Without Protest

Throughout that first year in Germany [1933-34], [American Ambassador William] Dodd had been struck again and again by the strange indifference to atrocity that had settled over the nation, the willingness of the populace and of the moderate elements in the government to accept each new oppressive decree, each new act of violence, without protest.

– Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts (2011)

This week’s featured post is “The Weakness of America First“.

If you’re wondering how I spent my week off, check out the talk I gave at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois: “You’re Not a Thing at All, or the Political Implications of Dunbar’s Number“. It’s not actually about the treatment of trans and gender-binary people, but is more of a broad meditation sparked by those concerns. It includes my typical range of cultural references, from a 1930s Disney cartoon to Tolstoy.

This week everybody was talking about Alabama’s abortion ban

Alabama passed a law making abortion illegal, in direct contradiction to Roe v Wade. The new law would force Alabama’s women — even minors — to carry their rapist’s child, making rape a viable male reproduction strategy. (They may catch you eventually, but your genes will propagate into the next generation.) That’s why I propose renaming this “The Rapist Reproduction Act of 2019”.

Missouri’s legislature also passed a law making abortion illegal after eight weeks. Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, and Georgia have passed six-week bans. These laws are de facto bans on most abortions, since many women will not know they are pregnant at that point.

This Facebook meme suggests in Game-of-Thrones terms how women might handle this news.

OK, OK, I’ll explain it for non-GoT-fans: After seeing her father beheaded and being forced into solitary homelessness herself, but before getting enough training to become the warrior and assassin she eventually becomes, the young Arya Stark comforts herself as she goes to sleep each night by reciting the names of the people she’s going to kill someday.

The meme isn’t about killing per se, but about refusing to forget the wrongs done to you, even if you have no immediate way to strike back. No matter how long it takes, women are going to kill the careers of the politicians who are making war on them.


The apparent purpose of Alabama’s monstrous law is to make this very conservative Supreme Court reconsider the legal status of abortion.

It’s worth remembering how we come to have a Supreme Court majority that is far more conservative than the American people: The Republican Senate (elected mainly by small states, and representing a minority of voters)  denied President Obama (who won his elections by margins of 53%-46% and 51%-47%) his constitutional right to appoint a moderate justice (Merrick Garland) in his final year in office. Instead, the last two extremely conservative justices (Gorsuch and Kavanaugh) have been appointed by a minority-elected president (Trump lost the popular vote 46%-48%, but won in the Electoral College) and approved by that same minority-elected Senate.

Republicans sometimes justify the power of the Senate and the Electoral College by saying it protects against the tyranny of the majority. But in this case it enables a tyranny of the minority, which is far worse. If our system respected the will of voters, the Court would have a solid center-left majority, and Roe would be safe.

A number of constitutional remedies have been proposed to make the Senate more democratic, but here’s a simpler approach: Outlaw gerrymandering (to make the House better reflect the voters) and then move the special powers of the Senate (approving nominees and treaties) to the more representative House. That also would require a constitutional amendment, but one that I believe would be easier to pass than a reapportionment of the Senate.

Disempowering the Senate would resemble the path taken in the United Kingdom: They’ve never eliminated their unrepresentative House of Lords, they’ve just taken away most of its powers.


I’ll take this opportunity to repeat my opinion about abortion and the law: The motive to ban abortion comes from some very suspect and speculative theology. Conservative Christians believe (for reasons I don’t understand, because the Bible says nothing of the kind, see below) that from the moment of conception, a fetus has a soul, so killing it is murder.

I don’t think law should be based on theology, particularly theology that is only believed by a minority sect or faction. The Founders knew their English history, in which religion had been causing repression, rebellion, and civil war for the previous quarter century. They wanted no part of that, so they wrote a secular Constitution and separated church from state. I respect the wisdom of their reasoning in this matter.

What I just wrote says nothing about the morality of abortion, which each person, family, and church can decide for itself. I’m just saying that government should stay out of the issue, because government should take no position in theological arguments.


Back in 2012, I wrote about what legal abortion has meant in my life. It’s not just about women; any man who ties his life to a woman’s (by, say, marrying one) loses the ability to make reliable long-term plans if abortion isn’t an option.


As I’ve previously said on several occasions, I have no idea why so many Protestants think that an anti-abortion position is part of their religion. The Bible says nothing directly about when a soul enters the developing body of a fetus, and what it does say points against the idea that ensoulment happens at fertilization. (Genesis 2:7 gives a strong hint that the soul enters the body with the first breath, which is a common belief among Jews.)

