Yes, Save The Paseo, you are a bunch of racists.

Yesterday, voters in Kansas City, Missouri voted to re-name Martin Luther King Boulevard back to its former name, The Paseo. The new name was in effect for just 9 months before the vote to restore the name happened.

The whole thing’s been a bit of a mess. The Paseo is a historic street with significant historical value, so a change to its name is meaningful to a variety of stakeholders. It also cuts through the majority-black parts of the city. Kansas City is also one of the only major cities not to honor King in some way. The irregularities in the process–including the City Commission’s refusal to enforce a (seldom enforced) rule requiring approval of 75% of residents for a name change–perhaps covered over the amount of opposition. Throughout the re-naming (and now repealing the name) process, there was a call to  honor King in some other way, but the authenticity of that push is hard to believe given that the city had done nothing to honor him before The Paseo’s name was threatened. Those active in the Save The Paseo effort resented being accused of racism because they wanted to restore the thoroughfare’s previous name.

I felt ambivalent about it, until Monday.

On Monday, members of Save The Paseo entered Paseo Baptist Church and disrupted a rally in support of maintaining King’s name on the street signs. They lined the aisles and stood in silence, refusing to sit down and thus interrupting people’s ability to see the speakers or performers. Children who had practiced dances and songs left, fearful because of the tension.

Save The Paseo leader Tim Smith said that the point was to force the black pastors and other Christians who had seen racism in the Save The Paseo to “say it to our faces.”

Smith’s point is that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was cowardly–willing to call Smith and others racists in public venues but not directly to them.

But it’s those who interrupted the rally in a black church that are cowards.

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Above, every single white person who protested in a black church acted on white privilege created by a history of violence against black Christians. No black pastor needed to call them racist–they showed themselves to be.

Please understand–I think there are times when interrupting a church service with protest is valid. A fight over a street name isn’t one of them.

What’s never valid is white people entering a black church with hostility.

Ever.

Save The Paseo includes black participants. I am not speaking to or about them. I can’t explain why they would do what they did.

But white people–I know a lot about them.

They’ve bombed churches. They’ve burnt them down. They shot them up. They’ve opened fire and massacred old women who had only offered them prayers. White people in black churches has often been a dangerous experience for African Americans.

When you are white, you come to a black church only when you are welcomed. You come only with humility and good intentions. You are not entitled to take a sanctuary for African Americans and turn it into your theatrical stage.

White protests in black churches “work” because they reference the damage that white people could do to people of color. They are the abusive father who doesn’t need to hit his children any more because just the sound of his raised voice reminds them of what they could face if they don’t comply with his demands.

They are inherently violent, whether they are silent or not. They cannot be otherwise in this country.

Rebecca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Losing My Religion

Losing something can provide us with a broad range of emotions. Losing your fear of riding roller coasters can feel extremely joyful. Losing your wallet or keys can be infuriating. Losing a loved one can be deeply painful, and also perhaps with some relief if that person is now released from the pain and suffering of a lengthy illness. Losing sleep makes you tired. Losing directions makes you lost. 

Losing your religion… well that’s an entirely other thing. 

It dawned on me as an epiphany the other day. As I was walking through our campus I bumped into some street preachers and decided to talk to them. Since that moment I have been processing that indeed, I have lost my religion… at least I’ve lost a very specific kind of religion. 

To explain this story I have to go back to my high school self. You see, even though I grew up at a wonderful little Mennonite church in southern Ontario that taught me incredible values like the importance of belonging to a community, of working for peace, and of serving those in need, I also found some branches of a much more conservative theology during high school because of the way I experienced the world, and some interaction I had with friends from faith outside my own. I found a large youth group during high school where I felt like I belonged, but it was also a space that nudged me toward a faith that included some things that at the time I felt very excited by, including evangelizing in public spaces, young earth creationism, and a stronger emphasis on memorizing scripture. Even though I have no clear sense of who taught me this, I also picked up beliefs that marriage was only between one man and one woman, and that salvation and entry into heaven only belonged to those of us who fit a narrow definition of what it meant to be born again. 

