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Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)

By focusing attention on comparatively minor policy differences, the debates are obscuring a broad Democratic consensus that voters need to hear about.


Several years ago I was having lunch with a friend when the Democratic candidate for Congress came through the nearly empty restaurant, shaking the few hands available. After she left, our young waitress came to the table, and I could tell that she had a question unrelated to food. I expected her to ask whether we knew anything about the candidate, but her actual question was much more basic: “Do you know anything about Congress? Is it, like, important?”

That encounter taught me a lesson I have not forgotten: People who pay attention to politics often talk about “low-information voters”, but most of us have no idea just how low-information they are.

Back in 2004, Chris Hayes learned similar lessons from the undecided voters he canvassed in Wisconsin.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn’t name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The “issue” is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It’s what makes up the subheadings on a candidate’s website, it’s what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it’s what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it’s what we always complain we don’t see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. … The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief — not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

Year after year, elections come out they way they do because people like my waitress or Hayes’ undecideds vote one way or the other or stay home. Those decisions are made on a much simpler level than we usually imagine, and the arguments we find so convincing often miss their targets completely. If such voters are persuaded, it is more likely because of our earnestness or our tone or something we said in the first ten seconds. Or maybe we inadvertently convinced them to vote against our candidate for some similarly tangential reason.

That’s what I was thinking Tuesday as I watched the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus, which will happen February 3. Debates draw out differences, and when candidates share basic goals and values, their differences are often deep in the details of policy. Those policy distinctions — like Medicare for All vs. Medicare for All Who Want It vs. adding a Medicare-like public option to ObamaCare — mean nothing to most low-information voters.

Worse, the squabbling over programmatic details hides the candidates’ vast areas of agreement. The New York Times, justifying its decision to endorse both progressive Elizabeth Warren and moderate Amy Klobuchar this morning, wrote:

The Democratic primary contest is often portrayed as a tussle between moderates and progressives. To some extent that’s true. But when we spent significant time with the leading candidates, the similarity of their platforms on fundamental issues became striking.

I believe that those points of consensus should be the central message of the campaign against Trump. That consensus is the best definition of what it means to be a Democrat, and is a better predictor of what the next Democratic administration will accomplish than any particular candidate’s program — even the winner’s. (In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan had an insurance mandate and Barack Obama’s didn’t. But when Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, it had a mandate. So if you voted for Obama over Clinton to avoid a mandate, you failed in your purpose.)

Political wonks are always tempted to dive down into the weeds of policy and argue why Candidate X’s plan is superior to Candidate Y’s. And I understand how those differences can seem terribly significant when you are in the throes of a primary campaign. But I think that’s exactly the wrong thing to be doing when we get rare moments of national attention, as we did Tuesday. What the public needs to hear are the principles that unify Democrats and set them against the current administration, not the fine details of policy that differentiate one Democrat from another.

Charles Blow made a similar point Wednesday morning:

Trump has laid out his vision for America: It is the racial Hunger Games. … The Democratic candidates, too, would be well warned to stick to a vision — a diametrically opposite and dynamically animating vision that will activate and energize the targets of Trump’s aggressions.

If I see Trump as a pestilence I may not see in your tome of plans a cure.

Here’s where I stand: If Candidate A’s policies are analytically superior, but Candidate B is the more convincing proponent of the Democratic consensus, I want to vote for B. That’s the difference I’d like to see the debates showcase. That’s not “electability” as it is commonly discussed; it’s who we should want as our spokesperson.

What do I think is in the Democratic consensus? I thought you’d never ask.

1. If you get sick, you should get the care you need, and your family shouldn’t have to go bankrupt paying for it.

If you showed this statement to the 20-odd candidates who have run for the Democratic nomination in this cycle, I firmly believe they would all agree with it.

Their differences are all about how to get there: What is the most efficient way to deliver that much healthcare? How would the country pay for it? What’s the most politically expedient path forward?

Bernie Sanders wants to get there in one fell swoop, with a government insurance plan that eliminates private insurance and is paid for by taxes. Most of the other candidates on the debate stage (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar) don’t believe they could pass such a plan, so they want to take a smaller step in the same direction by building on ObamaCare. (Once the public sees how that works and develops confidence in it, take another step.) Elizabeth Warren is somewhere between, proposing a Bernie-like program with a phase-in period.

That’s what they’ve been arguing about. Trump, on the other hand, has sabotaged ObamaCare, tried to repeal it in Congress, and is still backing a lawsuit that would declare it unconstitutional. Despite a lot of rhetoric about “replacing” ObamaCare, he has never released a plan for doing so. The upshot is that if he succeeds in his aims, tens of millions of people will lose health coverage.

2. We can and should do much more to slow down climate change.

President Obama did a number of things to slow down climate change, but Trump has undone almost all of them: Obama joined the Paris Climate Accord; Trump withdrew from it. Obama substantially raised fuel economy standards for cars and trucks; Trump initially froze them at the old levels, then agreed to a minor increase. Trump reversed Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from plants that generate electricity. Trump’s plan to roll back standards on methane emissions is too radical even for some oil companies.

All the Democratic candidates want to do more than Obama did, not less. They disagree about how much more and how fast it can happen.

None of the candidates denies or tries to minimize the significance of the scientific consensus on climate change: It is real. We already are seeing the effects. It is caused primarily by the carbon emissions that happen when we burn fossil fuels. It will reach catastrophic levels if the world does not substantially reduce its carbon emissions.

3. If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a job that pays a decent wage.

Trump has reason to crow about the unemployment rate, which is very low right now. (Whether low unemployment is due to any policy of his, or is just the continuation of trends that started under Obama — that’s another debate.) But a lot of the people who have jobs are still not making a wage they can live on.

The federal minimum wage is still $7.25, the same as it was in 2009. The purchasing power (after inflation) of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. (The value of 1968’s $1.60 wage is $12.00 today.) In none of the 50 states is a two-bedroom apartment affordable on a full-time minimum wage.

President Obama tried to raise minimum wage to $9, but couldn’t get Republicans in Congress to go along. All Democratic candidates want a much greater increase. Both Bernie Sanders (the most liberal Democratic candidate) and Joe Biden (one of the least liberal) are calling for $15.

Democrats across the board want to create jobs paying good wages by repairing our country’s roads and bridges, modernizing the electrical grid, and shifting to renewable energy sources that don’t contribute to climate change.

4. The burden of taxes should fall primarily on those best able to bear it.

The benefits of the Trump tax cut went almost entirely to large corporations and the very rich. Despite the promises he often made during the 2016 campaign and repeated early in his administration, the new tax rules particularly favor people like him. In fact, many of the tax breaks that the law preserves or extends seem to be targeted precisely at benefiting Trump himself or his family. (That’s one reason he doesn’t want you to see his tax returns.)

This is part of a long-term trend that has lowered the tax rates paid by the super-rich.

(Sometimes you’ll see an article claiming that the very rich carry more of the tax burden than they used to, but these claims are deceptive: The very rich have seen their incomes go up many times faster than the rest of us. They get a much bigger piece of the pie than they used to, but while their share of the tax burden has gone up somewhat, it has not gone up proportionately.)

Corporations are also carrying a much smaller tax burden than they did in decades past. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy lists 60 corporations that among them made nearly $80 billion in profits, but paid no taxes in 2018 under Trump’s new law.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit (which Republicans thought was an existential crisis when Obama was president, but have since forgotten about) has nearly doubled under Trump — from $665 billion in FY 2017 to a projected $1.1 trillion next year. This comes at a time in the economic cycle when the deficit ought to be going down, because it will rise even further when the next recession comes.

All the major Democratic candidates would reverse most of the Trump tax cuts, and all call for shifting more of the tax burden back to the rich. Elizabeth Warren is the most vocal about this, calling for a 2% wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million. The rest don’t go quite that far, but all  agree that the rich should pay more.

5. If you want to develop your talents through education, money shouldn’t stand in your way.

States used to put big money into their university systems, but they no longer do. As a result, college of any kind has become unreasonably expensive — far more expensive than it was a generation ago. (Until 1970, the University of California charged California residents zero tuition.)

As a result, too many of our young people face a terrible choice: Give up on developing their talents after high school, or take on debts that they may never be able to pay off. Or their parents face the choice: See their children stuck in dead-end jobs, or take all the money they had hoped to retire on and hand it to a university.

Wasted talent isn’t just a personal tragedy, it’s a loss for all of us. If our young people don’t learn 21st-century skills, American businesses will have a harder time finding good people, foreign companies won’t want to open branches here, our economy as a whole will be less prosperous, and the professionals we have to deal with in our personal lives (doctors, accountants, dentists, teachers, etc.) won’t be the best people. There is also a more subtle cost: the loss of the American dream. When only the rich can afford to send their children to college, the upper classes become entrenched; where you are born is where you will stay.

Democratic candidates have a variety of plans to do something about this: Some want to make public colleges free for everyone, or maybe just free for people whose parents aren’t rich. Some want to forgive all student debt, or only part of it. As with healthcare, the difference isn’t in the general principle, it’s in how to bring it about and who will pay for it.

The Trump administration’s priorities are diametrically opposed: They are constantly looking for ways to cut back on student aid or student loans, or to make them harder to pay off. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has consistently shown more interest in for-profit colleges that rip students off than in the students being victimized.

6. America should be a positive example to the rest of the world. When international cooperation is necessary to solve global problems, our country should lead.

We’ve fallen a long way from the “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan used to brag about. These days, if you’re a third-world dictator and you want to torture people or channel government money into your own pocket or use your law enforcement agencies to investigate people who cross you or accuse the press of being “the enemy of the people” or claim a phony emergency to grab power from your legislature, you just point to the United States and quote its president. It’s fine. All the best countries are doing it.

We’re now a country none of the other countries trust, because our word means nothing. Imagine how shocked our loyal allies in Canada were when we raised tariffs because we considered Canada a risk to our national security. Or talk to the Kurds, if you can still find any.

Historically, America has been an idealistic nation. Since World War II, it has led the community of nations towards higher standards of human rights and a freer exchange of ideas and people. The US has been key in setting up regional alliances for mutual security, with NATO being the shining example.

Today, the world faces many problems that no nation can solve on its own; most significantly, climate change, but also terrorism, nuclear proliferation, floods of refugees fleeing wars or climate-change-related catastrophes, and several others. But the Trump administration has chosen to step back from world leadership with a go-it-alone policy. Given our military power and central role in the world economy, no other nation can take our place.

Democrats want the US to be a good citizen of the community of nations, and to rally the nations of the world to confront the unique challenges of this century.

7. Every American should be encouraged to vote, and all votes should count equally.

For the last decade or so, Republicans all over the country have been putting obstacles in the way of people who want to vote, particularly if they are poor, black, HIspanic, or in school. Even if such people do manage to vote, gerrymandering can concentrate them in a small number of districts so that they wind up with fewer representatives in Congress or state legislatures. You can see the result in a state like Wisconsin, where Republicans maintain power no matter how the people vote. (In 2018, 54% of Wisconsinites voted for Democratic candidates for the state assembly, but those candidates won only 36% of the seats.)

The first bill Democrats passed when they got control of the House of Representatives last year was House Resolution 1 of 2019: The For the People Act. That law would end gerrymandering, extend voting rights, and set up a program to limit the power of large donors to political campaigns. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to vote on it.

Ultimately, Democrats would also like to get rid of the Electoral College — which allowed Donald Trump to become president even though Hillary Clinton got nearly 3 million more votes.

8. All Americans should be equal before the law, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, religion, or any other characteristic that isn’t relevant to the purposes of the law. All citizens should be treated with equal respect by law enforcement.

“Liberty and justice for all” is a key part of our national identity, but we haven’t been doing a good job of delivering it. Race makes a difference at every level of our justice system: Black neighborhoods are more heavily policed, leading to more arrests. Arrested blacks are more likely to be charged with crimes; charged blacks are more likely to be convicted; convicted blacks on average get longer sentences. The result is that a substantial portion of the black male population is in jail. (Laws preventing felons from voting, even after they leave prison, are a major way that minorities are prevented from exercising political power proportionate to their numbers.)

Far too often, black men and women die in encounters with police without ever reaching the justice system.

These problems existed long before Donald Trump took office. But as with climate change, the Obama administration was trying to do something about them, and the Trump administration has undone all that progress. In particular, Trump’s Justice Department has all but stopped oversight of racism in local police departments. Trump himself has actively encouraged police to physically abuse suspects.

