“The Expanse”: Syfy’s futuristic drama returns and looks more probable than ever

"The Expanse"

“The Expanse” (Credit: Syfy)

A decade ago, the world depicted in Syfy’s drama “The Expanse” may have seemed light years away, if not the stuff of pure fiction. The first novel in the series upon which the series is based, “Leviathan Wakes,” was written in 2011, the same year that SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced his intent to send humans to Mars within the next 20 years.

Since then we’ve drawn much closer to making James S.A. Corey’s novels seem eerily prescient, and more quickly than one might have predicted. Many of us are likely to witness humans reach Mars at some point within our lifetimes. Colonizing that planet as well as settling larger orbiting bodies within space, will take time — but it can happen.

Maybe, say, in 200 years? Barely a blip on the universe’s clock, but long enough for an entirely new form of government to reshape the structure of the solar system — and not nearly enough time for humankind to move beyond the same social and political tensions that have the world on edge right now.

In “The Expanse,” Earth and Mars are locked in a Cold War. Each planet’s governing forces keep their boots on the necks of the poor and disenfranchised Belters, the people working on stations within the Asteroid Belt between two powerful worlds.

Each government fears the growing reach of terrorist factions, punishing the impoverished and professing to do so in the name of keeping the peace.  Facing conflict on multiple fronts has left the entire solar system vulnerable to the whims of yet-to-be revealed players bent on turning entire planets against each other.

The second season of “The Expanse” premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. and maintains the drama’s status as one of the most compelling science fiction series of recent years. That it’s also a drama speaking to the precariousness of our existence at this point in history is coincidental. Somewhat.

“The Expanse” is part of a long tradition of exploring the future resulting from our collective will to compromise basic tenets of freedom and prosperity. Access to clean air, fresh water and food free of contamination, the willful erosion of liberty for the sake of safety — they all start to give by inches, often in the name of progress, eventually leading to slips, then the great slide.

A simple mystery set in motion in season 1, beginning with a detective searching for a missing heiress, has become a conspiracy, bringing Earth and Mars to the edge of war. This conflict is tied to the discovery of a living, lethal biological entity known as the Protomolecule, a contagious agent that transforms hosts into webs of blue slime and jutting crystal clusters.

The crew of the rogue vessel Rocinante — Captain James Holden (Steven Strait), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) and their uneasy ally, Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) — discover this contagious, deadly entity not long before they realize it was intentionally unleashed on the people of Eros. Among the Belters, these colonists are the poorest of the poor — perfect unwitting subjects for a futuristic version of the Tuskegee Study.

Given the events of the past week, in which the world’s professed standard bearer for democracy and liberty closed its borders to refugees from some of the most impoverished and war-torn places on the globe, this scenario no longer seems farfetched.

“You see they picked Eros to test their weapon on because nobody gives a shit about 100,000 Belters,” Miller says to Holden, and as it stands, he’s right. The United Nations-controlled Earth is more concerned with maintaining the delicate peace with a militarily superior Mars while holding factions in the Belt at Bay, including the Outer Planets Alliance, seen as insurgents by the system’s planetary superpowers led by a former Earth military hero named Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman).

Mars, meanwhile, has the resources to thrive in an unwelcoming environment, the technological might to dominate the system, and a strong envy of Earth’s natural abundance.  The result is a nationalistic fanaticism, embodied by Marine First Lieutenant Roberta Draper (Frankie Adams), a loyal Martian clinging to the dream of a verdant Mars.

“The Expanse” is one of two highly addictive sci-fi series depicting humanity’s grim future premiering its new season on Wednesay night. The other, “The 100,” returns to The CW at 9 p.m., launching an arc that sets a timer on the full demise of mankind — again — thanks to the impending meltdown of all the world’s nuclear reactors.

You could make an entire evening out of watching these convincing “what if” arguments of how and why humanity has no future, if only to give you an excuse to eat an entire pie in one sitting.

Those viewers searching for a fortified dose of hope, though, will find more of it in “The Expanse.” True, society’s worst ills remain uncured in Corey’s tale — although future doctors did cure cancer, so there’s that. And contrary to the sanguine outlook of visionaries such as Gene Roddenberry, humanity’s drive to reach the stars has widened the gulf between the haves and the have nots in this story.

Such a view is an extrapolation of what’s happening in the real world. Remember, a private company forged in the vision of one of the planet’s richest men is leading our charge into space, not NASA.  Spin out that idea some two hundred years into the future, and it’s plausible that politicians like the U.N.’s Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo) are still merely clinging to the illusion of power.

They may hold the reins of government, but the wealthiest families own the companies that deliver the water and builds home for the people living in space. Rich people control whether those livingin the Belt will die of thirst, serve as guinea pigs or suddenly vanish into vapor.

As it is now, so it may be in the future. An early moment shows Draper picking up a handful of dust as she stands on a rim overlooking a barren crater, then changes her view to see an image of what it’ll look like 100 years hence: a green valley, with water and trees, a reminder of what she’s fighting for.

Ironically this happens moments after a dialogue exchange reveals that a member of her outfit is the scion of the family that owns the terraforming equipment destined to usher that valley into existence. Draper is her superior now, but it’s her charge who owns the valley, not the soldier.

The optimism of “The Expanse” exists in its adoption of another time-honored sci-fi tradition of forging rebellions from bands of unlikely players. The crew of the Rocinante was only drawn into the conflict after the water delivery freighter they were driving was blown to bits. They were truck drivers, in other words. Miller was a cop. Johnson is a war hero turned revolutionary, and the whole story began with a wealthy young woman who decided to abandon her family’s money and throw in with the working folks.

