DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS: Getting Deep in DC

By on January 18, 2017

Meet your new Washington watchdog unleashed in the nation’s capital.

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

JACKSON HOLE, WY  – Democracy in Crisis is a new column designed to take the prefix “alt” back from a certain white nationalist movement, and hold the Donald Trump regime accountable.

Alternative weekly newspapers, like The Planet, have never had “access” at a national level and have never had to worry about losing it. We have always reported as outsiders and Democracy in Crisis will continue that tradition, cultivating sources in the agencies and committees where policies will become reality, making liberal use of Freedom of Information Act requests and public meetings acts to get beyond the lies that the administration seems intent on using as a modus operandi. This column will expose any creeping authoritarianism and norm-violations and call them out with outrage when warranted, and gallows humor when possible.

I will be reporting inside the Beltway, while not being of that world. I am based in Baltimore, where I covered the Baltimore Uprising for Baltimore City Paper. Baltimore is a deeply segregated, post-industrial city that is simultaneously part of the Rust Belt, the South, and the East Coast. We are a broken and battered city with a hell of a lot of heart.

Take away the teargas and riot police and the soaring homicide rate, though, and Baltimore is like a lot of cities around the country, struggling to make things work for all of its residents and gazing with fear and mistrust at the new federal government as it begins to reshape urban policy that will impact all of us. Keeping close tabs on Washington and bringing news of its power brokers and political machinations to alt-weeklies around the country is the first step in checking the power of those in government.

Just like our scrappy towns and cities and neighborhoods, we at the alt-weeklies have always prided ourselves in never kissing official ass or being bowled over by celebrity.

But we are also, obviously, in a troubled industry—not only alternative weeklies, but the press in general. And we face particular challenges at this moment.

Too many of us realized too late that Trump’s lies were the essential element of his campaign, not merely an accidental feature. Each lie is calibrated to elicit an emotional response. Even if it is fact-checked and disproven, the emotion remains—and is often turned against the fact-checker, who is then presented as sniveling and out of touch. We were fighting mythology with facts. This column will continue to do that, relentlessly, while also realizing that it has to fight for facts—for the very idea that they matter—and for truth.

Rather than allowing Trump to drive the agenda of the column with his tweets, I will track the patterns of the false claims, tacking them to real effects and actions the regime is taking. It’s worth remembering that alt-weeklies have always been better than anyone else at covering art in our respective cities—and this will serve us in good stead in the days to come; those techniques we’ve honed thinking about complicated performance art pieces will prove useful tools for analyzing the absurdist performance of the new administration.

We’ll bring that same scrutiny and spirit of snark to bear on the rise of extremists, like the “alt-right,” which has taken the prefix that has defined our papers for decades and made it racist. I’ll watch the evolutions of hate groups and chronicle their uses and abuses of language as they pertain to the Trump regime—and document the ways the regime uses those groups. 

This will not be a partisan column. As we saw in the Bush years, Democrats are masters of caving, back-peddling, and downright cowardice and we will also hold them accountable for collusion. But this is also not the average, false equivalence, partisan divide. We will have to rethink a lot of what we do—while keeping a close eye on signs of resistance.

In addition to a weekly column, I’ll also be tweeting from hearings, protests, meetings, and filing daily-ish blogs. I add the “-ish” because sometimes a day will be spent poring over documents after a request is fulfilled. But even then, I want to keep you up to date on how we come to the story and will be posting documents online.

I’d love for the conversation to go both ways. I want to hear how what is happening in Washington is affecting you—and especially to get tips for Freedom of Information requests, the formal process for accessing info those in power typically try to keep on the down low. The federal government is likely to become far less responsive to requests for information and so I’ll be forced to rely on these legal document requests to state officials that communicate with members of the administration. And for that, I’ll rely on you, readers, to act as collaborators. I’m willing to put myself on the line and I promise to you that I will never back down in the face of power. But in order to ask the right questions, I need to hear from you.

I reckon there’s a difficult and sometimes insane fight ahead of us, but it is the fight we were made for. If we don’t fight now for truth, freedom of expression and press, equality under law, human rights, and diversity, we may no longer have that chance. I’m grateful to share this with y’all. PJH

Baynard Woods is editor-at-large for Baltimore City Paper, where he was previously arts editor and managing editor. For the last year, he has been covering Baltimore for The GuardianHe also happens to have a PhD in philosophy and his dissertation focused on how people become tyrants. His column, Democracy in Crisis, will appear every week in The Planet.

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