Category Archives: Articles

When can I stop writing about Trump?

Maybe soon. Trump-related stories were all over the news this week,
but they point towards a future where Trump may not matter.

I didn’t want to write another Trump post this week, but the convergence of headlines was hard to ignore. This week:

  • Trump announced his 2024 candidacy.
  • Republicans and conservative media were surprisingly cool about a Trump candidacy.
  • Merrick Garland named a special prosecutor to investigate/prosecute Trump.
  • Elon Musk restored Trump’s Twitter account.

So I guess I have to pay attention.

Has he finally jumped the shark? Last week I was skeptical that the GOP was finally getting over Trump. Sure, he endorsed a string of bad candidates who lost winnable races, and a statistical analysis indicated that MAGA Republican candidates for Congress ran about five points behind non-MAGA Republican candidates. And yes, Ron DeSantis’ surprisingly large victory margin in Florida supported the idea that he is a winner while Trump is a loser. So it wasn’t all that surprising that a few GOP leaders and conservative pundits began inching away from the Former Guy.

A week ago, I wasn’t buying it. Republicans have tried to move away from Trump before — most recently after he incited a mob to attack Congress in an effort to hang onto power after losing the 2020 election. But it never lasts. After January 6, it took about three weeks for Kevin McCarthy to go from wanting Trump to resign to making a Mar-a-Lago pilgrimage. Why should this time be different?

But this week, maybe I am buying it. I’m at least examining the possibility. Trump announced his 2024 candidacy Tuesday, and the response was not what either he or I expected. No major network carried the whole speech live: Fox and CNN started to, but then cut away as Trump rambled. The Fox coverage was particularly Orwellian: As Trump droned on, the network’s talking heads enthused about the greatness of the event they had stopped broadcasting. “This was an absolutely brilliant speech,” Mike Huckabee proclaimed, using the past tense to describe something that was still happening, “the best I have heard him give in a long time.”

Most news outlets ran articles on the speech, but they were more skeptical than thrilled or horrified. The snarkiest was Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, whose cover said “Florida Man Makes Announcement, page 26”. Trump had probably pictured his fans cheering and his enemies trembling in fear or outrage. But I don’t think he expected so many people to laugh.

The Democratic response is also telling. Democrats worry about whether Biden is up for another run, about who could replace him if he isn’t, and about whether younger Trumpists like DeSantis or Youngkin might be harder to demonize than the Mar-a-Loser. Beating Trump, on the other hand, is a familiar challenge. We did it before, we’ll do it again.

Et tu, pastor? Apparently even Evangelical leaders are jumping off Trump’s sinking yacht.

“He used us to win the White House. We had to close our mouths and eyes when he said things that horrified us,” [televangelist Mike] Evans wrote. “I cannot do that anymore.”

Had to? The supposed heirs to the tradition of the Prophet Nathan and John the Baptist had to bow down to Trump. And the spark causing Evans to turn away is not some new outrage that he just can’t stomach — or even a straw that finally broke his back — but Trump’s loss of power and influence.

What might be happening. Here’s my theory: The hard-core Trump cultist worries about being a loser, but in his mind he becomes a winner by identifying with the ultimate winner, Donald Trump. As the classic children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me” puts it: “They are weak, but He is strong.” Trump is fighting the same dark forces that the cultist blames for his own disappointments, but Trump is going to defeat them.

Trump constantly stokes this identification, claiming that people who attack him are really attacking his followers, as if his followers had been assaulting women, taking money from foreign governments, or stealing classified documents.

But what if Trump starts to look like a loser himself? He rolled through the 2016 primaries, then in November unexpectedly won in the Electoral College in spite of losing the popular vote by millions. When he lost bigly to Biden in 2020, he said he really won, and his cult agreed to believe that story. But in 2022, Trump’s candidates lost all over the country. (And this is where the Trump cult’s anti-Biden and anti-Democrat propaganda boomerangs: How could all those MAGA Republicans possibly have lost? Biden is senile. Fetterman is a vegetable after his stroke. Everybody hates Gretchen Whitmer because of her Covid tyranny. How did they win? How did they beat Trump?)

