Question and Answer

You know who questioned slavery? The enslaved people.

Van Jones

There’s no featured post this week.

This week everybody was talking about Ian

I won’t try to cover the devastation or the human suffering, because the mainstream media has been all over that. (I can’t tell you how many NBC reporters I’ve seen standing in front of a boat sitting on top of a crushed Chevy Suburban in Fort Myers. The network appears to have declared that particular site Ground Zero.)

I do think it’s worth noticing how normal Biden’s response has been. No Sharpie controversies. No playing politics with disaster funding. No presidential whining that some governor hasn’t been nice enough to him. No tossing paper towels into a crowd, as if relief supplies come from his personal largesse.

One big reason Biden was elected was to make government normal again. This is an example of him doing precisely that. It doesn’t matter that Governor DeSantis is one of Biden’s potential rivals in 2024. Florida needs help and it’s the president’s job to see that they get it.

Disasters like Ian emphasize a point that David Graeber made in Debt: the first 5,000 years: Society rests on a core of communism that we seldom see until an emergency happens. When everything else breaks down, we help people because they need it and expect people to help because they can.

In a pure market economy, you’d be perfectly justified to frame a disaster as an opportunity to make enormous profits by, say, only rescuing people who can pay you a lot. But we all understand how unseemly that would be.

(Crassus, the rich man who joined Caesar and Pompey in Rome’s First Triumvirate, made a lot of his money by training a crew of slaves to fight fires — which happened all the time in a crowded city built out of wood. When he saw a fire, he’d show up with his crew and offer to buy adjacent properties for a low, low price. After the sale, he’d have the fire put out. What a guy!)

As I predicted last week, the hurricane in Florida made us all forget Hurricane Fiona’s damage to Puerto Rico, which never did get the 24/7 coverage of Ian. But PR isn’t back to normal yet.

On Friday – as Floridians assessed the destruction left by Hurricane Ian and the storm made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 – more than 230,000 customers in Puerto Rico were still without electricity, according to the PowerOutage.US website. More than 800,000 customers were without power last weekend.

Nearly 80,000 customers – about 6% – of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority were without water on Friday, according to the government’s emergency portal system website.

Fox News even forgot Puerto Rico is part of the United States.

Martha MacCallum was telling Fox News viewers about the devastating impacts of hurricanes in places such as Cuba and Puerto Rico on Wednesday when she quipped: “Thank God we have better infrastructure in our country”.

We should never forget the reason Puerto Rico isn’t a state: race and language prejudice. If the US owned an island of three million English-speaking White people, it would have joined the union decades ago.

After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, right-wing Christians proclaimed it as a sign of God’s judgment. Franklin Graham in particular showed little sympathy for the city’s suffering:

This is one wicked city, OK? It’s known for Mardi Gras, for Satan worship. It’s known for sex perversion. It’s known for every type of drugs and alcohol and the orgies and all of these things that go on down there in New Orleans. … There’s been a black spiritual cloud over New Orleans for years. They believe God is going to use that storm to bring revival.

Those voices are silent now. Florida has been competing with Texas to lead the nation in persecuting trans youth, shoving LGBTQ people back into the closet, and keeping students ignorant about racism. So what about that, fundamentalist preachers? Does God speak through storms or not? What might God be trying to tell Ron DeSantis?

Or maybe all the signs-of-God’s-judgment talk has always just been a way for flim-flam artists like Graham to put their own words into God’s mouth.

and Putin’s annexations

He went through with it.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally declared four regions of Ukraine as part of Russia following sham referendums this week in eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin made the illegal decree as he lobbed even more threats against the United States and its allies, another potential escalation in the war in Ukraine and in Russia’s standoff with the West.

Putin moved to annex four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia — after officials in Russian-controlled territory staged an illegal vote on joining Russia. The Kremlin does not fully control any of these areas, and pollsters reportedly went door to door with armed soldiers in Russian-controlled zones, but Putin justified the decree by saying that it was done on behalf of the “will of millions of people.”

“Illegal” can be a loaded word, so I tracked down the basis for the claim that the annexation referendums are illegal. The 1958 commentary on the fourth Geneva Convention (1949) says:

As was emphasized in the commentary on Article 4, the occupation of territory in wartime is essentially a temporary, de facto situation, which deprives the occupied Power of neither its statehood nor its sovereignty; it merely interferes with its power to exercise its rights. That is what distinguishes occupation from annexation, whereby the Occupying Power acquires all or part of the occupied territory and incorporates it in its own territory.

Consequently occupation as a result of war, while representing actual possession to all appearances, cannot imply any right whatsoever to dispose of territory. As long as hostilities continue the Occupying Power cannot therefore annex the occupied territory, even if it occupies the whole of the territory concerned. A decision on that point can only be reached in the peace treaty.

The practical point of the annexation is to frame Ukraine’s current offensive (which is still advancing) as an attack on Russia itself rather than a recapture of its own territory. Putin has said he will use “all available means” to defend “Russia”, which raises the specter of nuclear war.

Yesterday’s NYT discusses the possibility that Russia will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

“The chance that Putin would strike out of the blue seems very low,” said Graham T. Allison, the author of a seminal 1971 book about the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Essence of Decision.” “But as Kennedy said back then, the plausible scenario is if a leader is forced to choose between a catastrophic humiliation and a roll of the dice that might yield success.”

Mr. Allison suspects Mr. Putin will not face that choice unless Ukraine succeeds in pushing Russian forces out of the areas Mr. Putin annexed on Friday.

For that reason, the next few weeks could prove a particularly dangerous time, a range of American and European officials agree. But Mr. Putin is not likely to use a nuclear weapon immediately.

That’s not very comforting. During the Cold War, I didn’t worry much about a Soviet first strike because it didn’t make sense from a Marxist worldview. Soviet dogma said that communism was the inevitable outcome of history. So why would you risk everything on a roll of the dice now if your eventual victory was certain? But that thinking doesn’t apply now. If Putin sees his regime going down, he might think rolling the dice is his best bet.

OTOH, a gangster regime rests on the self-interest calculations made by all the henchmen. If a lot of those calculations are based on the belief that Putin would never do something that could get them all killed, the possibility of nuclear war could start people up and down the regime reevaluating their cooperation.

I’d like to see Biden address Putin’s henchmen directly, in a statement something like this:

A nuclear attack is something that the world will never forget and never forgive. Anyone who in any way participates in such a decision or such an attack will never know a moment’s peace. You must realize that Putin’s regime will eventually fall and his protection will fail. When that happens, there will be no safe place for you. You will be hunted to the ends of the Earth.

As for how the US should respond if Putin does use a tactical nuke in Ukraine, I’ve been reluctant to say what I’m thinking, because I’d be just another ignorant guy spouting off. So I found a knowledgeable guy who is saying the same thing: former general and CIA head David Petraeus. NATO should respond directly, but with conventional weapons. The goal would be to make sure Russia lost at least as much as it had gained by using the nuke.

The US and its allies would destroy Russia’s troops and equipment in Ukraine – as well as sink its Black Sea fleet – if Russian president Vladimir Putin uses nuclear weapons in the country, former CIA director and retired four-star army general David Petraeus warned on Sunday.

I understand fully the temptation to back down: To the rest of the world, losing Ukraine is a small price to pay to avoid the kind of escalation that could lead to an all-out nuclear war. But giving in to threats means giving something up without getting anything back. Putin retains his nuclear arsenal and can make the same threat over the next conflict. Where does that road end?

CPAC has since deleted the tweet, but its reflex response to the annexations was to line up with Putin’s propaganda. The tweet referred to the four territories as “Ukrainian-occupied”, as if they had always been Russian and Ukraine is the aggressor.

A possibly related event is the rupture in the Nord Stream pipelines, which take Russian natural gas to Germany. This appears to be sabotage, but everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. In the short term it helps Russia, because this winter Europe will realize how much it depends on Russian energy. In the long run it hurts Russia, which will need the pipelines to sell natural gas after the Ukraine-related sanctions get resolved somehow.

and other right-wing foreign governments

Speaking of ultra-conservative foreign leaders, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro was up for re-election yesterday. He trails another former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known more simply as “Lula”) 48.4%-43.2%, which means a run-off will happen October 30. There has already been violence in this campaign, and it is expected to get worse.

In addition to how the run-off will come out, everyone wonders what Bolsonaro will do if he loses. Like Trump in 2020, Bolsonaro started questioning the integrity of the election before it happened. His supporters are more likely than his opponents to be armed, and the nation’s police support him. He probably has enough military support to keep Brazil’s army on the sidelines.

The far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) Party, which traces its ancestry back to the World War II Fascists, leads the new Italian government, elevating Giorgia Meloni to prime minister. Wikipedia explains the history.

FdI emerged from a right-wing split within Silvio Berlusconi‘s party, The People of Freedom (PdL), in December 2012. The bulk of the party leadership including Meloni, as well as the symbol of the movement (the tricolour flame), comes from the National Alliance (AN, 1995–2009) party, which had merged into PdL in 2009. AN was the heir to the Italian Social Movement (MSI, 1945–1995), a neo-fascist party founded by former members of the banned National Fascist Party (1921–1943) and the Republican Fascist Party (1943–1945).

American conservatives are ecstatic, and Meloni looks likely to join Hungarian authoritarian Viktor Orbán in the pantheon of foreign leaders who get cheered at CPAC (where she has already spoken twice). But lots of people on my social media feeds posted this quip:

I can’t believe they made Mussolini a woman in the reboot. This woke nonsense has ruined yet another franchise.

The most immediate problem raised by Italian neo-fascism is whether Italy will become pro-Putin voice inside NATO. So far, Meloni is not signalling that.

Meloni, 45, has sought to moderate her views recently, and this week she tweeted support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Yet as Europe teeters on the brink of a recession stemming at least partly from energy sanctions imposed on Russia, there are fears within the Biden administration and elsewhere that Meloni could slash what’s been a significant Italian contribution to Ukraine’s defense.

Such a move could have a domino effect and cause key Western allies to push for a negotiated end to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Trump backed that position Wednesday, one Ukraine’s leaders vehemently oppose because it would likely require giving up large swaths of their territory to Putin.

and the Supreme Court

The start of the new Court term led a lot of pundits to raise a bunch of the issues I discussed last week. The NYT Editorial Board wrote:

The actual cause of [the Supreme Court’s] historic unpopularity is no secret. Over the past several years, the court has been transformed into a judicial arm of the Republican Party. This project was taking shape more quietly for decades, but it shifted into high gear in 2016, when Justice Antonin Scalia died and Senate Republicans refused to let Barack Obama choose his successor, obliterating the practice of deferring to presidents to fill vacancies on the court. Within four years, the court had a 6-to-3 right-wing supermajority, supercharging the Republican appointees’ efforts to discard the traditions and processes that have allowed the court to appear fair and nonpartisan.

