It’s time for real solutions

I want to say I first started seeing the billboards as I was driving across country in Wyoming, but in truth, I just rolled my eyes and drove on, not bothering to associate that first sighting with a location.

The billboards offer inspirational messages. At least around Pittsburgh, they’re sponsored by the Foundation for a Better Life and they function similarly to organized religion: The idea with religion is to pacify the population with promises of a better afterlife. The mostly anodyne uplifting billboards carry the empty promise that it will get better in this life.

The mask slips a bit with one billboard that started appearing apparently in response to Black Lives Matter protests last summer (2020). It lauds police for bravery, “answering the toughest call.” The officer depicted is Black, wearing none of the body armor that is now standard in that line of work, belying a heavily militarized,[1] white supremacist[2] reality.

It’s all a counterpoint to a depressing present, particularly as you get to the rust belt, where poverty and blight are widespread, where in Pittsburgh, I hear again and again on any of a number of problems, “it is what it is,” a sign of resignation to a thoroughly screwed up reality.

Don’t challenge the police, the billboards really say. Don’t challenge the status quo. Be optimistic instead.

As near as I can tell, the Foundation doesn’t do anything to actually make a better life a reality. There’s no effort to address poverty, racism, or other forms of social inequality. It just wants us to feel “inspired.”

So as I was driving from dropping off my laundry to having my car’s interior detailed, I was seeing these billboards yet again. One showed someone walking out from a tunnel, into the brightness beyond. “It will get brighter,” it said, lauding “optimism,” and I was remembering Thomas Frank’s description of his cheerful Kansas “Cons,”[3] whom I took as examples of authoritarian populists,[4] and whom I have since come to see as less distinct from social conservatives (mostly evangelical Protestants) and paleoconservatives (including white supremacists and neo-Nazis)[5] than when I wrote my dissertation.[6]

They didn’t seem so cheerful as they stormed the U.S. Capitol last month (on January 6, 2021).[7] Indeed, the fury I perceived when I was working on my dissertation led me to astonish my committee by forecasting Donald Trump’s victory in my dissertation defense. This anger was undiminished even as it became clear that Trump was a black hole, with no bottom to the depths he would sink, even in the 2016 campaign, leading me to backtrack from that forecast, even in his time in the presidency. It appears in the “Fuck Your Feelings” and “Make a Liberal Cry” messaging of the 2020 campaign.

The anger seems every bit as intense in my Twitter bubble, where the Left, refusing to admit any distinction between Democrats and Republicans, let alone among conservatives, thus conflates the Lincoln Project[8] with those rioters on Capitol Hill. The Left’s anger is borne of the social inequality that is a defining feature of the system of social organization we have embraced since the neolithic.[9] It burns with the police killing Blacks, with powerful men raping vulnerable women, with the rich plundering the poor, with the refusal of Medicare For All even in a pandemic, and with the refusal of a Green New Deal even in an existential climate crisis.

Everywhere I look, I see fury. The billboards, it hardly needs saying, aren’t working, even as it seems like I see ever more of them.

My answer begins with breaking up the country,[10] allowing each side to pursue its preferred policy solutions. It is, of course, a solution the elites will never consider, greedy as they are for control over the whole country. But refusing the sensible solution, it is incumbent upon those elites to come up with real solutions. Which seem in short supply.

  1. [1]Dana Forsythe, “Punisher creator Gerry Conway: Cops using the skull logo are like people using the Confederate flag,” SyFy Wire, January 8, 2019,; David Masciotra, “The Punisher skull: Unofficial logo of the white American death cult,” Salon, April 28, 2019,; Darryl C. Murphy, “Grieving Walter Wallace Jr. and seeking justice, West Philly wonders what’s next,” WHYY, October 27, 2020,; Maritza Perez, “The Congressional Police Reform Bill Fails to Meet the Moment,” Common Dreams, June 12, 2020,
  2. [2]Mark Berman et al., “Protests spread over police shootings. Police promised reforms. Every year, they still shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people,” Washington Post, June 8, 2020,; Kyle Cheney, Sarah Ferris, and Laura Barrón-López, “‘Inside job’: House Dems ask if Capitol rioters had hidden help,” Politico, January 8, 2021,; James Downie, “Time to toss the ‘bad apples’ excuse,” Washington Post, May 31, 2020,; Kimberly Kindy, Mark Berman, and Kim Bellware, “After Capitol riot, police chiefs work to root out officers with ties to extremist groups,” Washington Post, January 24, 2021,; Maggie Koerth, “The Police’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration,” FiveThirtyEight, January 7, 2021,; Kurtis Lee, Jaweed Kaleem, and Laura King, “‘White supremacy was on full display.’ Double standard seen in police response to riot at Capitol,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2021,; Wesley Lowery, “Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no,” Washington Post, July 11, 2016,; Brentin Mock, “What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings,” CityLab, August 6, 2019,; Elie Mystal, “There’s Only One Possible Conclusion: White America Likes Its Killer Cops,” Nation, May 27, 2020,; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Do We Change America?” New Yorker, June 8, 2020,
  3. [3]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  5. [5]David Benfell, “The seven tendencies of conservatism,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d.,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  7. [7]Ted Barrett, Manu Raju, and Peter Nickeas, “US Capitol secured, woman dead after rioters stormed the halls of Congress to block Biden’s win,” CNN, January 6, 2021,; Fiona Hill, “Yes, It Was a Coup. Here’s Why,” Politico, January 11, 2021,; Spencer S. Hsu, Tom Jackman, and Devlin Barrett, “Self-styled militia members planned on storming the U.S. Capitol days in advance of Jan. 6 attack, court documents say,” Washington Post, January 19, 2021,; Talia Lavin, “The Violent Crescendo of the MAGA Conspiracies,” New Republic, January 6, 2021,; Andrew G. McCabe and David C. Williams, “Trump’s New Criminal Problem,” Politico, January 11, 2021,; Nicolás Rivero, “Is America experiencing a coup?” Quartz, January 6, 2021,; Jonathan Stevenson, “Trump’s Lingering Menace,” New York Review of Books, January 9, 2021,; Rebecca Tan et al., “Trump supporters storm U.S. Capitol, with one woman killed and tear gas fired,” Washington Post, January 7, 2021,; Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell, and Marissa J. Lang, “Capitol siege was planned online. Trump supporters now planning the next one,” Washington Post, January 9, 2021,; Aruna Viswanatha, “Conspiracy Charges Filed Over Capitol Riot,” Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2021,
  8. [8]David Benfell, [Twitter thread], Thread Reader App, July 16, 2020,; Dan Pfeiffer, “The Lincoln Project: Friend, Foe, or Fraud?” Crooked, July 16, 2020,; Roxanne Roberts, “The Lincoln Project’s plan for preserving the union: Drive Trump out of office by driving him nuts,” Washington Post, August 1, 2020,; Richard Wolffe, “Could this anti-Trump Republican group take down the president?” Guardian, August 1, 2020,
  9. [9]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012,
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Pure poison,” Not Housebroken, January 22, 2021,

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