Any Democratic candidate for president would get back on the Obama/Holder track of trying to reduce the racism in law enforcement and the legal system.

9. As much as possible, politics should be insulated from the corrupting influence of concentrated wealth.

Briefly, controlling campaign finance looked like a bipartisan issue. Republican Senator John McCain made it a central plank of his first presidential campaign in 2000, and he teamed with Democrat Russ Feingold to produce the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002.

But Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents have subsequently declared unconstitutional just about any substantive limits on political spending. One of the few remaining options for controlling big-money politics is disclosure (i.e., letting the public know who is financing political ads, rather than letting big-money interests hide behind shell organizations with vacuous names like “Concerned Citizens Against …”), but the Republican Senate has blocked any such legislation.

This is one of the clearest differences between the parties: Republicans want big-money donors to have as much power as possible, while Democrats want to limit the power of money in general, and (to the extent that those limitations prove impractical) enhance the power of small donors.

10. The basic constitutional covenant is still necessary and should be respected: majority rule that respects minority rights, three branches of government that check and balance each other, and an appropriate balance between the public good and individual freedom.

For years, preserving or restoring the Constitution has played a major role in Republican rhetoric, but President Trump has made a mockery of all that. This is one of the major issues in his impeachment, and should be a major issue in the 2020 campaign as well.

The Constitution assigns Congress the “power of the purse”, which means that no money can be spent without Congress’ approval. But when Congress refused to fund Trump’s border wall last year, even after a lengthy government shutdown, he declared a phony “state of emergency” and seized the money from other programs. He also illegally held up money that Congress had appropriated to aid Ukraine.

Congress has a constitutional duty to keep oversight over the executive branch, but Trump has routinely refused to provide subpoenaed documents and witnesses, arguing in court that he has “absolute immunity” against any investigations whatsoever. His legal arguments are absurd, but will serve to delay things in the courts long enough to keep the public from finding out what he’s been doing until after the election.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but he committed an act of war against Iran without consulting Congress.

Again and again, Trump has shown that he admires dictators: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and many others. (The New Yorker’s satirical Borowitz Report says “Ayatollah Mystified That He is the Only Dictator Trump Dislikes“.) That’s because he wants to be one.

In spite of decades of Republican rhetoric, Democrats are now the party that stands for the Constitution.

Remember Normal Presidents?

Every previous president since Pearl Harbor would have handled the Soleimani announcement very differently.


It’s now been ten days since the United States assassinated top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport, and we still have no coherent explanation of why it was done, why it was legal, and what strategy the assassination is a piece of. Apparently even Congress hasn’t been able to get these questions answered in a classified briefing.

One of the ways Trump gets normalized is that we often compare his actions to his own previous conduct, as in “This is even worse than the last ridiculous thing he did.” As a result, our expectations of presidential behavior drift continually downward. I mean, sure, the claims of an “imminent” threat to American lives, some deadly Iranian scheme that came apart because we killed Soleimani, are almost certainly false. (Once a plot is under way, i.e., truly “imminent”, you disrupt it by stopping the perpetrators, not blowing up the mastermind. Killing Bin Laden after the hijackers were on their way to the airport would have done nothing to prevent 9/11.) But Trump’s like that — what’s one more lie after the many thousands we’ve already heard from him?

Another way we normalize Trump is to cut his actions into tiny pieces and find horrifying precedents for each one. (As in: “So Trump lied about the imminent threat? W lied about WMDs.”) And so we allow the Trump administration to become a Frankenstein monster, stitched together from all the worst aspects of previous presidencies.

To correct these normalizing tendencies, I want to raise the question: What do we normally expect from an American president when there’s been a major military development?

Talk to us. The very least we expect from a normal president is that he address the American people, to acknowledge what has happened himself, as soon as possible.

This tradition is as old as mass media. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling December 7 “a date that will live in infamy” and asking the House and Senate to declare war on Japan. The speech was broadcast live over the radio, and “attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81% of American homes tuning in”.

[The speech] was intended not merely as a personal response by the President, but as a statement on behalf of the entire American people in the face of a great collective trauma. In proclaiming the indelibility of the attack, and expressing outrage at its “dastardly” nature, the speech worked to crystallize and channel the response of the nation into a collective response and resolve.

Every subsequent president has carried on this tradition of using the mass media to reach out to the American people when issues of war and peace arose. This week I examined a number of such examples, including these:

How a normal president sounds. I could have included many other examples, but the list above is a good sampling. Some the actions announced turned out well and some turned out badly. (It’s probably unfair to expect him to have foreseen this, but Nixon’s Cambodia campaign was a step down the road to the killing fields.) Some of the speeches were more honest than others. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example, was not quite how LBJ described it.) But despite the differences in era and philosophy and personality, all these speeches share a number of features that made them “presidential”.

The most obvious thing they share is a tone: They are all calm but serious. The President, whoever he might have been at the time, projects an attitude of thoughtful determination, as if he were saying “I know there will be consequences to this act, but I have thought them out to the best of my ability. I am not acting rashly out of unreasoning fear or blind anger.”

They are also in some manner humble. This might seem like a strange trait for a leader to display when he is invoking the greatest power his office affords him, but American presidents do not hold their power as a personal possession, the way a divine-right king would. Presidential power is held in trust for the American people. No one is worthy of the power to start bombing some other country or to send troops into harm’s way, but our country has to place that power somewhere. So we have placed it in our president, under supervision from the Congress, who is just a human being like the rest of us. Any human who assumes that power is quite right to be awed by it.

The speeches are not self-aggrandizing, which is the opposite of humble. FDR, for example, could have used the opportunity to pat himself on the back: He had shown the foresight to begin a draft a little over a year before. His Lend-Lease program had armed countries that would now be our allies, and had developed a weapons industry we would now be relying on. But he mentioned none of that.

Unity. Every one of the speeches is an attempt to unify Americans behind the action being announced and the policy it represents. Consequently, they all strive to be non-partisan. Again, look at FDR: He could have reminded the country that Republican congressmen voted against Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act 24-135, a decision that now looked short-sighted. That might have scored points with the voters and helped Democrats unseat those Republicans. But he made no mention of parties: The nation had been attacked, and he called for the nation — not just his party — to respond.

That model has stood until the present administration. Frequently in the speeches above, the president quotes or refers to some past member of the other party to demonstrate the bipartisan nature of the policy he is carrying out. Ronald Reagan quoted former Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. Nixon referenced a bipartisan list of presidents:

In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions which led to victory in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions which led to our victory in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions which ended the war in Korea and avoided war in the Middle East. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision which removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba and the western hemisphere.

Johnson’s speech is especially noteworthy in this regard, because it took place in August, 1964, just three months before the election. The idea that Barry Goldwater was a hothead not to be trusted with nuclear weapons would soon become a theme of Johnson’s reelection campaign, but nothing in the Gulf of Tonkin speech hints at that. Quite the opposite:

I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States, and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia. I have been given encouraging assurance by these leaders of both parties that such a resolution will be promptly introduced, freely and expeditiously debated, and passed with overwhelming support. And just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.

In none of the speeches does the president snipe at his predecessors, blame them for the current predicament, or gloat over the way things have turned out. No president ever had a better opportunity to throw shade at the previous president than Barack Obama, who had succeeded at something George W. Bush had failed to do for seven years: kill Bin Laden. But Obama passed up that opportunity to boost himself by tearing down his predecessor. Instead, he acknowledged the “tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals” over the previous ten years. He closed by asking Americans to

think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What is presidential? The presidential speeches seek to evoke three kinds of unity: Unity as Americans facing an external challenge, unity of vision between the president and Congress, and unity of the United States with its allies. The speeches are not always entirely truthful — among his other roles, the president is the country’s chief propagandist — but the untruths are aimed at the enemy, not at other Americans. The president takes a generous, hopeful view of how Congress, our allies, and the nation as a whole will respond. The vision is consistently about what we can do together, not what the president as an individual is doing for us or against our opposition. He seeks to paper over any past differences, in hopes of moving forward as a united nation.

Now look at Trump. The day after the Soleimani assassination, Trump made a public statement, but not a particularly formal one. He addressed reporters at Mar-a-Lago, not the nation from the White House. (The text begins “Hello everybody”, not “My fellow Americans”.) The brief announcement does not mention Congress or our allies, but has an unusual number of first-person references: “at my direction … under my leadership … I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary”, leading up to Trump’s list of accomplishments:

Under my leadership, we have destroyed the ISIS territorial caliphate, and recently, American Special Operations Forces killed the terrorist leader known as al-Baghdadi. The world is a safer place without these monsters.

Trump also took a slap at previous administrations:

What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved.

The message asks for nothing — not from the public, not from Congress, not from our allies. Trump simply reports what he has done for reasons that are not entirely clear. (It can’t be that we have a right to know.) He does not warn us of hardships to come, or of possible Iranian reprisals. He warns Iran, though of what “I” will do.

The United States has the best military by far, anywhere in the world. We have best intelligence in the world. If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran.

After Iran’s response — a missile attack on the Iraqi base from which the Soleimani mission was launched — Trump finally gave a more formal speech from the White House. He begins, not with a salutation to the audience or even with a statement of the policy of the United States, but with a pledge from Trump the Individual:

As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

He does not say how he will prevent that from happening, given that he tore up the agreement that had been blocking Iran’s nuclear program. He goes on to ramble fairly incoherently about the evils of Iran. Again he does not mention Congress, and while he does mention both NATO and the partner countries in the Iran nuclear deal, it is not at all clear what he wants them to do, other than “recognize reality”.

Again, he exaggerates his “accompliments”:

Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence.  These historic accompliments [accomplishments] changed our strategic priorities.  These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.  And options in the Middle East became available.  We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.  We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. … Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. … Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration.

But the most unpresidential thing of all in this speech is the way that he goes after his predecessor, in some cases distorting the truth to do so, and in other cases just simply lying. Under Obama’s Iran deal, “they were given $150 billion”. [False. A much smaller sum of Iran’s own money was unfrozen. Iran was “given” nothing.] “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” [Theoretically possible, but Trump provides no evidence. He appears to have just made this up.] “The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” I’ll let PolitiFact handle that one:

This is False.

The Iran deal put a cap on enriched uranium that would have lasted until 2030, at which point other agreements would have continued to limit Iran’s nuclear development.

Some of the deal’s restrictions would have eased beginning in 2025, but the key elements that prevented Iran from enriching the levels of uranium needed to make a bomb would have remained in effect until 2030.

Other terms would have lasted forever, including the prohibition on manufacturing a nuclear weapon and a provision requiring compliance with oversight from international inspectors.

Think about what these statements do, relative to what we would expect from any previous president. They feed a cult of personality around Trump. He is not the current avatar of the President of the United States, he is himself, accomplishing things that his predecessors at best played no role in, and more often provided obstacles he had to overcome. He wields power as a personal possession, not in trust from the American people or overseen by Congress. America’s allies are not equals, they are vassal states that he need not consult, but can make demands on.

He makes no appeal for unity, and does not reach out to the opposition party. Instead, he uses the attention provided by the current crisis to claim his predecessor’s accomplishments (we became the top oil producer under Obama), and to spread lies about him. Democrats should feel slapped in the face by this, not invited into an American unity.

In addition to the televised addresses, Trump has access to media FDR never imagined. His Twitter feed has been non-stop partisan, in the most vicious way. Just this morning, for example, he retweeted an image of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in Muslim dress, with an Iranian flag behind them. In his own words, he told this lie:

The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy

Nothing he says speaks to Democrats in Congress, or to the 54% of the American people who voted for someone else in 2016, or the 53.4% who voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in 2018. He is leading us down a path that may well end up in war, without seeking approval from Congress or even trying to make a case to anyone other than the minority of the country that supports him.

No previous president would do such a thing.

Is It War Yet?

As conflict with Iran escalates, what a luxury a trustworthy president would be.


In the early morning hours Friday (local time), a US drone attack killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Soleimani was in a convoy leaving the Baghdad Airport in Iraq. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the body that oversees Iraq’s myriad militia factions, was also killed in the strike.

Escalating US/Iran conflict. Soleimani’s assassination takes place in the middle of a tangled mess: Iran/US relations have been in a state of increasing conflict since May, 2018, when President Trump pulled the US out of the agreement the Obama administration had negotiated to limit Iran’s nuclear program, replacing it with a campaign of “maximum pressure” to force more concessions from the Iranians. So far, those concessions have not materialized. Sunday, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the agreement’s restrictions on its nuclear programs. In the NYT’s words, the decision “re-creates conditions that led Israel and the United States to consider destroying Iran’s facilities a decade ago”.

