Are We Still America?

In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.

Disney v DeSantis

This week’s featured post is “Laboratories of Autocracy“.

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court’s ethics problem

If you don’t recognize it, the cartoon refers to the taunting French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a fairly apt summary of John Roberts’ response to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s request for Roberts to come testify about the need (or absence of need) for the Court to have an enforceable ethics policy, as every other institution of government does.

Roberts observes that chief justices have seldom testified before committees (though it has happened), and that these appearances are about “mundane” matters. Presumably, he means that showing up to answer criticism would create “separation of powers concerns”. Roberts attached a “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” which says nothing about how justices might be held to these standards.

Vox’ Ian Milhiser characterized the response as “tone-deaf”. In Roberts’ vision, “separation of powers” makes the Court the unique institution of government to which checks and balances do not apply.

Meanwhile, questions continue to mount up. In addition to the original Clarence Thomas bribery concerns, issues related to Neal Gorsuch and Roberts himself have surfaced. In addition, we discovered more details about the cover-up that passed for an investigation of Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings.

Meanwhile, in a Wall Street Journal interview, Samuel Alito doubled down on tone-deafness.

We are being hammered daily, and I think quite unfairly in a lot of instances. And nobody, practically nobody, is defending us.

Like Roberts, he worries about the legitimacy of the Court, but sees it as everybody’s problem but his own. The onus is not on the Court to be more transparent and circumspect; it’s on the rest of us to stop criticizing them. David Roberts (no relation to John) comments:

Alito is really the conservative’s conservative: in a position of near-absolute power, free from any accountability, yet possessed by an endless sense of grievance. A whole interview about how awful it is that people criticize him!

Through all the revelations of Clarence Thomas’ apparent corruption — the millions of dollars worth of free vacations, the unreported real estate transactions, Clarence’s mom getting her home fixed up and living rent-free, and who knows what else we don’t know about yet — the most convincing defense of his innocence has gone something like this: Nobody had to bribe Clarence Thomas to be conservative; he was always conservative.

Here’s my theory on that: Harlan Crow is Thomas’ minder.

To understand what that means, you have to think back to what conservatives were worried about in the 1990s. When the first President Bush appointed Thomas to the Court in 1991, Republicans had won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections, going back to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. They also had been lucky with the timing of Supreme Court vacancies, so when Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall, the Court had only one justice appointed by a Democrat: JFK appointee Byron White.

The rest of the Court looked like this: The Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, had been nominated by Richard Nixon and elevated to Chief Justice by Ronald Reagan. Reagan had also appointed Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy. President Ford had appointed John Paul Stevens, and Nixon appointed Harry Blackmun. Bush appointed both Thomas and David Souter.

With an 8-1 Republican majority, conservatives felt entitled to a very conservative court. And yet, judges appointed by Republicans had a (to them) disconcerting way of moving left after they were seated. So the precedents of the liberal Warren Court of the 1960s continued to stand, and in 1992 the Court (mostly) reaffirmed Roe v Wade in Casey. Bush’s previous pick, Souter, became a particular irritation for the Right, and by Bush v Gore in 2000, everyone was lumping him with the liberals.

So when Thomas took his seat in 1991, the question among conservatives wasn’t just “Is he really a conservative?”, but “How can we keep him from doing a Souter on us?”

That’s where I think Harlan Crow comes in. The point of introducing Thomas and his wife to the joys of billionaire society wasn’t to buy his vote on any particular case. It was to give him something to lose if he should start seeing the charms of liberal philosophy.

So Thomas may well believe that his relationship with Crow is a genuine friendship with no unsavory aspect. After all, what’s not to like about a guy who gives you a chance to live in a lavish world you otherwise could never approach? Thomas and Crow may not talk politics any more than friends typically do, and they probably mostly agree. Quite likely, Thomas has never changed a vote because Crow pressured him. The thought that all this luxury could go poof if he steps off the conservative path may not even be a conscious consideration.

But that’s how corruption often works. As Upton Sinclair once put it, “It is hard to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” A mega-church pastor may genuinely believe in God, but he also recognizes that any atheistic thought crossing his mind threatens his entire career. If all your friends think X, it’s hard for not-X to get a fair hearing in your mind.

