Lies and Traps

The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” is not a side of the story. It is a trap.

– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom

This week’s featured post, “The Big Picture: from Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump“, looks at Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom.

His analysis of the Putin/Trump style of propaganda has me rethinking how I cover Trump, so this week’s summary is an experiment: Putin and Trump say outrageous things in order to become the story themselves, shifting the focus away from the issues on the ground. Just this week, for example, Trump has blathered a lot of nonsense about the California wildfires. It would be easy to get focused on Trump’s nonsense, and lose sight of the fact that homes are burning, people are dying, and millions of Californians are dealing with a serious air-quality problem.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t all just ignore that our President is disinforming the public, which includes a segment that is inclined to believe him. So here’s what I’m trying this week: I will try to stay focused on the underlying issues. At places where Trump made headlines with a crap statement, I’ll mention that this happened, characterize it with a single adjective (like “Trump said something stupid about this”), and provide a link in case you feel that you must know what it was.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that Trump says ignorant and offensive things on an almost daily basis. But that’s not really news any more.

This week everybody was talking about undecided races

Almost all of them came to a conclusion this week (other than the run-off in the Mississippi Senate race, which will happen next Tuesday).

  • Republicans took both the governorship and the Senate seat in Florida.
  • Stacey Abrams admitted that Brian Kemp will be Georgia’s next governor. But after a long series of voter-suppression abuses by Kemp in his role as Secretary of State, Abrams refused to concede: “Let’s be clear, this is not a speech of concession. Because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith I cannot concede that. But my assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy.”
  • Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona Senate race.

A number of close House races weren’t decided until this week, and three are still out. The most interesting was in Maine-2, where the state’s ranked-choice-voting system made a difference:

In this election, the initial round had GOP incumbent Bruce Poliquin winning 46.1 percent and [Democrat Jared] Golden receiving 45.9 percent. Third party candidates garnered 8 percent. After re-allocating these third party votes, the final result was 50.53 percent to 49.47 percent in favor of Golden.

The Republican loser is going to court, claiming that ranked-choice-voting is unconstitutional. But I don’t think he has any kind of a case. Here’s the sum total of what the Constitution says about House elections:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

I don’t know how you read a ban on ranked-choice voting into that.

Think how much grief would be avoided if every state had RCV: If you want to vote Green or Libertarian or write in Bozo the Clown, fine. As long as you also express a preference between the Republican and Democratic candidates, you’ve got that base covered.

So here’s where we stand at the moment: Republicans control the Senate 52-47, with the Mississippi run-off pending. Democrats control the House 233-199 with three seats still undecided. The new Congress will be seated on January 3.

The current House popular vote count has the Democrats ahead by 7.7%, or more than 8.5 million votes. (Nate Silver expects it to get into 8-9% range when the final votes are tallied.) The Republican wave of 2010 had a margin of 6.8% or just under 6 million votes. The Republicans’ smaller 2010 victory gave them a larger 242-192 majority, because the system is rigged in their favor.


Don’t say it can’t happen: A Democratic challenger for a seat in the Kentucky legislature appears to have won by 1 vote.

and Nancy Pelosi

20 House Democrats have told the Washington Post that they won’t vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. If they all follow through, that would keep Pelosi from having the 218 votes necessary to win. Most of the 20 are from purple districts where Pelosi had been demonized as a far-left liberal, but some are also progressives who think Pelosi is too close to big donors and too willing to compromise with the business interests Republicans represent. But if she isn’t re-elected, it’s hard to guess what happens next: Other candidates may be able to block Pelosi, but who has enough support to win?

I’m for Pelosi. She is a brilliant behind-the-scenes tactician. When she was Speaker before, she skillfully steered Obama’s agenda through the House, including a bunch of progressive measures that then died in the Senate, like a cap-and-trade bill to fight climate change and a public option for ObamaCare. She was key in the legislative maneuver that finally passed ObamaCare (after Scott Brown’s upset win for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat ruined the original plan). Arguably, Democrats lost the House in 2010 because she had convinced members from conservative districts to risk too much.