The WaPo’s Ruth Marcus wrote an extended introduction to the new Court term, which includes a number of race-related cases: affirmative action and voting rights in particular. Another case revisits whether anti-discrimination laws apply to Christian businesses that turn away gay customers for religious reasons. There’s an opportunity for the Court to limit the power the Clean Water Act gives the EPA, and to increase state legislatures’ power to sway elections.

and the pandemic

Case numbers are dropping almost everywhere except where I am in New England. Nationally, deaths stubbornly remain around 400 per day.

When President Biden declared the pandemic over a couple weeks ago, I had to decide when I’ll start thinking of it as over: When the death numbers get down to about 100 per day. That would be flu-like.

According to data collected by the CDC from 2010 to 2020, the agency estimates that the flu has caused 12,000 to 52,000 deaths annually.

100 per day would be 36,500 annually, right in the middle of a normal flu range. Until then, I’m going to keep wearing masks and avoiding indoor crowds.

and you also might be interested in …

The week’s dumbest controversy was about Lizzo playing James Madison’s flute. If you’ve seen references to it and want to know what it was about, click the link. But if you don’t care, don’t start caring on my account.

I aspire to someday have a life so carefree that how the Library of Congress handles James Madison’s flute rises to the top of my list.

The dumbest statement about a controversy had to be this one by Ron DeSantis, who was defending his initiative to put a right-wing slant on how Florida public schools teach American history.

It was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. No one had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights and that we are all created equal.

CNN’s Van Jones pointed out the obvious.

You know who questioned [slavery]? The enslaved people.

Like the history I was taught growing up, DeSantis’ history is based on the principle that only European views count. There’s no other way to justify the claim that “no one” questioned slavery before 1776, that Columbus “discovered” America, that Gutenberg (and not Bi Sheng of the Song Dynasty) invented movable type, or a bunch of other pseudo-facts I remember from my K-12 years.

The origins of movable type.

But even if you only count English-speaking White people, DeSantis’ history is just wrong.

In the 1569 case it had been ruled that English law could not recognise slavery. This view, although overturned by the ruling in Butts V. Penny, was subsequently upheld in 1701 when the Chief Justice, Sir John Holt, ruled that a slave became free as soon as he arrived in England. In this view, different from, but no less unequivocal than that of the Solicitor-General in 1677, slavery was illegal.

Judge Cannon continues to put Trump above the law. Once again, the special master that Trump chose wanted to pin down exactly what he’s claiming — this time about whether the FBI planted documents or not. But no. Those claims are allowed to float, and presumably to influence the case, without even being stated for the record, much less supported by evidence.

New Tory Prime Minister Liz Truss’ first major act was to propose a gigantic tax cut for the rich.

Last week, Truss’ government announced that they would cut taxes by £45 billion ($48 billion) in a bid to get the UK economy moving again, with a package that includes scrapping the highest rate of income tax for top earners from 45% to 40% and a big increase in government borrowing to slash energy prices for millions of households and businesses this winter.

Truss has acknowledged mistakes in how the proposal was rolled out, but seems to be standing by it, even as the pound crashes. But not everybody is behind her.

Conservative members of parliament fear the combination of tax cuts along with huge public spending to help people cope with energy bills, rising inflation, rising interest rates and a falling pound are going to make winning the next general election impossible.

Who better to comment than UK fake-news personality Jonathan Pie?

Having passed the House and gotten support from Mitch McConnell, a bill to reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887 looks likely to become law. The bill eliminates various loopholes and vagueries that Trump used to try to hang onto power after losing the 2020 election.

McConnell’s support is one more step in the continued souring of his relationship with Trump. Obviously, Trump doesn’t like the implication that his failed coup attempt was the kind of thing America should avoid in the future. But he really lashed out after McConnell supported a continuing resolution to keep the government open until after the election. On his Trump-centered Twitter-clone, the former president said McConnell “has a death wish”, which I (and a lot of other people) interpret as a suggestion that McConnell be assassinated. The same post insulted McConnell’s Chinese-American wife, Elaine Chao, who left Trump’s cabinet after January 6. Trump called her McConnell’s “China loving wife Coco Chow”.

Explain to me again how “divisive” Joe Biden is.

Speaking at a Trump rally in Michigan Saturday, Marjorie Taylor Greene said

I’m not going to mince words with you all. Democrats want Republicans dead. They’ve already started the killings.

Again, the point here seems to be to incite and justify right-wing violence.

This week I learned two words: Having an implant removed is called “explanting”. And a person known by a one-word name (like Madonna or Lula) is “mononymous”.

and let’s close with some practical information

Ryan North’s career in comic books (Dinosaur Comics, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, …) has led him to spend an enormous amount of time contemplating plausible supervillain schemes. Now you can benefit from his lifetime of research by reading his book How to Take Over the World.

The infrastructure chapter alone could save you billions. Where should you build your secret lair? (Not at the bottom of the ocean or on the Moon. You’d just be creating problems for yourself.) How much space do you need to achieve food and energy independence from the outside world? (The Biosphere 2 research is invaluable here.)

And then there are the more specific villainous plans. How can you create your own dinosaurs? (Actual dinosaur DNA is unrecoverable now, so the Jurassic Park technique can’t possibly work. But you might be able to create pseudo-dinosaurs by manipulating the DNA expression of the dinosaurs’ bird descendants. This technique also avoids a lot of catastrophic outcomes, because your dinosaurs’ offspring would be birds again.) What’s the most plausible path to immortality? How can you control the weather? (The plan here looks a lot like the one Neil Stephenson explores in Termination Shock, which was probably being written simultaneously.)

Supervillainy may seem like a radical career choice, but there’s no time to lose, because Disney owns Marvel Comics and Warner-Discovery owns DC. Think about what that means:

Two of the most powerful multinational corporations on the planet have spent decades, in plain sight, paying some of the most creative people alive today to design increasingly credible world-domination schemes.

So if you don’t take over the world, one of those two undoubtedly will. Your reign is bound to be better than theirs.

The Monday Morning Teaser

A lot is going on in the world right now, but none of it jumped out as something to write a featured post about. So this week’s Sift is an extra-long weekly summary, which should come out around 11 EDT.

Many of this week’s most important events happened outside the US: Putin annexed four Ukrainian regions that his forces don’t even fully control, and saber-rattled about using nuclear weapons to defend them against Ukraine’s still-advancing army. Brazil held the first round of a presidential election, setting up a run-off that will probably either unseat President Jair Bolsonairo or see him hang onto power by violence. (He’s called “the Trump of the Tropics” for a reason.) Italy has installed a political heir of Mussolini as its new prime minister. (Make Rome Great Again.)

Domestically, Hurricane Ian’s devastation of Florida’s gulf coast (and its lesser assault on South Carolina) dominated the news. The mainstream media covers such things pretty extensively, so I’ll mainly focus on second-level responses (like Biden refusing to play politics with disaster relief, how quickly everyone forgot about Puerto Rico, and the silence of the preachers who claimed Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans was God’s punishment of a “wicked city”).

The Supreme Court started a new term, leaving the nation to wonder what surprises its ruling junta has in store for us this time around.

And finally, I’ll close with something I know you’ve all been yearning for: some expert advice on how to take over the world.

Democratic Process

The Dobbs decision is the culmination of a decades-long effort by Republicans to capture the Supreme Court and use it, not just to undercut abortion rights but also to implement an unpopular agenda they cannot implement through the democratic process.

– Ian Millhiser “The Case Against the Supreme Court

This week’s featured post is “The Court’s problems run deeper than Roe“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s bad week

Last week’s featured post was Trump-centered, and I refuse to do that two weeks in a row. Fortunately, other people covered the week’s developments quite well. The three big events were:

  • The New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a sweeping civil lawsuit accusing the Trump family and the Trump organization of fraud.
  • The special master in the Mar-a-Lago search case has been pinning Trump’s lawyers down: They can’t just vaguely imply stuff (like that Trump declassified the secret documents the FBI found or that the FBI may have planted evidence). If they want to be taken seriously, they have to make specific claims and back those claims up with evidence.
  • On appeal, the 11th Circuit reversed Judge Cannon’s decision to take the documents marked classified away from investigators and turn them over to the special master.

Those last two fulfilled the hopes I expressed last week:

The Justice Department has appealed to the 11th Circuit, which also includes a lot of Trump-appointed judges. Hopefully, though, these are real judges who will insist on applying the law, even to the man who appointed them.

The NY lawsuit accuses Trump of claiming fraudulent valuations for his properties: high when he needed a loan, low when assessed for taxes.

James says in the suit that she estimates the financial benefits from this “fraudulent scheme” were $250 million. She wants Trump to give up those benefits and be permanently banned from serving as an officer in any New York business entity, and to ban the Trump Organization from buying commercial real estate in the state for five years.

Fraud is a crime, but this is not a criminal case. Other prosecutors investigated this as a criminal matter and decided not to proceed. Probably for two reasons:

  • The standard of proof in a civil case is lower: a preponderance of the evidence rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • A jury might not be convinced that the scheme had victims. Banks that would not have made loans based on accurate valuations nonetheless got paid back. (Tax fraud would have to be prosecuted by the IRS, not the State of New York.)

As usual, Trump and his cult are claiming “witch hunt”. However, they don’t seem to be refuting any of the specific claims in the indictment. They’re throwing around a lot of outrage, but not offering a lot of facts.

Trump’s two main defenses don’t sound very good politically: His lies didn’t hurt anybody, and besides, everybody else in his business is a crook too.

Trump’s claim to Sean Hannity that he could declassify documents “by thinking” drew a lot of ridicule. His lawyers have refused to advance any such claim in court, and I doubt they will. After all, what if Biden’s first thought after taking office was to reclassify all Trump’s documents?

I take the claim as an indication that has no evidence to support his declassification claim. Ultimately, you just have to believe in the telepathic powers of the presidency.

In the same quote, Trump seemed to slip up:

If you’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying, ‘It’s declassified,’ even by thinking about it because you’re sending it to Mar-a-Lago or wherever you’re sending it. [my italics]

To me, that implies he has more stolen classified documents hidden away somewhere else.

The weirdest and potentially scariest Trump news has to do with his increasing embrace of the QAnon movement, which is counting on him to save us all from the world-dominating conspiracy of liberal pedophiles by publicly executing thousands of them.

In a recent rally in Youngstown, Ohio (purportedly for Senate candidate J. D. Vance, who Trump belittled), Trump closed with a QAnon anthem playing in the background and people raising their index fingers in an almost religious salute.