Perhaps the lesson of “The Expanse” is an old one, that salvation doesn’t come from governments or industry, but from individuals standing together against the stark darkness. None are pure heroes, and even the best of them are forced into bleak moral choices making them weigh the lives of the few against the well-being of an entire system. One act committed during the two-hour premiere could rightly be seen as an atrocity.

There’s a price to be paid in standing for even the loftiest ideals. When Miller waves off the thought of anyone standing up to the far greater powers that run the solar system in the name of Eros, Holden replies, “They’ll answer for it.”

“Truth and justice,” Miller cynically says. “You still believe that? After everything you saw?”

Holden tells him, “Yeah. . . I’m gonna hold onto that for a little while.”  We will, too.

 

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Malcolm McDowell on the appeal of villainy: “We’re all looking at Trump now. He’s fun. No wonder they write about him all the time.”

Death Race 2050

Malcolm McDowell (Credit: Michael Moriatis)

When Malcolm McDowell burst on the film scene, guns blazing, in director Lindsay Anderson’s classic 1968 film, “If. . .” he was an exciting, and cheeky, new talent. McDowell was also indelible as the ultraviolent Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece “A Clockwork Orange.”

His subsequent films, which included his reprising his “If. . .” character Mick Travis in “O Lucky Man” and “Britannia Hospital” as well as playing in the title role in the notorious pornographic debacle “Caligula,” cemented the actor’s penchant for playing larger-than-life characters.

Whatever the role, McDowell has always been magnetic on screen. His suave villainy bolstered films like “Cat People” and “Blue Thunder.” But lately he has been playing comic parts on TV series. Contemporary audiences may know McDowell best from his roles as Thomas, the conductor on “Mozart in the Jungle,” or as Stanton Infeld from “Franklin and Bash.”

In the souped-up “Death Race 2050,” now out on video, McDowell plays a comic villain who chairs the United Corporations of America. A nattily dressed megalomaniac, the Chairman organizes the popular blood sport of death racing for fun and profit. He may have contempt for people, but he thrives on their competition.

The film, produced by the legendary Roger Corman, let McDowell have tremendous fun playing an extremely flamboyant role, and the actor relished his plum part.

He spoke with Salon about making the film, his penchant for classic cars and the secrets to his career longevity.

You often play characters that have power and wield it maniacally, from “Caligula” to the Chairman. Can you talk about playing megalomaniacs?

I literally try to have bit of fun and not take it too seriously, but these characters are fun, and they are fun to watch. We’re all looking at Trump now. He’s fun. No wonder they write about him all the time. There’s something about these characters that have great energy and a twinkle in their eye. I enjoy doing them.

The film glorifies violence, and violence has been instrumental in some of your most famous films, such as “If. . .” and “A Clockwork Orange.” What can you say about the way films you make portray violence, even in a satiric, over-the-top fashion as “Death Race 2050” does.

You’re talking about 90 percent of the stuff that’s done. Cartoons, the news — it’s all pretty violent, and it’s true one becomes slightly immune to it all. But seeing it on a screen is not the same as seeing it in real life, as we know. I have done my fair share of violent films, but that seems to be what I’m offered most. “Death Race 2050” is really like a comic strip.

I’ve done two nonviolent shows on TV. On “Franklin and Bash” I played the man who knows everything, and now I’m a conductor on “Mozart in the Jungle.” They weren’t violent, and they were terrific comedic characters. On “Entourage” I played more of a heavy. But someone had to boss Jeremy Piven around!

The Chairman has a very flamboyant look, peacocking with a wild hairstyle and fancy clothes. Can you talk about his look?

They came up with that look. I walked in and said, “Let’s see what it looks like!” It’s fairly strange to me, but it was fun. It came to enforce the caricature thing we were doing. It was perfect for the Chairman.

The Chairman gets to watch the race from the sidelines. What can you say about your driving skills?

I would have to say I’m a fairly aggressive driver coming from Europe. Driving in London, you have to be a wannabe Grand Prix driver. I’m fairly fast. Hopefully, I’m safe. I haven’t had an accident in 50 years. Sometimes [my driving] doesn’t go with Southern California traffic. They take their time here.

What do you like to drive?

I’ve got some nice cars. I’m a car buff. I have a couple of classic cars that I love, which I couldn’t have as a teen: a couple of Jaguars, a Morgan, an Austin-Healey. I have a new Silverado high country truck. It has all the bits and pieces, and it has beautiful hand-stitched leather seats. I have a Tesla. If I have to go to L.A., I take that, and that’s pretty cool.

My cousin is on the board of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They have some great classic cars!

Have you driven any?

No, I actually haven’t driven since 1993!

When you play evil characters, I always find you inject them with a seductive quality. There’s an allure to your characters even when there is a sense of danger. Can you discuss that? Is it deliberate?

I don’t set about to do that. All I really try to do is have a damn good time. If I imbue characters with fun — even if I’m playing a monster — it’s infectious. There is a light behind the eyes. That’s all I do. I try to enjoy it as much as I possibly can — even if it’s something very dark. I don’t go out to do something like what you’ve described. But if it comes across that way, that‘s great.

You are perhaps most identified with “If. . .,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Caligula.” What can you recall about those projects and how has making films changed since those heady days?

The business has changed, of course — greatly. I have changed, greatly since I was a kid. You adapt to more age-appropriate parts, and you move on to explore different, more mature kind of characters. I love it. I don’t mind playing my age. I’m not trying to hang on to my youth. I am in my 70s and there are some damn good parts — and luckily, I’m still being offered a few.

Most of the great work these days I’ve found is for TV. That’s how completely different things are. We’d never make “If…” or “A Clockwork Orange” now. Really, there is no place anymore for independent movies, and if they do get made, it’s 10 years in the making.

Your “Death Race 2050” character bemoans going from “blue chip to junk bond.” What observations do you have about making films that range from highbrow to lowbrow?

