The Assault on Science and Democracy

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

October 16, 2017

(This is a talk given at the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center on October 13, 2017. Sponsored by the Crawford Stewardship Project.)

I’d like, first of all, to thank Meg and Forest for inviting me out here tonight, and for all the good work that you all do with the Crawford Stewardship Project.

I was hoping for a little better weather for my drive out here, but I did manage to see a few sandhill cranes and a couple of red-tailed hawks.

It’s always nice to visit this part of the state. My wife and I used to come out to Prairie du Chien to see the hawk migration or go down to Wyalusing State Park to see the warblers come in, especially the Cerulean Warblers and Prothonotary Warblers, which I’d never seen before.

And it’s amazing to me to see the frac sand mining just a few miles from Wyalusing, and all the frac sand mining that’s been going on right here in Crawford County.

And I applaud you for working hard against this, and for blocking at least a few of the most dangerous proposals.

You know, this is a crazy time we’re living in, both here in Wisconsin and here in this country.

It seems like we’ve entered the dusk of the dusk of the Age of Enlightenment. Science, and reasoning, and logic, and facts, and proof, and truth are all scuffed up, disparaged, and discarded. We’re back in kind of a pre-Scopes Trial era.

I mean I was at the hearing in the State Assembly a couple months ago when State Rep. Jesse Kremer asserted that the Earth was only 6,000 years old. This is the author of the bill telling University of Wisconsin employees that they can’t take positions on public issues and controversies.

And I was at another hearing when Rep. Michael Schraa said the only reason he had problems with another bill was because the John Birch Society also had problems with it. Basically, he was saying, from the podium, that tries to toe the John Birch Society line. The John Birch Society? I thought that racist and anti-Semitic group died in 1965, when William Buckley, the editor of the National Review, basically wrote it out of the conservative movement.

The way I look at Wisconsin is that we’ve been under a counterrevolution over the past six years. The Walker Wrecking Crew wants to not only reverse recent gains; they want to turn back the clock more than 100 years. They want to wipe out Progressivism in Wisconsin. Paul Ryan himself has referred to Progressivism as a “cancer.” And a conservative on the rightwing website called “Right Wisconsin” wrote recently that they should take down the bust of Fighting Bob La Follette from the Capitol Rotunda in Madison and put it in permanent storage.

This is the reactionary backdrop to the assault on science in Wisconsin.

Knowledge in Chains

The Walker Administration has fired scientists from the DNR and scrubbed the DNR website of any mention of climate change.

Little wonder, because Walker himself is a climate change denier.

In 2015, Walker’s spokesman said: “Governor Walker believes facts have shown that there has not been any measurable warming in the last 15 or 20 years.”

It’s clear that Walker doesn’t care about facts – or about fossil fuel pollution.

And so he curbs wind power.

And so he blocks the high-speed train.

And so he doesn’t impose a tax on the big trucks –many of them carrying frac sand--that damage our roads.

Instead, he taxes Priuses and electronic cars!

Stranded Boat

And he doesn’t care about the science around “high-capacity wells.” By the way, that’s a term that doesn’t do justice to what’s happening. A high-capacity well sucks out, at a minimum, 100,000 gallons of fresh water from the water table every day! And sometimes a lot more – like 500,000 gallons a day. Fortunately, a judge in Dane County this week at least temporarily took the handcuffs off the DNR so it could do its job under the Public Trust Doctrine to try to ensure the quality of our lakes and rivers.

But if it was up to Walker, and to Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald and to Speaker Vos, and to Attorney General Schimel, they would let our rivers and lakes go.

Already, our trout streams are evaporating. That’s why Trout Unlimited – hardly a radical group – opposes high-capacity wells.

Already, our small lakes are receding , so the old family cottage on the lakefront is no longer on the lakefront! The pier now may be 100 yards from the water.

Already, a lot of people in Wisconsin can’t drink the water coming out of their faucets. In Kewaunee County, one of out of three households has bad water!