It’s not like the writers of the Bible were unfamiliar with abortion. The kinds of surgical abortions we do now were unknown then, but every culture has had folklore (sometimes fairly accurate) about ways to cause a miscarriage. Women have been using that knowledge to terminate unwanted pregnancies since the beginning of time. If neither Jesus nor the Old Testament lawgivers saw fit to mention this practice, maybe Bible-based Christians shouldn’t make a big deal out of it.


I also think that many people who claim to believe fertilized ova have souls actually don’t believe that. In-vitro fertilization clinics kill several zygotes for every one they implant in a womb, yet that doesn’t seem to upset most of the anti-abortion crowd. The Alabama law, for example, does not mention IVF clinics. The only laws deemed worth passing are the ones that regulate women’s sexuality and ability to control the course of their lives.

If anti-abortion folks don’t believe their own rhetoric, then what does motivate them? Two things, I believe. Some are motivated by a horror of female promiscuity. (Without abortion, there is no completely effective birth control. So promiscuous women face the prospect of an unwanted child.) But simple tribalism explains more than we commonly think. When abortion bans are passed, conservative Christians see their side winning.

and war and trade war

The featured post discusses the common element in our trade war with China and our drift towards a shooting war with Iran: In each case, we’ve left our usual allies behind, and are unilaterally ratcheting up pressure on a rival country on the basis of self-interest, without any principled basis.

With regard to Iran and its “bad behavior“, think about how we’d react if Iran were behaving as badly as our ally Saudi Arabia: What if an Iranian expatriate took up residence in the US, wrote anti-Iran-government articles for the Washington Post, and then was lured into an Iranian embassy and murdered?

Hugh Hewitt cites “Iran’s complicity in the Syrian genocide as Tehran continues propping up Bashar al-Assad”. But he is strangely silent about Assad’s other big ally: Putin’s Russia.

but we need to think about extinction

The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services put out a report warning that a million species are in danger of extinction in the coming decades.

The report … points to five main drivers of modern extinction. Those factors are, in diminishing order of magnitude, changes in land and sea use, hunting and fishing pressures, climate change, pollution, and invasive species.

and the threat to democracy

I was going to write a separate article about the various ways Trump is threatening American democracy, but CNN’s Julian Zelizer did it for me. All recent presidents have had conflicts with Congress and have tried to expand executive power, but what Trump is doing is substantively different.

For one thing, Trump isn’t just fighting one battle. Across the board, he is making unprecedented claims of power, and denying that the legislative and judicial branches of government have the power to check him or hold him accountable. The breadth of this push towards autocracy in some ways makes the problem harder to see than if Trump’s excesses were concentrated in one area: Rather than a smoking gun, much of the public just sees the fog of war.

Zelizer focuses on four issues:

  • delegitimizing Congressional oversight
  • using the bully pulpit for disinformation
  • normalizing his own conflicts of interest
  • using his national emergency power to seize Congress’ constitutional power of the purse.

I would add one more: claiming direct White House control over the Justice Department. For the first time since Nixon’s John Mitchell (who eventually went to jail), an attorney general is repeating partisan talking points, misrepresenting the results of an investigation, and targeting Justice Department officials who dared to investigate the president. It is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the AG and the president’s personal lawyers.


Rachel Maddow dramatized the “delegitimizing oversight” point Wednesday by going back to Trump’s campaign statement that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing any supporters. Rachel elaborated with this question: If Trump did shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, how could he be held accountable for it, given the positions his lawyers and his attorney general have put forward? MaddowBlog’s Steve Benen sums up:

Between Attorney General Bill Barr, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and the president’s private attorneys, we’re supposed to believe that Donald Trump can’t be charged with a crime, can’t be investigated by Congress, and has the authority to end any investigation of which he disapproves.


The “can’t be investigated by Congress” part was new this week. In a court hearing about Trump’s lawsuit to block his accounting firm from responding to a Congressional subpoena, Trump lawyer William Consovoy argued that Congress has no “law enforcement” role under the Constitution, and so any investigation of Trump’s lawbreaking would be unconstitutional. The WaPo’s Dana Millbank pulls this exchange with Judge Amit Mehta out of the transcript:

If “a president was involved in some corrupt enterprise, you mean to tell me because he is the president of the United States, Congress would not have power to investigate?”

No, Consovoy said, because that’s “not pursuant to its legislative agenda.”

Mehta noted that this would have invalidated the Senate’s Watergate hearings.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made a similar argument in announcing that he would defy the law that gives House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal the right to view any tax return, including the president’s, on request. The law was passed after the Teapot Dome scandal, when Congress realized that the administration would have no motivation to investigate its own wrongdoing. So Neal is applying the law for precisely the purpose Congress intended, and Mnuchin is saying no.