The whole point with careers is — and I learned this at a young age — you are not going to make that many great movies in your life. A handful of them is extremely fortunate. It’s so difficult to make a great movie; it’s a rare and beautiful thing. I’m a working actor, nothing more than that. I choose from what’s sent to me. My agent hands me scripts. I read them and say, “I’ll go do this one.” Invariably it’s the one that[‘s] not paying any money. I do keep playing billionaires. I don’t know why. I don’t have any money.

“Death Race 2050” is all about the survival of the fittest. What can you say about your career longevity? Why have you survived and thrived?

A lot of it is luck. There have been some lean periods in the 50-odd years I’ve been acting. I’ve been very, very lucky. It’s always difficult when you make a subtle move from your 20s to your 40s. You’re not the new kid. That’s rough. I did some theater for a time and enjoyed that. I’ve always felt that I could go back to the theater. But now I have younger children, and I don’t want to be away from them. I’m protective about working closer to home.

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Chris Christie finally dares to criticize Donald Trump — just as he officially becomes the most unpopular governor in New Jersey history

Donald Trump, Chris Christie

FILE – In this Oct. 28, 2016 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Donald Trump talk during a break in the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo. Christie had better be hungry: He’s got a lot of harsh words to eat about Trump now that he’s endorsed the billionaire. Trump, in turn, has some tough things about Christie to start walking back now that the two men are suddenly allies instead of antagonists in the Republican presidential race. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File) (Credit: AP)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie remained ever the loyal foot soldier even after he was pushed out of Donald Trump’s inner circle shortly after the political neophyte’s shocking presidential win. He remained silent during the transition as he saw any chance for a role in the Trump administration shot down by a petty and spiteful team. Now, Christie is finally daring to utter a word of criticism about President Trump — just as the governor’s approval rating in New Jersey sinks to a historic low.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Christie said he “doesn’t disagree” with Trump’s executive order to block refugees from entering the United States, but that “the rollout of this executive order was terrible — the way people were not involved or consulted. There was confusion in the enforcement that went on here.” Chrisitie stopped short of blaming Trump for the chaos of the ban’s implementation.

“I think the president’s intention here is right,” Christie said, according to NJ 101.5 Radio. “And the president deserved much better than the rollout he got of this plan. I think that’s what caused a lot of mistakes that were made. And those mistakes were unacceptable.”

Trump’s order has elicited a strong backlash, mostly from Democrats but also from some Republicans. The executive order suspends the refugee program for 120 days and bars Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely. Nationals from seven predominately Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — are prohibited from entering the country for 90 days.

Christie further cautioned Trump’s inner circle against formulating national security policy based on “generalizations.”

“Look, my view would be that this should be based upon intelligence that we gather about particular groups and countries,” he said.

The New Jersey governor also said he believed green card holders already go through “extreme vetting,” according to a transcript posted by NJ 101.5 statehouse reporter Michael Symons.

In late 2015 when Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack, Christie railed against his then rival for president. “We do not need to endorse that type of activity, nor should we,” Christie had said during an appearance on conservative talk radio show. “You do not need to be banning Muslims from the country. That’s, in my view, that’s a ridiculous position and one that won’t even be productive.”

During that same November 2015 interview, however, Christie said the U.S. should not accept any Syrian refugees — not even “orphans under the age of 5.’’

Prior to his making comments on Tuesday, Christie hadn’t held a press conference in nearly five months — since before the beginning of the trial in connection with the George Washington Bridge closures (which resulted in the convictions of two of his allies). Christie’s decision to finally speak to the press and criticize his onetime ally comes as he wins the dubious distinction of being the least popular New Jersey governor in recent memory.

According to a new Quinnipiac survey released on Tuesday, Garden State voters disapprove of Christie’s job performance by a 3-to-1 ratio “among every party, gender, education, age or racial group except Republicans.” Fifty-three percent of the Republicans polled disapproved of Christie’s performance, with only 39 percent of the GOP-ers surveyed approving. In comparison, just 7 percent of the New Jersey Republicans surveyed disapproved of Trump with 87 percent approving.

And 78 percent of all the New Jersey voters surveyed by Quinnipiac disapproved of the Republican governor with only 17 percent approving. This poll represents a record low for Christie — similar to an abysmal 1977 rating for former Democratic governor Brendan Byrne: After Bryne signed into law the state income tax, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll measured his approval rating at about 17 percent.

A separate Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind poll released on Tuesday also cited a low approval rating for Gov. Christie, at 18 percent.

Christie’s term in New Jersey ends in 11 months. He is in the final year of his second term and cannot seek re-election for this office.

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“American values at stake”: Obama releases statement against President Trump’s travel ban

Trump and Obama

(Credit: Getty/Drew Angerer/Alex Wong)

In the final days of his presidency, Barack Obama repeatedly told reporters and the American people that he would be taking a break before jumping back into the scene as a private citizen. But just before leaving office, Obama vowed to speak out if Donald Trump makes good on campaign pledges that violate America’s “core values.” Among them, Obama said, are “systematic discrimination,” voter suppression, “institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press” and the deportation of children who immigrated into the country illegally with their parents.

Now only 10 days after leaving office, Obama is already weighing in against one of Trump’s most extreme campaign promises — putting to test the longstanding tradition of “one president at a time.”

On Monday, the former president’s office released his first statement since leaving the White House, noting “American values are at stake.” The statement expressed support for the protests against Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and travelers from seven majority Muslim nations, and clarified that Obama does not support discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.

“President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country. In his final official speech as president, he spoke about the important role of citizen and how all Americans have a responsibility to be the guardians of our democracy–not just during an election but every day,” Kevin Lewis, Obama’s spokesman, said. There are plans for further protests at 10 airports across the country this week.