While leading the minority these last few years, she has repeatedly run rings around Paul Ryan. By holding her caucus together against bills like ObamaCare repeal, the Trump tax cut, and the early versions of budget bills, she made it necessary for Ryan to hold his caucus together, something he was often unable to do.

It would be very strange for a party to get back into power and then reject its leader. Typically, a party leader is in trouble when his or her party loses seats. Tennis great Martina Navratalova (whose Twitter feed is highly political) summed up what I suspect a lot of women are thinking:

It is amazing,really. loses in the Senate and keeps his leadership role and makes the biggest democratic gain in the House since Watergate and they want her to quit. Go figure. A man loses and keeps his place, a woman wins and gets booted?!?

The point here isn’t that anti-Pelosi Democrats are against women having power. The dynamic is more complicated than that. Many Democrats are concerned about the baggage that comes from Pelosi being a decades-long target of Republican demonization — demonization that sticks to a woman more easily than a man. (We saw this with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Bill could abuse women and continue to be a charming scamp, but Hillary was tarred by her defense of Bill.) Others want someone who would cast a better public image, in an era when our subconscious image of a “leader” is still inescapably male. Alexandra Petri satirizes:

That’s not a woman thing, though. It’s just a her thing. I would have that issue with anyone who had her baggage, that same difficult-to-pin-down sense that something about her was fundamentally tainted. …

What I want is not impossible! I want someone who is not tainted by polarizing choices in the past, but who also has experience, who is knowledgeable but doesn’t sound like she is lecturing, someone vibrant but not green, someone dignified but not dowdy, passionate but not a yeller, precise but not mechanical, someone lacking in off-putting ambition but capable of asking for what she wants, not accompanied but not alone, in a day but not in a month or a year, when the moon is neither waxing nor waning, carrying a sieve full of water and a hen’s tooth. Easy!

That’s why I’m so worried about our current slate of choices. A woman, sure, but — Kamala Harris? Elizabeth Warren? Kirsten Gillibrand? There are specific problems with each of them, entirely personal to each of them, all insurmountable. We need someone fresh. Someone without baggage. Joe Biden, maybe. But female! If you see.

I can’t wait to vote for a woman in 2020. A nameless, shapeless, faceless woman I know nothing about who will surely be perfect.

If Pelosi isn’t progressive enough for you, who is the progressive candidate that the caucus can unite behind, and how does that Speaker not lose all the suburban Republican seats that Democrats just flipped? If she’s too far left for you, who is the more moderate candidate, and how does that candidate inspire young people to vote? How does this leadership struggle resolve without sparking a round of those Democrats-are-in-chaos stories that the media is always eager to write? Is that how we want the new Congress to introduce itself to the American people?

I think Nancy Pelosi represents an ideologically diverse party as well as anybody else can. And she also is good at her job. She should keep it.


In October, I was at a fund-raiser for Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois, who currently is one of the 20 planning not to vote for Pelosi. Foster made what I think is an excellent procedural suggestion: discharge petitions should be anonymous.

OK, that’s some inside baseball that needs an explanation. One of the maddening things about the House is that the Speaker can keep a bill from coming to a vote, even if a majority of the membership supports it. One example of this was the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that the Senate passed in 2013. It never got a vote in the House, despite the widespread belief that it would pass if it did. If the DREAM Act could have come to the floor any time in the last several years, it would have passed. But Republican speakers have repeatedly blocked it.

The way get around the speaker’s roadblock is a discharge petition: If a majority of the House signs a petition asking for a bill to come up for a vote, it does. But this almost never happens. The reason is that signing a discharge petition against a speaker of your own party is considered treason, and members who do this will be severely punished by losing their committee assignments, losing support from their party’s national campaign committee, and so on.

That’s why Foster thinks discharge petitions should be anonymous: Some neutral official could verify the petition and report the number of signatures without revealing who they are. It would make the House a little less dysfunctional.

and fires

Record-setting wildfires continue to burn in California. The death toll is up to about 80, but with more than a thousand people missing, that number is bound to go up. In San Francisco, masks and filters are necessary if you want to breathe normally.