The significance of the third point, normalizing conflicts of interest, doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Conceivably, one way the China trade war could end is that a Chinese company with government ties rents a big space at Trump Tower (which is having trouble finding tenants) or some other Trump property, and pays an absurdly high rate on it. Given how secretive President 46% is about his finances, we might never know. And even if we did, the quid pro quo might be impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt. (According to Trump’s lawyers, it couldn’t even be investigated before he leaves office.)

In short, Trump’s continuing interest in his business empire leaves the door wide open to any kind of bribe, foreign or domestic. Already it is considered advisable for foreign diplomats to stay at Trump International Hotel. If you’re a businessman or lobbyist and you want access to the president himself, write him a check for $200,000 and join Mar-a-Lago. (Remember when it was supposed to be scandalous that people might hope to gain access by giving to Hillary’s Clinton’s charity? At least they weren’t putting money directly into her pocket.)

This is one way in which Trump’s America already resembles the stereotypical banana republic: If you want to do public business with the government, first do private business with El Presidente or his family.


This morning’s NYT reveals that transactions in Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s accounts with Deutsche Bank raised money-laundering concerns that bank officials chose not to report to the government.

When he became president, he owed Deutsche Bank well over $300 million. That made the German institution Mr. Trump’s biggest creditor — and put the bank in a bind.

Senior executives worried that if they took a tough stance with Mr. Trump’s accounts — for example, by demanding payment of a delinquent loan — they could provoke the president’s wrath. On the other hand, if they didn’t do anything, the bank could be perceived as cutting a lucrative break for Mr. Trump, whose administration wields regulatory and law enforcement power over the bank.

The point of presidents putting their assets into a blind trust (or converting them all to government bonds, as President Obama did) is precisely to avoid these kinds of situations, which are common in autocracies.


The administration is also trying to limit judicial power.

Vice President Pence on Wednesday announced that the administration will challenge the ability of federal district court judges to issue nationwide injunctions that halt policies advocated by President Trump.

Courts have repeatedly stopped the administration from doing unconstitutional or illegal things. The first version of its Muslim Ban, for example, was a clear attempt to discriminate on the basis of religion. (The Supreme Court ultimately validated the third version, which had been toned down in certain ways.) Its current efforts to deny asylum claims without a hearing are illegal.

Pence is now proposing that judges only have the power to “decide no more than the cases before them”. If, for example, some new administrative action would infringe on my right to vote or my freedom of speech, a judge might rule in favor of my lawsuit, but all other people affected by the action would have to file their own lawsuits. If a federal judge in Hawaii finds that an immigration ban is illegal, it could still be applied in Virginia.

In short, using the courts to stop Trump from doing illegal things would become much harder, and in some cases impractical.


To sum up: Power has a tipping point. Once a leader acquires a certain amount of power, no one else is strong enough to stand in the way of future power grabs. If Trump gets his way in his current disputes with Congress and the courts, that tipping point will have been passed.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, which was written before anyone could have imagined a Trump administration, is suddenly topical again. The current parallels with 1933-34 Germany are striking.

“But Trump is not Hitler,” you say, and I have to agree. However, in 1933 Hitler wasn’t Hitler yet either. He was a buffoon who said outrageous things and had followers who sometimes got out of control. All that was easily explained away as rhetoric and excess enthusiasm. (It’s easy to imagine Germans advising each other to take the new chancellor “seriously, but not literally“.) After all, there were still a lot of sensible people in government, and surely they would eventually nudge the leadership into a more moderate course.

and you might also be interested in …

Do communities with a large number of undocumented immigrants have more crime? No.


Joe Biden’s lead in the polls has only increased since he became a candidate, indicating that there’s more going on here than just name recognition. I still think there’s a long way to go, but I also think the media has overstated Democratic voters’ swing to the left.

I’ll repeat a point I made two weeks ago: There’s a difference between vetting a candidate and doing Trump’s work for him. Raising Biden’s difficult issues — Anita Hill, voting to authorize the Iraq invasion, etc. — is perfectly legit. But the possibility that he might be the nominee against Trump is real. So I have no interest in smearing his character or encouraging progressives to sit out a Trump/Biden race because there’s “no difference” between them.

Compare the Obama/Biden record to Trump. That means comparing Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Merrick Garland to Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh; comparing the Iran nuclear deal to the current march towards war; and comparing the “big fucking deal” of ObamaCare to the push to repeal it or have it declared invalid by the courts. That looks like a big difference to me.

