"There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos," Populist Jim Hightower Famously Said. BF Talks With Hightower About Steering to the Populist Side of the Road.
July 29, 2019
Jim Hightower is a long-time populist “yellow dog,” whose storied career as author, columnist, radio commentator, speaker, agitator and one-time Texas Agricultural Commissioner goes to back to the days most modern political aficionados don’t remember: Texas used to be a Democratic state (and is likely to become one again in the next few years). You can find Hightower’s writing many places on the Internet or subscribe to his folksy and insightful Hightower Lowdown newsletter and podcasts. BuzzFlash interviewed Hightower twice between 2000 and 2010, including this 2009 interview with BuzzFlash. Jim resides in Austin.
It’s hard to resist Hightower’s wry humor with a Texas twang. This is a man who pens an article, “How ridiculous is Trump’s border stand?” and illustrates it with this waggish photo:
BuzzFlash: I wanted to start by asking you as someone who's been in Texas, a border state with Mexico, for so many years, how do you feel about the assertion that the so-called detention centers of migrants under the Trump administration are concentration camps?
Jim Hightower: That's absolutely right. This is disgusting. This is immoral. This is beyond comprehension, that a nation based on fairness and justice and opportunity for all would be essentially imprisoning and de facto torturing children. Babies, infants. It's just appalling. That's one I think that the public generally is just recoiling at the images that have come out. Not just from Democrats, not just from progressive groups and migrant advocates, immigration advocates. But also from Donald Trump's own government.
BuzzFlash: How do you feel that some of these facilities are privatized. To me, that is so cynically cruel because these companies are making money by denying basic hygiene, food and necessities to children and adults.
Jim Hightower: It's the profit model writ large over public need. The profit model says we deliver the least we can at the highest price in order to enhance the value of the big shareholders and the chief executives of these outfits. So, it is an absolute test case of what's wrong with the privatization of public need in our country.
BuzzFlash: Is Trump responsible for setting the tone when he began his campaign for the presidency by calling Mexican migrants rapists and criminals and so forth. Hasn’t he been a cheerleader for this cruel and barbaric treatment of those who are seeking asylum?
Jim Hightower: He's not only set the tone, but it is his policy. This is not what America stands for. This is not what we've done in the past. I was a critic of Obama's policies, that were less than generous, shall we say, toward immigrants from south of the border who came here seeking amnesty. Obama didn't do enough. Democrats have not done enough. What we have now is a formal policy of abusing children and the parents of those children and the extended families of those children.
This is not that difficult of a problem to solve. The problem of migrants coming in seeking asylum, amassing at our border, is a problem of not allocating enough judges, not allocating enough beds. But, we have a cruel policy as you indicate deliberately separating children from their parents. This has long term traumatic impact on those children. I never thought I'd live in a country that espoused this as official policy, but there it is.
BuzzFlash: Although many Democrats don’t want to acknowledge it, Obama set records in deporting migrants. But he did it with a less punitive and cruel treatment. Trump seems hell bent on degrading these people and treating them as disposable people.
Jim Hightower: Yes. I choose this word carefully, it's not a politic word these days. I think Trump is retarded. He's missing fundamental sentient qualities. Fundamental compassionate qualities that make up a human character. I don't think he sees the cruelty that he is imposing. That's not to forgive him by any means at all, in fact it's to further condemn him.
It's not just with immigrants. I saw last week Trump did an interview, of course, with Fox News. Fox is his official adviser to the White House and helps shape his punitive policies. Take for example, saying that he had discovered homelessness had broken out in America in the last two years. He said never before have we had this in our country. And that he has solved homelessness, that he drove it out of Washington, DC. That he had discovered homelessness was occurring and that he said to people, "You can't do that." By that he meant the homeless can not appear in public. They can not be on the sidewalks, they can not be on the streets, they can not be in front of Trump Tower. That they would have to, instead, go away. So, this is our majestic president who is just, well he's got several screws loose.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you a little bit further about the border area, particularly I know you live in Austin, a bit aways from the border. But I did a ten-part series in 2012 for Truthout on the border and the failure and the whole opportunistic political use of the drug war. US policy in Central America has been in favor of oligarchical rule going back to literally the banana republics. We train the military of these countries at what was formerly called the School of the Americas.. We help overthrow any government that supports land reform and the rights of Indigenous people. We enable militias who kill and intimidate anyone who gets in the way of mining or agricultural corporations.
I was reading an article the other day on Honduras, one of the sweat shop nations that manufacture goods largely exported to the United States. That’s what we offer the non-elites of these nations, poverty wages and back-breaking hours. The United States is also deporting gang members back to these countries and creating a vicious cycle where then people have to try to secure their physical safety, flee, and go up north to the United States. In a way the Trump administration and past US policy is driving the perilous migration to the United States. So you have any thoughts about that?