Grist outlines the conditions that led to the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise:

According to local meteorologist Rob Elvington, the Camp Fire began under atmospheric conditions with “no analog/comparison” in history for the date. Northern California’s vegetation dryness was off the charts — exceeding the 99th percentile for any single day as far back as local records go. “Worse than no rain is negative rain,” wrote Elvington. The air was so dry, it was sucking water out of the land.

The problem is how global climate change is affecting the local climate: Summers are hotter and the winter rains come later.

Fire disasters on a scale recently considered inconceivable now appear to be the inevitable. Six of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California history have ignited in the past three years. In little more than a year, two other California towns (Redding and Santa Rosa) have been similarly devastated by fires. As long as we continue on a business-as-usual path, it’s a matter of where, not when, another California town will be erased from the map.


So Trump went out to view the damage and said something stupid, in case you haven’t had your daily dose of outrage yet.

But I think a better use of your time would be to watch this episode of Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” from 2014.

It follows two story lines, one of which is Arnold Schwarzenegger interviewing people who fight brush fires and reflecting on how climate change has (in a very short period of time) turned California’s wildfire season into a nearly year-round event. (The other story line, Harrison Ford looking into deforestation in Indonesia, is pretty interesting too.)

and you also might be interested in …

The Brexit deadline hits in March, and it’s still not clear how it’s all going to resolve. Prime Minister May’s proposal has already led to resignations from her cabinet and might bring down her government. My opinion: The problem is that the British public was bamboozled by the Leave campaign. Now that it’s time to produce the unicorns and rainbows Brexit was supposed to bring, no one can find them.

As someone (I can’t remember who) observed, the structure of the Leave/Remain vote was screwed up. Leave was a “do something else” option rather than a plan. Any actual plan will result in a majority saying, “That’s not what I voted for.”


Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Brett Kavanaugh joining the Court: “The nine of us are now a family.” I am reminded of a line from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash: “It was like being in a family. A really scary, twisted, abusive family.”


Nothing is what it used to be, not even the kilogram.


A Pacific Standard reporter goes home to Michigan and reports on the effects of gerrymandering.


Trump responded to criticism from retired Admiral Bill McRaven by saying something childish. Here are details, if you need them.


The CIA has concluded that the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was ordered by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But Trump has a history of believing what he wants to believe rather than what the experts conclude. Just as he believes Putin’s denials of interfering in the 2016 election, and he believes MBS.


Jim Acosta has his White House pass back, following a court order. The judge didn’t rule on Acosta and CNN’s First Amendment claims, but found against the Trump administration on 5th Amendment grounds of no due process. So the White House is drafting a process for expelling reporters who ask hard questions and won’t take lies for answers.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

Today, [LIE] the court made it clear that there is no absolute First Amendment right to access the White House [/LIE]. In response to the Court, we will temporarily reinstate the reporter’s hard pass. We will also further develop rules and processes to ensure fair and orderly press conferences in the future. There must be decorum at the White House.

I will repeat something I’ve written many times: When Trump defines some standard of decorum that he is willing to live by, then he’ll be in a position to ask other people to uphold that standard. But if his rules say that other people have to behave while he can keep on doing anything he wants, the rest of us should just laugh at him.

For example, Sunday (in the middle of a tweet demonstrating that his complete ignorance of the legal issue he was discussing), Trump called incoming House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff by a derogatory name he probably hasn’t heard since junior high. That’s White House decorum, and there’s nothing Jim Acosta could do to lower it.

Meanwhile, Trump’s people are moving the goalposts on the First Amendment. Wayne Slater tweets:

Cory Lewandowski on : “There is no freedom of speech to ask any question you want or to ask it in a derogatory manner.” Actually, that’s what free speech is.


Remember the middle-class tax cut that Trump pulled out of nowhere just before the midterm elections? Surprise! It’s not happening. Chief Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow told Politico:

We’ve been noodling more on this middle-class tax cut, how to structure it, and even pay for it. I don’t think the chances of that are very high, because the Democrats are going to go after the corporate tax and all that stuff.