More immediately, a rocket attack near Kirkuk by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia killed an American contractor a week ago; the US retaliated with an airstrike on a militia base that killed 25; and pro-Iranian protesters then mobbed the US embassy in Baghdad. So now we’ve killed a major figure in the Iranian military, together with an Iraqi militia leader.

Iraq. Iraq also has been in political turmoil: Massive protests that began in October have resulted in the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who nonetheless remains in office because Iraq’s political leaders haven’t been able to settle on a replacement. So while he retains the formal powers of his office, his ability to lead the country is questionable.

The protests against the Iraqi government (which are not related to the protests at the US embassy) had been seeking an end to corruption and foreign influence, including both Iranian and US influence. In response to Friday’s drone attack (which Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called “an outrageous breach to Iraqi sovereignty“), the Iraqi parliament passed a bill instructing the government to ask the United States to withdraw all military forces from Iraq. Time described this vote as “symbolic” because “it sets no timetable for withdrawal and is subject to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s approval.”

The Washington Post points out that the legal basis for an American presence in Iraq is not that solid. Most deployments are defined by a formal Status of Forces agreement, but this one isn’t.

“The current U.S. military presence is based of an exchange of letters at the executive level,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the US Institute of Peace who previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

So the Prime Minister could revoke that agreement “with the stroke of a pen”.

President Trump sounded more like an occupier than an ally when he responded Sunday night.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters. … Mr Trump said that if Iraq asked US forces to depart on an unfriendly basis, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

It’s like he thinks he holds the mortgage on Iraq and is threatening to repossess.

Dubious justifications. The administration claims that Soleimani was planning attacks on US forces (almost certainly true) and that his death short-circuited those plans (highly unlikely). Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Soleimani’s death “saved American lives”.

The problem I have with that statement is that Trump and Pompeo have spent the last three years lying to us about more-or-less everything. This is a moment when Americans need to be able to trust their leaders, and we just can’t; these leaders have shown themselves to be untrustworthy.

For example, Vice President Pence’s attempt to link Soleimani to 9/11 is just a lie. Some of the 9/11 perpetrators traveled through Iran on their way to Afghanistan, but there is no evidence Iran knew what they were up to, and nothing that connects their passage to Soleimani personally.

The Washington Post gives reasons to doubt Pompeo as well:

“There may well have been an ongoing plot as Pompeo claims, but Soleimani was a decision-maker, not an operational asset himself,” said Jon Bateman, who served as a senior intelligence analyst on Iran at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Killing him would be neither necessary nor sufficient to disrupt the operational progression of an imminent plot. What it might do instead is shock Iran’s decision calculus” and deter future attack plans, Bateman said.

Narges Bajoghli, author of Iran Reframed, discounts claims that Soleimani’s death cripples Iran’s ability to strike US targets.

The idea that General Suleimani was all powerful and that the Quds Force will now retreat, or that Iran’s ties with Shiite armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon like Hezbollah will suffer, indicates a superficial, and frankly ideological, understanding of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard. …

In my 10 years in Iran researching the Revolutionary Guards and their depiction in Iranian media, one of my key observations was that wherever they operate, in Iran or on foreign battlefields, they function with that same ad hoc leadership [developed during the Iran/Iraq War]: Decisions and actions don’t just come from one man or even a small group of men; many within the organization have experience building relationships, creating strategies and making decisions.

Slighting Congress, insulting Democrats. And then there’s the US side of the mess: Unlike major military actions by previous administrations, this one happened without official notice to the Gang of Eight in Congress. (That’s the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate, minority leaders of both houses, and the chair and ranking opposition member of the intelligence committees in both houses.) Apparently, some Republicans members of Congress knew about the attack in advance, but no Democrats.

Trump added insult to injury by retweeting Dinesh D’Souza: “Neither were the Iranians [given advance notice], and for pretty much the same reason.” Democrats in the Gang of Eight have done nothing to deserve such an accusation of disloyalty; there is no example of them leaking or otherwise misusing prior knowledge of an American strike.

The administration complied with the letter of the War Powers Act by officially notifying Congress on Saturday. Whatever justification the classified memo gave, Nancy Pelosi was not impressed:

This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran. The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security.

Iranian reaction. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “harsh retaliation“, and The Atlantic lists a number of options:

all-out conflict by Shiite militias in Iraq against American forces, diplomats, and personnel in Iraq; Hezbollah attacks against Americans in Lebanon and targets in Israel; rocket attacks on international oil assets or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and potentially even terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world.

Others have suggested cyber attacks.

Whatever retaliation Iran chooses is likely to be very popular with the Iranians people. Huge and angry crowds showed up when Soleimani’s body was returned to Tehran.

Strategy? Members of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have supported the assassination by pointing out that Soleimani was undeniably a bad guy from the US point of view: He masterminded numerous operations that killed Americans.

So far I’ve mostly been summarizing facts, but now I’ll state an opinion: One thing we should have learned from the Bush administration’s War on Terror is that simply killing bad guys is not a viable strategy. Are we going to kill all the bad guys in the world? As Seth Moulton (coincidentally, my congressman) put it: “The question we’ve grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create.”

I don’t want to claim more expertise than I have, so I’m not making any predictions. (Some pundits even see this assassination as a possible prelude to negotiations. But the Brookings’ Institution’s Suzanne Maloney says “Anyone who tells you they know where it’s going is probably overconfident about their own powers of prediction.”) What I want to emphasize, though, is the uncertainty: Trump has sharply escalated the simmering conflict with Iran. If Iran escalates further, what happens? How far is he prepared to go? [1]

I wish I believed that people who understand Iran far better than I do had thought all this through, and had a larger strategy. That strategy might eventually go to hell, as our plan for the Iraq invasion did, but at least it would have a chance. [2]

I don’t see how I can have even that amount of confidence, though. Trump himself is anything but a strategic thinker, and he seems to have stopped listening to anyone else. Chances are excellent that killing Soleimani just sounded good in the moment, and that he didn’t think more than a few hours ahead.

That’s certainly what the NYT’s account of the administration’s decision process implies:

In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable. …

After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shia militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.

By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

It’s entirely possible that no one but Trump thought this was a good idea.

American law. Then there are the legal issues. At what point does action against Iran bring the War Powers Act into play? Whatever you might think of the Gulf War in 1991 or the Iraq invasion of 2003, each was preceded by a thoughtful debate in Congress. So far there was been nothing of the sort regarding Iran. We seem headed towards a scenario where Congressional debate (if we have one at all) will take place while the war is ongoing.

Also: Assassinations of foreign leaders were banned by an executive order signed by President Ford in 1975 and revised by President Reagan in 1981. The 1981 order is unequivocal:

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination

When the Obama administration was going after Osama bin Laden, it tried to make a distinction between assassinations and “targeted killings”. That distinction looked suspect at the time, and looks even worse now that it’s being applied to top officials of foreign governments. If killing Soleimani wasn’t an assassination, it’s hard to imagine what the assassination ban would cover.

Partisan politics. Finally, there’s the wag-the-dog interpretation: Maybe the attack was never intended to be an effective response to Iran; perhaps it’s entirely about distracting the public from Trump’s pending impeachment trial, and kicking off his 2020 campaign. The “othering” of congressional Democrats (treating them as equivalent to or sympathetic with the Iranians) fits that interpretation.

“This your first reelection campaign, kid?”

It would be nice to believe that the wag-the-dog hypothesis just stems from Trump Derangement Syndrome: Liberals like me imagine the worst and then assign those motives to Trump, when in fact no American president would risk a major war just for domestic political advantage. But again, how can I have that confidence, given the behavior we’ve seen so far? Isn’t Trump’s willingness to sacrifice the public good for personal benefit exactly what he’s been impeached for? Can anyone give a countervailing example of Trump foregoing personal advantage to do the right thing for the nation?

Projection. One argument in favor of wag-the-dog is that Trump accused President Obama of planning to do it.

In order to get elected, will start a war with Iran.

As CNN’s John Avlon observed in September:

Projection is a regular part of the Trump playbook. He’s taken the impulse and elevated it to an effective political tactic.

In other words, Trump regularly accuses his opponents of things that he does himself, or that he would do in their place. His most-repeated insults are ones that apply more accurately to himself than to his opponents:

The rest of the top five insults [after “fake”]? “Failed” (or “failing”), which he has applied on 205 occasions, mostly to the Times. “Dishonest” (or “dishonesty”), used 149 times. (Some observers will no doubt consider it ironic that Trump has referred to 35 other entities as dishonest.) Then “weak,” used 94 times, followed by “lying” or “liar,” which he has used 68 times.

So it’s not much of a stretch to reach this conclusion: If he thought wagging the dog in Iran made sense for Obama’s re-election in 2012, quite likely he has considered it for his own reelection in 2020. Maybe he sees it as a bonus for something he’d do anyway, or maybe it’s his prime motive.


[1] Saturday, Trump tweeted about a list of 52 Iranian targets “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” that the US could strike if Iran retaliates for Friday’s assassination. Those sites have not be identified (and, given Trump’s history, I have to wonder if the list even exists), but intentionally attacking cultural sites is a violation of international law.

Sunday night he doubled down on that threat, saying

They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.

Contradicting the President, Secretary of State Pompeo said Sunday that “We’ll behave lawfully.” Who should we believe?

[2] The importance of strategy is illustrated by this quote from George Kennan’s 1951 classic American Diplomacy.

Both [world] wars were fought, really, with a view to changing Germany. … Yet, today, if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe … in many ways it wouldn’t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today. Now, think what this means. When you tally up the total score of the two wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it’s pretty hard to discern.

A similar point could be made about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the overthrow of the Shah, America saw a powerful Sunni Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran’s Shia theocracy. We have since fought two wars to remake Iraq, and ostensibly won them both. And now here we are, with no regional counterweight to Iran.

If we now fight a war with Iran, what objective will we be hoping to achieve? If we win, how will Americans of 2030 be better off?

The Decade of Democracy’s Decline

When a decade ends, it’s always tempting to look back and come up with a single defining theme. Often that exercise winds up being artificial and its conclusion a bit forced. But as we approach the end of 2019 the theme seems clear: The story of the Teens was the decline of democracy.

2010 in the United States. On New Year’s Day in 2010, we were living in a very different world. Barack Obama had been elected in a landslide in 2008, bringing huge Democratic majorities to both houses. The first major sign of a rightward pendulum swing — Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the race for the Senate vacancy caused by Ted Kennedy’s death — would happen soon (January 19), but the extent of November’s Democratic wipe-out was not at all apparent yet.

Brown’s victory ruined the filibuster-proof Senate majority that the Democrats had maintained for a few months (since Al Franken had finally been seated in July), but Nancy Pelosi maneuvered her House majority and the reconciliation rules to get ObamaCare passed anyway by the end of March.

The economic disaster of 2008 was finally starting to resolve. When Obama took office, the economy had been hemorrhaging jobs, bankruptcies were starting to cascade, and the possibility of a Great-Depression-style collapse had seemed possible for the first time in almost 80 years. (One sign of the looming apocalypse: In September of 2008, a major money-market fund “broke the buck” and stopped redeeming its shares at $1.) The balanced-budget rules most states lived under had been forcing them to make the problem worse: As revenues fell, they had to stop construction projects, cut safety-net programs, and lay off teachers.

But by 2010, a variety of government interventions had begun to stabilize the situation: TARP and a loose Federal Reserve policy had stopped the banking collapse; a federal bailout saved the US auto industry; Obama’s $800-billion stimulus program had cut taxes, shored up state government finances, and started restoring the country’s infrastructure. Unemployment was still high and many people were still suffering, but the feeling that the bottom was about to fall out of everything had passed. A slow-but-steady economic expansion began, and has continued for the rest of the decade.

As the Republican revival took the form of the Tea Party, it was possible to believe in that movement’s grass-roots sincerity, despite the billionaire Koch money behind it. Perhaps large numbers of people really were alarmed by the rapidly growing federal debt, and by the government’s role in the economy, which the bailouts had at least temporarily increased. (By now, of course, we know that concern about the debt was entirely bogus. Trump’s looming trillion-dollar deficits disturb none of the people who angsted about Obama’s.)