Jim Hightower: Yes, it wouldn’t surprise you that I do. I live a couple hundred miles from the border but I spend time there. I know many, many people along that border and I know what it has been historically. It is not a barrier; it is a line of connection. People for hundreds of years, on both sides of the Rio Grande in our state have gone back and forth at will. I don't mean just walking or traversing across territory, but I mean in terms of families, in terms of the engagements. Sports, music, everything comes back and forth across.
There is no border; it is one place and it is one big community. That's the way we should be treating it. They are us, and we are them, just to complete the cliché there. We have had policies instead, as you indicate, going back to the United Fruit Company, and Chiquita Bananaa and others. Now with Tyson and other giant primarily agribusiness corporations and mining corporations exploiting those countries with the dictatorial governmental powers that the US backs. Along with gangs in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica even, etc.
So, we're aligned with the wrong people. We're aligned with the exploiters. So, the people coming to the border in these caravans that Trump is so excited about are not being drawn to the United States by what he would claim are welfare benefits and other government programs. Rather they're being driven to the border, into the United States, by United States policy that is on the wrong side in their own countries.
The immigrant rights groups know that. They see that. So that's where our future is, it is to build strong alliances, government to government, but most importantly people to people alliances. That say we're on the side of little “d” democracy, we're on the side of economic fairness, social justice and that's what we're going to stand for. We're going to stand on principle that unites both of our cultures.
BuzzFlash: Do you see that happening? Because even under a Democratic administration, for instance, when there was a coup in Honduras overthrowing President Zelaya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed the corrupt coup leaders. Why? Because Zelaya, a member of the elite by the way, was instituting modest land reform and recognizing rights of the Indigenous population.
The irony is that he was a moderate who embraced the capitalist system. However, he violated the cardinal rule of our puppet governments in Central America; he offered hope to the poor and the landless. But there was no support by the US for Zelaya. Now we have a very corrupt Honduran government with a president who doesn't want to leave office. The mining companies, the resource companies, and the suppression of Indigenous activists are back. Do you see, in either party, a will to try to actually support democracy in Central America?
Jim Hightower: Yes, I do. Not a majority will within either party. Certainly, the Republicans have completely caved in, kowtowing to his highness Donald Trump, and whatever he wants. The Democrats kowtowing to the corporate interests that you referenced have been allowing it, facilitating it, enabling it. But, we have consistently had within the Democratic party strong voices saying that this is exactly the wrong thing that we are doing and trying to stand with people in those Central American nations to find the justice and freedom and fairness that they're seeking.
But now, since the 2016 election debacle and moving toward 2020, we have a new wave of populist progressive Democrats who are siding with a rational policy for the United States, and a humane policy for the countries that we want to align with.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you one question more about the very malevolent policy of the Trump administration and a very entrenched prejudice and violent feelings among Customs and Border Patrol agents toward immigrants and toward Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who had come down to investigate these detention centers, these concentration camps. That question is this. I read, and perhaps you read it, on June 17, Laura Bush, the former First Lady, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post and she was extremely critical, without naming Trump, but of the Trump policies towards migrants. She said, "Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores, or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent or internment camps for U.S. citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent during World War Two, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in US history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma."
Now she went on to write more that was critical, again without mentioning Trump, but of his administration's policy towards migrants. What does that say that the wife of the former president who condoned torture of arrested suspects of terrorism is so highly critical of the Trump administration’s policy.?
Jim Hightower: Yes. She has always been, in my view, the flower of the Bush family. There's a lot of thistles and thorns in that family. So, kudos to her. But it's a sign of the neatness of the Republican party and the servitude that it is dedicating to Donald Trump that they don't mention Donald Trump's name. Until they come out and condemn not just Donald Trump and his freak show of goofy-daffy, sleep-sleazy Larry Curly and Moes in the government up there, but condemn Mitch McConnell also. Condemn the Republican leaders in the House. Condemn the Republican party itself for not standing up to Donald Trump. Donald Trump is who he is and I've got a thesaurus full of adjectives for Donald Trump.
But he is not the problem. The problem is that he's being facilitated, accommodated by one of the two major political parties in the United States and that too much of the media in the United States are unwilling to say the emperor has no clothes. He's a complete goof ball and an autocrat and a vicious character and he needs to be deposed by hook or crook. I prefer the hook, which would be elections. Whatever, the guy is a complete imminent danger to the security of United States of America and to the reputation and credibility of the United States of America. So, he's got to be removed from office. Republicans need to grow a spine and take him on. Some Democrats are doing that but they're easily dismissed as being, well, Democrats.