So Clarence Thomas probably has no awareness of being bribed. He just lives an enviable lifestyle that could go away if he ever changes his mind.

and Tucker Carlson

Last week, Tucker Carlson’s departure from Fox News was being announced just as I was ready to post. It wasn’t even clear yet whose decision it was; the announcement just described a parting of the ways.

By now it’s clear that Tucker was fired, though it’s still not clear why. Lots of explanations present themselves — something to do with the Dominion lawsuit or its settlement, something to do with Abby Grossberg’s lawsuit, friction with the Murdochs … — but none of the theories have accounted for the timing: Tucker signed off on Friday expecting to be back on Monday, and then he wasn’t.

One thing we know for sure is that he wasn’t cancelled for saying racist or sexist stuff. That’s been going on for years.

And that brings up the other big point of debate: whether his firing is something to celebrate. Clearly, Tucker was a force for evil in the world. But maybe that’s just the role he has been playing, and whoever takes his place will be just as bad. Or maybe he himself will be just as malignant somewhere else.

Maybe. But personally, I’m celebrating. Yes, all Fox hosts are right-wing propagandists. (That’s the clearest lesson the Dominion lawsuit established.) And no, there is no reason to think that the Murdochs are interested in seeing the network turn over a new leaf. So there’s every reason to believe that the new 8 p.m. host will be another Hannity or Ingraham.

But Tucker was worse than that. He didn’t just amplify whatever Republican talking points were making the rounds. He had become a conduit for bringing rhetoric from the White supremacist fringe into the conservative mainstream. Sure, the next 8 p.m. host will claim that tax cuts pay for themselves and Joe Biden has dementia. But s/he may not be a gateway for young men to find the nazis.

Speaking of Fox’s propaganda, Chris Hayes presents the other half of a story Fox has been hyping: The network again and again played video of a former San Francisco official being beaten by a homeless man, as if this were the kind of random violence that is rife in cities run by Democrats. (That’s a constant Fox theme: Blue-state cities are “hellholes”, a conclusion crime statistics don’t bear out. In reality, red states like Tennessee and Missouri have violent crime rates far higher than California or New York.)

But it turns out that somebody who looks a lot like the former official has been trying to chase homeless people out of the neighborhood by attacking them with bear spray. In other words, this isn’t a random-urban-violence story, it’s a fuck-around-and-find-out story. If you attack homeless people often enough, eventually one will fight back.

and the debt ceiling

The big question this week was whether Speaker McCarthy could pass his ransom demand for raising the debt ceiling. It was a close call, but he did.

What McCarthy hasn’t passed, and almost certainly can’t pass, is a Republican budget. The bill he passed would raise the debt ceiling until March while making substantial spending cuts. But the cuts are to overall spending levels, and what the government does less of is not specified.

Biden’s reelection bid

Tuesday, President Biden officially announced what he’s been hinting at for months: He’s running for reelection in 2024.

My reaction is, I suspect, fairly typical among Democrats: Biden is not an inspirational figure in the mold of JFK or Barack Obama, but he’s been a very good president. Trump (after trying everything he could think of to break democracy and hang onto power) handed him a country in pretty bad shape: Covid was killing more than 3,000 Americans every week; vaccines existed but the government had no plan for distributing them; unemployment was at 6.3%; Trump’s final budget showed a $4.8 trillion deficit; the NATO alliance was in tatters; and respect for America had plunged around the world.

Biden took office with little margin for error. Democrats in the House held a slim 222-213 margin in the House, and Vice President Harris was the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate that required 60 votes to break a filibuster.

And yet, he accomplished a great deal, including things that Trump had long promised but never delivered, like an infrastructure bill to rebuild America. The Inflation Reduction Act began addressing climate change, really for the first time ever. (President Obama had taken executive actions, but had not gotten climate-change legislation passed. President Trump was more interested in undoing climate action.)

Without Biden, it’s doubtful NATO would have given Ukraine enough aid to stave off a Russian takeover. And while the US exit from Afghanistan was messy — perhaps needlessly so — nonetheless we are out of Afghanistan. That’s another thing Trump kept promising but never delivered.

And finally, it’s wonderful to have a president who actually believes in the Constitution. If, God forbid, Biden should happen to lose the 2024 election, I have no doubt that he will leave office peacefully. There will be no scheme to create fraudulent electors, or riots to intimidate Congress into keeping him in power.