So you lose once and claim the other guy cheated. OK, maybe. But you can’t go to that well over and over. The message has to be: “The other guy cheated me, and I’m going to make him pay.” If you can’t make him pay, if you get cheated again and again — then you’re just like the rest of the losers.

What happens then? I don’t expect Trump’s followers to turn on him because he has stopped winning. But I do think their enthusiasm starts to fade, because he’s not delivering the ego boost they need any more. So maybe they just quietly drift away.

Establishment Republicans hope someone like DeSantis can excite the base without reproducing Trump’s embarrassing transgressions, but I don’t that’s going to work. Trump’s trangressiveness is an irreplaceable part of his appeal. He does whatever he wants. He calls Mexicans rapists, cheats the taxman, taunts his opponents with playground nicknames, grabs women by the pussy — and gets away with it all. That’s what being a “winner” means to Trump’s base.

Telling it like it isn’t. The Atlantic’s David Graham made another good observation about the difference between Trump 2024 and Trump 2016. In spite of all his exaggerations and lies, Trump 2016’s appeal

was built on his willingness to speak the supposedly obvious facts that other politicians would not. He would tell voters that the political system was rigged toward donors. He would say that free-trade policies had harmed many Americans. If they were racist or xenophobic, he’d speak their truths, too. The central appeal was common sense, even when it was neither common nor sensical.

But Trump 2024 asks his followers to disbelieve things they can see and misremember events they lived through.

Consider this account of his presidency from the announcement speech: “Two years ago when I left office, the United States stood ready for its golden age. Our nation was at the pinnacle of power, prosperity, and prestige, towering above all rivals, vanquishing all enemies, and striding into the future confident and so strong … There was never a time like this … When the virus hit our shores, I took decisive action and saved lives and the U.S. economy.”

Some people might want to remember 2020 that way, but few will be able to manage it.

The special counsel. Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to investigate events related to January 6, and also to the classified documents and presidential records found at Mar-a-Lago. In his press conference, Garland said:

Based on recent developments, including Trump’s announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election, and the current president’s intention to be a candidate in the next election, I have concluded it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.

This announcement has both optimistic and pessimistic interpretations for people who want to see Trump held accountable for his crimes. The pessimistic interpretation is that Merrick Garland is adding his name to the list of people who couldn’t manage to nail Trump. James Comey couldn’t do it. Bob Mueller. The first and second sets of impeachment managers. The January 6 Committee. And now Merrick Garland. He passes the baton to Jack Smith — and why should Smith do any better than the previous investigators?

Andrew Weissman, who was part of the Mueller investigation and wrote the book Where Law Ends about it, believes this time is different.

The new Special Counsel, unlike Special Counsel Mueller, WILL be able to indict Trump as he is no longer POTUS and WILL NOT have to worry about being fired from one day to the next by sitting POTUS. And he inherits a large amount of evidence and a team that is in place already. The new Special Counsel also will not have to overcome, as Special Counsel Mueller did, Trump’s dangling presidential pardons to thwart cooperation with the investigation. Or using DOJ to stymie and misrepresent the investigation.

New York magazine’s Intelligencer column presents a more balanced view: However it unfolds, this process is still going to take a long time. The big timing decision for Smith to make is whether to indict Trump quickly for the Mar-a-Lago documents — a fairly simple case that is nearly ready to go — or to wait until a more complex January 6 investigation is complete and charge everything at once.

Trump and Twitter. And speaking of sinking yachts, Elon Musk arbitrarily announced the reactivation of Trump’s Twitter account Saturday evening. Trump had been banned from Twitter because he misused it to foment violence on January 6, and seemed like to misuse it again. To me, that logic still holds, but apparently not to Musk. He had previously said that the no major reinstatements would happen until he could convene “a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints”. But never mind. Musk posted a poll Thursday and announced the result Saturday.