And now, in the latest giveaway of our water resources, they’ve allowed Foxconn to be exempt from environmental safeguards even to the extent of allowing the company to change the direction of some of our creeks!

You can see Walker’s assault on science in other ways , too.

He’s signed laws that allow for an increase in the amount of lead in paint and a decrease in lead inspections. My wife was a pediatric and public health nurse for 40 years, and she taught me what lead exposure does to kids’ brains and bodies. It’s not pretty.

Anyone with any respect for science, anyone with a heart, would not have done that!

Nor would he have signed a bill making it harder for people to sue asbestos companies. You know who suffers the most from asbestos poisoning? Our veterans – at a rate of five times the civilian rate. Walker loves to talk about how values their service. But he values the support of asbestos companies more.

And even his school voucher policy can be seen as an assault on science. He’s taking our tax dollars and funneling them to private, parochial schools that teach Creationism, for God’s sake!

In a way, Walker set the template for Trump’s policies. The sad fact is that amajor Wisconsin export these days is reactionary politics.

Like Walker, Trump is a climate change denier. He’s called it “a total and very expensive hoax.”

Like Walker, Trump has had the EPA scrub its website of a lot of the climate change material.

Like Walker , who appointed Cathy Stepp, an enemy of the DNR, to head up the DNR, Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate denier, to head the EPA, and now he’s brought Cathy Stepp to the EPA.

He’s also stacked the upper reaches of the EPA with other climate deniers, mainly from Sen Inhofe’s staff.

And he’s just nominated, as the number two guy at the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, a big lobbyist for the coal industry. Wheeler used to work for Inhofe, too.


You know who Inhofe is, right? He’s the guy who brought a snowball onto the floor of Congress on a cold day in Washington to demonstrate that there is no such thing as global warming.

On top of all that, Trump is trying to cut funding for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, among other research institutions.

And as Ariel Dorfman points out in the article I gave you from the New York Review of Books today, Trump’s assault on science will kill lots of people due to:

  • more workplaces deaths resulting from fewer regulations and inspections
  • more deaths from pollution and global warming
  • and then there’s the risk of nuclear war, which he toys with.

This attack on science, and facts, and the truth is deadly serious for the fate of the planet.

And it’s deadly serious for democracy in America.

The flagrant, florid, and unceasing lies that pour from the lips of Donald Trump are unprecedented, whether it’s about the size of the Inaugural crowds, the allegation that millions of undocumented people voted illegally, the crime rate, or the outrageous comment about the “fine people” at the white supremacy and Nazi rally, or a myriad other things that he types up in 140 characters or less at 5:00 in the morning.

But there is a method to this madness. Because to insist that up is down and down is up is the calling card of the authoritarian, as George Orwell warned us 70 years ago. Because if they can make you believe it, or even begin to wonder about it, they’ve got you off balance and can easily knock you over.

That’s why Kellyanne Conway offers up her “alternative facts” on a regular basis, including last Sunday when she denied that Vice President Pence conducted a political stunt by walking out of the Colts and 49ers gamer after some players took a knee during the national anthem.

Say it with a straight face.

Say it indignantly.

And repeat, repeat, repeat.

And you just might get enough people to believe you.

Hey, it’s worked before.

And demonize the institutions that are there to check your power, and democracy can really disintegrate.

Fake News

That’s why it’s so dangerous when Donald Trump tries to delegitimate judges who rule against him, calling them “so-called judges.”

That’s why it’s so dangerous when he calls the media “the enemy of the people” and asks Congress to investigate them, and says it’s “frankly disgusting” that they can say anything they want, and suggests the FCC should look into pulling NBC’s license, as he did this week!

That’s why it’s downright scary when the Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas said on the House floor: “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

 And you know what committee this Lamar Smith is chairman of?

He’s chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

 Here we see starkly that the attack on science and on logic and on facts is a way of undermining citizenship.