Kudlow is also skeptical of any infrastructure deal.

Anybody that thinks, you know, like this trillion-dollar [infrastructure spending] number, which is over 10 years — we don’t have that

The top Republican in the new Congress was blunter:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday flatly rejected the idea of doing a big infrastructure deal with Democrats. “Republicans are not interested in a $900 billion stimulus,” he told reporters.

As I suggested last week, Democrats in the House should pass an infrastructure bill. The American people should know that Democrats want to rebuild the country, but Republicans don’t.


Another story that has all but vanished (now that it can’t be used to bring Trump voters to the polls) is the migrant caravan. Migrants who hitchhiked rides rather than walking all the way have started to arrive in Tijuana, where they are waiting for caravan leaders. The bulk of the caravan is still hundreds of miles away.

A Methodist minister from San Antonio is traveling with the caravan and sharing his experiences on Facebook.

Refugees sharing their stories with the pastor tell of having their children kidnapped and other relatives killed in Central America. Their journey, Rogers says, is “not about a better life in American terms, it’s just about living.” Their goals, he adds, are to seek an education for their children and “be free from violence and rape and murder.” Rogers admits that claim may sound “extreme,” but says he has firsthand knowledge, obtained by being “willing to talk and learn,” that it’s “exactly what is going on here.”

Teen Vogue (whose articles often are deeper and more serious than its name would lead you to expect) also has a correspondent in the caravan.


Drain the swamp:

The Trump administration’s top environmental official for the Southeast was arrested Thursday on criminal ethics charges in Alabama reported to be related to a scheme to help a coal company avoid paying for a costly toxic waste cleanup.


It’s not hard to see why our national political discussions are so bizarre when you consider the history that many of our students have been taught:

Texas’ Board of Education voted Friday to change the way its students learn about the Civil War. Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, students will be taught that slavery played a “central role” in the war.

The state’s previous social studies standards listed three causes for the Civil War: sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery, in that order. In September, the board’s Democrats proposed listing slavery as the only cause. … In the end, the Republican-led board landed on a compromise: Students will be taught about “the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing sectionalism, disagreements over states’ rights and the Civil War.”

But no doubt some Texas history teachers are reading this line and rolling their eyes about “political correctness”.


Stan Lee — the man who really told Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility” — has died at age 95. Stan and artist Jack Kirby created the core of the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s. Unlike the previous generation of comic creators, Stan made heroes (Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil) with insecurities, self-doubts, and moral quandaries. His teams (Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men) had internal divisions. His villains (Dr. Doom, Magneto) had backstories that explained their choice of the dark side.

Another seminal figure in popular culture also died this week: writer William Goldman, who was responsible for The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

and let’s close with something unexpected

Finally, Roy Clark died this week at 85. People my age (and younger folks who watch re-runs on obscure cable stations) may remember him from the country comedy show “Hee-Haw”. Or maybe his hit “Yesterday, When I Was Young” rings a bell. But amidst the jokes and popular country songs, people sometimes overlooked that he could flat-out play the guitar. In a guest appearance on the sitcom “The Odd Couple”, he went outside his usual genre to show another side of his talent.

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Comments

  • Jacquie Mardell  On November 19, 2018 at 2:19 pm

    Rodrigo y Gabriella eats your hearts out. Actually Roy Clark could play anything with strings.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ta4535Y8xYE

  • knb  On November 19, 2018 at 10:58 pm

    My take on Speaker of the House: Pelosi should be speaker, and also take on one of the newly elected reps as a “understudy” or “apprentice” or “deputy” and train the new person in what it takes to be an effective Speaker.

  • Oliver  On November 20, 2018 at 9:47 am

    “Don’t say it can’t happen: A Democratic challenger for a seat in the Kentucky legislature appears to have won by 1 vote.”

    Someday, somebody should go back to these places that are won by just a vote or two and see if more people decide to vote the next time around. I’m curious to see if the “Every vote counts” lessons obvious in the prior election has any sticking power.