Anyway, at the moment all this means is that Trump’s old tweets are available again. Trump has not tweeted anything new yet, and his agreement with Truth Social (which he at least partially owns) puts restrictions on what he can post on other social-media platforms. So we’ll see what happens.

He may be worried about returning to Twitter only to see it quickly declare bankruptcy, which Musk has floated as a possibility. There’s a limit to how much failure his public image can stand to be associated with.

Notes on the midterm elections

Saturday night, when Nevada had counted enough votes to declare Catherine Cortez Masto re-elected, we learned that the Democrats would hold onto the Senate. They may even gain a seat, if Raphael Warnock can win the December 6 run-off in Georgia.

As of this morning, almost a week after election day, Republicans are leading in the House, but still have not nailed down a majority. 212 races have been called for Republican candidates, 204 for Democrats. 218 are needed for a majority. NBC is estimating that when all the counting is complete, the GOP will have a slim 219-216 majority. (So assuming Lauren Boebert hangs on to her current slim lead, Speaker McCarthy will lose any vote in which he can’t get Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Green’s support.)

In the states, Florida went very red, but both Michigan and Minnesota very blue. Democrats flipped governorships in Massachusetts and Maryland, Republicans in Nevada. Arizona is still undecided.

There’s probably a lot to learn from these results that I haven’t deciphered yet. But here are a few conclusions that seem obvious.

Voters in swing states don’t believe the Big Lie about 2020, and want to continue having democratic elections. My biggest fear about the midterms was that they would herald the end of democratic elections in the United States. But that didn’t happen. Yesterday, the NYT’s home page included the headline “Every election denier who sought to become the top election official in a critical battleground state lost at the polls“.

During the 2020 election, it was secretaries of state — both Democrats and Republicans — who stood up to efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies to overturn the results. State election officials certified vote tallies over Republican objections, protected election workers from aggressive partisan poll watchers and, in at least one case, refused a personal entreaty from the president.

The next spring, several candidates pushing the false narrative that the 2020 election had been stolen announced their intention to run to be the top election officials in critical states.

Republican candidates for secretary of state in places like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico claimed the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump, without basing that belief on the slightest bit of evidence. In Pennsylvania the secretary of state is appointed by the governor, and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano was running as a rabid election denier (in addition to being a Christian nationalist and a barely-in-the-closet antisemite). In Georgia, incumbent Republican Brad Raffensperger had beaten back an election-denier challenge in the primary.

Victories by election-denying candidates would have opened the possibility that in 2024, MAGA secretaries of state might refuse to recognize a Democrat’s victory. If they needed no evidence beyond Trump’s say-so to declare fraud in 2020, why wouldn’t they do the same in 2024?

Fortunately, all those candidates lost. Some of the races were disturbingly close — though Mastriano got soundly thrashed — but they lost. Only Indiana chose an election-denying secretary of state. That could be a problem locally, but it’s unlikely to affect a national election, since a Democratic presidential candidate could only carry Indiana in a national landslide. (Barack Obama barely did in 2008.)

Sweeping abortion bans are unpopular. A lot of Americans have conflicted views about abortion, so the wording of a proposal matters. But if you put a broad abortion ban in front of the voters, they’ll reject it even in some pretty conservative states.

We saw that already in August, when Kansas (which Trump carried 56%-42% in 2020) held a referendum that would have given the legislature the power to ban abortion. (The state’s supreme court had found a Roe-like right to abortion in the state’s constitution. This proposed amendment would have removed that right.) The legislature scheduled the vote to coincide with a primary election that was likely to draw more Republicans than Democrats, but it didn’t matter: Turnout was huge and the proposal failed 59%-41%.

Tuesday, proposals to protect reproductive rights were on the ballot in Vermont, California, and Michigan, while voters had a chance to restrict abortion rights in Kentucky and Montana. The pro-choice side won all five.

The abortion issue is also getting credit for the Democrats avoiding the typical midterm-election-collapse of a party in power. It’s hard to say precisely why voters decide to show up and lean one way or another, but the turnout of young voters was high and heavily Democratic, and Democrats won 68%-31% among single women. Chances are that abortion had something to do with that.