Although it did not mention Trump by name or directly criticize the executive order that he signed on Friday, the statement’s implication was one of disapproval.

“With regard to comparisons to President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, as we’ve heard before, the president fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion,” the statement read. The Trump administration has cited a 2011 temporary immigration order by Obama that halted Iraqis coming to the U.S. to defend the so-called Muslim ban.

“In his final official speech as president, he spoke about the important role of citizen and how all Americans have a responsibility to be the guardians of our democracy – not just during an election but every day,” the statement continued. “Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.”

When asked about Obama’s statement Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer again defended the executive order. “It is a shame that people were inconvenienced obviously,” he said. “But at the end of the day we are talking about a couple of hours.”

Although Obama left Washington, D.C. for a Palm Springs vacation with his family shortly after Trump was sworn into office, the 44th president has returned to the nation’s capital where he plans to stay at least until his youngest daughter graduates from high school.

Obama has cited former President George W. Bush’s graciousness to his incoming administration despite their political differences as an example he sought to follow, but Trump’s shock-and-awe approach to his first week in office indicates that longstanding tradition will be tossed aside as Obama appears ready to speak out against his successor.

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Department of Justice refuses to defend Trump’s “unlawful” travel and refugee ban

Trump Travel Ban Philadelphia

Stephanie Hartley-Bah and her son Jah’kier Hartley, 7, both of Bear, Del., listen during a protest of President Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Corey Perrine) (Credit: AP)

Citing a “solemn obligation to always seek justice” the  Acting Attorney General of the United States took the remarkable step of instructing the Justice Department to not make any legal arguments in defense of President Donald Trump’s sweeping executive order implementing a travel and refugee ban targeting several majority Muslim nations.

“I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” Acting Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in a letter to Justice Department lawyers, CNN first reported. “At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.”

Trump on Friday signed an executive order imposing a 90-day ban on nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries entering the United States. The order also includes a 120-day ban on admitting any refugees and an indefinite stop on accepting refugees from war-torn Syria.

Yates, an Obama appointee who served as former attorney general Loretta Lynch’s deputy, is serving as the nation’s top lawyer until Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, is confirmed by the Senate.

Currently, there are cases filed in at least five states including Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Washington and California that are challenging Trump’s order. Several courts had already issued orders that led to the release of some individuals detained due to the executive order. But the refusal of the Justice Department to defend the immigration order leaves it in legal limbo.

“For as long as I am the acting attorney general, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the Executive Order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so,” Yates wrote.

Yates’ order is enforced only until she leaves office.

While Yates’ letter is partly symbolic, it is likely to put her two decade-long career at risk. Trump has the power to fire her and very well could, though that would send a potentially damaging signal for how he views the department’s prosecutorial independence.

Yates’ decision came after a letter signed by over 100 former officials who served under past presidents from both parties called on the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to urge President Donald Trump to “revisit and rescind” the executive order on immigration and refugees.

Signatories include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration, and President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice. Richard Clarke, who served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush also signed the document.

The letter argued that Trump’s order will “harm our national security” and that “we risk placing our military and diplomatic efforts at risk by sending a clear message to those citizens and all Muslims that the United States does not have their backs.”

The signatories said they are worried department heads and members of the intelligence community were not able to vet the order.

The suddenness of this Order is also troubling,” the letter reads. “The fact that individuals cleared for admission were literally in the air as the Order went into effect speaks to the haste with which it was developed and implemented.”

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Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson and American “greatness”: There are valid parallels — but not in a good way

Andrew Jackson; Donald Trump

Andrew Jackson; Donald Trump (Credit: Wikimedia/Getty/Chip Somodevilla/Salon)

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s resident grand strategist, likens his boss’ ascendancy to the insurgent populism of Andrew Jackson, our seventh president. Like Jackson did, Trump promises to drive a stake into the heart of moribund, elitist politics. Amid a roiling global upset over Trump’s edict barring immigrants and visitors from various Muslim-majority nations, Bannon’s Jacksonian analogy demands our attention.

Naturally, historical comparisons across such different eras warrant caution. They risk superficiality and confusion. America today is a radically different place than it was in 1828. Jacksonian America was heated with expansionist fervor; today we struggle to find answers for our declining global strength. No less important, our democracy is multiethnic, disparate and heterogeneous; its bubbling pluralistic diversity would have horrified Jackson, a man whose populism was starkly homogeneous. His vision of democracy was for white men only.  

No less striking are the enormous personal differences. Jackson grew up dirt-poor. He rose by dint of guts and grit to become a lawyer, politician, judge, general and finally president. His remarkable political celebrity rested on accomplishment, experience and sacrifice — albeit more the sacrifice of slaves, women and Native Americans than his own. He was, in Jon Meacham’s words, “the consummate self-made man” — at least as much as any master of slaves might claim to be “self-made.”  

Donald Trump crashed into public view by dint of his father’s wealth, privileged access to capital, and a facility for feeding the media’s appetite for blooming, boisterous egos. For his country he has sacrificed nothing.

Yet for all such differences of history and biography, Bannon is not completely off base. There are similarities. Each man defeated a champion of the elites: Jackson bettered no less a figure than former president John Quincy Adams. And like Trump, Jackson regularly displayed boundless self-confidence. As historian Steven Hahn has reminded us, by the time he became president, Jackson was a rich man “deeply suspicious of any authority other than his own.” This is all eerily familiar. But more ominous resemblances also deserve our notice, especially calls to white male resentment.  

Andrew Jackson dedicated his military and political life to America’s expansionist project. As both a military leader and president, he had the goal to ever to enlarge the American territory. He believed white men needed room, much more room for plantation slavery, land speculation, farms and settlement. Expansion was the route to American opportunity, the path to its greatness. It was the dynamic behind the promise of white men’s equality.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed that Americans were “born equal.” Jackson knew better; he certainly wasn’t born equal to a president’s son. Equality for poor white men like Jackson was anything but Thomas Jefferson’s “self-evident truth.” Thick layers of privilege and power divided early 19th-century America between the many and the few.