Despite the Tea Party, though, the Republican establishment seemed firmly in control of the GOP’s direction. The Reagan policy configuration was unchanged: strong defense, a forceful American presence in the world, free trade, low taxes, low regulation, traditional sexual mores, and an immigration policy that accommodated business’ need for cheap labor.

But more than that, Republicans still participated in a national consensus on democracy so widespread it could mostly go unstated: The two major parties competed to persuade a majority of the American electorate, and whichever party succeeded in getting the majority of votes would, of course, control the government. Despite Republicans’ knowledge that they did better in low-turnout elections, and their occasional efforts to make voting harder for poor and non-white citizens, at least in public they had to acknowledge that voting was a good thing, something the public should be encouraged to do.

As the party of the rich, Republicans had always found it easier to raise large sums of money than Democrats. But controlling money in politics was still at least partly a bipartisan issue, exemplified by the McCain-Feingold law of 2002. As a practical matter, Republicans were more likely to oppose campaign-finance rules than Democrats; but open defenses of plutocracy were rare.

For the most part, Republicans were still part of a nationwide consensus on fair play. This was best exemplified by a moment in John McCain’s 2008 campaign, in which a woman questioning McCain said Barack Obama was “an Arab”, and seemed ready to go further if McCain hadn’t taken the microphone away from her.

I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.

Violations could be found on both sides, of course, but the general consensus (at least in public) was that candidates should not smear each other in ways that would make it hard for the winner to govern.

A number of rules of fair play held in Congress as well. The Constitution gave the Senate the power to “advise and consent” on presidential appointments, but both parties exercised this power with some restraint. For the most part, the president was allowed to get his way unless there was something egregiously wrong about a particular nominee.

There had been a few rumblings in the other direction. On democracy, Tom DeLay’s 2003 Texas redistricting plan intended to net more Republican seats in Congress just by shifting boundary lines, without the need to persuade any voters. As for fair play, McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin, had no qualms about blowing racist dog whistles in Obama’s direction, or accusing him of “pallin’ around with terrorists“. But these seemed to be excesses rather than signs of the future.

2010 around the world. Internationally, Europe was having a harder time recovering from the Great Recession than the US, and the biggest threat to the unity of the EU was that struggling economies like Greece might need to escape EU austerity rules and the discipline of the euro. The Syrian Civil War, with its consequent Syrian refugee problem, hadn’t started yet. (The entire Arab Spring, with it’s brief promise of democracy, had not yet bloomed and died.) Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment existed in Europe, but was nothing like the continent-wide issue it later became. Far-right parties in France and Germany had yet to take off, and Brexit was a notion from the lunatic fringe of British politics.

But the biggest difference was in eastern Europe. It was already clear by 2010 (to those who were paying attention) that Vladimir Putin was an autocrat running a government-shaped crime syndicate. But no one yet appreciated the threat he posed outside Russia, or foresaw that his democracy-to-autocracy model would be imitated in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Brazil, and even the United States. (My best description of that strategy is probably the one in the review of Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, or possibly Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die.)

I would argue that Putin has been the single most influential figure of the 2010s. Russia in 2010 was (and still is) a relatively minor economy dependent on an industry with little long-term future (oil). And yet, look at all he accomplished: His ruthless intervention in Syria pushed millions of immigrants towards Europe, where his simultaneous information-warfare campaign inflamed anti-immigrant feelings and boosted nationalist populist movements across the EU. His thumb-on-the-scale was arguably the difference in both the Brexit referendum and the Trump election. At the end of the decade, a foreign-policy goal of every Russia leader since Stalin might finally be in sight: the dissolution of NATO.

In 2010, it was even possible to believe that China would eventually find its way to democracy. The theory went like this: Sooner or later, the rising Chinese middle class would seek a voice in government. But while Chinese prosperity grew through the Teens, if anything China moved the other way politically. Power has increasingly become centered in President-for-Life Xi.

The Republican embrace of minority rule. In Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (reviewed here), Daniel Ziblatt examined different European nations’ paths toward democracy and found a key difference: It mattered how the old ruling class felt about yielding its power to democratic institutions. Britain developed a viable conservative party that (through its alliance with the Church of England and its traditional morals), saw a way to continue to compete for power in a democratic system. But Germany’s upper classes never stopped seeing democracy as a threat, and were constantly tempted to seize power in non-democratic ways, eventually producing Hitler rather than Churchill.

The big story of the Teens in the US was the loss of a conservative party committed to democracy. The Republican Party has increasingly found itself at odds with democracy, and instead has openly embraced minority rule. In the Trump Era, Republicans no longer even attempt to attract majority support: 46% was enough to produce an electoral college win in 2016, and Trump has spent the last three years talking almost exclusively to that 46%.

In fact, it’s worth looking at all three elected branches of government. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump got 62,984,828 votes (46.1%) while Hillary Clinton got 65,853,514 (48.2%). In the 2018 elections for the House, Republican candidates got 50,861,970 votes (44.8%) and Democrats 60,572,245 (53.4%).

Computing the Senate popular vote is a little more complicated, because it takes six years for all the seats to come up, so you have to total across three elections. In 2014, Republican candidates got 24,631,488 votes (51.7%) and Democrats 20,875,493 votes (43.8%). In 2016 it was Republicans 40,402,790 (42.4%), Democrats 51,496,682 (53.8%). In 2018, Republicans got 34,723,013 (38.8%) and Democrats 52,260,651 (58.4%).

That works out to a total of 99,575,291 Republican votes and 124,632,826 Democratic votes. (The totals are roughly double the House totals because each state elects two senators.) That 25 million vote margin for the Democrats (roughly 55%-45%) has produced a 53-47 Republican majority.

Think about what that means: The American people voted for Democrats to control the presidency and both houses of Congress, but in fact they only succeeded in giving Democrats control of the House.

The retreat from fair play. So far we’ve just talked about anti-democratic elements inherent in our government’s constitutional structure. But during the Teens, Republicans used that minority power to entrench minority rule further.

The 2010 census was the beginning of a redistricting wave that has gerrymandered both federal and state districts to lock in Republican majorities. On the federal level, the Democratic wave of 2018 (53.4%) was considerably larger than the Republican wave of 2010 (51.7%), but produced a smaller majority (235 seats in 2018 vs 242 in 2010).

But it is on the state level where democracy has truly vanished. I could pick several states as examples, but probably the clearest is Wisconsin, where gerrymandering has locked in a large Republican majority in the legislature that the Democratic majority in the electorate is unable to oust.

Despite Democrats winning every statewide office on the ballot and receiving 200,000 more total votes, Republicans lost just one seat in Wisconsin’s lower house this cycle. And that victory was by a razor-thin 153 votes. Democrats netted 1.3 million votes for Assembly, 54 percent statewide. Even so, [Assembly Speaker] Vos will return to the Capitol in 2019 with Republicans holding 63 of 99 seats in the Assembly, a nearly two-thirds majority.

Republicans in Wisconsin: Losing the vote, but holding the legislature.

Far from being embarrassed by their minority support in the electorate or cowed by the mandate voters gave the new Democratic governor, the Wisconsin Republican majority in the legislature responded to the voters’ rebuke by passing laws to cut the new governor’s powers.

And those totals are after considerable efforts to suppress the vote of blocs likely to support Democrats. The one-two punch of minority rule is

  • Make it hard for Democratic blocs to vote.
  • Herd them into a small number of districts so that even a majority of Democratic votes can’t oust Republican majorities in the legislature.

This works because of minority rule on the federal level: A minority president and a minority Senate get to stack the judiciary with judges who are fine with tactics that entrench minority rule even deeper. That’s how we wound up with a conservative Supreme Court that has refused to block voter suppression and gerrymandering, and has opened the door to unlimited money in political campaigns — including unlimited money to influence Senate approval of judges. So the initial anti-democratic tilt built into the Constitution has been amplified.

You might think this reliance on a minority would be an embarrassing secret for Republicans, but in fact it is not. More and more openly, they defend the notion that the majority should not control the government.

For example, the Electoral College used to be seen as a historical relic that wasn’t worth the trouble it would take to get rid of it. But now it is actively defended by conservative publications like National Review and politicians like Senator Mike Lee. The fundamental unfairness of the Senate is cast as the great wisdom of the Founders, who apparently foresaw that Californians wouldn’t deserve to have their votes count for as much as Alaskans.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression aren’t shameful any more, they’re just how the game is played. And unlimited money is “free speech”. Even violence is no longer beyond the pale: Trump has repeatedly warned of violence if his followers don’t get what they want, and Trump supporters like Robert Jeffress even talk about “civil war“.

The drift towards autocracy. Most worrisome of all, in my opinion, is Republicans’ increasing tolerance of and support for autocratic words and actions from their leader. I can find no parallel in American history for how Trump has handled Congress’ refusal to fund his wall: He declared a phony emergency and seized money appropriated for other purposes. Even a congressional resolution to cancel the emergency was unavailing: Trump vetoed it, and held enough support in Congress to block a veto override.

So the precedent is established: As long as a president’s allies control 1/3 of one house, he can ignore the power of the purse that the Constitution gives Congress.

Republicans in Congress have also refused to protect Congress’ oversight power. Since Democrats gained control of the House, the administration has blocked all attempts to investigate his administration.

Nazi comparisons should always be handled with care, but this one seems appropriate to me: It’s a mistake to brush off what Trump clearly says he wants to do, as Germans brushed off the more outrageous sections of Mein Kampf. What Trump tells us every day in his tweets and at his rallies is that people who oppose him should be punished. Hillary should be in jail; Adam Schiff should be handled the way they do in Guatemala; Rep. Omar should be sent back where she came from; the whistleblower and his sources are “spies” who should be subject to the death penalty.

Already, everyone responsible for launching the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia has been hounded out of the Justice Department. Amazon has been denied a large Pentagon contract because Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post is critical of Trump.

It’s a mistake to write this off as “Trump being Trump”. If he acquires the power to inflict more punishment, as he well might if Congress fails to impeach him and the Electoral College re-elects him (once again against the will of the voters), more punishments will happen.

Trends are not fate. George Orwell once wrote: “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” So it is a mistake to despair. Trends often reverse right at the moment when they seem most unstoppable, and often the reversal is only apparent in hindsight. But it is also foolish not to notice the trend, which for the last ten years has run counter to democracy, particularly in the United States.

Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today

Nearly 200 Evangelical leaders responded to the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office, which I discussed at some length last week in “The Evangelical Deal With the Devil“. How they chose to respond says a lot about how Trump appeals to their flocks.

CT’s case had three main points:

  • Trump is guilty as charged: “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”
  • Beyond the articles of impeachment, Trump has conducted himself in a grossly un-Christian way: “[T]his president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
  • Religious leaders who defend Trump are distorting the Christian message and damaging the credibility the Evangelical movement: “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”

Protestant Christianity has a long history of “remonstrances“, where some religious leader attempts to tell his colleagues that they’ve taken a wrong turn. (Arguably, Protestantism began with a remonstrance: Luther’s 95 theses.) So we know exactly how honest and sincere Protestant leaders respond to such challenges: They answer the points in the context of their faith.

In this case, a thoughtful counter-remonstrance would argue that Trump is not guilty, or that his overall behavior is not immoral, or that defending him is an appropriate example of Christian witness, not a distortion of it. You might expect a response full of Biblical texts and comparisons to proud moments from the history of the Evangelical movement.

The letter from the 200 does none of that. Not a single point from the editorial is confronted directly. Neither Trump’s impeachable actions nor his general morality is mentioned. The loss of credibility that comes from identifying Christianity with Trumpism is not addressed. Instead, the 200 responders make two points:

  • They feel insulted. The particular statements that they believe insult them are not actually in the CT editorial, but were made by the author in interviews. As so often is the case when conservative Christians claim offense, they are the ones who decided that the shoe fit them. The CT editor talked about “evangelicals on the far right”, but did not name any.
  • The author of the CT editorial is an elitist who looks down on less educated believers, so the majority of Evangelicals shouldn’t identify with him or pay attention to what he says.

Like so much of Trump’s defense in the larger culture, this argument is entirely tribal, and not at all based on facts or principles: Trump is one of us, and if you oppose him, you’re not one of us.

The one time the letter alludes to the Bible is an up-is-down distortion.

We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for tax collectors and sinners, and we take deeply our personal responsibility to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — our public service.