But something shifted for me as I went off to college, moved away from home, had my worldview expanded dramatically, and gained a deeper understanding of who I was and was being called to be. During college at Eastern Mennonite University I found professors who re-introduced me to a biblical narrative that called for freedom from oppression, advocacy for the marginalized, righteous anger toward injustice, and a deeper kind of love for humanity. Slowly, and sometimes without fully realizing it, I became more convinced that religion was hurting itself with its exclusionary and isolating practices. I met friends and peers who shared stories about how the kind of exclusive Christian faith of my teenage years had been damaging enough to entirely push them away from church and eventually from a belief or relationship with God. Two study abroad trips – first to South Africa, then to Israel/Palestine – changed my understanding of how religion can be manipulated to make people feel like outsiders or worse. 

My choice to go to seminary in southern California was another pivotal moment that expanded my worldview and understanding of the spectrum and complexity of Christian faith. One of my very first classes was Intro to Christian Ethics with Dr. Glen Stassen. In the class we worked our way through ethical dilemmas facing the church and culture, and it was eye opening to see the many different ways my classmates disagreed with each other – sometimes to the point of storming out of class in anger. Those moments showed me just how vast a claim of Christian faith can be – even within the American context. 

It shouldn’t be surprising to me, eight years after graduating from seminary, with two different pastoral callings and all the angry discourse about the mixing of politics with American religion that I feel that I’ve lost something along the way. 

Those street preachers on our campus were shouting at the top of their lungs, three of them taking turns, literally pounding their Bibles with aggressive pointer fingers, demanding that the students who moved past them turned from their evil ways and turn to God. I walked up to one of them and was offered a religious pamphlet. After turning it down, I casually asked them if this approach to the Christian faith was working for them. I wondered if students were being drawn to God because of their angry shouting. While one of them continued his loud call to God, a second replied that Jesus probably shouted his sermon on the mount. I pointed out that; A) Jesus was preaching to people who wanted to hear his voice rather than people walking to class, and that B) He probably needed to shout given that it was in an era without modern sound amplification technology. Street Preacher #2 suggested that if students turned away from the Gospel message after hearing their shouting, they were making their own decision in rejecting God and embracing a future in Hell. 

Still, I was concerned about the way the message was being delivered, so I pushed on. I was curious if shouting was the best way to communicate with this generation of students. 

“Well, Jesus shouted at the Pharisees.”

I revealed at this point that I was a theologically trained campus pastor who did not believe that current college students were the same thing as Pharisees, and that I found their shouting to be incredibly problematic for those of us who work in faith spaces on campus. I told them that many of the students I work with are deeply bitter toward street preaching an aggressive faith, often seeing this posture as lacking love, empathy, and grace. It was at this point that the third came over, offering a second voice to validate their posture. He insisted that I needed to go home and read my Bible, and that I was the one in need of being born again. 

Sensing this was a losing battle, I again told them that I thought what they were doing was damaging the spread of God’s love on our campus, and that their angry street preaching was actually pushing people away from a spiritual relationship with God rather than inviting them toward one. I explained that our campus has 40 Christian organizations, who all dwell and walk with students, and though we struggle to agree theologically, at least we agree that shouting is not the way to connect with students. I got on my bicycle to ride away, as they shouted that they would be praying for my soul, and urging me to find Jesus. 

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Each pedal stroke away from there brought up a different kind of memory: of the struggle I had as a high school student to make sense of why a loving God would affirm aggressive tactics to spread a Gospel of peace; of the recent conversations with college students who experienced Christians who rejected them because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or understanding of God; about the ongoing insistence of so many Christians to prioritize righteousness over grace, humility, or kindness. 

Earlier this year I started a podcast with a friend in which we review an album from Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Recently we tackled U2’s The Joshua Tree, an album which contains the powerful ballad, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I’ve known and loved that song for most of my life. While I’m no longer in Bono’s headspace of endless searching, I do spend my days walking with students who are doing just that. I’ve never been uncomfortable being around people who are asking the big questions of their faith, and I believe in a God who is big enough to allow for questioning, doubt, and searching to be an active part of any healthy faith. 