For ordinary white men to know equality, they would have to struggle for it, forge it through action. Battlefield service, such as Jackson’s, became one qualifier of white male citizenship. But more was needed: White men had to insist upon political recognition and dignity from elites reluctant to confer it. They needed a loud political voice and effective power, mobilized and equipped with the energy, leadership, organization and discipline to rattle the establishment. They needed machine-like politics.

It took an agonizing defeat in 1824, Jackson’s first presidential campaign, to teach him that lesson. Old Hickory won a plurality of the popular vote for president that year, albeit barely 40 percent. But in a deal that Jackson famously labeled a “corrupt bargain” — an advance echo of Trump’s “rigged system” — Adams took the Electoral College vote and the White House by winning senator Henry Clay’s support in exchange for an appointment as secretary of state.  

Burning with resentment but channeling it with skill and dedication, Jackson labored with a handful of well-placed followers in New York and other key states to build a new political organization that would soon emerge as the nascent Democratic Party. Boring deep into neighborhood precincts, where the voters lived, Jackson’s followers corralled support, appealing to angry white men resentful of paper money and class and elite pretension, as well to land-hungry speculators and patrician slave masters. Four years of hard political labor brought them a resounding victory in 1828.

With Jackson’s aggressive leadership, they could now bulldoze through the second national bank, overcome restricted public land sales, defeat the anti-slave doubters and dislodge Native American opposition to open wide the gates to new lands for settlement, speculation and, of course, for slavery. Jackson promised to establish a broadening economic foundation for white male equality and dignity. These would arrive with his militant, expansive, often-violent agrarian democracy. C. Wright Mills described it well: a rough-hewn democracy of “one rifle, one vote.”  

Jackson’s gun-toting democracy resonated perfectly with his discordant but cooperative band of brothers: slave owners aggrieved by absentee banks; land speculators looking to make a killing; small farmers on the hunt for cheaper, more productive land; and anxious urban workers, especially those who labored without respect in the great port cities of the East and South. What bound their political allegiance to Jackson was his genuine regard for their standing as equal white men, plus his intolerance of any institution or policy that inhibited westward expansion and the national power to drive it.  

No transgression would be tolerated against the popular white freedom to take and develop more land. Native Americans would be removed — and slaughtered if necessary. Nicholas Biddle’s national bank of the United States, for all that it was mixed up in the sordid finance of slavery, would not be permitted to centrally regulate credit or stymie speculation. And despite Jackson’s slave ownership and stalwart sympathy for “the peculiar institution,” not even Southern intransigence would be permitted to weaken the nationalizing project. When radical South Carolinians dared to nullify Congress’ “Tariff of Abominations,” Jackson stared them down, drafting a muscular defense of national supremacy.

In all these ways, Jackson’s national populism expressed the thrust of a new, often bloody mass democracy. It was, for all intents and purposes, as Edward Baptist has written, “a new kind of government. Not a dictatorship, not a republic, it built white men’s equal access to manhood and citizenship on the disenfranchisement of everyone else,” most notably Native Americans, enslaved African-Americans and women.

Jackson’s was a definitively white nationalism, a racialized, gendered populism and a homogenized democracy. And its force was enormous. It not only pulsed west and south, but downward, ever downward, its exclusionary force falling on the straining backs of those who labored and lost “without just compensation.”

Steve Bannon expects us to ignore the ugly, depraved and violent facts of Jacksonian history. But in selecting Andrew Jackson for his Trumpian model, he calls to mind inexpungible stains of oppression, bloodstains that form a key part of its historical truth. But Bannon also calls forth an imperative to oppose its revival. As the nation and the world ponder the effects of Trump’s immigration policy, it is worth recalling what Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt said of this brand of democracy: It “demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity.” The handwriting is on the wall.               

 

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The first lady is no prisoner: #FreeMelania ignores the fact that Mrs. Trump is part of the problem

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(Credit: Getty/Saul Loeb)

Melania Trump is the “First Lady of Constant Sorrow” — or at least, that’s what Twitter would have you believe.

The inauguration ball anointing Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States was designed to be a victory lap for the newly throned leader of our nation — akin to handing the prom king a robe and a ceremonial sash. But the couple’s first dance seemed to speak to an uncomfortable truth about their marriage: Melania is deeply, powerfully unhappy, her expression pained as her husband attempted to pull her closer. The website Mic even tapped a relationships expert to analyze the first lady’s body language, and the conclusion was a message any seemingly sane woman would share: “I don’t want to merge with you as a partner.”

The GIFs, it seems, spoke a thousand words, even as Melania herself has remained silent since the election — eschewing many of the responsibilities typically allotted to the commander in chief’s wife. Those duties will reportedly be handed to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter — an assertion Ivanka vigorously denies.

You’ve probably seen the photos by now. There’s the one of a false grin fading to a frown as Melania’s husband turns away. What about the scene of Donald Trump being greeted by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and Michelle Obama, their generosity juxtaposed with Melania Trump, trailing behind her tangerine beau with a giant Tiffany box in tow? A popular joke on Twitter is that the mystery gift contained a note pleading, “Help me!” Talk show host Chelsea Handler, who led a women’s march in Park City, Utah, as crowds gathered for the Sundance Film Festival, added fuel to the fire when she tweeted: “Melania: blink twice if you need help.”

The resulting #FreeMelania hashtag, which spawned dozens of mock protest signs at marches, ascribes victimhood status to the first lady. She is not only discontent but also trapped, yet another survivor of Trump’s abuse.