The right-wing research I do confuses the social-media algorithms: Facebook has been showing me ads for the Trump Store, which is marking the end of summer with a sale on official Trump-branded sweatshirts. (Only $63.75!) I was going to leave a comment asking if they had any orange jumpsuits, but somebody had beaten me to it.

How about it, liberal entrepreneurs? I’m sure there’s a market.

and Russia

As his forces continue to lose on the battlefield, Putin keeps doubling down. Wednesday he announced mobilization of 300K reservists, pledging that he will “use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.” He was clear that “all the means” includes nuclear weapons, but left vague what threats would make their use necessary.

According to The Economist, Russia has not had a mobilization since World War II.

Reports have emerged of men receiving conscription papers en masse, especially in poorer areas in the east and south of the country such as Chechnya and Dagestan. In Buryatia, an ethnic-Mongolian region in eastern Siberia, men were handed draft papers in the middle of the night, regardless of their experience or profession. According to Alexandra Garmazhapova of the Free Buryatia Foundation, an anti-war group, people were drafted within minutes of Mr Putin’s speech. …

According to RAND, a think-tank, many of Russia’s reservists lack military training sufficient or recent enough to be effective fighters. Experts suggest that training could take months. Yet in one recent video, officers can be heard telling newly mobilised recruits that they will get just two weeks of training before being sent to Ukraine.

The mobilization has led to protests, which are illegal in Putin’s Russia. Reportedly, 1300 protesters were arrested Wednesday. The NYT reported yesterday that 745 were detained from protests all across the country.

Thousands more have fled since [the mobilization announcement], and many flights to destinations where Russians are not required to have a visa have sold out. Border crossings with Finland and Georgia are clogged with cars.

The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum suggests that Putin’s speech itself was a sign of chaos in the Kremlin.

If an American president announced a major speech, booked the networks for 8 p.m., and then disappeared until the following morning, the analysis would be immediate and damning: chaos, disarray, indecision. The White House must be in crisis.

In the past 24 hours, this is exactly what happened in Moscow. The Russian president really did announce a major speech, alert state television, warn journalists, and then disappear without explanation. Although Vladimir Putin finally gave his speech to the nation this morning [i.e. Wednesday], the same conclusions have to apply: chaos, disarray, indecision. The Kremlin must be in crisis.

Putin has also begun changing the definition of “Russia and our people” by holding referendums on whether four parts of Ukraine that his forces occupy will become part of Russia. This opens up the question of whether Putin would use nuclear weapons if Ukraine’s current offensive started recapturing Ukrainian territory that Russia is annexing.

Vox summarizes the reasons Russians give for being confident they will win this war.

  • The West is weak and shiftless; it won’t match Russia’s staying power.
  • China will be Russia’s lifeline.
  • Russia doesn’t need sanctioned Western tech all that much.

The author doubts all these points.

That’s the Russian point of view, but what about the pro-Russia American Right? What are they telling themselves? Here’s a piece from The American Conservative by Trump Pentagon veteran Douglas Macgregor about how badly Ukraine is losing the war.

Moscow’s determination to destroy Ukrainian forces at the least cost to Russian lives prevailed. Ukrainian casualties were always heavier than reported from the moment Russian troops crossed into Eastern Ukraine, but now, thanks to the recent failure of Ukrainian counterattacks in the Kherson region, they’ve reached horrific levels that are impossible to conceal. … Moscow is in no hurry. The Russians are nothing if not methodical and deliberate. Ukrainian forces are bleeding to death in counterattack after counterattack. Why rush? Moscow can be patient.

Macgregor made the same case to Tucker Carlson Thursday, adding the bizarre charge that it is the West that is threatening poor innocent Russia with nukes. (Zelenskyy, Carlson elaborates, is “demanding that we preemptively nuke Russia”, a charge that not even Russian state media outlet RT is making.)

As a reality check, I went back to see what Macgregor was saying in June, when Russia was still grinding out small territorial gains. Western media, he claimed then, was “preparing the public for Ukraine’s military collapse”.

Kiev’s war with Moscow is lost. Ukrainian forces are being bled white. Trained replacements do not exist in sufficient numbers to influence the battle, and the situation grows more desperate by the hour. No amount of U.S. and allied military aid or assistance short of direct military intervention by U.S. and NATO ground forces can change this harsh reality.

The problem today is not ceding territory and population to Moscow in Eastern Ukraine that Moscow already controls. The future of the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions along with the Donbas is decided. Moscow is also likely to secure Kharkov and Odessa, two cities that are historically Russian and Russian-speaking, as well as the territory that adjoins them. These operations will extend the conflict through the summer.

That take turned out to be totally wrong; summer is over, Ukraine’s military hasn’t collapsed, and Odessa and Kharkiv are still securely Ukrainian. But why should American conservatives care about the failed predictions of the past? Putin is great! His brilliant plan will prevail! Glory to Trump! Glory to Russia!

BTW: This is another example of the difference between Left and Right in America. Not that liberal pundits always make accurate predictions, but they are much more likely to regard a huge mistake as something they need to explain. Paul Krugman, for example, was wrong about inflation. But he owned up to it and tried to learn from his mistake. Macgregor just charges ahead with new predictions of Ukrainian doom.

and hurricanes

Puerto Rico continues to dig out from Hurricane Fiona. Like Maria in 2017, it took down the electric grid. Nearly 3/4 of a million people are still without power.

Meanwhile, Ian was upgraded to a hurricane this morning and is expected to keep strengthening until it makes landfall somewhere on Florida’s gulf coast on Wednesday.

The coverage of these two storms tells you something about the importance of statehood. Florida is going to get far more attention than Puerto Rico.

and you also might be interested in …

I’ve gotten my bivalent booster Covid vaccine.

Women in Iran seem to have had enough with the theocracy. Protest movements like this are hard to gauge, especially from a distance. Who knew the George Floyd protests would spread like they did? An observation from Vox:

One thing that’s certain is that protests in Iran are becoming more frequent, says [Ali] Vaez [an analyst with International Crisis Group], which shows the degree of discontent. “We used to see this kind of outburst of public ire once a decade in Iran,” he told me. “Now it’s becoming every other year, basically, and it’s becoming more ferocious, more violent.”

As the 100th anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome approaches, Italy looks ready to put another far-right government in power.

DeSantis’ stunt of flying Venezuelan asylum-seekers to Martha’s Vineyard just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

The Florida Republican refuses to release the state contract that funded the flights.

WaPo’s Greg Sargent speculates about the reason: The flights don’t match the budgetary language used to fund them. If that’s true, DeSantis can’t hide it forever.

Vox untangles the Mississippi welfare fraud scandal, which is bigger than NFL Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre.

What happened in Mississippi is less a case of criminal masterminds perpetrating a heist, and closer to walking into a vault that welfare reform left open and unguarded, all while purporting to protect the government from mooching citizens.

It points to the fundamental problem with putting people who don’t care about poverty in charge of poverty programs. In their minds, this is all wasted money anyway, so why not steal it?

and let’s close with something celebratory

Rosh Hashanah began yesterday and lasts through Tuesday. It is the first of the annual High Holy Days, which will conclude October 4-5 with Yom Kippur. Here’s a quick intro to Rosh Hashanah, which notes:

While Rosh Hashanah tends to be a joyful celebration, Yom Kippur is a more somber holiday often marked by fasting.

This musical piece sounds pretty joyful.

The Court’s problems run deeper than Roe

On September 10, the New York Post ran the headline “Chief Justice John Roberts defends Supreme Court legitimacy“. His speech the previous evening at a conference of judges in Colorado inspired discussions on several news networks around the question: Is the current Supreme Court legitimate?

I was reminded of this passage from the 1948 political novel All the King’s Men.

It was one of those embarrassing questions like “Do you think my wife is virtuous?” or “Did you know I am a Jew?” which are embarrassing, not because of anything you might say for an answer, the truth or a lie, but because the fellow asked the question at all.

The problem isn’t so much how anyone might answer the question of the Court’s legitimacy, but that we have to answer it at all. It didn’t used to be up for debate; but now it is. The Court has done that to itself.

Polls show the Court’s approval rating at record lows. Court-packing — expanding the Court [1] so that new justices can be appointed — had been off the table politically since FDR tried it in the 1930s. But in a Marquette Law School poll taken earlier this month, 18% strongly favored increasing the number of justices, and 33% somewhat favored it, adding up to a slim majority. With some demographic groups, court-packing was fairly popular:

Expanding the court was favored by larger majorities of a number of groups: 63% of Black respondents, 61% of Hispanic respondents, 60+% of those ages 18-44, 60% of women and 56% of those making less than $30,000 per year.

These kinds of numbers matter, not because Congress is likely to take up a court-packing proposal, much less pass one, but because the whole idea constitutes a blasphemy against the mythology of the Court. The Supreme Court is supposed to be a kind of priesthood, whose lifetime appointments remove them from the hurly-burly of worldly concerns. In his confirmation hearing in 2005, Roberts waxed idealistic:

Mr. Chairman, I come before the committee with no agenda.

I have no platform.

Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.

I have no agenda, but I do have a commitment. If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind. I will fully and fairly analyze the legal arguments that are presented. I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

So what’s Roberts’ defense of the Court now?

Simply because people disagree with opinions, is not a basis for questioning the legitimacy of the court

But the problem isn’t just that the Court’s reversal of Roe — or its rulings on guns or voting rights or campaign finance or the separation of church and state — aren’t popular. The Court’s legitimacy problem runs much deeper.

The law changed not because anything changed in the world, but because new justices joined the Court.

It’s not unheard of for the Supreme Court to reverse a precedent that has stood for many years. Plessy v Ferguson, for example, established the separate-but-equal principle in 1896, and was reversed by Brown v Board of Education in 1954. But the contrast between the Brown and Dobbs reversals is striking.

The Brown reversal was unanimous, not a 5-4 decision where the three most recently appointed justices made the difference. The arguments in Brown represented a change in tactics from those in Plessy. And the world had changed around Plessy: The Brown decision cited recent psychological research on the effects of segregation on Black children; the federal government submitted a brief about how racial discrimination was hurting the United States in the Cold War competition in Africa and Asia; Black soldiers had fought for the US in two world wars; and the supposed inferiority of Black people had been challenged in sports by athletes like Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson.

But what created the Dobbs decision was the appointment of new justices. Donald Trump had run on the promise that his judicial nominations would be “all picked by the Federalist Society“, which opposed abortion rights. He fulfilled that promise: He made three appointments, all of whom voted to overturn Roe.

Squaring that record with Roberts’ confirmation-hearing idealism requires a lot of unconvincing verbal gymnastics: True, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett didn’t get votes in the Senate by promising to overturn Roe. (Quite the opposite, they secured the final votes they needed by promising to respect precedent, which they did not do.) The political process was more roundabout: Trump promised to let the Federalist Society pick his judges, and Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett sent the Federalist Society sufficient signals to convince them that they would overturn Roe.