I know that I still struggle with many aspects of what it means to authentically follow Jesus, and as far as I can see, that’s okay. I don’t need to turn toward any aggressive religious sales pitch to provide me with answers, because I believe that we are all walking a life-long journey of learning. I’m also deeply grateful I no longer strive for an aggressive faith that insists on always being aggressively right. I used to feel adamantly certain that faith was less about relationships and more about determining who is in and who is out, and I’m grateful that I have lost that kind of religion. It is a loss that I am better for, and my hope is that my conversation with those street preachers may introduce some thoughts that will allow them to feel just a bit of the freedom I found when I lost my religion.

Mental Health and Generosity

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

This is my sixth school year at Penn State​, and already the second time that a graduating class has chosen Penn State Counseling & Psychological Services​ as their class gift. 

I feel a mixture of emotions upon hearing this announcement. The first thought is one of deep appreciation for a shifting cultural value among young adults that places more importance on mental health care than generations that may have come before them. It is encouraging to me that the class of 2020 imagined a class gift that was different than so many past gifts which have so often been about beautifying a campus space rather than addressing a practical need within the student experience. 

The next thought is a sense of sadness. Incorporated in this is the reality that mental health issues seem to continually be on the rise, especially among young adults. 

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More awareness of mental health needs, as well as a decrease in negative stigma about mental health are both good things. Providing more services is a necessary step, but I also cannot help but wonder if there are aspects of the current college experience that contribute to a number of causes of mental health fatigue. Increased student debt and pressure to financially succeed in this competitive world continues to add a weight that is visibly more apparent in each successive graduating class. Loneliness and lack of community, especially at large campuses like Penn State, seems to continue to be a very real part of many students’ lives. Social media lures young adults into a false sense that they are deeply connected when in reality those connections are often superficial and built on social pressures to measure up to unrealistic standards. 

The class of 2016 also named CAPS as their class gift benefactor. A Daily Collegian article from the next fall reminded our community that even with the increased capacity for the CAPS office, many students were still facing long wait times for individual counseling. Anecdotally the students I interact with talk about the limitations of the campus support systems, and the unfortunate reality that our local psychological support networks are also operating beyond their capacity. 

I remember feeling some similar thoughts when the 2017 graduating class named our local campus food bank, Lion’s Pantry, as the class gift recipient. On the one hand it was an incredible gesture of solidarity with the needs of our community, and on the other hand I found myself asking, how screwed up is our context if some students are going hungry and are in need of a campus food pantry? Likewise with the 2020 gift to CAPS, I appreciate this desire to be honoring the needs of our community, and also, how are we still so unable to meet the mental health needs of our student population? 

We still have so much work to do to increase the capacity of spaces like these to respond to the ever-present psychological needs on college campuses. Today I want to express my gratitude to the soon-to-be class of 2020, may you carry this spirit of compassion for mental health services wherever you may go, and may we all strive to live in a world which works to eliminate the causes of mental health fatigue, as well as provides no shortage of resources for those who are in need of mental health needs. 

Trump’s Graceless World

You already knew it, but it’s been awhile since we had such a stark reminder: Donald Trump lives his life believing other people are as evil as he is.

This is a classic narcissist belief, but it’s also the belief of white supremacists. They believe that people of color are as evil as they are–and that they must maintain power in order to prevent these evil others from getting the power to hurt them in the ways they themselves hurt others.

They know the depravity of their own hearts, and they fear others will treat them as they have treated others.

This is not projection. It is reasonable fear.

They should be afraid, because justice might reasonably demand punishment. Indeed, the punishment they most often demand is just this–an eye for an eye, as Donald Trump’s favorite Bible verse (and Jesus’ least favorite) says.

It might demand restitution, which would mean giving their unearned privileges to those they’ve hurt.

Trumpism, the Republican party, American political conservativism, and white supremacy (I have ordered these in a list as if they are separate things, but they are nested things.)–these are characterized by a flight from responsibility. Trumpists do not fear a changing world–they fear being held responsible for their violence, because they know that they themselves, when they have power, are violent, and so they fear anyone who has power over them will be violent. They cannot imagine people better than themselves because they imagine themselves to be the best.