But the thing is that the people themselves are rising up to defeat Trump, and that includes some rank and file Republicans out there. I think he is considered an abomination by the majority of the people of this country. A lot of them are intimidated and the media certainly has been intimidated by his supporters. He holds these rallies, which seem to have the same exact same people at each rally. But nonetheless they're ballooned up as this humongous political force, when in fact they're quite weak. They're not that many of them, and they appear to be a misused and perhaps confused bunch. I don't know. I don't know their mentality and I don't demean their mentality. But I do say that they are not the political mass of the people of the United States of America and that mass has got to stand up, and the good news is, as I travel around the country, and I've been just about every place that's got a zip code, people are standing up to it.
BuzzFlash: I wanted to ask you, in your wonderful Hightower Lowdown newsletter you talk about reclaiming populism. The right wing has always said that the Tea Party, the followers of Trump, the anti-Islamic movement, that these are all really populist movements. But you state that it's necessary to rethink the history of populism and that these are basically pseudo-populist movements. What is the case for that argument?
Jim Hightower: Populism is not just anger, it is not just popularity, it's not just an amalgam of thought. It is a reality. There was a populist movement that coined that phrase, that took that name from the Greeks. It is a people's rebellion against the concentration of money and power in American society. That lead to the American Revolution. It led to Shay's Rebellion. It led to the suffragettes. It led to the abolitionists. It led to more populist movements, and in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, it led to the labor movement. It led to the women's movement, the environmental movement and civil rights and on down the line. That has been the continuing thread of American politics: the populist people's rebellion against concentrated economic and political power.
BuzzFlash: Are you inspired and hopeful about the new populist movements such as Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, the Sunrise Movement. Of course, Move On has been around a while, and Net Roots Nation. There was the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter. These seem like genuine populist movements. Does that give you hope?
Jim Hightower: Oh, yes. That is populism. By the way, Our Revolution, which came out of the Bernie Sanders' campaign, it's working all across America. We've got it going here in Texas. They're a major force in pushing Medicare for all, a major force in free college and technical skills education, a major force for $15 an hour wages, a major force in taking corporate money out of politics, etc. So, all of those groups you mentioned,
Jim Hightower: These are all rebellions against concentrated political and economic power. Again, that is what populism is. It has been in the mainstream of American politics from the very start of America and indeed prior to the American revolution. I am not just encouraged but buoyed and thrilled to see so much popular uprising against these authoritarian leaders, even and now, kleptocratic power that would take the people's authority away. That's what's really behind all of these movements. Each one has a particular focus, but it all comes down to that same focus on concentrated power. That is a politics worthy of being involved in, the kind of changes we need to have are structural changes, not just symbolic legislative victories here and there, but actual changes in the way things function.
So that gets us to getting money out of politics, gets us to the $15 an hour wage, Medicare for all, those sorts of common-sense programs that were also by the way put forward, many of them, first by the original populist movement of the 1870s. The People's Platform, which was the political arm of the populist movement in that period of our country. The People's Party platform of 1892 was the most progressive political platform we've ever had. It called for suffrage for women. It was the first political party to do that. It called for wage and hour laws for workers, protections of their wages and protection of their labor, of their time. It called for no corporate involvement in politics at all.
The populist movement got busted up by the banks and collusion of both established political parties at the time. But its ideals did not get crushed. They continued into the progressive movement, of people like Bob La Follete out of Wisconsin. It continued on into the New Deal and then into the subsequent grassroots political movements that have been the major force in achieving the democratic egalitarian ideals of our people.
BuzzFlash: On another note, do you see the possibility that Texas could go blue? Of course, you and I are old enough to remember a Texas that was a “yellow dog” Democratic state. With Beto O'Rourke just barely losing to Ted Cruz and 19 African-American women whowere all elected judges in Houston in 2018, are these signs of real change? What does this herald for the Lone Star State?
Jim Hightower: Yes, there is a great organizing group there called TOP, the Texas Organizing Project, which took the lead. Our Revolution participated. DSA participated. The Democratic party participated. It was a good coalition coming together. That coalition is coming together all across the state, and yes, Texas is already turning blue. We've flipped, I believe it was two legislative seats in the Congress last year. And getting close to defeating Ted Cruz with Beto O'Rourke's very good campaign.
But we also flipped 14 House seats in the Texas legislature. We are now nine seats away from controlling the Texas House of Representatives. That would be in 2020 and that will be the election that will do redistricting in our state. We are a heavily gerrymandered state to favor Republicans. Not just to favor them, but to elect them. It's a system of cheating that they've achieved. But we can beat it. We're finding in many of those districts people are fed up with the nut ballism that they're pushing as policies and wanting to side with working people and dirt farmers, consumers and environmentalists and just regular people for a common-sense government again.