[BTW, it has been hilarious to watch conservative pundits struggle not to grasp that single women don’t want the Republic of Gilead controlling their bodies and making major life decisions for them. Fox News’ Jesse Watters noted that married women tend to vote Republican, so he had a solution: “We need these ladies to get married. And it’s time to fall in love and just settle down. Guys, go put a ring on it.” One America News’ Addison Smith went even further down the patriarchal rabbit hole: “Secular progressivism has turned people into masochists. … 68% of single women voted for people who vowed to let them legally murder their children and continue on living miserable single lives without purpose, without responsibility or meaning.” Attention single women: After a quick search, I wasn’t able to determine whether Addison Smith is married, so he might still be available to bring purpose and meaning to your otherwise pointless life.]

Trump is hurting the Republican Party. He wasn’t losing any races himself this time, but he screwed up the GOP in two other ways. First, the unqualified and too extreme candidates he pushed to victory in the Republican primaries went on to lose winnable elections.

New Hampshire is a good example. Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who kept his distance from Trump, cruised to a 57%-42% victory. But Trump-endorsed election-denying Don Bolduc lost to incumbent Senator Maggie Hassan 54%-44%. Those two results are from the same voters on the same day, so about 1 NH voter in 8 must have voted a Sununu/Hassan split ticket.

Similarly in Georgia, Brian Kemp (who defeated a Trumpist challenger in the GOP primary after certifying Biden’s 2020 victory) won the governorship 53%-46%, while Trump’s handpicked senate candidate Herschel Walker faces a run-off after trailing 49%-48% Tuesday.

The second way Trump undercut the GOP was to divert attention towards himself, his petty grievances, and his backward-looking complaints about 2020, and away from issues like inflation that were working for Republicans. He doesn’t seem to realize that if the 2020 election were run again, he would get his butt kicked again. Most unpopular presidents see their images improve in hindsight, but not Trump. 54% of the public still views him unfavorably.

Conservative power brokers like Rupert Murdoch and mainstream Republican politicians like Paul Ryan see what’s going on and would like to free the party from Trump’s destructive influence, but I’m betting against them. There’s a lot of Trump-blaming in conservative media right now, but that just means it’s January 7 again. Before long, the would-be rebels will be crawling to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring, as they did only weeks after January 6. The NYT’s Jamelle Bouie agrees with me:

The idea that Republican elites could simply swap Trump for another candidate without incurring any serious damage rests on two assumptions: First, that Trump’s supporters are more committed to the Republican Party than they are to him, and second, that Trump himself will give up the fight if he isn’t able to win the party’s nomination.

I think these assumptions show a fundamental misunderstanding of the world Republican elites brought into being when they finally bent the knee to Trump in the summer and fall of 2016.

But Jonathan Chait disagrees. It’s different this time, he says, because Ron DeSantis provides a real alternative.

Either way, it’s going to be ugly. Trump has already shown that he will try to burn down a democracy that won’t re-elect him. No one should be surprised if he burns down a party that won’t re-nominate him.

Gerrymandering matters. For years, voters in Michigan have voted for Democratic candidates for the legislature, only to see Republicans keep control. But in 2018, Michigan voters reestablished democracy in their state by overwhelmingly passing Proposal 2, which created a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Tuesday was the first election held under the new nonpartisan maps, and Democrats won majorities in both houses for the first time in almost 40 years.

Compare Michigan to Wisconsin, which is still heavily gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor. Democratic Governor Tony Evers was re-elected with 51% of the vote, and Republican Senator Ron Johnson was re-elected with just over 50%, suggesting an evenly divided electorate. But Democrats narrowly avoided a veto-proof Republican supermajority in both houses of the legislature, which would have made Governor Evers virtually powerless.