They live in a graceless world, and their shallow evangelical theology reflects that. It’s theology where grace is spiritualized, trotted out to absolve Trump of his divorces, but there is no expectation that it transforms someone. They cannot give grace, but they also have no receptacle for receiving it. When Donald Trump said he had no need to ask God for forgiveness, he was speaking for his supporters, too: they have done nothing wrong. They are, in fact, the victims. Or, at least, they will be if they aren’t oppressing others.

This is not new. Here is Thomas Jefferson in 1820.

But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

Jefferson understood the dilemma: the longer the US held on to slavery, the more exhausting the project of oppression was–and the more damage the end of slavery would do to the status quo, which became dependent on it.

But we can also read in this quotation, I think, white fear that those who had brutalized Africans and their descendants deserved what they might get. They didn’t deserve self-preservation. The wolf is not to blame for biting the one holding his ear. He doesn’t do so because of a particularly debased nature, either. The wolf does so because that’s what the person holding his ear deserves.

I see it here, too, in this tweet by Donald Trump, with far less self-awareness that Jefferson:

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Some day, he says, if the roles are reversed, then the Republican House can impeach a Democratic president.

Some day, if the roles are reversed and people of color have more power, white people will be forced to suffer.

Some day, if the roles are reversed and women have more power, men will be forced to suffer.

Some day, if the poor have power, the rich will suffer.

Trump withstands the attacks now, just as rich, white men must withstand the attacks in the future.

This is the dystopia Trump and his followers fear–the one he described in his inaugural speech–because they know they deserve it. I don’t mean that they feel they deserve it; in fact, they don’t. But they know that their behavior is violent and oppressive, and they know that, in the eye-for-an-eye world they have created, they deserve the worst of what they have given others.

And they cannot imagine another world because to do so would mean that the one they themselves created was wrong.

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Lynching, like rape and genocide and starvation, is not a metaphor. It’s a real thing that happens to real people at the hands of violent people like Trump, a proud perpetrator of sexual violence, religious bigotry, and now, the start of genocide against the Kurds. Trump, like other rich white men, has no model of suffering. (This does not mean that Trump has not suffered. It means that rich white men as a category do not suffer. There has never been a campaign of terrorism against them.) To hear him compare the use of the Constitution to a lynching is painful. It’s painful to those who have suffered from true violence, and it’s painful to those who love the Constitution.

But it is also an admission that he understands that white people have reserved their greatest violence for people of color. Nothing is worse, he says, than a lynching. And that is because nothing is more violent than white supremacy in this nation.

He doesn’t want such violence to stop. He only wants to be on the winning side of it.

Rebecca

Madman, Narcissist, Fool: Trump as Xerxes

As the 2020 election approaches, conservative Christians will have to continue to contend with the fact that Donald Trump loves what is evil and hates what is good. How do you take a bad seed yielding bad fruit and call it holy? It’s tricky business, but we know that the conservative evangelical world will be working at it full time over the next year.

One strategy has been to try to insert him into the Biblical story. Miriam Adelson, who isn’t a conservative Christian but a rightwing Jew whose politics align with the Christian Right, suggested we add a Book of Trump to the Bible. And I’ve written extensively on the effort to turn Trump into King Cyrus–a non-Jew who saved the Jewish people by restoring them to power in Jerusalem.

Another Biblical figure, though, has captured my attention with his likeness to Donald Trump: King Xerxes I.

If you know him, it is probably through the story of Esther (another figure conservative Christians sometimes invoke when discussing Trump). He is sometimes refered to as King Ahasuerus. The brief version: The king’s previous wife refused to let herself be publicly sexually humiliated by him, so now Xerxes has delivered a new law that all wives obey their husbands–and he’s on the hunt for a new wife to add to his harem. He calls for the most beautiful women in the land to come before him. He chooses Esther to be his queen, not realizing she is Jewish. Later, her uncle offends Haman, a member of the king’s cabinet, by refusing to bow to him as doing so would violate his Jewish faith. Haman convinces the king to, in response, murder all the Jews of the land. Xerxes agrees. Though entering the king’s presence without permission could mean her execution (That’s the kind of guy we’re dealing with.), Esther does so to plead on behalf of the Jewish people. The King can’t admit he made a mistake in trusting Haman or that broad-scale slaughter of his subjects is bad for morale, so he won’t renege on the policy. However, he permits Jews to fight back. In other words, he creates a giant mess and refuses to clean it up but instead requires other people to fight for the life he’s threatened to take from them.