But Trump does not at all fit the model of a tax collector (like Matthew) or a “sinner” (like Mary Magdalene). He is a head of government, like Herod, who does not repent his immoral actions or seek to change. The Bible contains no example of Jesus (or any prophet) pandering to power in the way these Evangelical leaders have.

Quite the opposite, the prophets repeatedly confronted immoral rulers, as I have observed at length before. The Christianity Today editorial fits well into this prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. The letter responding to it does not.

The Evangelical Deal with the Devil

and why it won’t help them win the culture wars


When Christianity Today called for President Trump’s removal from office, as “a matter  … of loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments”, it acknowledged an argument in his favor:

his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy

but it characterized those benefits like this

no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence.

It worried that ultimately, as Christian leaders tie themselves to this “human being who is morally lost and confused”, Christianity itself will be tarnished.

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency…. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel.

CT’s editor Mark Galli, who wrote this editorial, is too benevolent to use this term, but the Christian tradition (not the Bible itself) contains a perfect description of the kind of bargain he is describing, in which worldly advantage is obtained in exchange for moral corruption: It is a deal with the Devil.

You might think Trump would deny such an implication, but in his tweeted response, the Artist of the Deal emphasized the transactional nature of his relationship to Evangelicals:

No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage.

In other words: You got a good price for your soul, so why are you complaining?

The moral cost. An inescapable feature of a deal with the Devil is that there is always more to it than you bargained for. And so it is here. A simple votes-for-judges bargain might have made pragmatic (if not moral) sense for conservative Christians, and might even make it defensible (if distasteful) to “brush off … immoral words and behavior” when Trump or his policies are grossly incompatible with Christian ethics. But instead of just ignoring sin and injustice, Evangelical leaders have been drawn into actively promoting and defending it.

When the public became aware of the policy of taking children away from their parents at the border, some prominent Christian leaders stepped up to deflect blame away from Trump:

“It’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for these kids, who must be dealing with a great deal of pain and confusion,” [Family Research Council President Tony] Perkins wrote in a June 15 statement. “But the origin of that pain and confusion isn’t U.S. law or the Trump administration. That burden lies with their parents who knowingly put them in this position.” …

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and one of Trump’s most influential evangelical supporters, acknowledged the plight of the detained and separated children, but said he backs the president’s policy.

“Anybody with an ounce of compassion has to be disturbed by the scenes we are seeing at the border,” Jeffress said. “The only thing more gut-wrenching than the children separated from their families at the border is seeing children like Kate Steinle separated forever from her family.”

Kate Steinle was 30, not a child, when she died, and Jeffress did not explain how Steinle’s death might have been prevented by taking immigrant children — some as young as four months — away from their parents, or (if it could have been) how a Christian might justify such a moral trade-off. (This kind of reasoning is the exact opposite of the argument abortion opponents make against a rape exception: The child-to-be should not be punished for the sin of the father. “You are valuable no matter who your parents are, no matter the circumstances of your conception.”)

After the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (in which a neo-Nazi rammed a car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 28), Jerry Falwell Jr. invented reasons to defend Trump’s pandering to the white supremacists in his base, and vouched for his character:

Falwell, president of the Christian-based Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Trump likely had more detailed information on protesters when he described “fine people” on both sides.

“One of the reasons I supported him is because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct, he says what is in his heart,” Falwell told ABC’s “This Week” program. “But he does not have a racist bone in his body.”

Think about that: Standing against Nazis is being “politically correct”, while defending them is not racist.

What about sex? You might at least expect Evangelical leaders to denounce Trump’s sexual offenses. After all, we all saw him on the Access Hollywood tape confess to a pattern of sexual assaults, after which two dozen women came forward with corroborating testimony. But Falwell heard only “somebody bragging in a locker room-type environment about something they never did”. Falwell could have stayed silent; he could have withheld judgment — but no, he actively stood up in defense.

When it came out that Trump had cheated on Melania with porn star Stormy Daniels, and then paid for Daniels’ silence just before the 2016 election (a campaign-finance offense for which Michael Cohen is in prison), Perkins thought Trump should “get a mulligan“, as if the entire sleazy mess were just a bad golf shot.

Wayne Grudem, a professor of biblical studies and author of Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, remains unshaken:

I strongly disapprove of adultery and being unfaithful in marriage, but I still support [Trump’s] actions as president. I’m glad he’s president, and I would vote for him again.

Nancy Allen, a Baptist who wrote Electing the People’s President, Donald Trump can read the same Twitter feed that CT characterized as “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused”, but somehow she has invented a New Trump, who (without confession or repentance) has been washed clean.

Donald Trump has changed. I believe that with all my heart. He has changed. He hasn’t had any more affairs. Now he’s not perfect, but there’s no perfect person. We know that there has been a change in his heart, and he respects our beliefs and values. And I believe he has some of the same beliefs and values.

Even Christian theology has been corrupted. Numerous Evangelical leaders have paved for Trump (and presumably him alone) an entirely new path of salvation from the one I learned about in Lutheran confirmation: He can be forgiven even while continuing to claim that everyone who accuses him is lying.

 

But why? By many accounts, the justification for the deal is a sense of desperation: Conservative Christians are losing the culture wars, and have to fight back harder. Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted:

Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!

Perkins echoes this sentiment.

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

You may find it bizarre that Obama, who (unlike Trump) was scrupulously polite to his opponents, is seen as “the bully”. As best I can tell, liberal “bullying” consists mostly of recognizing same-sex marriage, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, and requiring Christian businesses to offer their employees a full range of healthcare benefits.

But in addition to these actual affronts to Christian dominance, an array of imaginary threats have been concocted: Christianity will be criminalized! There will be widespread violence against Christians! Civil war! Christians are “one generation away” from a Nazi-like oppression!

Where actual offenses are lacking, terrifying ones can be envisioned in the future.

Why it won’t work. Selling out Christianity for Trumpism might even be justifiable for Evangelical leaders, at least temporarily, if Trumpist “street fighting” did what the Falwells and Jeffresses want: turned the country back towards the kinds of values Evangelicals promote — strict gender roles that reject homosexuality and female promiscuity, and postulate male/female as an either/or fixed at birth.

But the deal with the Devil won’t produce this outcome, because it’s based on a false diagnosis. Evangelicals aren’t losing the culture wars because they haven’t been tough enough. They’re losing because they’re wrong.

At its best, morality provides a way to skip bitter experience, because it offers you the same conclusions you would eventually come to yourself after years of pain and failure. How many people look back on failed relationships, estranged children, lost friendships and think, “If only I’d been honest with everybody from the beginning.”? How often do people confront a tangled web of cover-ups and wish they’d never cut the corner that got it all started? How many grasshoppers reach middle age and envy the ants whose consistent application of higher values have produced thriving careers, loving families, and valued places in supportive communities?

But not all attempts at moral rules work out that way. Some moral rules are arbitrary and bureaucratic. You keep them or you break them, and (unless you’re caught) life goes on with no obvious difference. Other rules are perverse: breaking the rule is the decision you look back on with pride and satisfaction. The regret you live with isn’t “Why did I do that?”, but “Why didn’t I see through that sooner?”

That’s where American culture is with traditional gender roles. We can see this most clearly in the public’s sudden acceptance of same-sex marriage, which went from an absurdity to a majority position in a little over a decade. In most other ways, that decade (roughly the early Oughts to the early Teens) was not a time of tumultuous change in social mores and attitudes. Politically, liberal waves in 2006 and 2008 were followed by a conservative wave in 2010, while approval of same-sex marriage continued to rise.

What changed? As gays and lesbians came out of the closet, more and more straight Americans got to know something about their lives, and came to rely on their own judgments of real people rather than the scare-stories promoted by Evangelical preachers.

Same-sex marriage wasn’t “presaging the fall of Western Civilization itself”, as James Dobson proclaimed in 2004 (and I think as far back as 1998, though I can’t find the link). As real experiences replaced stereotypes, same-sex marriage became the two guys who were renovating the house across the street, or the lesbian couple whose kid belonged to your kid’s playgroup. It was the cousin who could start being herself, or the son or daughter who now felt hopeful about life. Gay and lesbian couples weren’t engaged in some horrifying sham whose purpose was to undermine marriage for the rest of us, they were seeking many of the same happily-ever-afters we all were.

The reason American young people in particular are so accepting of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations is that they have grown up with out-of-the-closet friends. (I love the unconflicted coming-out story the CW Network wrote for its new Batwoman character. In 7th grade, when Johnny told everybody Kate was a lesbian, “I said ‘So what?’ and punched him in the mouth.”) They have seen the reality of the situation, and so will never be convinced that their classmates are minions of Satan.

Occasionally I hear white racists opine that blacks were better off under slavery, but I’ve never heard an African-American make that claim. In the same way, I’ve never heard a gay person say, “I wish we were all still the closet.” The era when homosexuality was a shameful secret, like the era when women could aspire only to “ladylike” futures, was a Dark Age. Nearly everyone cares about somebody whose life would be ruined if we really did “Make America Great Again” by going back to the values of the 1950s.

And for what? What possible benefit to straight white men would be worth rolling back the liberalizing waves of the last sixty years?

If the majority of the American people have anything to say about it, we’ll never find out. Not because some demon has tricked them, because of the authentic morality their life experience has taught them.

The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions

So many of our debates about defense and foreign policy take place in a fantasy world.


Nations. Every time you look at a globe, you’re participating in an illusion: that the Earth’s land mass partitions neatly into nations. On the globe, ungovernable places like Afghanistan and Syria look every bit as solid and well-defined as Belgium or Japan.

In spite of ourselves, we fall for that illusion again and again. When American troops occupy a place like Iraq, we immediately start talking about “installing” a government, as if Iraq were a light socket that just needed a new bulb after we removed the old one. After all, there are lines on our globes, and little stars that denote their capitals. You just put somebody in charge, they send one of their people to the UN, and there you go: a nation.

In reality, the world is full of wild places where the word “government” doesn’t quite apply. Some of them, like Kashmir, are contested regions on the edges of larger entities. Some, like in Afghanistan, start right outside the capital and extend over the bulk of the alleged country. In places like Mexico, neighborhoods of major cities are controlled by crime families that the official government can’t overcome.

Some wild places are ruled by insurgencies that aspire to become governments themselves. Some are a field of play where rival warlords compete for dominance. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s going on: There are troops that claim to represent a government, insurgencies fighting against them, warlords picking a side one day at a time, criminal gangs just trying to do business, mercenaries paid by some interested party, official foreign troops allied with the government, or even covert foreign troops who wear no insignia and officially aren’t there at all.

Code that on a map.

War and peace. Another illusion is that war and peace are a binary pair of opposites. You’re at war, or you have peace. Peace is the natural order, but occasionally it is punctuated by relatively brief episodes of war, like the Civil War or World War II. Society has its normal rules for peacetime, but occasionally a switch gets flipped and the rules of war apply, giving more freedom to governments and armies, but less to citizens and foreign civilians caught in the wrong place.

Because peace is the natural state, within a few years any war is supposed to come to a conclusion: victory, defeat, or a negotiated settlement. Citizens submit to the restrictions of war on the implicit assumption that those restrictions are temporary. When events don’t play out that way — if say, the war goes on and on with no apparent end in sight — citizens get antsy and support for the war wanes.

Similarly to its localization in time, war is also supposed to be localized in space. There is a comparatively small and well-defined war zone where the shooting happens; everywhere else, life is normal but for a few restrictions necessary to support the war effort. Inside the war zone, people neatly divide into combatants and non-combatants. Combatants are soldiers of the afore-mentioned nations, which have agreed to rules that (up to a point) protect non-combatants.

The way a nation wins a war is through the quantity and quality of its combatants. Either you throw more troops at your enemy than it can handle (as Iran did against Iraq in the 1980s), or you equip your troops with expensive weapons that give them a decisive advantage (as the US has done wherever it fights).

Conventional war. One of the strangest bits of terminology we use is “conventional war”, which is supposed to distinguish a conflict from nuclear war on the one hand and “unconventional” war on the other.

The classic conventional war is World War II in Europe: There are two sides that each control well-defined territory. The line between those territories is the “front”, and each side tries to push the front one way or the other, using armies equipped with guns and tanks, and supported by air and naval power. Away from the front there might be spies, saboteurs, and assassins; covert partisan groups (like the French Resistance); or even enemy troops who have infiltrated past the front lines somehow (like our airborne troops on D-Day). But these behind-the-lines struggles are a sideshow compared to the big tank battles at the front.