Both parties gerrymander when they can, because it’s political suicide to let the other side play by different rules. (Though no Democratic-controlled state mirrors Michigan, with an entrenched Democratic legislature thwarting a Republican majority in the electorate.) But Democrats want to end this game: An anti-gerrymandering provision was part of the For the People Act, which has passed the House in 2019, 2020, and 2021, only to be blocked by Republican filibusters in the Senate. A scaled-down proposal, the Freedom to Vote Act, was put together by Senators Manchin and Klobuchar. But it also was blocked by a filibuster.

The stuff Biden did is way more popular than Biden himself. The pundits predicting a red wave were fooled by Biden’s low approval rating: 41.5% in the latest 538 average, barely higher than Trump’s 39.9%. Normally, a president with numbers like that sees his party get clobbered in the midterm elections.

But Friday, Chris Hayes made an interesting comparison to 2010, when there really was a red wave. In 2010, the Democratic Congress had just passed ObamaCare, and it was very unpopular. (Since it hadn’t taken effect yet, Republicans could claim anything they wanted about it, and they did.) The way Republicans ran against Democratic incumbents that year was simply to point to that vote.

Nothing in this cycle played that same role of connecting Biden’s unpopularity to specific votes in Congress. If Democrats got criticized for voting for the Inflation Reduction Act, they could say, “Yes, I lowered your prescription drug costs, invested in renewable energy, and created jobs for American workers.” The bipartisan infrastructure bill? “Yes, I voted to rebuild America’s roads and bridges, bring broadband internet to rural areas, and replace lead water pipes that have been poisoning our children.” American Rescue Plan? “I voted to get Americans vaccinated, send money to people who couldn’t work during the pandemic, and give loans to businesses so they wouldn’t have to fire people.”

And so on.

So sure, Americans are frustrated with inflation, and Republicans were able to fan people’s fears about rising crime and a few other issues. But how could challengers pin those problems on the incumbent senators or representatives they were trying to replace? And while 2010 Republicans could promise to repeal ObamaCare, what exactly were 2022 Republicans proposing to do about inflation, crime, or anything else?

Polls are more-or-less accurate if you don’t expect too much out of them. I’ve seen a lot of the-polls-were-wrong-again punditry, but I don’t think it’s deserved.

Take the Georgia Senate race, for example. 538’s final pre-election analysis said that Herschel Walker had a 63% chance of winning, with a predicted margin of 1.2%. But now that the votes have been counted, Warnock holds a .9% lead. (Warnock is still short of 50%, so a run-off is happening December 6.)

So Nate Silver’s prediction was off by 2.1%. You can’t really expect pre-election polling to be more accurate than that.

At best, a poll is a snapshot of where the electorate was a day or two before the election, accurate to within some margin of error. Averaging a bunch of polls (as 538 does) should shrink that margin, but not to zero. And as for people who decide at the last minute to vote (or not vote), or who change their minds in the booth — there’s really no accounting for them.

In short, the right response to the Georgia outcome is not “538 was wrong to say Walker would get more votes, because Warnock did”, but “538 said the race was going to be close and it was.”

That’s why the model said “63% chance”. Just for reference, NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo is currently hitting 65% of his free throws (well below the league average of around 78%). That’s better than a coin flip, but when he steps to the line, Bucks fans are holding their breath rather than counting the points.

Is a more accurate system possible? Well, maybe, but you won’t like it. I suspect that somewhere in the basement of Meta headquarters, somebody has developed an algorithm that predicts how each of Facebook’s tens of millions of users will vote. (For most of us, it wouldn’t be that hard.) Facebook users may not be absolutely typical of the electorate, but the differences are probably not difficult to model and compensate for after you review the data from a few election cycles. And on election day, if the app on your phone is tracking your location, it knows whether you went to the polls.

Facebook’s huge sample base would eliminate nearly all the statistical error. Since it’s a spying algorithm rather than a request for information, you couldn’t just refuse to answer, eliminating another source of polling error. And in order to lie to the algorithm, you’d have to change your whole online behavior, which hardly anybody is going to do. The algorithm’s estimates would always be up to the minute, and in the end it would know a lot about who voted.