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Lefevre Valentin’s Esther Before Ahasuerus. The king chose her for her beauty–and because was embarrassed by Queen Vashti’s refusal to be sexually degraded before his drunk buddies. Everything about the story points to a fool ruled by appetite and ego.

All along, we see that Xerxes is both incompetent and dangerous because of his ego. He makes his decision of marriage based on the beauty alone. He can’t discern who is a good and trustworthy advisor and so ends up employing Haman, who is in it only for his own good. (Is that Rudy Guiliani in my metaphor? John Bolton? Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Stephen Miller? I don’t know–there are so many possibilities in the Trump White House.) He’s a fool, and everyone knows it but him, but, still, they fear him because he has power. He’s rule by his appetites and his ego.

The other way you might know Xerxes is through Herodotus’ history or popular depictions of him in films like The 300 Spartans or the graphic novel 300. He’s commands an amazing military at the peak of the Persian empire, holding territory from India and Egypt and Greece. The incredible size and power of his military, though, is also a signal of his hubris and hint to his eventual demise. He is presumptuous, ignoring ominous signs that he overestimates his abilities and evidence that the gods do not bless him. While he wins the battle of Thermopylae, it illustrates the bravery and devotion of the 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians–men who “not for gold but for glory”–in contrast to Xerxes’ men, who had to be driven to fight under the whip. He might win, but throughout his effort to expand his empire, he cannot inspire true loyalty because he has no higher values.

Perhaps the most illustrative story about Xerxes is that he attempted to build a bridge to the Hellespont, part of the Turkish straits that separates Asian from European Turkey, in order to invade Greece. When a storm destroys the first bridge, Xerxes beheads his engineers and orders his soldiers to whip the sea with 300 lashes,  brand it with hot irons, and sink shackles into it as punishment. His arrogant belief that he should control nature itself is recorded as the reason why the gods punish him in Aeschylus’ The Persians.

Xerxes whipping the sea, artwork

Who are the people in the Trump administration who carry out his absurd, dangerous, wasteful, ego-protecting demands?

That is Trump–a leader  who suggests nuking a hurricane like Xerxes whipped the sea. Xerxes is a person who signs a decrees to kill all the Jews and only limits it when his own wife–chosen only for her good looks–is threatened; likewise, Trump’s only principle is self-interest. And just as Xerxes ignored all the warnings of his destruction, Trump can’t bear to be wrong and will never truly correct course, no matter how many people his folly kills

Conservative Christians might note that Xerxes was the grandson of Cyrus the Great. He was given power, though he had an older brother (from another mother and thus not related to Cyrus) who might more rightfully claim the throne, because of the Persian’s willingness to insert him into the story of their empire. It’s a lesson about how nostalgia is no way to chose a leader.

Rebecca

 

 

BENGAY and NCOD

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

In my middle school years, someone in my class noticed a funny connection between my name and a certain pain relief cream. It didn’t take long for that student and a small group of others to realize how much of a reaction they could get out of me by teasing with this new nickname.

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“But I’m a Christian!”, I would say, “it’s against my religion to be gay!”

I now realize that not only was this defense exactly the kind of thing that made them want to ratchet up the teasing to new levels, it also said something about the kind of religion I was devoted to – one that was exclusionary because of the way it defined who was in and who was out.

I left high school for Eastern Mennonite University because I was naively looking for an institution that could solidify certain values that I assumed made for a good and righteous Christian… things like a literal understanding of the Genesis creation narrative and the belief that the earth was only 6000 years old, an adamant opposition to other faith traditions as a path to the divine, and a clarity that as my middle school self knew without a shadow of a doubt – that a good Christian marriage was only meant to be between a man and a woman.

I have deep gratitude for many of the people at EMU who carefully walked with me and kindly demonstrated that God’s love was far more expansive and inclusive than I could have previously imagined. My life was touched there, and then during my time at Fuller Seminary, by LGBTQ+ people and their allies who boldly shared their coming out stories which went alongside their commitment to a deeper and more peace and justice-filled faith. I think about how much I owe to peers and friends like Matthew, Eddie, and Kimberly, and faculty like Ted, Kathleen, and the late Glen Stassen for their presence in my life.