Because when the citizen surrenders to the President the search for truth, the citizen is no longer a citizen but merely a subject.


What’s behind this attack on science, you might wonder, as I have.

Much of the attack on science, nationally and in Wisconsin, has been aimed at pleasing and rewarding the corporate donors who have helped bring Republicans to power. The Koch Brothers and Exxon Mobil have a vested interest in denying the science of climate change. Exxon Mobil has spent $100 million and the Koch Brothers have spent another $100 million.

Scott Walker is in the pocket of the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel industry, and the lead manufacturers, and the asbestos manufacturers, and big dairy, and the mining companies.

Vote Ban

And to please their donors, they are willing to throw democracy overboard.

We’ve seen that so clearly here in Wisconsin. Walker and his cohorts, Fitzgerald and Vos, have entered into a sick symbiosis with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and other big backers like John Menard and Diane Hendricks of ABC Supply. These corporate donors get them elected, and then they do the bidding of their bosses once they get in power.

You remember Diane Hendricks in the documentary “So Goes Janesville” whispering to Scott Walker, “When are you going to make Wisconsin a red state? When are you going to make Wisconsin a right to work state?”

And Walker responded, infamously, “First, I’m going to divide and conquer.”

And so he did. Diane Hendricks gave Walker $500,000 to help him win his recall race, and she gave his Presidential PAC $5 million.

What did Walker give her?

Wisconsin, on a platter.

We’ve seen one move after another from this crew that has undermined democracy in Wisconsin:

  • The 2015 John Doe law, exempting one tiny group from the reach of any John Doe prosecutor –legislators themselves.
  • The 2015 campaign finance law, allowing the rich to give more and permitting corporations, for the first time in 100 years, to give directly to political parties.

We see a similar phenomenon in Congress, with the Republican leadership kowtowing to the NRA, even after Las Vegas.

As Jimmy Carter said a couple years ago, “We don’t have a democracy in America any more. We have an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”

And now, with Trump, we have a man who doesn’t respect science or truth or fact. And he does this not only to serve his billionaire corporate friends, but also to feed his clinical narcissism.

His picture will be in the DSM VI under Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The DSM is the diagnostic manual of psychiatric disorders. The current volume is the DSM V. He meets every criterion. Look it up, and check off the boxes one at a time:

  • boastful (most recently, with his IQ cage match with Tillerson)
  • lacking empathy
  • hyper-sensitive to criticism
  • belittling others

And so on.

Nucelar Explosion

He believes himself to be so smart that he doesn’t need advice from anyone: not scientists on global warming, not “his” generals on North Korea and nuclear war.

When it comes to nuclear war, and I can’t believe we’re talking aloud about nuclear war in the year 2017, we no longer have a democracy.

Because there is no check or balance on his authority to wage nuclear war. Yeah, the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, says only Congress shall declare war. But since World War II, Congress has abdicated that role, and in the Nuclear Age, the President has assumed the unilateral power to blow up the world, all by himself, after a bad night’s sleep.

And so we have Republican Senator Bob Corker saying on national television that Trump could bring about World War III.

And we have the former NATO commander saying more than a million people would die.

And we have the former head of National Intelligence, James Clapper, warning: “Having some understanding of the levers of power that are available to a president if he chooses to exercise them, I found this downright scary.”

Clapper was referring to nuclear war. But he also may have been alluding to martial law. Bear with me here. During the Iraq War, Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the invasion, said, “If we’re ever attacked by terrorists again with weapons of mass destruction, we’ll have to declare martial law.” And Condoleezza Rice’s deputy at the National Security Council, Gen. Wayne Downing, said virtually the same thing, explicitly mentioning the possibility of “martial law.” So when the generals are speaking in public about martial law, you can bet that their subordinates are drawing up plans for it. That’s how the military works.

And it won’t even take another 9/11. It could be something much smaller. It could be something like Las Vegas, except by an ISIS attacker. Then Trump could pull the plans for martial law right off the shelf.