Leaked audio from behind the scenes of a 2005 appearance on “Access Hollywood” revealed that the Republican politician bragged about sexual assault. He claimed that when you’re a celebrity, women let you do whatever you want to them. Following the release of that tape, several women came forward to say that actually you can’t assume you have a woman’s consent just because you’re a billionaire with an ego as large as your hairpiece. When People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff visited Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private resort to interview the couple for a cover story in 2005,  he cornered her in an empty room and forced himself on her, she has recently claimed. Many other alleged victims have detailed an extremely similar pattern of abuse.

There is a nugget of truth to the assertion that Melania is another woman who has suffered at his tiny hands. Many women whose husbands victimize others also target their wives for emotional abuse: These women are lied to, manipulated and gaslighted by spouses who take advantage of the trust that comes with saying, “I do.” A reason it takes victims an average of seven attempts to leave their domestic abusers before they are successful is because of their tendency to look past and excuse the behavior of people they love. “He didn’t mean it,” one might assert. “That’s not who he is.”

It’s important to recognize those realities, but #FreeMelania isn’t as much about the alleged undercurrent of the Trumps’ marriage as it is about our discomfort with women who make choices that appear to be against their own interests. This not only robs Melania of her agency but it also ignores that fact that millions of women, when given the opportunity, have made the exact same decision — voting for a man who refers to women as slobs, fat pigs and dogs.

Melania Trump, who was born Melanija Knavs, is a walking contradiction in Jimmy Choo heels. The former model is a Slovenian immigrant who came to the U.S. as an undocumented worker. As The Washington Post has reported, Melania began her career walking down the New York runway without a valid visa. Under a Trump presidency, she would be have likely been sent back to Eastern Europe. In an executive order signed by the POTUS on Wednesday, Trump committed to the removal of an estimated 11 million immigrants “who illegally enter the United States and those who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas.”

Why would someone who has benefitted from clemency in federal immigration policies stand by a leader who wants to block pathways for others to become citizens? Contrary to what you might believe, it’s not because she’s a poor woman lacking other options.

Although marrying a foreign billionaire would suggest that she grew up in dire poverty (like the many mail-order brides who come to the U.S. seeking a better life), Melania was born in Novo Mesto, a wealthy and prosperous town near the Croatian border. The picturesque village, nestled along the ever-winding bends of the Krka River, is a hub of tourism, with travelers flocking to its Gothic cathedrals and the town’s picturesque old city center. Her father owned a motorcycle dealership.

Melania, who married Donald Trump on 2005, has nonetheless benefitted from the power and privilege that her position as the wife of a wealthy businessman affords her. She is an immigrant woman, but she has enjoyed two generations of material comforts — those of her father and husband. She may not believe the issues raised in the women’s marches affect her: access to reproductive care, a culture that openly recognizes the sexual assault women face every day and a society that views the consent of women as more important than the aspirations of men.

Since she is one of the wealthiest women in America, they may not. Women across the country will be hurt by the probable defunding of Planned Parenthood, but the first lady will not. In fact, she only benefits from a presidency that creates tax breaks for the rich even while punishing low-income women for wanting access to reproductive health care. Exit polls from the 2016 election show that 52 percent of white female voters (a demographic that includes Melania, despite her being foreign born) made a similar calculation.

Their words speak volumes about the math behind that equation.

“I think he’s a really good man, deep down,” one female Trump voter told The New York Times. “This guy has such potential, and I truly believe he cares about our country and wants to help everyone. . . . What he said about women was disrespectful. But I don’t get offended like some people do. You get through the bad and you focus on the good. Basically these were our choices, and I felt he was the better choice, and I had to overlook the negatives and focus on the positives.”

Although this thinking is popularly referred to as cognitive dissonance, it’s more akin to what’s called “selective exposure theory,” the human tendency to reject information that doesn’t reinforce our pre-existing beliefs. Thus, if the women who voted for Trump want to believe that he’s fundamentally good and caring, they are likely to dismiss any claims that don’t support those views. Many people who cast a ballot for him on Election Day didn’t even believe that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act if sworn into the Oval Office, despite the fact that Trump campaigned on that very pledge.

Since being elected, Trump has also threatened to eliminate the Office on Violence Against Women as part of his campaign to reduce government spending — yet many female Trump voters have continued to stand by their man.

Why would we be surprised then that Melania has done the same, even to the point of parroting her spouse’s rhetoric? It’s comforting to believe that the first lady is the helpless captive of her husband’s nativist appeals, but she told Joy Behar that Trump was correct to question Obama’s citizenship in a 2011 interview on HLN. “It’s not only Donald who wants to see it,” claimed the first-generation American. “It’s the American people, who voted for him and who didn’t vote for him. They want to see that.”

In fact, Melania has done everything in her power to rationalize and normalize her husband’s behavior. The first lady referred to her husband’s conversation with Billy Bush about grabbing women by their private areas as nothing more than “boy talk.”

These are the unfortunate conundrums of feminism — how to deal with a woman who uses the very rights and privileges won by the movement to support misogyny and white supremacy, forces that will serve to roll back those gains. Call it the Kellyanne Conway conundrum. “Saturday Night Live” has portrayed Trump’s right-hand woman as his reluctant mouthpiece, a fundamentally good person tasked with defending the POTUS from whatever lunacy he has wrought through gritted teeth. Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne isn’t a bad person, just going through the motions of an extremely unenviable job.

What we must recognize, though, is that women will continue to use their freedom to make choices against the interests of gender equality and basic civil rights, just as others have for centuries.