What’s weird about calling this model “conventional” is that it rarely happens any more. Granted, it’s not totally gone. The Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967 was a conventional war. The opening phase of the Iraq War, where the US and its allies attacked and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s organized armies, was conventional.

But the US war in Vietnam wasn’t conventional. The Afghanistan War isn’t conventional. After the initial invasion, the Iraq War wasn’t conventional.

Unconventional war. “Unconventional” war is like what happens behind the lines of a conventional war. It’s all sabotage and partisans and irregular troops, but there is no “line” for this activity to be behind.

By calling this kind of war “unconventional”, we ghettoize it. It’s like the irregular verbs in a foreign language. War is mainly conventional war, and we’ve got that covered. But there are a few exceptional situations that fall through the cracks.

And that’s the problem we’ve had these last 60 years or so: Everything falls through the cracks. If the Viet Cong or the Taliban would just line up some tanks and roll them at us, we’d totally nail those suckers. If Boko Haram would field an air force and dogfight our F-16s, they’d have no chance. If the Colombian drug cartels floated a navy and tried to land narcotics on our Gulf coast in a Normandy-invasion sort of way, they’d find out just how mighty we are.

But they don’t. Everybody who takes on the United States fights an unconventional war against us. And we keep losing.

We lose in a fairly predictable way: We see war as a temporary thing. We imagine applying our matchless power until we’ve captured the enemy flag, and then we’ll declare victory and go back to our normal peacetime lives. So all the enemy has to do is refuse to give us a flag to capture. Melt into the countryside, hide among the civilian population, and come out just often enough to remind everyone that they’re not defeated yet. Eventually these tactics will run out our clock and we’ll start looking for a way to leave.

Obama took a lot of criticism in Iraq for a having a timetable, because you’re not supposed to tell the enemy how long they have to wait. But even without a timetable, we don’t fool anybody. Everyone knows we can’t stay forever.

Dr. McFate

The new rules of war. That’s where Sean McFate starts in his recent book The New Rules of War. How can we be so powerful and yet keep losing wars?

I find it hard to believe that “McFate” is his real name, but it seems to be. He’s on the faculty at Georgetown and the National Defense University. (Dr. McFate is not to be confused with Dr. Fate, the most powerful sorcerer of the DC comic book universe, even though McFate sounds a bit like a comic book character himself: He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, served as a mercenary in various conflicts he can’t talk about, got a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics, and published two novels. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to stumble across the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak, or maybe an infinity stone.)

The central point of McFate’s “new rules” is less that he knows exactly what we need to do and more that we need to start thinking about reality again. The book’s subtitle, “victory in the age of durable disorder” introduces the book’s central idea: that disorder is a chronic condition to be managed, not a disease we should expect to cure and be done with.

Dr. Fate

Durable disorder is something that happens in the twilight region between war and peace. It can be found in the physical places that we call “failed states”, but it also happens in abstract areas where the rules of war and peace have never been nailed down, as in cyberwar between rival countries’ hackers, or information war.

“Conventional war is dead.” is the first of McFate’s new rules. He points out that not even other great powers practice it any more. Look at Putin’s Russia. In the last few years they have

  • invaded Crimea with “little green men” — masked soldiers without Russian insignia — that Putin for a long time denied existed or had anything to do with him.
  • manipulated the American political process to put his man in the White House and co-opt one of our two major political parties. Similar tactics have just about succeeded in breaking the United Kingdom away from the European Union.
  • bombed civilian areas in Syria to produce a wave of refugees that destabilized democratic governments across Europe.

None of that is peaceful, but neither does it fit into the usual categories of war. It is aggressive and sometimes violent, but far from the tanks-pouring-into-Europe scenario that NATO was designed to oppose.

Weapons. McFate disapproves of the urge to invest fabulous amounts of money in ever-more-complex technology. Rule 2 is “Technology will not save us.” There’s a reason for that: Gee-whiz weaponry may succeed in giving us greater dominance of the battlefield, but it doesn’t address the problem that most of our conflicts don’t happen on traditional battlefields.

Tech is useful, he says, but not decisive.

Gizmos can shape our everyday lives, but not victory. War is armed politics, and seeking a technical solution to a political problem is folly. Ultimately, brainpower is superior to firepower.

Instead, he recommends investing more in people, particularly special forces, diplomats, and people who know how to shape narratives. Rule 5 is “The best weapons do not fire bullets.”

Mercenaries. Having been a mercenary, McFate has a more nuanced view of them than you typically see. The stereotypic merc is a killing machine for hire. But in McFate’s account, they are like any other professionals whose skills may be used for good or evil. (Compare, for example, computer programmers, who could be developing algorithms to help Facebook manipulate us more completely, or who could be hacking Cayman Island banks to expose the sources of dark money.) Maybe they will take a gig with the bad guys to keep food on the table, but they’d rather work for people they believe are the good guys.

McFate tells an amazing story that I have no other source for: During the Darfur genocide, he claims, Mia Farrow floated the idea of human rights organizations hiring mercs to secure safe places for refugees to run away to. It was seen as a temporary measure while a parallel PR campaign would try to shame the world community into taking action. The scheme was never put into action, but it could have been.

He foresees a future in which mercenaries play an ever-larger role. Rather than pay a corrupt government for protection (like Rachel Maddow describes Exxon-Mobil doing in Equatorial Guinea) why shouldn’t a corporation just establish its own fiefdom with paid soldiers? When individual people have tens of billions of dollars and strong views, why shouldn’t they take direct action rather than work through the political system? What if, say, the Koch brothers decided to take down Venezuela, or Bill Gates finally had enough of corrupt African governments getting in the way of his foundation’s good projects?

Educating strategists. Strategy, especially grand strategy, is held in low regard these days. It’s supposedly a bunch of ivory tower ideas that have lost touch with the real world.

But the United States’ biggest failures in recent years have been failures of strategy. Bad strategy is how you win all the battles but lose the war. The mess in Iraq arose because we didn’t know what we were trying to accomplish: Replace Saddam with a friendlier tyrant? Control a larger chunk of the world’s oil supply? Create a showpiece democracy for the rest of the Muslim world? We didn’t know, so we couldn’t do it.

McFate locates this problem in how we educate our military leaders: We start out teaching them tactics and expect them to grow into strategic thinkers as they rise up the ranks. It seldom happens. He also has a radical diagnosis: Our officer corps attracts and promotes too many engineers. Engineers make good tacticians, but strategy is a liberal art.

My take. I think that McFate has sold conventional war a little short: It’s not so much that conventional war is obsolete, but that US dominance has largely taken it off the table. The same is true of nuclear war: It’s not that nuclear weapons can’t be used to win a war — they were key to our victory over Japan. But that example defines the situation where nukes are usable: You have them and your enemy doesn’t.

The fact that we haven’t exploded a nuclear bomb (other than as a test) since 1945 doesn’t mean that there was no point in building them. Our nukes took nuclear war off the table for our enemies.

The same thing could be said about the tanks, planes, ships, and missiles of our conventional arsenal. Wars against the United States have been unconventional not because conventional war is obsolete, but because potential adversaries know the US would win such wars.

We want to keep nuclear and conventional war off the table, so we should still invest in weapons that will make those options unattractive to our adversaries. (That probably doesn’t require as much money as we currently spend — maybe ten aircraft carriers is enough — but it does require something.)

I think some of his other rules are questionable, but in some sense that criticism misses the point. He’s raising questions that somebody needs to raise. Our defense debate is often just about a number: How much are we going to raise the budget this year? It needs to be about what we’re trying to do and how we imagine doing it.

Articles of Impeachment: Broad or Narrow?

Should Democrats throw the kitchen sink at Trump, or keep the impeachment case short and simple?


Thursday, Speaker Pelosi announced that the House would go ahead with drafting articles of impeachment. The main debate at this point is how broad or narrow those articles should be.

Obviously, there will be an article about the Ukraine scheme, and almost certainly an article about Trump’s efforts to obstruct Congress’ investigation of the Ukraine scheme. The most obvious additional article could be built around the obstruction-of-justice evidence in the Mueller Report.

Beyond that, Democrats could throw the kitchen sink at him. NYT columnist David Leonhardt consulted legal experts and came up with eight articles of impeachment:

  1. Obstruction of justice. This count would include the obstructions laid out in Part II of the Mueller Report, as well as hiding evidence by improperly classifying the call notes on the Ukraine call.
  2. Contempt of Congress. This refers to Trump’s blanket refusal to cooperate with Congressional oversight.
  3. Abuse of power. This is where the bulk of the Ukraine scheme fits.
  4. Impairing the administration of justice. Attempting to use the power of the executive branch to hound his political opponents.
  5. Acceptance of emoluments. “Trump continues to own his hotels, allowing politicians, lobbyists and foreigners to enrich him and curry favor with him by staying there.”
  6. Corruption of elections. Michael Cohen is already in jail for campaign finance violations related to the Stormy Daniels payoff. He claimed to have been carrying out Trump’s orders.
  7. Abuse of pardons. “He has encouraged people to break the law (or impede investigations) with a promise of future pardons.” The Mueller Report discusses how hints at a pardon may have encouraged Paul Manafort not to cooperate (which is a big reason Mueller never got to the bottom of the Trump/Russia connection). But he also has told border enforcement officials not to worry about breaking the law.
  8. Conduct grossly incompatible with the Presidency. “He lies constantly, eroding the credibility of the office. He tries to undermine any independent information that he does not like, which weakens our system of checks and balances. He once went so far as to say that federal law-enforcement agents and prosecutors regularly fabricated evidence — a claim that damages the credibility of every criminal investigation.”

I have no trouble believing that Republicans would have impeached Obama if they could have mustered a charge as strong as any of those eight. Who can forget Rep. Blake Farenthold discussing the possibility of impeaching Obama over the totally phony birth-certificate issue? Or Rep. Kerry Bentivolio telling his constituents that it would be “a dream come true” to impeach Obama, but that unfortunately “you’ve got to have the evidence”. Rep. Mark Gaetz of Florida is still  talking about impeaching Obama, nearly three years after his term ended.

The danger in the broad approach is that the short-and-simple story of the Ukraine extortion scheme — something that is easy to grasp, clearly proven, and obviously wrong — can get lost. It gives credence to Trump’s talking point that Democrats have just been looking for anything they can possibly find to hang an impeachment on. “Conduct grossly incompatible” happens every day, but does it really call for impeachment?

On the other hand, if Trump is impeached just for Ukraine, does that send the message to future presidents that all the other stuff is OK? Does it tell 2020 voters that the other examples of corruption aren’t really serious?

Meanwhile, Lawrence Tribe argues that broad/narrow is a false choice:

The impeachment and removal of this president is necessary because Trump has been revealed as a serial abuser of power, whose pattern of behavior — and “pattern” is the key word, as Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) emphasized during Wednesday’s hearing — makes clear he will repeat the same sequence again and again.

And Josh Marshall says something similar:

You can’t take any of the Ukraine stuff in isolation. Trump wasn’t a more or less normal President and then suddenly he did something totally bonkers. Both in soliciting foreign assistance in his election campaigns and obstructing the administration of justice, Trump has done all of this before. This is not only critical to establishing a pattern of conduct, which speaks to the question of guilt. It also provides powerful evidence that this is what he does and that he will unquestionably do it again.

This relates to the conclusion I came to in “What is Impeachment For?“, an article I wrote in June 2018 for the purpose of setting my impeachment standards before I knew what conclusions the Mueller investigation would reach. Impeachment shouldn’t be about punishing past wrong-doing; it should be about heading off a continuing threat to the Republic. If Trump’s abuse of power is over and done with, let the voters (and future prosecutors) deal with it. But if it’s ongoing, Congress should take that power away from him as soon as possible.

This argument points to a short list of articles, each of which includes multiple examples that establish a pattern of misbehavior. “Do us a favor, though” is an example of seeking foreign interference in our elections, but it’s also part of a pattern of seeking foreign interference that goes back to “Russia, if you’re listening” in 2016.

Then we run into the question of whether the less egregious articles of impeachment could pass the House, and what it would mean if they didn’t. On the one hand, debating a long list of articles, but passing only two or three, might show the public that Democrats are taking their constitutional responsibilities seriously. (Republicans wrote four articles of impeachment against Clinton, but passed only two.) Democrats representing purple districts could tell their constituents, “I voted for some articles and against others”, and sound like moderates rather than Trump-haters. But is it a good look if the Democrats are split on some counts, or should they try to stay united throughout the process?