So that's what we're pushing. We're not just pushing it; we're organizing for it. Our Revolution is part of that, various environmental groups are in it, women groups, etc. We're building a real coalition again, and we haven't had that coalition since the 1980s when in 1982 Ann Richards was elected Treasurer of the State of Texas. Jimmy Maddox was elected Attorney General, Gary Morrow Land Commissioner, and myself elected Agriculture Commissioner. We had a unified campaign, they could give my speech and I could give their speech and we did. Everywhere. We worked together. And because we did that we trusted each other. We all won. We won legislative majorities too. So, we were in a position to do things and we did.
Then our party decided to start taking corporate money instead of trying to build grassroots power. So that's what happened to Texas. It's not that it became a right-wing state, it became a non-voting state. We have either the lowest or the next to lowest voting turnout in America in our state because we had neither party talking to people about what really matters to them. Turnout is based on turn on and that's what we're bringing back into politics. Strong, little people's polices against corporate amassing of power against the rest of us and we're finding people are responding to that. So we're winning elections again, making gains in the legislature, in the Congress, in state-wide offices, incrementally increasing our turnouts there. And building not just for Texas to turn blue, but a bright, as I say Burnie blue, You could call it an Elizabeth Warren blue, or whatever progressive blue you want, but it's not just enough to be Democrat. You got to be a little “d” democrat as well.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you two more questions. One goes to an article you recently wrote. BuzzFlash used to have, for ten years, we'd have a GOP hypocrite of the week and that was low hanging fruit to pick a Republican hypocrite. But you focus on the hypocrisy in this piece and it's entitled “Congress Loves Socialized Healthcare for Itself.” Can you explain it a bit given that at least a few of the Democratic candidates for president are in favor of Medicare for all?
Jim Hightower: Trump himself is screaming socialism, trying to use the bugaboo to scare voters away from even moderate Democrats. But even moderate Democrats are backing away saying, "We can't be called socialists, it'd be awful." Most people today are not fazed by the term socialists. And particularly young people aren't at all fazed by it. Because the socialism that we're talking about here is essentially Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt socialism. We're talking about Social Security. We're talking about good jobs and good wages. We're talking about Medicare. We're talking about the programs that, yes, benefit society. Benefit the common good. Not just the uncommonly rich. People are catching on to that. So, I think their bugaboo is useless.
Then it's also, as your question indicates, hypocritical because the members of Congress who are hollering socialism about healthcare, that we can't have socialized medicine, are enjoying socialized medicine. We, the people, pay about 72% of their insurance premiums for each member of Congress. They have top quality healthcare that is paid for by the people. Paid for by taxpayers. Paid for by the government.
They also have something called an Office of Attending Physician. That's actually an office in the US Capitol. Down below ground level there and it's for members of Congress. Some others can use it too, but essentially, it's there for members of Congress who don't need an appointment to go in, to get a little boo-boo fixed, or if they're feeling sick. They can just show up. There's no waiting time. There are doctors, there are nurses, there are pharmacists, there are technicians. X-ray people, etc. at their beck and call. They are not presented a bill for this service and they don't have to show an insurance card for the service. It's just free. It is socialized medicine for members of Congress.
So, I say I want a Mitch McConnell policy for myself. That'll do. I don't want anything extreme, I'll just take what my Congress currently is getting.
BuzzFlash: One final question. In the Hightower Lowdown you have an article, “Why a 70% Tax Rate on the Super Rich Would be Good for America.” In a few sentences, why would that be good for America.
Jim Hightower: Because it would produce the revenues for the public good, for us to reinvest in America and in Americans. Concentration of economic power that has been extreme, more than radical, in the last 40 years or so has led to the income and wealth inequality that ranks us at the bottom of advanced countries. It has resulted in the de-funding of essential public programs. Everything from our national parks to our medical system. It has led to the enthronement of corporate power by allowing those corporations and their lobbyists and the Congress people that they buy to write the rules, to appoint Supreme Court justices, etc., that rig the whole system to a corporate system. So that more money and power flows from workaday people into their coffers.
That is destroying the very idea of our democracy.. That's what the Koch brothers are all about. That democracy is a terrible system, that the wealthy people are the more knowledgeable and the more productive people they claim, and therefore they should have veto power over any sort of democracy, any assertion of people's authority.
So, you have to start with money. The yellow line;follow the money. The money that is poured into elections, poured into lobbying, poured into PR, etc. Not just at a national level, at a state and local level too. Then that produces a government that serves the elite rich and particularly the rise of corporate kleptocracy and now what we have is a kakistocracy, which is government by the very worst people in society. That's not America.
K-a-k-i-stocracy. Yes, It's in the dictionary, look it up. Anyway, so that's what the fight's about. It's a huge fight that we're in. It's not about one issue, or another issue, it's not about Donald Trump. It's about who's going to be in charge. We the people, or a handful of corporate elites. For the last 40 years the corporate elites have been winning, but the people are on the move.
Interview conducted by Mark Karlin