I wrote recently about the similarities between Worcester City Council Member Michael Gaffney and the blog Turtleboy Sports, on the one hand, and President-Elect Donald Trump and Breitbart.com, on the other. This is an incredibly important parallel, and any progressive, liberal, centrist, or good small-d-democrat in Worcester should take note – and fight.
Despite the wishful thinking of most Americans (Trump, it should always be noted, lost the popular vote by a huge margin, and Hillary won more votes than any candidate for president in American history, except for Obama), Trump will occupy the White House come January, and there won’t be elections for the next four years. While it’s necessary to do all that we can (and by “we,” I’m again referring to anyone who cares about the basics of liberal democracy, not only the left) to blunt Trumpism nationally, we have the duty – and the chance – to smash it locally.
A recent NY Times article discussed the new strategy emerging amongst left and center forces, in which the fight for progress is concentrated on the state level. This is something that we must do. The first thing we have to do here, though, is to defeat our local Trumpism. Of course, Worcester is a progressive city, and has been for centuries. We’re the home of the American Revolution, the first national women’s rights convention (and then the second), and a huge abolitionist community, to name a few historical examples. Currently, we’re a city with a police department, despite any concerns one may have, that is not embroiled in any of the ugly racial violence seen in cities across the U.S. What’s more, Worcester is home to immigrants and refugees from around the world and, unlike most of America, the different groups are not isolated in small ethnic enclaves. In many ways, Worcester’s diverse population mirrors what America dreams itself to be. We have made great strides in electing a leadership that more closely looks like the community it serves. While the two top officials – Mayor Petty and City Manager Augustus – are white men, they have quite obviously made efforts to represent the whole city. It was Mayor Petty who said at a recent rally to anyone who might find themselves the victim of the sort of alt-right violence or discrimination going on around the country, “I have your back.” We also have a decent-sized labor movement, a branch of the NAACP with a long history, numerous churches with progressive leanings, and so on.
In short, one wouldn’t expect Worcester to be the kind of place where Trumpism takes power. But, then again, one wouldn’t have expected Trump to take power in America. Like America, a majority of people here support basic democracy and equality, but even more so. Still, just like America, it is possible for a small but energetic extreme-right tendency to take hold, and even to gain supremacy.
Here we return to Michael Gaffney, Worcester’s worst city council member. He is a danger not just because he takes positions that are conservative. Konstantina Lukes does that and, while this author does not agree with much of what Council Member Lukes argues for, she is a “regular” city council member. I would go so far as to say that Ms. Lukes plays an important role on the council: she tends to represent a demographic that is older, whiter, and far more conservative than other council members. It is important, in a democracy, that their voices be heard. Gaffney, on the other hand, like Trump, is a threat to democracy.
Of course, it’s worthwhile to ask how Gaffney is a threat to democracy. He’s not particularly charismatic, and he’s something of an oddball: one only needs to watch his bizarre “Cheers Worcester” videos, in which he makes fruity drinks and talks about local politics (adding to the effect is the strange sound system that causes him to sound like Darth Vader – not sure why he can’t fix that). Gaffney’s danger comes mainly from his willingness to embrace and embolden the same forces Trump did, and to use the same tactics.
Election 2016 showed us that truth is, for people like Trump, dispensable. Such is the case with Gaffney. His recent mudslinging at Council Member Sarai Rivera – whom he baselessly accused of corruption – is an example. He cobbled together a few pieces of information and misconstrued them in the same way Trump did with Hillary and the email non-scandal. Things sound terrible, but upon investigation, it becomes obvious there’s nothing there but smoke and mirrors.
Gaffney also doesn’t disagree; he demonizes. Instead of “that goddam liberal,” the kind of insult conservatives used to use, or something along that line, Gaffney refers to a “fellowship of corruption.” He knows there’s no corruption, but simply doesn’t care. He knows the mayor’s council on taxation isn’t trying to “grab your money,” but is instead trying to und the city’s (remarkable to say the least) improvement – but Gaffney doesn’t care.
Like Trump, Gaffney goes around the media. He has his own Facebook page and Youtube show, where he speaks directly to his fans (those who fall into several categories: the extremists, and those who’ve fallen for Gaffney’s lies) unencumbered by opposing viewpoints. Indeed, Gaffney is so averse to disagreement that he removed this author’s comments from his Facebook page, and made it impossible to comment on it again. (The comment challenged Gaffney, but was quite restrained and respectful.) Consequently, Gaffney, along with Turtleboy Sports (slightly less extreme) has created an echo chamber where an idea, though not true, bounces around and becomes stronger. As Trump’s surrogate stated, “there’s really no such thing as facts”; in Gaffney’s world, the same is true. It’s not that Gaffney ignores the regular media. Instead, he condemns it for false crimes. Gaffney and his people accuse the Telegram and Gazette of being in some strange collusion with the supposed fellowship of corruption – one of them even set up a fake Twitter account mocking the T+G’s publisher. While the T+G often publish conservative opinion pieces, it’s referred to as a conservative rag.
And, of course, there’s racism and xenophobia. This is Worcester, a city that takes pride in its multi-racial immigrant history, so you simply can’t say the exact same things that Trump said. But you attack Hispanic churches and accuse them of corruption, you go after and cripple a nonprofit organization run by people of color (which Gaffney takes full credit for) along coded racial lines, you make clear your opposition to “illegal” immigrants, you post articles from Turtleboy about “bad” sections of the city – sections that happen to be overwhelmingly non-white, and you’ve created enough dog whistles that Worcester’s fringe group of racists will band together around you…all while you claim to your other followers that you wouldn’t dream of being a racist. And then there’s Gaffney’s new tagline: “Take Worcester back,” straight out of the “Make America Great Again” book of phrases. But who are we taking the city back from? One can’t help but imagine many of Gafney’s supporters dreaming of returning Worcester to whiter (and much less interesting) days.
For all these reasons, the national trends and Gaffney’s threats to basic democracy, he must go. He’s not like Konstantina Lukes, a traditional conservative. He’s part of the new breed of right-wing extremist, dangerous in his flirtations with racism and animosity toward the truth. In his term on council, he’s already been able to drive a wedge between good people, to divide the general democratic (small “d”) alliance that has governed Worcester in recent years. He hasn’t been able to drive them apart enough that they’ve been defeated, but, without fightback, he’ll be able to do so.
2017 has to be the year that localities and states turn the tide on Trumpism. We have to do our part in Worcester, and that means getting rid of Gaffney and marginalizing Turtleboy Sports.
He absolutely can’t be allowed to become mayor, a position he’s likely to run for. Further, it is important that some candidate emerge who can target and defeat him. Given Worcester’s electoral system, who that candidate is will require discussion and as much unity as possible. Too many candidates can easily split the anti-Gaffney vote.
Image used under a Creative Commons copyright.