So yes, they are politicians who got their positions by (indirectly) promising to do certain things. They were put on the Court to pitch and bat, not to call balls and strikes. That fact was widely known, and anti-abortion legislatures intentionally teed up laws that would allow the new justices to overturn Roe.

The Court’s conservative majority is due to political shenanigans in the Senate.

When Justice Scalia died, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace him. Garland had a spotless record that left Republican senators no excuse to vote against him. So instead Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just refused to recognize that Garland had been nominated at all, ignoring the Constitutional directive to advise and consent on nominations, giving the excuse that the Garland nomination was too close to the 2016 election. That argument went out the window, though, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and Barrett’s nomination was raced through the Senate so that she could be seated in time for any 2020 election controversies.

The exchange below is instructive: Al Franken says the Garland/Barrett hypocrisy “destroyed the legitimacy of the Court”. Republican Alice Stewart argues that the Garland maneuver is what happens “historically” when the Senate is controlled by a different party than the White House. And Franken refuses to let that lie pass: “When has it ever happened before?” he demands, and won’t stop asking the question, because Stewart can’t answer. It had never happened before.

The Court’s conservative majority is the result of minority rule.

The Founders strongly believed in the sovereignty of the People, but they left two major loopholes in the Constitution that have opened the door to minority rule: the Electoral College and the Senate. The Court’s current majority could not exist without both of them.

Trump’s three justices would never have been appointed if the Electoral College in 2016 had not reversed the decision of the voters: Hillary Clinton beat Trump nationally by nearly three million votes. [2] Worse, Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority did not represent a majority of the American people.

For the last thirty years, Republican Senate majorities have relied not on the support of a majority of American voters, but on using small-state victories to overcome large-state defeats. Since 1990, there has been only one six-year election cycle (i.e., the period during which all Senate seats come up for election) when Republican Senate candidates got more votes than their Democratic opponents. It hasn’t happened since the 1994/1996/1998 cycle. [3]

In other words, if the Senate represented the American people, Mitch McConnell would never have been majority leader.

Under a majority-rule constitution, a Democratic-majority Senate would have seated Merrick Garland, Hillary Clinton would have nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement to a Democratic-majority Senate, and Justice Kennedy would be hoping to live long enough to see a Republican president. Liberals would have a 5-4 majority, counting the sometimes-liberal Kennedy as part of the conservative 4.

The Court actively participates in a minority-rule vicious cycle.

It would be one thing if happenstance (such as who dies when) had created the conservative Court majority, and that Court went on to make impartial principled rulings about elections.

But conservative justices on the Court have been actively promoting the minority rule that installed them. Justice Roberts, for example, wrote the 5-4 opinion that gutted the Voting Rights Act, and has continued to chip away at what remains of it. [4]

That opinion has allowed Republicans to pass voter suppression laws in swing states like Georgia and Wisconsin, which might well decide which party controls the Senate next year. Roberts’ ruling could make the difference that puts Mitch McConnell back into a position where he could block a Biden nominee if some member of the Court’s conservative majority should happen to die or retire unexpectedly.

It’s a vicious cycle: A Court approved by minority rule extends minority rule.

The Roberts Court has put its thumb on the electoral scales in a variety of other ways, consistently favoring Republicans. It has refused to ban gerrymandering, arguing the absurd point that the voters should take action against the very gerrymandering that makes their votes irrelevant. It has opened the spigots of corporate campaign donations and dark money, which overwhelmingly flows to conservative candidates.

Again, we can see the results: Democrats currently lead in the generic congressional ballot polls by an average of 1.3%. And yet Republicans are favored to control the House. Why? Because Democrats have to win by 3-5% to gain a majority of seats.

Compare two recent “wave” elections. In 2018, 53.4% of voters supported Democratic House candidates, compared to 44.8% who supported Republicans. Those votes gave Democrats a 235-199 majority.

In 2010, 51.7% voted for Republican House candidates compared to 44.9% for Democrats. The resulting Republican majority? 242-193.

Fewer Republican votes yield more Republican seats. That’s a problem for people who believe in democracy, but not for the Roberts Court. The more Republican seats, the better.

It could soon get worse. The Court has decided to hear Moore v Harper, a case which raises the once-absurd “independent state legislature” doctrine. Under this theory, rules for federal elections are set by state legislatures, and no one can overrule them: governors can’t veto and state supreme courts can’t find that they violated the state constitution.

When you consider that some state legislatures are so gerrymandered that they aren’t really democratic institutions any more [5], giving them total control of federal elections is a recipe for permanent minority rule.

The Court has an ethics problem.

The only ethics code that applies to the justices is the vague “good behavior” standard in the Constitution. Each justice makes his own decisions about conflicts of interest and whether to recuse from a case. The current justices are abusing that lack of standards.

The most egregious recent case is Clarence Thomas, who rules on cases where his wife has an interest.

But also, a federal panel in 2018 dismissed 83 ethics complaints against Brett Kavanaugh, not because they weren’t serious, but because “there is no existing authority that allows lower court judges to investigate or discipline Supreme Court justices.” And we have since discovered that the FBI investigation into Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault accusation against Kavanaugh was rigged to find nothing.

Unpopularity is just the beginning.

Any judge has to be ready to bear the heat of making an unpopular decision, if that’s what the rule of law requires. But when changes on the Court immediately lead to changes in the meaning of the laws, the public is right to be suspicious.

And when those changes on the law are based on a minority’s ability to change the Court without ever changing the minds of the electorate, that’s a problem. Vox’ Ian Millhiser sums that problem up:

The Dobbs decision is the culmination of a decades-long effort by Republicans to capture the Supreme Court and use it, not just to undercut abortion rights but also to implement an unpopular agenda they cannot implement through the democratic process.

Worse, the Court is abusing its power to change the democratic process itself, and so is rewarding the party that installed it.

That — and not a few unpopular decisions — is the source of the Court’s legitimacy problem.

[1] Many people think the number of justices is set in the Constitution, but it isn’t. Article III says simply:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.

leaving the details of the Court totally up to Congress. The actual number of justices has changed many times. The original court had six justices. The nine-justice court was established in 1869, and has stayed at nine ever since.

The objection to court-packing is obvious: It sets up the possibility of a tit-for-tat cycle, where new justices are approved whenever a new party takes power. But accepting that argument leaves a question unanswered: The Court has already been packed. What should be done about that?

[2] Some people add Justice Alito to this total, because he was appointed by George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000. However, Bush nominated Alito during his second term, after winning the popular vote in 2004. You can argue that if Gore had been elected in 2000, Bush couldn’t have been re-elected in 2004. But that argument takes us a little too far down the alternate-history rabbit hole. Gore might have lost his re-election bid in 2004, and the Republican who beat him might have appointed someone like Alito.

[3] The Senate that confirmed Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 is a good example. During the 2014/2016/2018 election cycle (when the senators serving in 2020 were elected), Democratic Senate candidates got 50.3% of the votes compared to the Republicans’ 43.3%. But that minority of votes netted the Republicans a 53-47 majority.

[4] It’s impossible to read Roberts’ 2013 Voting Rights Act decision as a legal argument; it’s a political argument, pure and simple. Here’s my summary at the time:

The VRA was vaguely justified in 1965 and is vaguely unjustified now, because “things have changed”. If I were a congressman, I would have no idea how to revise the VRA so that it passes constitutional muster. If Congress does revise it, lower court judges who rule on it will just be guessing about its constitutionality. It will have to go back to the Supreme Court before anyone knows whether it’s really a law again, because there are no standards in Roberts’ opinion by which a revision can be judged.

[5] According to a report by the Schwartzenegger Institute:

59 million Americans live under minority rule in their U.S. state legislatures following the 2018 elections. Minority rule is defined as the party with the minority of votes in the most recent election nevertheless controlling the majority of seats in the state legislature subsequent to that election. Six U.S. state legislatures were drawn by legislatures or partisan-leaning committees that resulted in minority rule following the 2018 elections. These states are Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin

Note that all six of those states were Republican legislatures ruling over a Democratic electorate.

The Monday Morning Teaser

A few weeks ago, John Roberts defended the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, claiming “Simply because people disagree with opinions, is not a basis for questioning the legitimacy of the court.”

It’s noteworthy that Roberts feels the Court’s legitimacy needs defending, but the reasons it needs defending aren’t just that its recent decisions are unpopular. The public has started looking at the justices as politicians with agendas, because that’s what are. I’ll discuss that in this week’s featured post, which is currently titled “The Court’s problems run deeper than Roe.” It should post between 9 and 10 EDT.

The weekly summary covers Donald Trump’s very bad week, which I refuse to devote another featured post to. Also his buddy Vladimir Putin’s doubling down on his Ukraine gamble. (An interesting part of that note: the bizarre take on that war that conservative American media is putting out.) Then we have hurricanes, digging deeper into the fly-refugees-to-Martha’s-Vineyard episode, unrest in Iran, and a few other things, before closing with a Rodgers and Hammerstein interpretation of Rosh Hashanah. I’ll try to get that out by noon.

Moving On

Even if Durham approached the probe with earnest sincerity, the real reason he was appointed is that Donald Trump’s political con requires the promise of total vindication right around the corner. For a time, Durham provided that hope for Trump backers. But now, as Trump moves on to other ploys, the Durham probe has served its purpose, even though it has produced no major convictions or epiphanies.

– David Graham
The John Durham Probe Gave Trump What He Wanted

This week’s featured post is “How the Trump Grift Works“.

This week everybody was talking about something that doesn’t interest me

I have spent exactly zero time these last two weeks watching coverage related to the British royal family. I just don’t see what connects the royals to anything I find meaningful. If I’d been running a news network, I would have briefly announced developments on the days they happened: the Queen’s death, Charles’ coronation, her funeral — and then moved on to something that might actually matter.

and Ukraine

After a grinding Russian offensive in the summer made only minimal gains, Ukraine has been striking back surprisingly effectively. It has regained a comparatively large amount of territory in the Kharkiv area, and put Russian forces into a disorganized retreat.

Like the collapse of Russia’s Kyiv offensive in the spring, this new series of reverses is raising questions about the effectiveness of the Russian military in general. Putin is also beginning to face criticism from the political right, from Russians who believe in the goals of the war but are disappointed by how it’s going.

The main thing to worry about is that Putin will respond by escalating further, which is why Biden warned him not to use tactical nuclear weapons.

and the fall elections

It’s hard to imagine what Lindsey Graham is thinking as he introduces a national 15-week abortion ban. It’s obviously not going to pass in this Congress, and it’s also giving Democrats a wedge issue for the midterm elections: It unites Democrats and splits Republicans.