You know, I worry about Fascism. Not that Trump is Adolph Hitler. He isn’t. He doesn’t have a philosophy other than “Me, me, me.” And he hasn’t written Mein Kampf. In fact, he hasn’t written anything in his life except a bunch of bad checks.

But he traffics in Fascist tropes. He peddles racism, for one. He launched his campaign with racist attacks on Mexicans and Muslims. And his comments after Charlottesville left no doubt whatsoever. But he’s been doing this for decades. He didn’t rent his apartments to blacks. He fomented the “Birther” movement against Pres. Obama. It’s who he is.

And he peddles crude nationalism. That’s what “Make America Great Again” is all about (other than a swipe against the black man who was just in the White House). It’s about appealing to people’s sense of aggrieved patriotism, and demanding the restoration of the country’s lost greatness.

These are the two calling cards of the Fascist. Racism and nationalism are the sperm and the egg of Fascism, which is nourished in the toxic womb of capitalism.


So why don’t I draw a hot bath and bring out a razor blade?

Because there is resistance .

I studied Fascism in college, and at The Progressive, and after Trump came on the scene. And what I found out is that there needs to be resistance right away or the Fascists consolidate power.

Fortunately, we’ve seen a lot of resistance, and civil society is not rolling over.

Resistance from Republicans, like Corker and John McCain and George Will and David Brooks and Morning Joe.

Resistance from the media.

Resistance from the judiciary.

And resistance from the citizenry.


We saw it in the historic Women’s Marches the day after Inauguration Day. My wife was in Washington for it, and I was in Madison with 75,000 other people—at least 80 percent of them women, and a lot of them young. The energy and creativity and defiance and humor were inspiring. I loved the costumes and the posters and the chants, like: “We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants.”

We saw it in the rallies to protect immigrant rights.

And we saw it in the March for Science around Earth Day.

I was at the one in Madison and there were about 3,000 scientists streaming onto Library Mall, with great signs, like:

“There is no Planet B.”

And, “Science not Silence.”

And, “The Oceans Are Rising and so Are We.”

And funny ones, like:

“There is no cure yet for small-hands disease, but if there is, scientists will find it.”

Or this one, which I liked a lot, because Trump loves to brag about making judgments based on his gut:

“I trust science-based decisions because my gut only knows shit.”

And here’s another thing: There’s a lot of activism going on under the radar here in Wisconsin.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the redistricting of 2011 here in Wisconsin.

But you probably haven’t heard that 22 counties in Wisconsin just in the last 9 months have passed resolutions urging our legislators to adopt a process of nonpartisan redistricting, like they have in Iowa.

And on another crucial issue, Wisconsin is a leader. Check this out: 115 communities around the state have voted, by overwhelming margins, that they want to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn Citizens United, and to proclaim, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech. Wisconsin is second only to Massachusetts in the number of communities that have come on board for this crucial reform.

One final hopeful sign: The progressive nonprofit sector in Wisconsin has really gotten its act together. We’ve shelved our egos and broken down our silos, and we’re all rowing in the same direction. For instance, every other Friday at 11:00 a.m., I’m on a conference call with people from the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause, and Citizen Action, and the ACLU, and Planned Parenthood, and WisPIRG. We discuss current threats and how to respond to them in unison, and we plan actions together, and we write op-eds together, and we help each other out. This is a model for how we all can move forward.


We need to get beyond our petty differences and cooperate as much as possible.

We also need to talk to people who don’t agree with us, and try to bring them along.

And we need to continue to resist.

We need more marches like the March for Science.

We need more marches like the Women’s March.

We need more people to stand up to Donald Trump and to Scott Walker.

We need the citizens of this country to be the active seekers of truth, and not the passive receivers of the President’s BS.

And we need to reassert the values of the Enlightenment – of logic and reasoning, fact and truth, and the scientific method – or we will, indeed, be in the New Dark Ages.