the Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to step back into the issue. The justices have denied review of dozens of cases intended to test the reach of gun laws outside the home.

Though Justice Gorsuch cannot vote on cases already argued but not yet decided, he could still end up playing a role. If the court is tied 4-4 on any of those cases, the justices could order them to be re-argued, which would allow him to participate and eliminate the possibility of another deadlock.

The Senate voted 54-45 Friday to confirm his nomination. The entire process, from President Trump’s announcement to the final vote, took 66 days. That’s two days faster than the average for the eight other current justices.

At age 49, Gorsuch will be the youngest justice on the court by more than a decade. The average age of his colleagues is just shy of 70. At 84, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the oldest justice on the court.