Nationally, the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe has motivated Democratic voters in special elections and in the Kansas referendum. The Republican response has amounted to “Calm down. The Dobbs decision is just federalism; it returns the abortion question to the states.”

But Graham’s bill points out the obvious: National abortion bans will be proposed in every Congress from now on, and Republicans will not be able to stand up to their base and vote them down. So if Americans elect Republican majorities in Congress and regain the presidency, abortion will eventually be banned.

Graham is pitching his bill as a “late-term” abortion ban, but 15 weeks is early in the second trimester, and has never previously been considered “late-term”.

Polls show that late-term abortion bans are more popular than general abortion bans. But I encourage Democrats to keep raising this question to women who have ever been pregnant: “At what point in your pregnancy did your judgment become inferior to the government’s?” Late-term abortions are nearly all complex situations where difficult decisions need to be made. I can’t imagine that any large percentage of those decisions will be made better by Congress than by the people actually involved.

One reason I didn’t panic when Democrats were doing so badly in the polls was that I expected Republicans to do what they’re doing: nominate extreme MAGA candidates who represent about a third of the electorate.

Latest example: Don Bolduc, who is the Republican Senate nominee in New Hampshire. Incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan won by a whisker in 2016, so she has been an obvious target for Republicans looking to flip the 50-50 Senate. Popular Governor Chris Sununu probably could have won that seat, but decided he didn’t want to be part of a Republican Senate caucus with no policy other than blocking whatever President Biden wants to do.

So the primary came down to Bolduc against a more mainstream Republican, Chuck Morse.

Bolduc holds a wide variety of extreme beliefs: He wants to eliminate both the FBI and the Department of Education, has backed former President Donald Trump’s lies about the election and called GOP Gov. Chris Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer.”

But Sununu has pledged to support Bolduc, because mainstream Republicans are content to watch the fascists take over their party. Bolduc, meanwhile, has had a sudden conversion on election denial: The day after his primary opponent conceded, he announced that he no longer believes Biden stole the 2020 election from Trump.

One of Bolduc’s most charming positions is that voters shouldn’t be able to pick their senators at all: He wants to repeal the 17th Amendment and return to the system where state legislatures picked senators.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. And it worked until the 17th Amendment.

Weirdly, Bolduc sees this as an anti-corruption measure, when the pre-amendment Senate was a big part of what made the Gilded Age notoriously corrupt, as memorialized in the famous political cartoon “Bosses of the Senate“. Bolduc clearly doesn’t know American history.

So anyway, New Hampshire: If you don’t vote for Hassan, you may never get to vote for a senator again.

Another example is the Massachusetts governor’s race. Massachusetts is one of the bluest states in the country, but it has a history of electing moderate Republican governors — like currently popular Governor Charlie Baker, as well as Mitt Romney and Bill Weld in the not-so-distant past.

So there’s every reason to believe the GOP could have put up a real fight this year. Instead, they nominated MAGA Republican Geoff Diehl. The lastest poll has him trailing Democrat Maura Healey by a ridiculous margin, 52%-26%.

Of course Republicans are doctoring videos to exaggerate the effects of John Fetterman’s stroke. How did I not see that coming?

and the secret documents Trump stole

I’ve been reluctant to talk about “Trump judges” in a way that implies they’re all MAGA cultists. First, because it’s too reminiscent of the way Trump himself has talked about “Obama judges“, as if the judiciary is necessarily partisan. If we start assuming that every judge is in the tank for the party that appointed him or her, it’s hard to see how democracy stands.

But also, a number of “Trump judges” have held the line against his most outrageous attacks against democracy, and even his Supreme Court appointees refused to overturn the election he lost.

However, it’s hard to explain Judge Aileen Cannon’s rulings in the Mar-a-Lago documents case without assuming some kind of bias or corruption. Her position makes no sense as law, and gives Trump a unique above-the-law status.

Most telling is the way that she takes seriously claims that Trump has made in public, but which his lawyers have not raised in court: that the clearly marked secret documents the FBI recovered may not actually be classified at all, and that this is something for her appointed special master to decide. (Based on what?)

In their court filings, Trump’s lawyers imply claims they do not actually state, referring to “purportedly classified” documents and observing that the government “wrongly assumes that if a document has a classification marking, it remains classified in perpetuity”.

Any real judge would have pressed them to make a factual claim: Did Trump declassify these documents or not? When? How? I believe Trump’s lawyers would have backed down because they know Trump’s public claims are lies, just as Trump’s lawyers often refused to claim fraud in his election lawsuits. Lawyers can be sanctioned for lying to the court, but not for vague implications that the judge lets stand.

Cannon, however, did not ask the obvious questions, and instead just observed that there is a “dispute” about the documents’ classification that the court needs to resolve somehow.

The Justice Department has appealed to the 11th Circuit, which also includes a lot of Trump-appointed judges. Hopefully, though, these are real judges who will insist on applying the law, even to the man who appointed them.

the Martha’s Vineyard stunt

You’ve probably already heard about Florida Governor DeSantis using state funds to fly Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. They arrived not knowing where they were (since DeSantis’ people had lied to them), and local officials were not told they were coming. In short, it was a political stunt designed to create maximal chaos. The Martha’s Vineyard community seem to have handled it well, and the Venezuelans are now housed at a military base on Cape Cod.

Similar stunts have been going on for a while, as when Texas Governor Abbott bused about 100 Hispanic immigrants to Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence, again unannounced.

To some, this is reminiscent of the “reverse freedom rides” that Southern racists organized (again, tricking their victims) in the 1960s. Others wonder about the political reaction from Florida’s large Venezuelan population, after seeing how little regard DeSantis has for people escaping the Maduro government.

My reaction to this series of events is to ask: How does dropping migrants in a resort community with no warning make anything better? DeSantis and Abbott seem to share one dominant motive: spite.

The underlying problem is that both treaties and our own laws require the United States to allow people facing persecution in other countries to claim asylum here. (This is largely a response to the shameful way Jewish refugees were treated when they tried to escape the Holocaust.) Once refugees get here and turn themselves in [1], we are legally obligated to hear their claims. Currently, the asylum courts are overwhelmed, and it can take years to decide if someone’s claims of persecution are legitimate.

As it did in so many areas, and as Trump continues to do today, the Trump administration dealt with the asylum problem by ignoring the law. The Biden administration refuses to do that, and systemic reforms have been logjammed in Congress for many years.

It’s important that we get this figured out soon, because in the coming decades many millions of people will become climate refugees, as their homes are flooded out or their fields become deserts. What’s our plan for dealing with the ones who appear on our border? Let them all in? Shoot them?

[1] The Republican rhetoric about “securing the Southern border” is way off-base when we’re talking about asylum seekers. They are not avoiding or breaking our laws, they are seeking the protection of our laws. And of course no one worries about our Northern border, because we think of Canadians as White English-speaking people.

you also might be interested in …

Geoffrey Berman’s new book Holding the Line is a good read. Chapter-by-chapter, it’s a real-life crime series that covers art fraud, Jeffrey Epstein, street gangs, extortion, international banking fraud, and many other cases, underlining the wide variety of issues that arise in the Southern District of New York, where Berman was the US attorney for 2 years during the Trump administration.

Like any good TV crime series, the episodes have a long-term background plot playing out: How Trump and Bill Barr tried to use the Justice Department to protect Trump’s friends and attack his enemies. Berman’s refusal to play ball involved strategic resistance, as he was constantly forced to decide which concessions mattered and which didn’t. He eventually did get fired, but managed to avoid handing SDNY off to a Trump/Barr puppet.

One point that makes Berman’s book topical: When Trump talks about “weaponization of the justice system“, it’s projection. He spent four years trying to weaponize it.

A legal battle is playing out in Texas over Governor Abbott’s and Attorney General Paxton’s desire to persecute families of trans youth. In Abbott and Paxton’s view, parents who allow their children to receive puberty blockers or other gender-identity-affirming medical care (under a doctor’s supervision) should be investigated for child abuse. A state judge disagrees, but Paxton will appeal the ruling.

Whatever happened to the praying football coach? You know, the one that the Supreme Court eviscerated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause for? Has he been reinstated, as he demanded and the Court ordered?

Well, not exactly. His reinstatement papers have been sitting around since August 8, but “we haven’t gotten so much as a phone call” says a spokesperson for the school district.

Instead, ex-Coach Kennedy has been living large as a conservative celebrity.

Instead, as the Bremerton Knights were prepping for the season in August, Kennedy was up in Alaska, meeting with former Vice President Mike Pence and evangelist Franklin Graham. On the eve of the first game, which the Knights won, Kennedy was in Milwaukee being presented with an engraved .22-caliber rifle at an American Legion convention.

The weekend of the second game, which the Knights also won, Kennedy appeared with former President Donald Trump at the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey. He saw Trump get a religious award from a group called the American Cornerstone Institute.

Coming up this month, Kennedy’s scheduled to give a talk as part of a lectureship series at a Christian university in Arkansas.

No doubt we can soon expect a book tour and a movie. It sure looks like “the praying coach” is just another right-wing grifter.

The purge continues at CNN: Don Lemon has lost his prime time slot and has been moved to the morning.

The latest “woke” thing that upsets the Right: In the live-action remake of Disney’s animated “The Little Mermaid”, Ariel is played by a Black actress.

Let me provide some perspective: When I was growing up in the 1960s in the Midwestern White working class, I was still a little uncertain about imitating great athletes like Willie Mays or Bill Russell on the playground, because White boys weren’t supposed to identify with Black men. That all changed in my lifetime, and now there’s nothing the least bit strange about players of any race or age trying to shoot like Steph Curry.

Same thing here: If you worry that your daughter can’t really identify with a Black Ariel, it undoubtedly bothers you a lot more than it does her. And in the future, she will look back on this controversy as something weird about her childhood.

and let’s close with something well designed

The Betterdoggos web site picks out dozens of examples of cleverly designed public spaces, like these Bulgarian benches.

How the Trump Grift Works

Trump’s lawsuit against Hillary’s vast conspiracy was dismissed, and the Durham investigation is winding down without proving much of anything. But in their day, these two Trump-will-be-vindicated hoaxes kept the money flowing in.

When I was growing up fundamentalist, Jesus’ second coming was always imminent. Any day now, the Heavens would open and there He would be, declaring an end to secular history and beginning a period of judgment that would separate the believers from the unbelievers. On that day, the doubters would be proven wrong and there would be “wailing and gnashing of teeth”. The righteous, on the other hand, would “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father”.

And in the meantime, you should keep sending in your money.

You can’t fully understand Trumpism without holding that picture in mind. Whatever evidence of Trump’s criminality the “fake news media” might present, and whatever testimony the 1-6 committee gets from Trump’s own people, the real Truth is going to be revealed any day now. His persecutors will be routed, and their sinister plots will be revealed.