  • Azetheros  On November 20, 2018 at 1:13 pm

    Re: Pelosi as Speaker

    In the immediate aftermath of the election I was pretty gung-ho about wanting Pelosi out and replacing her with someone who might lead the caucus from the left: Maxine Waters was first to come to mind (she’s not much older than Pelosi, too, so whatever age objection might apply to Waters would also apply to Pelosi), but Barbara Lee or Linda Sanchez would have done nicely (and I believe Sanchez has been jockeying for the position). Overall I would prefer, as someone firmly in the Progressive wing of the Party, for the next speaker to be someone further to the left than Pelosi and who might signal that the caucus will lead from its left rather than its right. I seem to recall your having previously taken a similar position as well.

    However, the more I’ve been learning about who is commanding the conversation about denying Pelosi the Speakership, the more I’m concerned, because it’s the exact right-wing s who I (as a leftist, naturally) already feel command WAY too much control of the Party. That also makes me worry that Waters, Lee, or Sanchez simply wouldn’t win, and more than I want a progressive Speaker leading the caucus from the left and setting a progressive tone for 2020, I want the speakership vote to go smoothly so that whoever gets the job has the authority needed TO set a tone for 2020. I still think there might be some advantage in pressuring Pelosi from the left to extract more concessions from her (that global warming protest at her offices that led to the House Climate Change Working Group reinstatement was a good start; if we could get her to rescind her support for PayGo and/or for this supermajority rule I’d be a LOT happier with her holding the Speakership), but I’m starting to doubt that actually unseating her should be the goal. I will say this, though: again, as a leftist who naturally thinks he’s not winning too many victories: the right wing of the Democratic Party, like the right wing of the Republican Party, has gotten away with MURDER by constantly bucking the leadership and reminding everyone that they are/could be DINOs and if everything isn’t about them then they might up and leave. I’m tired of that being the dominant dynamic whenever democrats are in charge of things, and a (perhaps dumb) part of me is relishing, a little bit, seeing the left wing of the party getting a crack at this game.

    Finally, I’ll say this: there are two reasons Chuck Schumer hadn’t come up in my head until relatively recently, while Pelosi came to mind immediately on election night. One is that she is a victim of her own success; she still feels relevant, while he just kinda doesn’t, so talking about her seems more relevant to me. That’s likely at LEAST second-hand misogyny; media outlets are more likely to report on her because she’s a woman who gets routinely demonized as a woman. But she also seems more relevant because she’s the one whose job is about to change. If we were talking about Schumer becoming the new Majority Leader, I’d like to think (though I’ll never know) that I would have been talking about replacing both leaders going into the 2019 term. That’s just me, though.

  • Ed O  On November 20, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    FYI, RCV is admittedly an improvement on the system we have now, but it also has serious problems. The best system is known as STAR voting (“Score, Then Automatic Runoff”), which was just invented in 2014 at a meeting of election nerds in Oregon. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fs-z-qt-Mo

    • knb  On November 28, 2018 at 9:16 pm

      OK, so I followed that link and watched a few of the videos about STAR voting. I understand the first step. Voters rate the candidates the same way they rate restaurants.- one to five stars. The two candidates with the most stars then have a runoff that’s calculated some other way. But I didn’t understand how the second calculation is done. Ed O – or anyone else – can you explain the second part?

      • Ed O  On November 29, 2018 at 12:50 am

        Every vote counts in the runoff based on which of the two finalists the voter rated higher. So, say you scored Adam 5, Betty 4, Cathy 1, and Dave 0, and say the 2 candidates with the highest total scores were Betty and Dave. Then in the runoff, your full vote would go to Betty since you scored her higher than Dave. (If someone scores the two runoff candidates the same, their vote wouldn’t affect the runoff.)

  • ADeweyan  On November 21, 2018 at 8:12 pm

    My concern with rejecting Pelosi because of the baggage she carries from years of Republican attacks is the same concern I had with rejecting Hillary because of similar reasons — giving in to these sorts of arguments means letting the Republicans select who the Democrats run.

    The answers to these arguments are also the same — the Republicans have targeted them because they are effective, and that’s exactly who we want to be running the show.

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