Finally there’s this: A subpoena for the Senate impeachment trial would be hard to ignore, so that’s probably the quickest way to get testimony from people like Don McGahn. If there are key witnesses we’re not likely to hear from any other way, it might be worth including a related article of impeachment just to get them on the stand.

Personally, I’d go for three articles: Ukraine, obstruction of Congress’ Ukraine investigation, and obstruction of the Mueller investigation. Wavering Democrats could vote against the Mueller article, if they think they must, to give themselves cover back home.

What Does Trump’s Inner Party Believe?

Like a lot of liberals, I have spent more time than I care to admit thinking about Trump supporters. Who are they? What do they want? What are they thinking? And most of all: How can they possibly support this man?

One reason this task is so difficult is that the Trumpist message is not meant for me. St. Paul was an apostle to the gentiles, but there is no Trumpist apostle to the liberals. No one in the administration is out there translating for me, explaining what parts of the message to take seriously and what parts to ignore. No one is trying to resolve the apparent contradictions, or to make the case that my goals can be achieved by his methods. One symptom of this is White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who appears on Fox News, but doesn’t hold briefings for the press in general. (Trump’s previous press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has joined Fox News outright.)

As a result, the most widely available version of Trump’s message is the one intended for committed supporters, who already live inside the Fox News alternate reality, where climate change is not real and racism was solved in the 1960s. So if, like me, you live in a world where where Russia (and not Ukraine) meddled in our election, where health insurance companies would happily let people die if they could make bigger profits, and tax cuts don’t pay for themselves — well, there is no message for you. Trump’s world has an Us and a Them, and you’re a Them. You’re never going to be invited in.

The Inner Party. It’s easy (and very human) to reflect this attitude back at them: People support Trump because they’re uninformed and gullible. Or because he appeals to their deplorable passions: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or Islamophobia, to use Hillary Clinton’s list. Or because they’re rich and selfish; they just want to pay less tax and stop worrying about how much their industries pollute. Or because they just want power.

And if you look, you can confirm that bias: There certainly are Trump supporters who fit all those descriptions. (I’m not denying that point, so don’t argue it with me.) And I am capable of imagining a movement made up entirely of a cynical core surrounded by gullible and manipulated masses. But I have a test that I run when I’m considering such a theory: I picture it from the other side. If I were in that cynical core, how confident would I be that I could make this plan work?

And the answer in this case is: not very. A conspiracy of pure evil-doers is actually fairly hard to hold together, because the vast majority of people don’t like to think of themselves that way. Once you have a core bigger than a cabal, you need some kind of self-justifying story — not just for the gullible masses, but for your own people. There needs to be an explanation of why you are the good guys and why the things you are doing are right, or at least necessary.

To use Orwellian terms, you need an Inner Party message in addition to your Outer Party message. There are, I assume, lots and lots of Trumpists who understand that the Outer Party message is bullshit. I’m sure that a lot of Evangelicals, for example, realize that Trump’s knowledge of Christianity is superficial at best; that he has lived a life of licentiousness, infidelity, and fraud; and that his current administration is full of corruption. They may say “We are all sinners,” as Jerry Falwell Jr. acknowledges, and explain that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness rather than perfection. But they also know that forgiveness requires repentance, a step Trump has never been willing to take.

Republican politicians, likewise, are not generally stupid or gullible people. Lindsey Graham used to see Trump fairly clearly (and used terms like “loser” and “nut job”). They can’t all be intimidated by Trump’s sway over his base voters, either. Ted Cruz surely remembers Trump’s attacks on his father and wife, and having just won re-election in 2018 (along with ten other GOP senators), he doesn’t have to face the voters again until 2024, by which time everyone may have conveniently forgotten that they ever supported Trump. (George W. Bush was once immensely popular among Republicans, but by the 2008 campaign he had become an unperson.)

A lot of people who support Trump are not ignorant, and they are not all motivated by greed or fear. If this is all hanging together, and it seems to be, there has to be an Inner Party message for such people. What could it be?

The Barr speeches. That’s the context that I put around the recent spate of articles examining two Bill Barr speeches. Both of these speeches were given to what I think of as Inner Party audiences.

  • In October, he spoke to the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame, an organization “committed to sharing the richness of the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition”.
  • In November, he delivered a named annual lecture to the Federalist Society’s 2019 National Lawyers Convention. The Federalist Society is a conservative legal organization that is responsible for vetting Trump’s nominees for federal judgeships.

In short, these are both audiences friendly to the Trump administration, but are not the MAGA-hat-wearing yahoos that show up at Trump’s public rallies. Both groups see themselves as having intellectual heft as well as moral purpose. Neither would be satisfied with a screed of obvious lies or slogans like “Lock her up!” or “Build the Wall!”

So this is what Barr offered them: To the Catholics, he spoke about the impossibility of maintaining  liberty without Christianity. To the Federalists, he advocated for the Presidency to shake itself free from the “usurpations” of Congress and the Judiciary.

The Notre Dame speech. Barr’s Notre Dame speech lays out the problem like this:

Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large. No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity. But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.

On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles. …

But what was the source of this internal controlling power? In a free republic, those restraints could not be handed down from above by philosopher kings. Instead, social order must flow up from the people themselves – freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values. And to control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.

This cries out for annotation, which I’ll try to keep short so that I can get on with Barr’s argument: If you wanted a poster boy for “the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the public good”, you could hardly do better than to choose Barr’s boss, President Trump. If you allow corporate persons into the discussion, Exxon-Mobil (which knew the danger of climate change decades ago, but spent millions to keep the public confused about it) or one of the pharmaceutical companies that promoted the opioid crisis would be a good choice.

And unless the “transcendent Supreme Being” decides to express Their authority much more directly than They currently do, God’s will is going to be presented to us through “willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize”. For example: the Catholic hierarchy, which for decades — perhaps centuries — had no trouble enabling and covering up the sexual misconduct of its priests.

This far I agree with Barr: If a free society is going to work, the public good needs to be supported by moral values freely chosen, rather than rules enforced solely by government power. However, the countries that seem to be doing the best job of maintaining a free society in today’s world are the least religious ones: the Northern European humanist crescent that flows from Finland to Iceland. In the real world, moral values and religion have (at best) a tenuous relationship.

However, Barr takes this relationship as given and proceeds from there: Traditional Christianity is losing its hold on America, and at the same time a number of social ills have gotten worse: births outside of marriage, divorce,

record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.

The causality here is clear to him: All these negative consequences come from an increase in “secularism”. Thomas Edsall offers a counterpoint here: If this were true, you’d expect the worst effects to show up in the most secular parts of society, but this seems not to be the case.

The white working class constituency that would seem to be most immune to the appeal of the cultural left — the very constituency that has moved more decisively than any other to the right — is now succumbing to the centrifugal, even anarchic, forces denounced by Barr and other social conservatives, while more liberal constituencies are moving in the opposite, more socially coherent, rule-following, direction.

Similarly, the highest rates of births outside of marriage are in the Bible Belt states.

Barr continues: Ordinarily, we’d expect the pendulum to swing back towards social conservatism. As people saw the calamitous results of social change, that change would be stopped, and then turned around. But this time is different, because America is not just dealing with the ordinary tides of culture. This time the story has an active villain: people like me, as best I can tell.

[T]he force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we are experiencing today … is not decay; it is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the “progressives,” have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values. These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.

Speaking of ridicule, here how cartoonist Jen Sorensen responded to Barr’s speech:

It is very popular in conservative circles to talk about being “silenced”, despite the awesome wealth and power conservatives command. But the truth doesn’t stretch quite that far: Conservatives, and especially religious conservatives, are used to being the only voices in the room. In the days of mandatory Christian prayer in public schools, there was no equal time for atheists or Buddhists. Gays could be characterized as “deviants”, and women who made their own decisions about sex as “sluts”. Conservative Christians could say these things in public, and no one would respond. No one would dare stand up and say, “Wait, I’m gay, and there’s nothing deviant about it.” or “What happens in my bedroom is none of your business.” No one would strike back and say that the Christian was “judgmental” or “bigoted”.

Now, someone will. Maybe lots of someones. That’s what the Constitution calls “freedom of speech”, but Christians are not used to hearing it. When their opinion is not the last word in a discussion, it seems like persecution to them, even though it’s the normal situation for everyone else.

Barr uses another religious-right buzzphrase when he talks about “a comprehensive effort to drive [our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system] from the public square”. As best I can tell, this refers to another revocation of a special privilege. Christians used to be able to use public resources to promote their point of view: prayers at public events, nativity scenes on the town green, and so on. In recent decades, Christians have often been treated like everyone else and limited to promoting their views with their own resources. (Barr may say “Judeo-Christian”, but when have Jews ever tried to install a Moses-parting-the-Red-Sea model on the town green?) This is quite a come-down, but it is not persecution.

Secular moral values, Barr claims, are different from Christian ones, not just in content but in kind.

Christianity teaches a micro-morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation. The new secular religion teaches macro-morality. One’s morality is not gauged by their private conduct, but rather on their commitment to political causes and collective action to address social problems. This system allows us to not worry so much about the strictures on our private lives, while we find salvation on the picket-line. We can signal our finely-tuned moral sensibilities by demonstrating for this cause or that.

This is absurd on both ends: One one side, the anti-abortion movement Barr champions elsewhere in the speech is not a micro-morality; it is an attempt to use the law to constrain the choices of other people. Conservative leaders (Trump, for example) often exhibit horrible personal morality, but they signal their virtue by opposing abortion or gay rights. On the other side of the question, Barr has completely written off a long Catholic social-justice tradition, from Dorothy Day to liberation theology. As Archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara once put it, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”

To sum up: Christianity is at war against an active enemy. Secularists are not just trying to live their own lives as best they can, they are working to tear down the transcendent moral order. If they succeed, the result can only be anarchy or tyranny.

The Federalist Society speech. Barr’s Federalist Society speech inadvertently illustrates a point from his Notre Dame speech: Willful human beings have an infinite capacity to rationalize.

The claimed topic of the speech is “originalism”, the legal doctrine that tries to find the meaning of Constitution in the thinking of the Founders. Since the Founders faced a world far different from ours and could barely have imagined the issues of the 21st century, originalism provides boundless fields for rationalization. Like scripturalism in religion, the resulting propositions don’t have to justified on their own merits, because we did not think of them ourselves, but only found them in the texts written by our prophets.

What Barr finds in the Founders’ collective mind in this speech is a vision of executive power unbound by the other two branches of government.

In the orthodox reading of American history, the structure of American government got remade on two occasions: by Lincoln during the Civil War and by FDR during the Depression and World War II. In each case, executive power expanded, and has kept expanding in recent years, reaching the point where a President can unleash a global nuclear holocaust completely on his own authority. In my view, relating the apocalyptic power of today’s Presidency to Hamilton’s praise of “energy in the executive” is insane.

But that’s not how Barr sees it:

In recent years, both the Legislative and Judicial branches have been responsible for encroaching on the Presidency’s constitutional authority. [original emphasis]

Congress has encroached by refusing to rubber-stamp Trump’s unqualified and often corrupt appointees, and also by attempting to exercise oversight of questionable (and again, often corrupt) administration actions.

I do not deny that Congress has some implied authority to conduct oversight as an incident to its Legislative Power. But the sheer volume of what we see today – the pursuit of scores of parallel “investigations” through an avalanche of subpoenas – is plainly designed to incapacitate the Executive Branch, and indeed is touted as such.

In Barr’s view, this is pure harassment. There is nothing unusual in the Trump administration’s actions that invites these investigations. The most he will grant is this:

While the President has certainly thrown out the traditional Beltway playbook, he was upfront about that beforehand, and the people voted for him.

Of course, the people did not vote for him; the Electoral College did. But leave that aside. Fundamentally, the conflicts with Congress arise because, as in the Notre Dame speech, liberals are villains.

In any age, the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection. Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursing a deific end. They are willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage in achieving their end, regardless of collateral consequences and the systemic implications. They never ask whether the actions they take could be justified as a general rule of conduct, equally applicable to all sides.

It’s weird to pull this back to the Notre Dame speech, where conservatives treat religion as their politics. What is an illegitimate “abstract ideal of perfection” for liberals becomes the “moral values” of a “transcendent Supreme Being” when conservatives do it. And what is the conservative project, if not to push women and gays back into an Eisenhower Era “abstract ideal of perfection”? What Barr says here in polemic terms about liberals is just the plain and simple truth when applied to the politics of the Notre Dame speech: Barr quite literally is on a “holy mission” to “remake man and society”. He literally, not figuratively, sees himself “pursing a deific end”.