In the meantime, keep sending Trump your money.

Like Jesus’ second coming, Trump’s final vindication can be predicted again and again — and those predictions can fail again and again — without undermining the basic narrative that it’s coming any day now. [1] Just scrap the old details for new ones and you’re good to go. Did Trump leave the presidency without invoking Q-Anon’s “storm”? Did none of his 82 post-election lawsuits prove fraud, even when he got them heard by judges he appointed? No problem: Those fantasies kept the money rolling in until new fantasies could be ginned up.

Recently, two other major Trump-vindication vehicles have gone bust: the Hillary conspiracy lawsuit and the Durham investigation. Each was a big deal in its day, but, you know, life moves on. The suit got dismissed and the investigation is closing up shop without finding any of the crimes Trump promised.

But never mind, they kept the money flowing.

The great Clinton conspiracy. It sounds weird to say this, but one of the most amusing things I read these last two weeks was Judge Donald Middlebrooks’ dismissal of Trump’s sprawling lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, Jim Comey, and everybody else the Former Guy has ever blamed for investigating his collusion with Russia.

Middlebrooks’ opinion reads like a professor grading the work of a particularly disappointing first-year law student. The judge keeps backing up to explain fundamental things the student (i.e., Trump’s lawyers) should have read in the textbook (i.e., landmark precedents).

A complaint filed in federal court must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Each allegation must be simple, concise, and direct. Each claim must be stated in numbered paragraphs, and each numbered paragraph limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances.

Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is 193 pages in length, with 819 numbered paragraphs. It contains 14 counts, names 31 defendants, 10 “John Does” described as fictitious and unknown persons, and 10 “ABC Corporations” identified as fictitious and unknown entities. Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is neither short nor plain, and it certainly does not establish that Plaintiff is entitled to any relief.

More troubling, the claims presented in the Amended Complaint are not warranted under existing law. …

At this stage, a court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept as true all the plaintiff’s factual allegations. However, pleadings that “are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” A pleading that offers “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”

The rest of the ruling is a series of that’s-not-what-the-law-says, the-reference-in-your-footnote-doesn’t-support-the-point-you’re-making, and so on, culminating in the judge’s refusal to let Trump’s lawyers amend their complaint a second time:

It’s not that I find the Amended Complaint “inadequate in any respect”; it is inadequate in nearly every respect. … At its core, the problem with Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is that Plaintiff is not attempting to seek redress for any legal harm; instead, he is seeking to flaunt a 200-page political manifesto outlining his grievances against those who have opposed him, and this Court is not the appropriate forum.

I’m reminded of the scene in The Paper Chase where Professor Kingsfield says to a student, “Here is a dime. Call your mother and tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.”

The inescapable conclusion of Judge Middlebrooks’ critique is that no competent lawyer ever intended this complaint to be the basis for a serious lawsuit. Rather, the only credible purposes would have been to get headlines for filing the suit, and to fund-raise off of those headlines.

In short, the anti-Hillary suit was part of the continuing grift against Trump’s own followers: Neither Hillary nor any of the other defendants was ever going to pay Trump damages, but the prospect of the vast Trump-persecuting conspiracy finally being exposed would induce the MAGA cultists to keep their wallets open.

What Trump wanted out of the Durham investigation. That’s Obama on the far left.

Durham. When Trump accuses his opponents of doing something, it’s only a matter of time before he does the same thing himself (if he hasn’t already). In his mind, the Mueller investigation was an expensive taxpayer-sponsored witch hunt against him. So of course he had to have his own expensive taxpayer-sponsored witch hunt.

When Bill Barr announced this investigation in 2019, conservatives were expecting the grand finale to the Mueller story, the counter-attack that would uncover all the illegal machinations the FBI and others had done to try to nail Trump. As recently as February, Trump was still promising that Durham was finding evidence of “the crime of the century” and “treason at the highest level”. He was “coming up with things far bigger than anybody thought possible”.

Durham may go down as a great hero in this country that will be talked about for years.

But that was all part of the grift. Trump was reacting with such glee to a court filing related to Durham’s indictment of Michael Sussman, a minor figure accused of a minor crime that Durham could not prove. (The jury acquitted Sussman after only six hours of deliberation.) No “crime of the century” involving high-profile conspirators like President Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Now the Durham investigation appears to be shutting down, having lasted longer and cost more than the Mueller probe it was supposed to be investigating. It also has accomplished far less: Mueller proved that Russia did help the 2016 Trump campaign, and that it committed crimes to do so. Mueller didn’t come up with enough evidence to indict the Trump campaign itself in the conspiracy, though he did trace a suspiciously large number of links between Trump’s people and Putin’s. The investigation dead-ended at Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, both of whom were convicted of felonies, but got pardons from Trump, presumably as a reward for their silence.

Durham has one case left: against Igor Danchenko, who is accused of lying to the FBI about the information in the Steele dossier, which Trump wants to claim was the sole source of the Trump/Russia investigation. (It wasn’t. It wasn’t even the primary source.) Again, somebody may have lied about something that, in the end, didn’t really matter. Or maybe not: Durham’s standards appear to be far lower than Mueller’s, so his Danchenko case may be no more convincing than the one against Sussman.

But while Durham’s long-running investigation may look like a flop from a legal point of view, Atlantic’s David Graham explains that it did what it was supposed to do:

Even if Durham approached the probe with earnest sincerity, the real reason he was appointed is that Donald Trump’s political con requires the promise of total vindication right around the corner. For a time, Durham provided that hope for Trump backers. But now, as Trump moves on to other ploys, the Durham probe has served its purpose, even though it has produced no major convictions or epiphanies.

The grift goes on. So now is Trump’s Save America PAC going to apologize for raising money under false pretenses and send it all back? Don’t be silly. The Great Orange Conman has indeed “moved on to other ploys”. Now that investigations on numerous fronts threaten to expose his crimes, he needs your money more than ever.

Don’t ask what he did with the quarter-billion-plus he’s already collected, or why such a fabulously wealthy man needs your money at all. [2] The Forces of Evil are still at work, conspiring to find the top-secret documents Trump stole, expose his fraudulent business practices, and piece together his conspiracy to steal the presidency. So it’s time for all red-blooded Americans to step up, forget all the times Trump has lied in the past about conspiracies against him, and send in their money. (Also, stand by to riot again if he’s indicted.)

Objectively, things may keep looking worse and worse for Trump, but that’s how this story is supposed to go: the worse, the better. Signs of the End Times just lead to the Great Judgment.

Any minute now, the trumpet will blow, and the sky will be full of angels.

[1] I am reminded of one of the great opening paragraphs of any autobiography ever. In Knee Deep in Paradise, TV actress Brett Butler wrote:

I spent the first twenty years of my life waiting for two men I was reasonably certain would never come back – my daddy and Jesus Christ. I don’t wait for them anymore. My dad, anyway. And at least with Jesus I didn’t spend all that time thinking he was gone because of something I did.

[2] Again, there’s a religious parallel. As Captain Kirk once asked: “What does God need with a starship?

The Monday Morning Teaser

Usually when I take a week off, all hell breaks loose. This time, though, it looks like the only thing that happened was that some English woman died. I didn’t catch the details, but you probably already heard. I hope her family is OK.

Actually, though, there were a few developments: Ukraine suddenly started recapturing territory from the Russians, producing hard-to-evaluate speculation that the Russian army might be collapsing. The new omicron-targeting vaccine was released, and I already got the shot. (You should too.) Republicans keep digging themselves a deeper hole for the fall elections by nominating extreme MAGA candidates and by doubling down on their unpopular ban-abortion strategy. And DeSantis flew a bunch of Venezuelan refugees up to Martha’s Vineyard, for reasons that only make sense inside the nativist echo chamber.

But I’m going to focus on something else: the failure of two big Trump-vindication vehicles — his sprawling lawsuit against Hillary Clinton and anybody who he ever imagined wronged him, and the much-trumpeted Durham investigation. The lawsuit was dismissed (with considerable flair) and Durham’s grand jury has expired without producing any of the high-profile indictments Trump promised. (No “crime of the century” or “high treason”.)

To me, the interesting thing about these two failures is how little they matter to the MAGA faithful. Once, they were going to provide the ultimate comeuppance to Trump’s enemies and critics. But now … oh, never mind. In retrospect, the point was never to accomplish their stated goals, it was to keep the contributions coming in from Trump’s cultists. In that world, it’s important that victory always be imminent, not that any particular battle ever comes out the way it was supposed to.

That grifting pattern struck a chord in my memory: Jesus’ second coming. Specific predictions keep failing, but it’s always just about to happen — so you should send in more money. I think Trump keeps getting away with this because he’s mostly exploiting the same people. That’s the subject of “How the Trump Grift Works”, which should be out before 10 EDT.

The weekly summary — with zero British monarchy coverage — might be delayed a little bit, but should be out before 1.

Threats to Democracy


History tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy.

President Joe Biden

This week’s featured posts are “Fascist is a description, not an insult” and “The Battle for Voters’ Imaginations” (which is about framing the abortion debate).

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s crimes

The breaking news says a judge has granted Trump’s request for a special master. But a weekly blog can’t cover breaking news, so look for details elsewhere.

Maybe the weirdest thing about the whole Mar-a-Lago story is how the former president keeps goading the government into revealing details that are damaging to him. He could have kept the whole search secret if he’d wanted, but no. Then he leaked his copy of the search warrant, and demanded a copy of the affidavit DoJ had submitted to a judge to get the warrant. Every new document that came out blew up more of his defenses and pushed his supporters deeper into a corner.

Trump’s lawyers’ motion to appoint a special master to review the seized documents was full of misinformation that had to annoy DoJ, so it responded Tuesday with a 38-page filing telling the history of the government’s efforts to get back the documents Trump illegally took with him when he left the White House.

That’s how we know all this:

When the National Archives asking nicely failed to get all the documents returned, DoJ followed up with a subpoena for “[a]ny and all documents or writings in the custody or control of Donald J. Trump and/or the Office of Donald J. Trump bearing classification markings [list of classification markings].”

Trump’s lawyers returned more documents, including many classified documents (that Trump no longer has the clearance to possess), and one of them signed off on this statement:

Based upon the information that has been provided to me, I am authorized to certify, on behalf of the Office of Donald J. Trump, the following: a. A diligent search was conducted of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Florida; b. This search was conducted after receipt of the subpoena, in order to locate any and all documents that are responsive to the subpoena; c. Any and all responsive documents accompany this certification; and d. No copy, written notation, or reproduction of any kind was retained as to any responsive document.

This turned out to be a lie. When DoJ began to suspect it had been duped, it got a search warrant. And sure enough, the FBI found what it was looking for.