Maybe you remember Ralph Nader’s supporters claiming that there was no difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Now imagine where we might be on climate change if there’d been a Gore administration 18 years ago.


SNL puts its finger on Pete Buttigieg’s problem as a candidate:

I may only be 37 years old, but I do feel like I represent everyday Americans. I’m just a Harvard-educated, multilingual war veteran Rhodes scholar. I’m just like you.

When I was in the corporate world, I used to say that the biggest test of an executive’s character is whether he’s willing to hire somebody smarter than he is. (I used gender-biased language in those days.) I have doubts about whether the number of Americans who can pass that test constitute a majority.

and let’s close with something upbeat

Back in 2014, Finland had already recognized Russia’s attempt to disrupt its democracy and started taking steps to combat it. Finland also had one of the top-ranked educational system in the world, and it began shifting its national curriculum to focus on critical thinking skills.

Its efforts seem to be paying off. Finland has the most trusted news media in the world, its people rank first in media literacy, and in press freedom it is second to Norway.

“It’s not just a government problem, the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” [chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office Jussi] Toivanen said, before adding: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”

… The initiative is just one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today – and tomorrow.

One school has

recently partnered with Finnish fact-checking agency Faktabaari (FactBar) to develop a digital literacy “toolkit” for elementary to high school students learning about the EU elections. It was presented to the bloc’s expert group on media literacy and has been shared among member states.

The exercises include examining claims found in YouTube videos and social media posts, comparing media bias in an array of different “clickbait” articles, probing how misinformation preys on readers’ emotions, and even getting students to try their hand at writing fake news stories themselves.

CNN’s article reports success:

Finland’s strategy was on public display ahead of last month’s national elections, in an advertising campaign that ran under the slogan “Finland has the world’s best elections – think about why” and encouraged citizens to think about fake news.

Officials didn’t see any evidence of Russian interference in the vote, which Toivanen says may be a sign that trolls have stopped thinking of the Finnish electorate as a soft target.

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Comments

  • Janet Rosenbaum (@janetrosenbaum)  On May 20, 2019 at 11:45 am

    Why would the state legislatures of small states vote to disempower themselves by taking away powers from the Senate?

  • Abby  On May 20, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    The House and Senate were based in large part on the English House of Commons (elected) and House of Lords (hereditary). The way the system works in England, the Lords are a moderating influence, who take legislation from Commons, and often make it better before passing it. So originally, the Senate was supposed to be a moderating influence, and wasn’t even elected–members were appointed. So this more moderate branch was given the ability to confirm judges and such, since this the Senate was supposed to be the less political branch of the legislature. That has changed now, so moving various jobs over to the House makes sense.

  • Creigh Gordon  On May 20, 2019 at 12:20 pm

    “Finland…began shifting its national curriculum to focus on critical thinking skills.”

    The first objective of a real education is development of a good bullshit detector.

  • Creigh Gordon  On May 20, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Re: why so many Protestants think anti-abortion is part of their religion, quoting from politicalorphans dot com (read the whole thing):

    “We have forgotten that evangelicals were ambivalent about abortion before it became a Republican political ploy…Abortion became the signature issue for the Republican Party thanks to one special factor that made it irresistibly attractive – [due to Roe] there was nothing they could actually do about it. Imagine being able to win votes with promises that would always fail, with no consequences.”

  • GJacq726  On May 20, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    “I’ll take this opportunity to repeat my opinion about abortion and the law: The motive to ban abortion comes from some very suspect and speculative theology.”

    Keep in mind that religion is used culturally as a means of asserting power-over. Here’s what I posted recently about it:

    I see this fight to overturn Roe v Wade as a power struggle. Those obsessed with power-over cannot abide the power inherent in procreation, and the choice thereof, not being in their absolute control.

    They have introduced terms and woven stories to play on our beliefs and sentiments around innocence and the plight thereof, despite the fact they exhibit no such care beyond the fetal state.

    Women have terminated pregnancies – as it was once known – throughout the millennia, and for the very most part, as a matter of looking after community and society as a whole, with great care and thoughtfulness, and, yes, private remorse. We are simply not out to “kill babies” as the story goes, and neither are those in support of this weighty decision we make.

    Since about one in three women will face the need to terminate her pregnancy, and do so, in her childbearing years, you likely know at least one. Let that sink in, along with the implications of criminalizing the procedure. Who are you willing to lose in your life, just because someone has convinced you that we are murderers for their own self-righteous indignation, their jealous need for power-over?

  • D. Olson  On May 20, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    Regarding abortion, read Kristin Luker’s classic 1985 book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood.