Nikki Haley (who needs to say wild things to draw attention to her own presidential candidacy) immediately took the low road, announcing that Biden’s survival to the end of a second term “is not something I find likely”. (Biden’s Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates responded with, “Honestly, I forgot she was running”)

Just as a matter of statistics, Haley is wrong: An 80-year-old White American male has an average life expectancy of seven years. Biden appears to be fit and has the best medical care, so if anything, his odds should be better than average.

But Haley’s macabre comment points to something Republicans do need to think about: Biden’s age could be an issue if they nominate a younger candidate like Haley or DeSantis, but it will fall flat for Trump, who is 76, fat, eats a terrible diet, and resists exercise or medical advice.

Would Republicans really bet on Trump to outlive Biden? I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t make ridiculous claims about his superior mental competence either, as congressman and former White House doctor Ronny Jackson (a.k.a. “Candyman“) does:

Donald Trump can stand up unprompted without any teleprompter or anything else and he can talk for two hours

I think we all know old people who can drone on endlessly about their imaginary grievances. It’s not usually a sign of acuity.

Thursday was Take Your Child to Work Day at the White House.

and the Trump rape trial

Up until now, I’ve mostly been discounting E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against Trump. After all, it’s a civil case, so (unlike the January 6 or Mar-a-Lago documents or Georgia election interference investigations or the Stormy Daniels indictments) it can’t send him to jail. It probably won’t even result in a huge monetary settlement, like the $250 million New York is seeking in its fraud lawsuit.

But as the trial got underway this week, I finally realized what this case does: It brings Trump’s wrongdoing down to a human scale. The allegation here is not some complicated story about a larger-than-life historical figure trying overthrow our constitutional democracy. Instead, it’s very simple: Trump raped E. Jean Carroll, and when she told her story he said she was a liar who was too ugly to rape.

Fundamentally, this is the story of a man with the fame and money and power to do whatever he wants. As he bragged on the Access Hollywood tape:

When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Carroll’s lawsuit is raising the question: Is that true? Is that the kind of world we live in or want to live in? Can a man like Donald Trump really do anything and walk away unscathed?

This week, Carroll testified, and held up well under a badgering cross-examination by Trump’s lawyer. Trump himself is not going to testify or even attend. This is all beneath him, though he continues to attack Carroll on the social media platform he owns.

The Carroll trial is putting a face on a class of people we all know exist: Trump’s victims. They are real people, and at least one of them is willing to stand up to him.

but we need to keep our eyes on Republican state legislatures

That’s the subject of the featured post.

and you also might be interested in …

A family in Cleveland, Texas asked their neighbor to stop shooting his gun, so he killed them. He’s still at large

More life in Texas:

A Texas man on a date who paid $40 to park, only to learn inside a Houston burger joint that he was scammed, allegedly went back and fatally shot the man posing as an attendant and then returned for dinner, according to court records.

His date turned him in to police.

and let’s close with something self-referential

The Toronto Recursive History Project commemorates its own history of commemorating its own history.

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  • Professor Tom  On May 1, 2023 at 12:27 pm

    Supreme Court and Debt Ceiling.

    As long as the justices were constitutionally elected by a legally elected president appointing and senate approving after vetting legal proficiency there is check by we the people.

    An age limit would seem as a good idea however not only in the court system but also in the senate and congress.

    A debt ceiling as well as a balanced budget unless in a shooting war would also seem prudent when we now have since WW2 the first time reached a deficit higher than the GNP.

    Speaking as a father whose kids will end up paying for it while also speaking for the poor who always gets most hurt by inflation such high deficit spending creates.

  • painedumonde  On May 1, 2023 at 4:51 pm

    Pour être plus correct, le soldat francique.

  • susanmbrewer  On May 1, 2023 at 5:24 pm

    I have said before that I think the debt ceiling should be done away with; its original purpose is no longer relevant. I understand how difficult and therefore how unlikely this would be.

    But it’s not a debt ceiling — Congress can still pass laws and authorize spending that exceeds the current debt ceiling. It should be renamed something that better describes its current function, say, the repayment ceiling. It simply states how much of our lawful debts we will pay, stiffing whomever else is owed repayment. As always, it is up to Congress to choose not to pass legislation whose funding would exceed the debt ceiling.


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