That the FBI, in a matter of hours, recovered twice as many documents with classification markings as the “diligent search” that the former President’s counsel and other representatives had weeks to perform calls into serious question the representations made in the June 3 certification and casts doubt on the extent of cooperation in this matter

The filing closes with the photo below. Even if you believe the bogus argument that Trump had waved his declassification wand over all these documents, they clearly bear classification markings and so are subject to the subpoena.

Tuesday’s filing blew up all the bizarre and contradictory defenses Trump and his defenders had been spreading since the search was first announced. All they have left is to threaten violence.

Reading the filing, it’s hard to see how Trump can escape being indicted. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t want this kind of case to be what Trump finally goes down for, since the attempt to overthrow democracy on January 6 was so much worse. However, what’s unique about this episode in Trump’s criminal history is how easy it is to understand.

In all his previous crimes, judgment calls provided wiggle room for people who didn’t want to believe Trump did anything wrong. Did Trump’s pressure on Ukrainian President Zelenskyy constitute extortion? Did his demand that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find” enough votes for him to win cross the line into election tampering? Do we have enough quid-pro-quo evidence to call his pardons of potential witnesses Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort a conspiracy to obstruct justice? Is it clear that he knew he had lost the election and intended to subvert the will of the voters?

I think a reasonable juror who is shown all the evidence will say “yes” to all of those questions and convict Trump of the corresponding crimes. But there is at least an argument to be made.

In this case there isn’t: He took the classified documents. They didn’t belong to him. His lawyers signed a statement saying he had given them all back. A search proved that he hadn’t. He knew he hadn’t, because some of them were in his desk next to his passport.

He’s guilty.

Trump’s crowds are still chanting “Lock her up” when he lies about Hillary Clinton.

Steve Benen addresses the difference between Trump’s theft of classified documents and the Clinton email affair, which Republicans like John Cornyn and Lindsey Graham surely understand when they’re not trying to bullshit the public.

Clinton’s email protocols were, of course, the subject of a lengthy criminal probe. Federal investigators appeared eager to find evidence of wrongdoing: then-FBI Director James Comey privately marveled at the “visceral hatred” some senior FBI officials in New York had for the former secretary of state.

But federal law enforcement nevertheless didn’t charge the Democrat with any crimes because they couldn’t find evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Comey took the extraordinary step of publicly criticizing Clinton anyway, but he grudgingly conceded that the FBI, following an exhaustive investigation, couldn’t indict her.

Trump’s State Department similarly conceded — late on a Friday afternoon — that there was no systemic or deliberate mishandling of classified information from Clinton. The inspector general’s office in Trump’s Justice Department also concluded that the FBI had no reason to charge Clinton.

Trump’s scandal bears little resemblance to his former rival’s. Clinton didn’t take physical documents. She didn’t ignore pleas for cooperation. She didn’t store highly sensitive secrets at a private club that had an unfortunate habit of letting foreign spies walk around.

Bill Barr, of all people, makes this excellent point about the claim that Trump declassified all these documents:

If in fact he sort of stood over scores of boxes not really knowing what was in them, and said, “I hereby declassify everything in here,” that would be such an abuse that shows such recklessness that it’s almost worse than taking the documents.

Imagine declassifying secrets just for your own convenience, without even bothering to learn why they had been classified in the first place.

Several TV talking heads with intelligence backgrounds have pointed out the sources-and-methods issue that makes declassification decisions complicated: If you saw a top-secret document saying that Vladimir Putin had oatmeal for breakfast last Tuesday, you might think that was a silly fact to classify and want to declassify it. (Putin already knows, so who are we keeping this secret from?) But if Russian intelligence saw it, they might be able to find the spy who is close enough to Putin to report such facts. That would be very bad.

The most mysterious thing the FBI seized are “43 empty folders with CLASSIFIED banners“. Did those folders used to contain documents? Where might they be?

I don’t want to go too far out on a limb speculating about them, but I hope we find out eventually.

and semi-fascism

President Biden’s calling out of MAGA Republicans is covered in one of the featured posts. I point out that — unlike when AOC is called a “Marxist” without any reference to public ownership of the means of production — “fascist” isn’t just an insult. The term means something, and that meaning applies to Trump and his personality cult. Calling Trump a fascist is more like calling AOC a New Yorker.

That post starts with the hypocrisy of Trumpists being offended by rhetoric that is much tamer than what their side routinely dishes out. But there is one additional point I didn’t mention: Taking offense when you are the greater offender is a telltale sign of assholery, as defined in Aaron James’ book Assholes: a theory.

James’s asshole has a sense of ironclad entitlement. He’s superior, immune to your complaints, though he insists you listen to his.

and Jackson’s water problem

According to Vox:

The water system in Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s capital and largest city, failed earlier this week.

On Tuesday, most of the city’s 150,000 residents were without running water, prompting the state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, to declare a state of emergency. He warned that there wasn’t enough water “to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs.” As of Wednesday afternoon, there was still little-to-no water pressure for most of the city’s residents.

The crisis has causes at multiple time scales. The immediate problem is twofold: excessive rain washed more contaminants into the system than the city’s water-treatment plant could handle. Also, several major pumps went out at the same time.

But this isn’t a unique crisis; the city often has problems after major weather events. Consider this Mississippi Today article from March, 2021:

[F]or the better part of the last month, Avalon and her husband Billy heaved buckets of water they retrieved from government tankers, kind neighbors or rainfall into their home to flush their toilet or wash dishes. 

Most Jacksonians lost running water altogether after back-to-back winter storms the week of Feb. 14 stunned unprepared utilities across the Deep South, and the Avalons were some of the roughly 43,000 people whose taps remained dry for more than two weeks. City officials were still telling most residents, 82% of whom are Black, to boil their water a month later.

So the medium-term problem is that Jackson’s water infrastructure is crumbling.

“This is a set of accumulated problems based on deferred maintenance that’s not taken place over decades,” [Mayor Chokwe Antar] Lumumba said. Lumumba estimated it would cost at least $1 billion to fix the water distribution system and billions more to resolve the issue altogether.

But where would that money come from? That question points to the long-term problem. Jackson delayed integrating its schools as long as it could, and when it did many prosperous Whites left. The city is now 83% Black and 25% below the poverty line; the median household income is $52K. So Jackson doesn’t have the tax base to generate billions for infrastructure.

It’s also a Democratic city in a Republican state, so state government isn’t coming to the rescue. Biden’s federal infrastructure bill is expected to deliver $75 million to Jackson for water projects — real money for most medium-sized cities, but not on the scale of Jackson’s needs.

And then there’s the deep-background problem: racism. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t just call attention to police shootings of Black people. It points to White Americans’ reluctance to take Black suffering to heart.

Take me, for example. I didn’t grow up in a KKK-style household, and I wasn’t taught to actively hate any racial group. But all the same, I grew up believing that Black people’s problems were not my problems. If they were suffering, that was a shame. But why should I do anything about it?

That ingrained attitude has been hard to shake. To this day, my eyes will glide past headlines about suffering Black people, and I have to make myself go back and read the stories. I suspect a lot of White Americans have a similar hole in their compassion.

So as a thought experiment, imagine that some whiter state capital — Salem, Oregon, say (which is about the same size, but more prosperous) or Des Moines, Iowa (somewhat larger) — were having similar problems. Would the American public have a similarly detached emotional response? Or would we feel in our bones that this was an emergency that required both immediate action and a complete long-term solution, whatever the cost?

and CNN

At some point in their careers, just about everybody in the news business has to decide whether they’re primarily in news or primarily in business.

Back in February, CNN got a new boss, Chris Licht. The buzz at the time was that Licht would emphasize hard news and “dial down the prime-time partisanship”. Reportedly, the head of Warner Brothers Discovery — CNN’s new corporate parent after a spin-off from AT&T — wanted to “move CNN back to the middle”, and away from the “partisan and combative” tone it developed during the Trump administration.

In some ways that sounds good, but there’s a lot of room for skepticism: How exactly should a “hard news” organization have covered the Trump administration, which was flat-out lying most of the time? How do you accurately report “The President is lying” in a nonpartisan way, or insist that liars take follow-up questions without being “combative”? How do you respond when Trump targets factual CNN reports as “fake news” and labels the news media in general “the enemy of the people“? When administration spokespeople claim the right to assert “alternative facts” that aren’t facts at all, what do you do?

You can try to walk a middle road between Left and Right. But how can a news organization walk a middle road between True and False? It doesn’t serve your viewers if your coverage amounts to “Biden says it’s sunny, Trump says it’s raining, and we’ll have to leave it there.”

So it was a bit ominous in June when Axios reported:

To conservative critics, some on-air personalities, like Jim Acosta and Brian Stelter, have become the face of the network’s liberal shift.

Is it up to “conservative critics” to decide when CNN has successfully found the center? Trump himself isn’t even happy with Fox News, because it occasionally shows independence. He’ll be happy with CNN when it becomes his propaganda agency, and not a moment before.

By August, Brian Stelter was gone and his “Reliable Sources” show was canceled. And now White House correspondent John Harwood is gone too. He leaves saying he “look[s] forward to figuring out what’s next”, which I interpret to mean that this move may be part of somebody’s plan, but not his.

If this really is about a shift to hard news, i.e., more correspondents on the ground in places like Ukraine and fewer talking heads in the studio, that could be good. But if the point is to compete for the Fox audience by telling them what they want to hear, whether it’s true or not (which is what Fox does), then that is bad news indeed.

but I’d like to tell you about a book

Possibly the greatest American you’ve never heard of is John Harlan.

In the rise of Jim Crow, two shameful Supreme Court decisions stand out. In the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional and gave its official blessing to segregation in the private sector. In Plessy v Ferguson (1896) the Court endorsed legally enforced “separate but equal” policies, and chose to ignore whether the separate facilities provided for Black people would ever truly be equal.

Both decisions would have been unanimous but for one justice: John Harlan. His ringing dissent in Plessy provided the legal roadmap Thurgood Marshall followed when he argued Brown v Board of Education more than half a century later.

Harlan also dissented in other pivotal Gilded Age decisions that are now viewed as mistakes — cases concerning states’ ability to limit working hours or impose a minimum wage, the legality of an income tax, enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act, lynching, whether the United States’ colonial subjects are protected by the Constitution, and many others. Again and again, he was ahead of his time, and lit a path for a later generation of lawyers to follow.

The recent book The Great Dissenter by Peter Canellos is a dual biography of Harlan and another man whose very existence was a major influence on Harlan’s views: Robert Harlan, an enslaved woman’s child who was recognized within the family as John’s older half-brother. Robert overcame racial discrimination to become a successful businessman, a canny investor in other Black businesses, an adventurer, a world traveler, and an influential political leader in Cincinnati’s Black community.