I’ll bet that system could be pretty accurate.

Expert speculation, on the other hand, isn’t worth the attention it gets. All that talk of a “red wave” didn’t come from the polls. 538’s generic-ballot polling average finished with a Republican advantage of 1.2%, which would lead a person to expect a Republican Congress, but not a sweeping rejection of Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats. (Compare that margin to true wave elections: In 2010, Republican House candidates got 6.8% more votes than Democratic candidates. In 2018, Democrats did 8.6% better than Republicans.)

The red-wave speculation came from pundits, both too-optimistic Republicans and too-pessimistic Democrats.

The right lesson to draw is that we spend way too much time listening to people speculate about stuff they don’t really know. Psychologically, it’s understandable: We get anxious leading up to an election or some other big event, so we want to believe that someone can tell us what’s going to happen. Even hearing that things are going to go badly can be more comforting than facing life’s real uncertainty.

It’s also understandable from the networks’ point of view: Actual reporting is hard and can be expensive, but gathering a panel of talking heads in the studio is easy and cheap. (A lot of them have a book to sell, a candidate to push, or some other reason they want to be on your show. So you may not have to pay them at all.) By air time, an investigative reporter may or may not have cracked whatever story she/he/they has been working on, but a pundit can be guaranteed to have a speculation ready on demand.

Unfortunately, those speculations aren’t worth much. If listening to them makes you feel better, fine. But don’t kid yourself that you’re receiving valuable information. Life really is terrifyingly uncertain.

So in the end, I wind up agreeing with the conclusion of the editorial I linked to about the polls being wrong again, if you change “study polls” to “try to prognosticate”:

Voters would do well to study the issues more than they [try to prognosticate], and media would do well to provide valuable issue-oriented reporting instead of reporting on a horse race that can change minute to minute.

[BTW: If political predictions were intended to be accurate, networks would keep detailed statistics on which pundits were right or wrong, and there would be bidding wars over the ones with the best records. That doesn’t happen, does it? The red-wave predictors aren’t going to lose their jobs, and somebody who got it right isn’t going to suddenly vault to the top of the profession the way a market-beating hedge-fund manager would.]

Can conservatives be allies against climate change?

They’ve given us a lot of reasons to be skeptical.
But we’re surrendering to hopelessness if we assume bad faith.

A week ago Friday, the NYT published an essay I’m still puzzling over: Bret Stephens — a Times columnist whose hiring I have always attributed to the newspaper’s affirmative-action-for-conservatives policy — wrote “Yes, Greenland’s Ice is Melting, But …“. Reading it raised a question in my mind: “Yes, conservative minds are changing, but … can they ever change enough to make them real allies?”

Anybody who has been watching this topic has seen the pattern. Over the last decade or so, conservatives who aren’t willing to deny reality completely have staged a retreat worthy of a great general, slowly falling back from one line of defense to the next. The major defense lines, as I remember them (and still run into them from time to time), look like this:

Most frustrating of all are the people who shift back and forth from between defensive positions. One day they’re admitting greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate, and the next day it’s all a hoax again. But whatever line of defense they choose, the conclusion is always the same: Do nothing. It’s the wrong time, or the wrong tactic, or we’ll never get China and India to cooperate, or something. There’s always something.

So it’s easy to get cynical, and to assume that any conservative who briefly seems to be talking sense about the climate is doing so in bad faith. Their new understanding, whatever it is, is just the next line of defense against doing anything substantive to avert the looming disaster.

But here’s the problem with that cynicism. The people who are already convinced drastic action is necessary aren’t a big enough voting bloc to carry out drastic action.

Occasionally I’ll see polls that indicate otherwise, but those numbers are deceiving: Many will tell a pollster they support climate-change action, but then will be protesting in the streets as soon as a carbon tax makes gas prices rise or their heating bills go up. (See, for example, the “yellow vests” in France.)

So if we’re actually going to tackle this problem, we need converts — real ones who understand that sacrifices need to be made if we’re going to save future generations from much worse prospects. From there it follows that we need to welcome converts, rather than give them the third degree to make sure they’re serious enough.