It was this journey that allowed me to be a better and more inclusive minister in my first pastoral role at Salford Mennonite Church, walking with students and young adults who were navigating their own LGBTQ+ experience. It was this journey that allowed me to say yes when David, Eli, and Logan wanted help to launch Receiving With Thanksgiving at Penn State, and why I am humbled and honored to be one of the few inclusive campus pastors who share space with the Penn State Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity’s Chaplain Chats each month. It is this journey that provides me with such gratitude for my pastor colleagues like Jes, Theda, and Jamie, who live such courageous and prophetically bold lives despite the unfortunate ways that they are still occasionally treated by this world.

Today on National Coming Out Day I am moved by the ways that I have been blessed by the many incredible LGBTQ+ individuals who I have crossed paths with. I wish I could go back in time to offer some wisdom to that kid who felt like his world was falling apart because he was being called Bengay on the playground, but I also know that it can take time to change hearts and minds.

May we continue to walk with each other, working for a better world.

A Sixoh6 Revisit: George W. Bush is the worst president of modern history.

We don’t typically offer re-runs at Sixoh6, but here’s your semi-regular reminder that George W. Bush was BY FAR a worse president than is Donald J. Trump. If that’s hard to believe, think about whether you’d feel that way if you lived in Iraq or Afghanistan. Trump’s racism is right in our face because it’s right in our nation, so it’s easy to be outraged. Bush’s legacy is of violence and destruction against brown-skinned people half a world away–but it was far more violent and destructive. God may forgive Bush, but we can never rehabilitate his image. 

From October 25, 2017:

“George W. Bush is Not a Friend to Democracy”

Donald Trump is a real gift to George W. Bush’s legacy, and the 43rd president seems to really be making the most of his moment. Next to Trump, of course, Bush is a poet, philosopher, statesman, and successful business leader. So, a few reminders, for those readers who might be too young to remember the thwarting of democracy that was necessary for his election, the pointless, costly, brutal, and illegal invasion of Iraq, the assault on civil liberties, or the economic ruin of GWB’s tax cuts:

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Above, George W. Bush dresses as Santa, with members of the Secret Service dressed as elves, in order to hand out toys at a children’s hospital in Dallas. His tax cuts fueled economic inequality, handed significantly more money to the already-wealthy, and jacked up the deficit for years. The percent of Americans living in poverty increased under his tenure. Like Reagan before him and Trump after him, he sought ways to put more money into the pockets of the people who already had the most. 

 

Above, Bush receives a hug from former First Lady Michelle Obama. The two remain friends, despite the fact that Bush’s 2000 presidential primary campaign used fears of interracial sex in a smear campaign against his opponent John McCain. In South Carolina, Bush’s team suggested McCain had had a biracial child. In fact, McCain had adopted a child from Bangladesh, and racists in the Republican party saw her as evidence for the Bush campaign’s claims. Like all Republicans since Nixon, Bush could not have won a presidential campaign without appeals to racism. 

 

Above, George W. Bush paints portraits of those who have served in the Armed Forces since 9/11.  To date, approximately 7,000 members of the Armed Forces have died in the global War on Terror. If Bush painted one of their pictures every day, he’d have to live be 90 years old to paint them all. 

It is not insightful or noble or brave or courageous for Bush to now criticize Trump. He should have spoken up during the campaign. He should have worked to reduce presidential power so that a future power-hungry white nationalist wouldn’t have had the opportunities that Trump is now using. Bush gave us the template for violating the civil rights of non-citizens. He gave us the structure for spying on people more effectively. He gave us unending warfare and the executive order to bring retired military officers back to the military–an order that Trump has ramped up forty fold. Bush gave the model for tax cuts that hurt the poor to profit the rich. Some of us will never, ever recover from them. His very election sent the message that family status and power–not talent or competency–is what wins elections. Without Bush, we would not have Trump.

Rebecca

PS. A bonus video for those who need a more explicit explanation of how to think about Bush’s effort to rehabilitate his legacy.