Lifelong admiration of Robert seems to have immunized John against his era’s popular myths of Black inferiority. In reviewing Plessy, John must have wondered why the law needed to protect anyone against sharing a train car with Robert Harlan.

and you also might be interested in …

Mikhail Gorbachev died. He represented the generation that grew up with no memory of the Czar, and never really knew the idealistic side of Communism. The Soviet Union was what it was, and didn’t represent a step on the path to perfect socialism.

He tried to save the corrupt monstrosity the Soviet state had become, and ended up killing it faster. His legacy was an opportunity for Russia to achieve democratic freedom, which it didn’t do. He’s going to give generations of historians a complicated riddle to solve.

A county librarian in Idaho resigned rather than put up with “the political atmosphere of extremism, militant Christian fundamentalism, intimidation tactics, and threatening behavior currently being employed in the community”.

The threats against her have been veiled, but their message is clear, she said. During comments in public meetings, she has been warned with fire-and-brimstone language of her imminent damnation, coming from certain Christian fundamentalists groups who are known to believe they have a call to violence, she said.

The Idaho Statesman article drew six comments, most of them attacking the librarian.

That Texas law requiring all schools to have “In God We Trust” posters is just as sectarian as we all thought. A group that wants church and state to remain separate offered the local school board two alternatives that meet the conditions of the law: rainbow-colored “In God We Trust” posters, and the motto translated into Arabic. The donations were turned down.

When asked to identify “women’s issues”, Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker pointed to inflation, because “they’ve got to buy groceries“. So don’t look for Herschel at the supermarket, because that’s women’s work.

Ukraine has started a counter-attack aimed at the southern city of Kherson.

Author Barbara Ehrenreich died Thursday. I didn’t really understand poverty traps until I read her 2001 classic Nickel and Dimed about trying to survive on minimum wage. Sometimes living cheaply requires an up-front investment (like a security deposit on an apartment) that poor people can’t cover.

and let’s close with something timely

Today isn’t just Labor Day, it’s Labor Day falling on 9-5. So we have hear from Dolly Parton.

The Battle for Voters’ Imaginations

Post-Dobbs, voters are imagining very different abortion scenarios than the ones the pro-life movement has been pushing for years. That’s an advantage Democrats need to hold onto as the fall elections get closer.

After Sarah Palin lost Alaska’s only House seat, Democrat Pat Ryan won a special election in a purple district, and Kansas voters resounding rejected giving their legislature the power to ban abortion, Republicans are beginning to catch on that November might not be quite the cakewalk they had expected, and the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v Wade is a big reason.

In Michigan, Republicans on the Board of Canvassers are using technicalities to block a referendum that would write the Roe protections into the state constitution. It’s not hard to see why: Not only would that referendum pass, but it would raise Democratic turnout for the state’s other races. Better for Republicans that voters not be offered the choice.

That’s not how the conventional wisdom used to work: Culture-war issues used to be seen as a way to boost Republican turnout. Democrats used to be confident the Supreme Court would protect their reproductive freedom and other personal rights, but now they have to protect their own rights by voting.

Dahlia Lithwick explains:

Efforts of those who have taken the position that forced birth is somehow pleasant and rewarding, even for America’s 10-year-old rape victims, have backfired spectacularly, as have their claims that abortion rights advocates are lying about new dangers that abortion bans pose to patients with high-risk pregnancies or who are experiencing a miscarriage.

For the last six weeks, Republicans have touted their vision of a post-Roe America. It is a place in which rapists get to choose the mother of their children, even if she is 10 years old; in which patients must be dying of sepsis before they can terminate a failing pregnancy; in which doctors who follow their duty of care to perform a life-saving abortion must persuade prosecutors of their proper judgment at risk of incarceration; and in which pharmacists refuse to provide women with autoimmune treatment because they suspect it could be used for an illicit abortion. This reality unfolded in under a month, because it’s the fondest dream of a small minority of uncompromising extremists.

In under a month, even Americans who call themselves abortion opponents have come to see that when abortion is criminal, every uterus is a potential crime scene.

Those situations aren’t the ones anti-abortion activists want voters to imagine. They’d rather voters thought about foolishly promiscuous women who selfishly want to escape the consequences of their actions, not women who are being re-victimized by the law after men and circumstances have already victimized them once.

All over the country, Republican candidates are being caught between their extreme anti-abortion base, whose support has been necessary to get through Republican primaries, and the majority of general-election voters, whose views are far more moderate and nuanced.

The fall pivot. But could they turn this situation around, and make Democrats own the “extreme” views on their side? Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America thinks so:

[Pat] Ryan avoided specifics, couching his position in well-worn, vague terms such as “freedom to choose” and “controlling women’s bodies.” A sharp offense could have punctured this obvious vulnerability, challenging the Democrat to explain exactly what policies he wants and whether there is a single limit on abortion he would support: when the child’s heartbeat can be detected? If not then, what about a first-trimester limit, which two-thirds of Americans support? Or 15 weeks, when some new evidence indicates unborn children can feel pain — a limit 72 percent of Americans support and that sits within the European mainstream? Or like Biden and almost every congressional Democrat, does he advocate legislation that allows abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy as long as a doctor will say it’s for the woman’s health? Only 10 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal that late, and this broad loophole means the bill is far more radical than Democrats would have you believe.

The advantage of fantasy. What Dannenfelser is trying to regain might be called the advantage of fantasy. Whoever gets to construct the hypothetical case under discussion can imagine a favorable one, even if that situation is rare or even non-existent. Should a raped 10-year-old be forced to carry the baby to term? Should a pregnant woman with breast cancer be forced to wait months to begin treatments that would harm her fetus? An overwhelming majority of people would approve an abortion in those cases, and reject a law (or a legislator) who wouldn’t allow one.

But what if a perfectly healthy woman with a perfectly healthy 8-month fetus decides on a whim that she no longer wants to be a mother? In a matter of weeks, her pregnancy could come to a successful conclusion, an infertile couple could have a beautiful baby to raise, and the woman could get on with her life. But she chooses an abortion instead. Do you approve of that choice? Should the law allow it?

Are there such cases? It’s not clear. But if a voter can imagine it, the reality may not matter.

How to respond. If the discussion goes there, a poorly prepared Democrat could be in trouble. On the one hand, the fantasy is ugly, and a pro-reproductive-rights candidate could lose support by owning that ugliness. On the other, nuanced line-drawing is tedious and uninspiring. Why here and not there? [1] And if you draw the line based on polls, as Dannenfelser seems to suggest, your position looks calculated rather than principled. [2]

But what should a well-prepared Democrat say?

First, I think you have to acknowledge the ugliness of the fantasy and disapprove of it, as the vast majority of voters do. If that perfectly healthy pregnant woman came to me asking for my approval of her whimsical decision, I couldn’t give it. [3] My sympathies would be more with the childless couple and the possibilities the healthy 8-month fetus represents.

Very quickly, though, you have to draw the line between your personal approval and the law. The law is not a tool for making every situation come out the way you want. If a friend came to me with his plan to cheat on his wife, I would disapprove and urge him to reconsider. But that doesn’t mean I would support a law against adultery.

Third, point out that the law is a blunt instrument. You can’t just pass a law against this case. A law would necessarily identify a larger set of cases, and would impose a rule on them. In each individual case, the government’s decision would overrule the judgment of the people involved: the woman, her doctor, her family, and all the other friends and moral advisors whose opinions she might seek.

The introduction of a broader class allows you to bring reality back into the discussion, and to take back the advantage of fantasy: If we include this woman in a class, and for the entire class substitute the government’s blanket decision for the judgment of the people who are actually present, what new ugly situations have we created? More than we resolved, maybe?

And if we’re going to substitute our own judgment for theirs, don’t we have to be sure we’re right in the overwhelming majority of cases? Just more-often-that-not shouldn’t be good enough, if we’re usurping people’s most important personal decisions.

A Democratic training video. If you look up “well-prepared Democrat” in a dictionary, chances are you will see a picture of Pete Buttigieg. In a townhall discussion during his presidential campaign, Fox News moderator Chris Wallace tried Dannenfelser’s gambit of trying to make Buttigieg draw a line.

Do you believe, at any point in pregnancy … that there should be any limit on a woman’s right to have an abortion?

But Pete refused to take the bait.

I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on where you draw the line, that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of, who gets to draw the line? I trust women to draw the line when it’s their own health.

Wallace tried again, framing the issue as personal approval of a hypothetical situation:

Just to be clear, you’re saying you’d be okay with a woman well into the third trimester deciding to abort her pregnancy?

And Pete protested,

These hypotheticals are usually set up in order to provoke a strong emotional [response].

When Wallace cut that answer off, saying that late-term abortions actually happen, he appeared not to realize that he had wandered back onto Pete’s turf: reality. There are about 6,000 late-term abortions each year, representing less than 1% of abortions. And now that they were talking about 6,000 real women, Pete could grab control of the audience’s imagination by painting a more realistic picture.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation. If it’s that late in your pregnancy, that means almost by definition, you’ve been expecting to carry it to term. We’re talking about women who have perhaps chosen a name, who have purchased a crib. Families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime. Something about the health or life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice… As horrible as that choice is, that woman, that family, may seek spiritual guidance, they may seek medical guidance, but that decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.

So if you’d been picturing a flighty woman late in a problem-free pregnancy, Pete pushed you to think again. Late-term abortion decisions are full of one-of-a-kind complications. A cookie-cutter decision laid out by armchair moralists, or state legislatures guided by armchair moralists, isn’t usually going to weigh those factors as well as the people in the room will. Maybe never, and certainly not in the overwhelming majority of cases we’d need in order to justify a ban.

How to judge who’s winning. As we go into the fall, both sides are going to try to frame their opponents as captive to their party’s extreme wing. But it’s going to be important to point out that the “extremes” are not mirror images of one another: Republican extremists are extremely interested in making your reproductive decisions for you, and Democratic “extremists” are insisting that you retain those rights across the board.

If the Republican is winning that debate, the Democrat will seem licentious and morally slippery. (“I don’t care. Do whatever you want.”) If the Democrat is winning, the Republican will seem arrogant. (“It doesn’t matter what you decide. I know better.”)

[1] Disputing Dannenfelser’s dubious claims takes the debate down a rabbit hole. Anti-abortion activists are famously dishonest about where such lines actually fall. Religious Americans often imagine that someone who claims to represent a church or a religious movement wouldn’t just lie to them about scientific facts. But in fact, anti-abortion activists are some of the most shameless liars in American politics. Apparently, if you believe you are fighting to prevent millions of “murders”, a lie seems like a very small sin.

[2] Republicans drawing lines based on polls also look calculating.

[3] It’s important to understand how far into fantasyland we are here: That woman doesn’t exist, and wouldn’t seek my approval if she did. Very few people other than me care that much about my approval.