    It helps reconstruct the intellectual history of the abortion issue, which can explain the rape/incest exception. And other puzzles.

  • nicknielsensc  On May 21, 2019 at 12:09 am

    The Real Origins of the Religious Right: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

  • EFCL  On May 21, 2019 at 8:54 am

    I’m an engineer, not a lawyer or politician, but the claim that the House has “no legitimate legislative purpose” for investigations seems wrong from the get go. The Constitution provides the House, and only the House, with the responsibility and power to bring Articles of Impeachment against a sitting president for “high crimes and misdemeanors”. No prosecutor brings a charge without an initial investigation; similarly, the House, and only the House, can, should, and must conduct such investigations for itself. The investigations may come to nothing, but that does not mean that they should not be conducted. The Mueller report has grist for the mill, much as a detailed investigative report in a local paper would. But the responsibility for the actual investigation lies with the House. I don’t see how any “originalist” on a court — Trump appointed or not — could fail to make this connection.

    • ADeweyan  On May 21, 2019 at 3:39 pm

      Agreed. And while Trump will likely drag the case along until after he’s out of office (should he, god willing, not be re-elected), if it should ever make it to the Supreme Court as a live issue, we will have an irrefutable answer about how partisan the Court has become.

  • Alice  On May 21, 2019 at 11:34 am

    “It’s not actually about the treatment of trans and gender-binary people”

    I’m guessing “gender-binary” should be “nonbinary”? Or were you specifically referring to binary trans folk?

  • Guest  On May 21, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    “It’s not like the writers of the Bible were unfamiliar with abortion…If neither Jesus nor the Old Testament lawgivers saw fit to mention this practice…”

    In the OT, God and his righteous followers explicitly recommend killing pregnant women and their unborn with them in the context of punishment or wars. Not exactly abortion per se, but as with the “life begins with the first breath” trope, it underlines a general biblical view of the sanctity of life, “at best”, not being fully relevant in utero, and “at worst” a complete non-issue.

    Numbers 5 is bit more explicit though, wonder what your take is, Doug (briefly, if a woman is suspected of adultery, she can be brought to a priest who administers a special “bitter water” potion; if they baby is illegitimate, the woman miscarries). It looks an awful lot like abortion is not only permissible (if the pregnancy is unwanted by the man, of course) but that it can and should be performed by the Church!

    I doubt there are many fundamentalist evangelical anti-abortion types on the Sift, but would be fascinated to hear how they reconcile all this.

  • Guest  On May 21, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    “Remember when it was supposed to be scandalous that people might hope to gain access by giving to Hillary’s Clinton’s charity?”

    I remember, Doug, and I still oppose it on the same grounds I oppose Trump’s actions. Should we seek consistency here or not? “But isn’t Trump worse on this account?” would be a question of degree, not kind. If you believe, say, Saudi Arabia was writing six/seven figure checks to the Clinton Foundation out of the goodness of their hearts and a commitment to battling climate change, then this point might be harder to grasp.

    Actually, we could probably make the argument that the Clinton-style* of selling influence through lobbyists and foundations, because it is so accepted as routine, set the stage for someone like Trump to come along and do what he’s getting away with.
    *Not just Clinton of course, but pretty much all Rs and most Ds.

  • Lou Doench  On May 22, 2019 at 8:00 am

    OMG!!! The Flying Mouse was one of my Mom and Dads favorite Disney shorts, I think they used to play it on Wonderful World of Disney. I knew the Nothing but a Nothing song when I was five!

  • Graham Thorburn  On May 22, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    As an escapee from Fundamentalist Evangelicalism (albeit the Australian version), I’ve often wondered how they reconcile their core understanding of original sin with their politics around abortion. My family at least believes that original sin descends on a child at birth, and then cannot be escaped until the child is old enough to make a meaningful ‘decision for Christ’, somewhere around 14. As a result, the fetus is ‘innocent’ till birth (and will therefore go to heaven if it ‘dies’ before then), as soon as it is born it is condemned to hell until she/he makes a meaningful ‘decision for Christ’ in early puberty. In that case, why isn’t the thrust of the Evangelical anti-abortion movement focused on making sure that every child gets from birth to decision-making age, rather than protecting the unborn ‘innocents’?

  • Graham Thorburn  On May 25, 2019 at 1:04 am

    And when this theology is coupled with the ‘resurrection of the body’, as spoken about in Romans 2, and all three major Creeds, I can’t help imagining that heaven contains zero children, adult victims of violent death, a large number of the elderly and decrepit, and a multitude of miscarried fetuses…

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