Leni Riefenstahl was instrumental to carrying out Adolf Hitler’s propaganda campaign, filming widely circulated videos of his rallies designed to be proof of the führer’s glory. Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister in U.K. history, openly dismissed the culture of sexism in politics that make it difficult for others to follow in her footsteps. Just 22 percent of ministers in the British Parliament are women — a figure that has changed little since Thatcher first took office in 1979. Sarah Palin actively campaigned for Trump after forgoing another presidential run.

These women, like Melania, are not prisoners. They are the jail keepers holding the keys. They are the very thing that women marched against — and what they will continue to fight for the next four years. You shouldn’t cry for Melania Trump, no matter how tempting it is to feel sorry for anyone married to a tyrant obsessed with crowd size. You should resist her.

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A January to remember: Migos gets it all, fans ask for more

Migos

Migos (Credit: Getty/Bryan Bedder)

On Saturday afternoon, the rap group Migos was the subject of a pop-up Culture Class — an allusion to their sophomore album, “Culture,” which was released on Friday — at New York University. The rappers Quavo and Takeoff, who make up two-thirds of Migos (Offset was absent), were asked about fashion culture, pop culture, and music culture. Things like: How does an up-and-coming artist with $100 to spend achieve the Migos look? (Can’t); What three movies would you take if you were stranded on a desert island? (“Castaway,” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” and a crazy shoot-em-up flick); and “How is cash a fashion statement and is there a duffel bag nearby full of cash right now?” (“There’s a pocket nearby.”).

It was Quavo who gave that last answer and, like Mary Poppins, he proceeded to produce a brick of cash that incomprehensibly had fit, and been unnoticed, in the pocket of his black designer joggers. Takeoff, wearing light ripped jeans, did the same. The audience, composed mostly of students and the press, laughed and hollered, astonished. So yes, the rappers were saying, cash is a fashion symbol, part of a bigger status symbol, and Migos is always repping.

While the members of Migos were rich and stuntin’ a month ago, Saturday marked the culmination of their coronation. January has been a turning point in Migos’s career, whereby they’ve gone from rap stars to Rock Stars, artists who have been featured on the cover of music magazines like “The Fader” and “XXL” to artists who could very well grace the cover of “GQ” by year’s end. There’s currently a petition circulating for them to replace Lady Gaga as performers at the Super Bowl halftime show. How they’ve gotten to this point is itself a master class in how to leverage a fortuitously timed gift and turn momentum into transformation.  

By now, the story of how Migos’s month began is probably familiar: On Jan. 8, when Donald Glover accepted the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy television series for his series “Atlanta,” he thanked Migos, “not for being in the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee.’” He called it “the best song ever.” The next day, the single, which was released in October, hit number one on the Billboard Singles chart.

The gift from Glover begot requests from late night shows. And nine days later, Migos performed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” their most high profile and mainstream appearance to date. Then, this past weekend, they released “Culture,” played an album-release show at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan, and gave the course at NYU.

That Migos, an Atlanta trap group, spent the weekend of their album release in New York is a testament both to the continuing star-making importance of the city and to Migos’s savviness. Though the nucleus of hip-hop aesthetics and innovation has moved south (to Atlanta) and west (to Los Angeles), the bulk of the entertainment media remains in New York. At each stop throughout Migos’s weekend, a flock of journalists followed. The narrative was obvious: Migos has arrived.   

It’s a narrative that’s hard to dispute. “Culture” immediately became the number one album in the world. And, in a word, Saturday’s show was lit: Between the eight hundred romping fans — a good deal of whom, it should be noted, were white teens — and the thick clouds of sticky smoke, no crevice of the Highline Ballroom was left unoccupied. Fans stood on couches, sat on shoulders, pushed and pivoted just to get a glimpse of Migos swagger around the stage.

And though Migos only performed for an hour and didn’t incorporate any flashy light or stage theatrics, they put on quite the show. The most noteworthy moment was when they performed the song “Get Right Witcha” and brought out producer Zaytoven, who played the Keytar. But even that bit of pomp was unnecessary. Migos is compelling purely as a Cerberus. The way Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset augment each other with trap hollers (“skkrt,” “grrah”) and build layered texture is enjoyable on recorded tracks, but immaculate live. The response to a call is automatic and the synchronicity of their voices is as natural as the three keys on a trumpet.  

Migos’s popularity stems in great part from the contagion of such layers. Scream the word “Raindrop” in a crowd of millennials and the response will not be to look up to the sky but to scream “Droptop!” These words ostensibly have nothing to do with each other, but given context through “Bad and Boujie,” they feel like a divined pair — as do hands in the air and heads nodding when the song comes on.  

“Bad and Boujee” is not Migos’s first viral sensation. They garnered a Drake remix with their 2013 single “Versace” and coined “dabbing” with their 2015 single, “Look at My Dab.” They claim to be able to make a hook out of anything — and, indeed, on Saturday afternoon they improvised a hook based on the prompt of “Febreze” (“A can of Febreze / Cookies make you sneeze / told that bitch to freeze”). Each member of the group is 25 or younger, so there’s reason to think that they will continue churning out hits for many years to come.

But we live in strange times. Never has the political been more pervasive. And while Migos’s music plays an age-old function (escapism about sex, drugs, and luxury), and one that has certainly been especially profitable in past conservative presidencies (Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s in particular), it remains to be seen whether being apolitical and materialistic in this time will be sustainable.   

During an audience Q&A at the NYU course, one member of the crowd got up and said, “You guys are really influential in terms of pop culture right now. Do you plan on utilizing that platform to address a lot of the political and racial injustices that’s going on today?”

“I think we need to get our foundation a little bit stronger to start talking about that,” Quavo answered.

That was insufficient for the man who asked the question. “You guys got it right now, man,” he said. “And all this shit is happening right now. You guys doing it for the culture, yo, this is our culture, yo. You gotta speak on that bro.”

