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.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Allen Shriver  On September 5, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Doug, have you read “The Revenge of Power” by Moises? I highly recommend it.

    Sent from my iPad


  • LdeG  On September 5, 2022 at 3:06 pm

    “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?”

    Say, Charleston, West Virginia. I don’t know that there was a national concern about this. And the few long-term solutions implemented were rolled back.

    White working-class Eastern Kentucky has been abandoned by its own Republican state legislature after its flooding. West Virginia flooding damage from 2016 and succeeding floods have not been repaired.

  • carterlinda290  On September 5, 2022 at 3:12 pm

    A comment on the Parton video you linked, “Dolly Parton could write The Communist Manifesto but Karl Marx couldn’t write”9 to 5”.

  • Roger  On September 5, 2022 at 5:35 pm

    Good thing you’re taking off next week. That will guarantee that nothing of note will take place. (That it were so!)

  • Dale Moses  On September 5, 2022 at 5:44 pm

    To highlight the Jackson issue. Are we to believe that Mississippi, a state that has misappropriated welfare funds in absurd quantities, was going help out a city like Jackson? Even if the Feds gave Mississippi a block grant for it i am pretty sure that it would go to make rich white people richer rather than fix anything for a black person.

  • David Goldfarb  On September 5, 2022 at 10:12 pm

    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.

    I can’t help remembering that Al Capone was put away for tax evasion rather than murder. Frankly, if this is what we can get him for (and disqualify him for any future political office) then I say go for it.

  • fgsjr2015  On September 14, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    What humankind may need to brutally endure in order to survive the very-long-term from ourselves is an even greater, non-humanoid nemesis than our own politics and perceptions of differences — especially those involving skin-color and creed — against which we could all unite, defend, attack and defeat, then greatly celebrate. … Maybe a humanicidal, multi-tentacled extraterrestrial invader, like that from the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day?

    During this much-needed human allegiance, we’d be forced to work closely side-by-side together and witness just how humanly similar we are to each other. (Although, I’ve been informed that one or more human parties might actually attempt to forge an allegiance with the ETs to better their own chances for survival, thus indicating that our wanting human condition may be even worse than I had originally thought.)

    Still, maybe some five or more decades later when all traces of the nightmarish ET invasion are gone, we will inevitably revert to those same politics to which we humans seem so collectively hopelessly prone — including those of scale: the intercontinental, international, national, provincial or state, regional and municipal, and etcetera, etcetera.

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