And that conclusion about using “any means necessary to gain momentary advantage” without asking “whether the actions they take could be justified as a general rule of conduct” is a hair-pulling bit of projection. I mean, does Barr think withholding appropriated funds to coerce a foreign government into doing the President a political favor should be a “general rule of conduct”? Should the President routinely declare a state of emergency whenever Congress refuses to appropriate money for his pet projects? Should the Senate routinely refuse to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees when the President is of a different party?

Conservatives, in Barr’s view, have failed by being too nice.

conservatives tend to have more scruple over their political tactics and rarely feel that the ends justify the means. And this is as it should be, but there is no getting around the fact that this puts conservatives at a disadvantage when facing progressive holy [fire], especially when doing so under the weight of a hyper-partisan media.

His judicial encroachments on executive power are similar: In his view, the number of court orders stopping Trump from doing what he wants has nothing to do with Trump wanting to do illegal things (like discriminate against Muslims or ignore our asylum laws); it’s just harassment.

Also, he sees no judicial power to arbitrate disputes between Congress and the President, like the current cases about the Wall “emergency” or whether Trump can stop his officials from testifying before impeachment hearings. What this means in practice is that the President has whatever powers he says he has. If, say, the President were simply to instruct the Treasury to start writing checks for all kinds of things Congress had never voted on, it would be a gross usurpation of Congress’ power. But what could Congress do about it on its own? It could pass more laws that the President could ignore, and the usurpations would continue.

He concludes with this:

In this partisan age, we should take special care not to allow the passions of the moment to cause us to permanently disfigure the genius of our Constitutional structure. As we look back over the sweep of American history, it has been the American Presidency that has best fulfilled the vision of the Founders. It has brought to our Republic a dynamism and effectiveness that other democracies have lacked. … In so many areas, it is critical to our Nation’s future that we restore and preserve in their full vigor our Founding principles. Not the least of these is the Framers’ vision of a strong, independent Executive, chosen by the country as a whole.

The underlying issue. Ezra Klein brings in this bit of context.

Robert Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute, estimates that when Barack Obama took office, 54 percent of the country was white and Christian; by the time he left office, that had fallen to 43 percent. This is largely because young Americans are less white, and less Christian, than older Americans. Almost 70 percent of American seniors are white Christians, compared to only 29 percent of young adults.

In 2018, Americans who claim no religion passed Catholics and evangelicals as the most popular response on the General Social Survey. … [T]he age cohorts here are stark. “If you look at seniors, only about one in 10 seniors today claim no religious affiliation,” Jones told me. “But if you look at Americans under the age of 30, it’s 40 percent.”

That’s at the root of the sense of panic Barr is voicing. This time really is different, because the white Christian majority in America is being lost forever. But Barr portrays this not as a simple changing of the guard, but as the end of a civilization: White Christians must hang onto power, because the alternative is a society without the moral values necessary to maintain a free society.

This, I think, is the essence of the Inner Party message: Trump offers himself as the bulwark against this looming catastrophe. He is the alternative to the too-nice conservatives who have let immigrants keep coming, let liberals secularize the youth, and have been too slow and too tentative about rallying the white Christian vote, stacking the courts with conservative white Christians, and suppressing all other votes. If he cheats in elections, say by getting illegal help from foreign countries, that’s a necessary evil. If he suppresses any attempt to check his power or investigate his corruption, that, too, is a necessary evil. Ultimately, if he loses at the ballot box and has to maintain office by violence, that may be necessary as well, because the alternative is the end of American civilization.

I’ll give Thomas Edsall the last word:

The reality is that Barr is not only selling traditional values to conservative voters, some of whom are genuinely starved for them, he is also marketing apocalyptic hogwash because, for his boss to get re-elected, Trump’s supporters must continue to believe that liberals and the Democratic Party are the embodiment of evil, determined to destroy the American way of life. Relentless pressure to maintain the urgency of that threat is crucial to Trump’s political survival.

And that, I think, is what the Inner Party believes.

An Impeachment Hearing Wrap-Up

Unless Democrats are able to break through the Trump blockade on key witnesses, the Ukraine part of the impeachment hearings ended this week. The Intelligence Committee is preparing its report for the Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for writing articles of impeachment.

Judiciary will almost certainly offer an impeachment resolution with an article on Ukraine. Whether that resolution will be narrowly focused or include additional articles like obstruction of justice (based on Part II of the Mueller Report) or obstruction of Congress (based on the administration’s withholding of evidence and refusal to let officials testify) is still up in the air.

As many people have noted, this investigation has reversed the usual detective story: We knew whodunnit from the beginning. As soon as the White House released the call notes from President Trump’s July 25th phone conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky, it was obvious that Trump had used the threat of withholding American military aid to pressure Zelensky to announce investigations of “Crowdstrike” (the wacky conspiracy theory that Ukraine and the Democrats framed Russia for interfering in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf) and “Biden’s son” .

The testimony we’ve heard the last two weeks has mainly done three things:

  • Educated the public on how important US military aid and the public appearance of US support was to Ukraine, which is fighting a war with Russia. Trump really did have Zelensky over a barrel.
  • Detailed just how wide and deep the effort to pressure Ukraine was, and how extremely it differed from the US policy towards Ukraine supported by a large bipartisan majority in Congress. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani had no official government position, but for months ran a “shadow foreign policy” directly at odds with official US policy. (Fiona Hill put it like this: “[Gordon Sondland] was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”) Official policy wholeheartedly supported Ukraine in its war with Russia; the shadow policy threatened that support in order to create pressure on Ukraine to help Trump’s re-election campaign.
  • Shot down the wide range of unlikely claims by which Trump defenders urged us to ignore what we could see with our own eyes in the call notes. Trump may have spoken in a Mafia-don manner that only hinted at what he wanted, but the Ukrainians and the US personnel involved in the process understood the corrupt bargain Trump was offering. Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony was the most explicit: “Members of this Committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes. … Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”

The fourth key point is what the hearings have not done: challenged the basic narrative of Trump shaking down Zelensky. Republicans weren’t allowed to turn the hearings into a circus by calling witnesses against the Bidens or Crowdstrike, but none of the witnesses they were denied had anything to offer relevant to the shakedown narrative. Similarly, Republican questioning of the witnesses offered distractions from the narrative and denigrated either the witnesses themselves or their knowledge, but offered no exculpatory facts.


It’s really kind of amazing just how crazy the “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory is.

Most conspiracy theories are built on some real coincidence that the theory baselessly casts in a sinister light, but the most basic element of the Crowdstrike theory is just false: Crowdstrike is a California company that has no Ukrainian connection at all. The “suspicious” founder (Dmitri Alperovitch) is an American citizen who was born in Russia, not Ukraine, and has lived in the US since he was a teen-ager. The other founders are George Kurtz (born in New Jersey) and Gregg Marston (whose biography I haven’t been able to google up, but who is never mentioned as an immigrant in articles about the company’s founding).

In his recent Fox & Friends phone call, Trump referred to Crowdstrike as “a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian.” Wikipedia lists Crowdstrike’s major non-founder investors: Google, Telstra, March Capital Partners, Rackspace, Accel Partners, and Warburg Pincus. So Trump’s claim appears to be a pure invention. When challenged by F&F co-host Steve Doocy whether he was “sure” that the mythical DNC email server was in Ukraine, Trump said only “That’s what the word is.”


The weakness of the hearings has been the lack of star witnesses that the public already knows. Unlike the Clinton and Nixon impeachment hearings, Trump has successfully blocked his top officials from testifying. Republicans involved in the hearings have repeatedly denigrated witness testimony as “hearsay”, while supporting Trump in blocking the testimony of witnesses who had more direct contact with the President.

The public deserves to hear from administration officials like acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, just to name a few. But they have defied subpoenas under Trump’s instructions.

TPM floats an interesting theory about why Democrats are not pushing the courts to enforce these subpoenas. Everyone agrees that if the cases go to the Supreme Court, they might not be resolved until the Court’s term ends in June, when the 2020 conventions will be looming. But an impeachment trial in the Senate might offer a quicker path to the desired testimony.

Under the Senate’s impeachment rules, the House managers will be able to issue subpoenas whose validity will be adjudicated directly by Chief Justice Roberts, who will preside over the trial. Roberts is the swing vote on the Supreme Court anyway, so going straight to a Senate trial will force him to decide in January rather than June.

There are two major objections to this plan, but both seem answerable. First, by majority vote, the Senate could overrule Roberts’ decisions to issue subpoenas. But that would be a very public vote to suppress evidence, and only a few Republican senators would need to defect to uphold Roberts’ decision. Second, Democrats will have no chance to interview the witnesses before they testify. That may produce some false starts and dead ends, but it will also increase the drama of the televised hearings: No one knows what these witnesses will say.

Yesterday, Adam Schiff was asked about this theory by NBC’s Chuck Todd:

I do think that when it comes to documents and witnesses, that if it comes to a trial, and again we’re getting far down the road here, that the Chief Justice will have to make a decision on requests for witnesses and documents.


Gordon Sondland corroborated David Holmes’ account of a phone call Sondland had with Trump while Sondland and Holmes were in a restaurant in Kyiv, but Trump told Fox & Friends “I guarantee you that never took place.” Holmes and Sondland were under oath. Maybe Trump should go under oath before he contradicts them.

Another tantalizing Sondland revelation: Zelensky “had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”

This blows up the already far-fetched idea that Trump had a legitimate concern for corruption in Ukraine. (Holmes reports Sondland agreeing with the statement that Trump “doesn’t give a shit about Ukraine“. I know no example anywhere of Trump opposing corruption, unless it involved his political opponents.) Trump wanted Ukrainian investigations as a touchstone for lock-him-up chants against Biden, and was not counting on them finding any actual malfeasance.


According to 538’s polling analysis, support for impeachment has been slowly eroding during the hearings. A small plurality 46%-45% currently supports impeachment. Polls that specify removing the president from office are a virtual tie.


At least the hearings changed one person’s mind: Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist of the NYT, who now thinks Trump should be removed from office even though “This isn’t what I thought two months ago, when the impeachment inquiry began.”

What persuaded him isn’t what Trump did to Ukraine, but to politics in the United States.

we’ve been living in a country undergoing its own dismal process of Ukrainianization: of treating fictions as facts; and propaganda as journalism; and political opponents as criminals; and political offices as business ventures; and personal relatives as diplomatic representatives; and legal fixers as shadow cabinet members; and extortion as foreign policy; and toadyism as patriotism; and fellow citizens as “human scum”; and mortal enemies as long-lost friends — and then acting as if all this is perfectly normal. This is more than a high crime. It’s a clear and present danger to our security, institutions, and moral hygiene.


If people aren’t changing their minds about Trump during these hearings, I hope they are changing their minds about Republicans in general. Because it’s been really clear that the Republicans in the room are acting in bad faith. All the patriotism in the room is coming from the witnesses, because the Republicans, one and all, have chosen Trump over America. Again and again, they make ridiculous arguments that they can’t possibly believe themselves.

While complaining about the lack of witnesses who spoke to Trump directly, not one of them has asked Trump to let more witnesses testify. Thursday, Fiona Hill called them out for repeating talking points that originate in the Russian security services, and have been refuted by all American intelligence agencies.

Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetuated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. … Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

They didn’t care. Devin Nunes in particular just kept repeating those same Russian talking points. So did Trump himself: “Don’t forget. Ukraine hated me. They were after me in the election.” (That was part of a long interview that included “at least 18 false statements“.) And here’s Senator Kennedy of Louisiana yesterday on Fox News Sunday:

CHRIS WALLACE: Senator Kennedy, who do you believe was responsible for hacking the DNC & Clinton campaign? Russia or Ukraine?

KENNEDY: I don’t know. Nor do you.

W: The entire intel community says it was Russia.

K: Right. But it could be Ukraine. Fiona Hill is entitled to her opinion

 

The goal of the Republican leadership is to make impeachment a party-line vote, with no Republicans crossing over. But I wonder if that might not rebound against them in 2020. That willingness to ignore all the evidence will underline that there are no “reasonable” Republicans. Whatever the candidate in your district might sound like, when push comes to shove, all Republicans are Trump.