The audience applauded and Quavo said, “At least I know I got you guys behind me now, so let’s do it.”

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Jeff Sessions forgets he once wanted to execute pot dealers: let’s jog his memory

Jeff Sessions

FILE – In this Nov. 29, 2016 file photo, Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley) (Credit: AP)

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be attorney general, senators should demand an explanation for the sudden bout of amnesia he had at his nomination hearing earlier this month.

When Sen. Patrick Leahy asked him about his past support for imposing mandatory death sentences on people twice convicted of dealing marijuana, Sessions smiled and claimed to have a foggy memory.

“Well, I’m not sure under what circumstances I said that,” he told the committee.

Perhaps this will refresh Sessions’ memory:

In 1996, when serving as Alabama’s attorney general, he promoted H.B. 242, S.B. 291, a state bill to establish mandatory death sentences for a second drug trafficking conviction, including for dealing marijuana. His support for the bill was reported at the time by several local newspapers, as well as The Alabama Lawyer, the Alabama State Bar’s official publication. The Alabama Lawyer described the bill as part of a legislative package that Sessions and then-Governor Fob James proposed to “fix a broken system.”

On Feb. 29, 1996, for example, The Huntsville Times reported that the proposed package of bills to fight crime by “ending parole, eliminating part of the appeals in death penalty cases, and executing people twice convicted of being drug kingpins” had drawn “praise from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

The drug bill was advertised as targeting “kingpins,” but to qualify for execution, the defendant merely needed to lead a group of five people and make the minimum wage in drug proceeds. Alabama’s minimum wage was US$4.25 per hour in 1996.

We teach and study death penalty law, but you didn’t need to be an expert to know that the bill to execute drug dealers would “never pass constitutional muster,” as The Huntsville Times then reported. That’s because by 1987, the Supreme Court had completely banned mandatory death sentences. The court ruled that the individual circumstances of the crime and defendant must always be considered. Furthermore, in 1977, the high court had held that even in cases of rape, the death penalty is “grossly disproportionate,” “excessive” and therefore unconstitutional.

Despite Sessions’ support, the Alabama bill never passed. Presumably, the Alabama legislature had a better understanding of wise policy and the Constitution than their attorney general did.

Making a broken system worse

At his nomination hearing, Sessions said that he currently does not support mandatory executions for drug trafficking. But the fact that he once supported it in direct violation of established constitutional law is deeply troubling, especially in light of his direct knowledge, as Alabama attorney general, of the prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias and systematically weak defense lawyering that permeated the state’s capital system. As the state’s top attorney between 1995 and 1997, Sessions sought to uphold more than 40 death sentences, even in the most questionable circumstances.

For example, Sessions knew that during trial, prosecutors had hidden DNA-related evidence from Larry Padgett that pointed to his innocence. Yet Sessions still tried to convince the Alabama Supreme Court to uphold Padgett’s death sentence. Thankfully, Sessions was unable to persuade Alabama’s highest court. Padgett was exonerated at his second trial.

Sessions also worked to uphold the death penalty against defendants who’d received grossly inadequate legal representation, such as Jimmy Lee Dill. At the guilt phase of Dill’s trial, his lawyers didn’t call a single witness. They thus failed to present evidence that the victim died due to improper medical care, more than nine months after Dill shot him during a drug deal gone awry. The attorneys also failed to submit mitigating evidence at sentencing, telling the judge that “we were just blank on submitting it.” Had they tried harder, the attorneys would have found powerful mitigating evidence: Dill was intellectually disabled and had been sexually abused as a child, according to Bryan Stevenson, the renowned public interest lawyer who took on his case a month before he was executed in 2009.

Dill was represented at trial by court-appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1,000 by Alabama law. This is very low pay given the time-intensive nature of capital defense work. A study of federal capital trials in the 1990s found that defense attorneys spent an average of 1,480 out-of-court hours preparing death penalty cases.

As Alabama attorney general, Sessions could have sought reforms to address the glaring flaws in his state’s capital system. Instead, he chose to promote policies such as executing small-time drug dealers, and reducing death penalty appeals in a state where judges were already overriding jury decisions against the death penalty.

Sessions’ purported forgetfulness at his nomination hearing can be explained in two ways.

One explanation is that he lied under oath and actually remembered supporting the bill. Indeed, Sessions also may have been reminded by a New York Times op-ed we published the day before his hearing, which highlighted his support for the bill.

Alternatively, President Trump’s pick for attorney general really did forget promoting the legislation. This possible explanation is perhaps more frightening: that Sessions couldn’t recall advocating to kill drug dealers would suggest that he didn’t give much thought to backing such an extreme and unlawful policy.

At the end of the day, we need an attorney general who is trustworthy, understands the demands of the Constitution and respects them, and has good judgment on criminal justice enforcement policy. The record of Jeff Sessions as Alabama’s attorney general and his current evasiveness about his prior support for a mandatory death penalty for marijuana dealers raises concerns on all these grounds.

The Conversation

John Donohue, C Wendell and Edith M Carlsmith Professor of Law, Stanford University and Max Schoening, Law Student, Stanford University

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With students stranded abroad, colleges condemn travel ban

BOSTON — Dozens of U.S. colleges are opposing President Donald Trump’s sweeping travel ban, which has left some students and professors stranded abroad.

The Association of American Universities urged Trump on Sunday to reverse his executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, saying it will only steer top scholars to countries that compete with the United States. Presidents from other schools issued scathing attacks of the move.

Many students and scholars from countries affected by the ban have been caught in legal limbo while traveling abroad.

Iranian Yale University doctoral student Ali Abdi left the U.S. days before the order was signed to conduct research in Afghanistan. Now he doesn’t know if he can return.

Other schools with students or faculty who were stranded include MIT, Harvard and Clark Atlanta University.

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