What’s more, lots of people aren’t going to change their minds all at once. Road-to-Damascus conversions do happen, but they’re rare. Many who come to see the reality of the climate challenge are going to see it in stages. So while that bulleted list above may be a line of successive defenses for bad-faith pseudo-converts, it can also be a road of progress for good-faith real converts. Is your it’s-all-a-hoax cousin now admitting that temperatures are going up? Rejoice! It’s a step.

I understand that it’s frustrating as hell to stand on the deck of the Titanic and try to stay calm while people tell you it’s not time to lower the life boats yet. But if you’re not able to lower the lifeboats by yourself, what else can you do? You need to meet these people where they are and coax them into doing the right thing. That may be time-consuming and time may be short, but if there’s not a more direct path …

And that brings me back to Bret Stephens. There are lots of reasons to be cynical here. “Yes, Greenland’s Ice is Melting, But …” is laid out like a new line of defense, with the “but” seeming to lead to “we still shouldn’t do anything”. And that’s kinda-sorta where most of the essay goes. His argument is structured as a series of buts: Yes, Greenland’s ice is melting,

  • but we need to recognize clean energy’s limitations
  • but we’ve gotten better at mitigating climate disasters
  • but we need to accept economic growth as a benefit
  • but we need solutions that align with human nature
  • but we need to avoid alarmist activism
  • but the market, not the state, will solve the problem

Sounds terrible, right? I mean, alarmist is one of those right-wing boogyman words, like woke or socialist. It doesn’t have any objective definition, it’s just a pejorative that conservatives throw at people who say things they don’t want to hear. Human nature is another much-abused term, strongly related to the idea that anything I object to is “unnatural”. And greenhouse-gas emission, like all pollution, is a classic example of a market externality, a cost the market can’t see because it’s primarily borne by someone other than buyers and sellers. Markets won’t address externalities unless government restructures transactions to make the cost visible (say, by creating an artificial cost through taxation). So even a “market” solution will not be the market acting instead of the state, it will be the market acting in concert with the state.

But even after all that, Stephens concludes with a point that’s not a “but” at all.

  • The conservative movement needs to set an example for its children and prepare for the future.

A problem for the future is, by its very nature, a moral one. A conservative movement that claims to care about what we owe the future has the twin responsibility of setting an example for its children and at the same time preparing for that future. The same prudential logic that applies to personal finances, business decisions, Social Security, the federal debt or other risks to financial solvency should dictate thoughtful policies when it comes to climate.

So in other words, Stephens writes a litany of but-this and but-that, but comes around to the conclusion that we have to do something.

That conclusion made me reevaluate who all the yes-buts were for. What if they’re there not to provide further lines of defense against action, but to reassure conservatives that he’s still one of them? As in: I still believe in markets and growth, and I still look skeptically at big government programs, but I also think we have to do something about climate change. I haven’t drunk the woke liberal new-world-order kool-aid, but I think we have to do something about climate change.

Conservative media has created a caricature of climate-change activists as wild-eyed religious fanatics who support one-world socialist dictatorship, hate technology, want to take us back to the Dark Ages, and don’t care if a few billion people have to starve to death while we’re getting there.

Stephens is writing largely for folks who have bought that propaganda, so he can’t just announce that he’s become one of Them now. If he’s going to bring any part of this fan-base with him, he has to write something like this essay — as if facing reality about the climate without going insane is some brand-new position he just discovered, and you can join him there without also joining AOC, who presumably is off on some other island out there somewhere.

So what can he teach me? Respect. As I said above, I don’t think Stephens’ essay was written with me in mind, so a lot of his points don’t say much to me. But I do learn a few things.

The first noteworthy nugget is how this whole adventure started: Back in 2017, Stephens wrote a climate-change-skeptical column, which a lot of scientists denounced. One of them was oceanographer John Englander of the Rising Seas Institute.

Two years later, on a visit to New York, he wrote me out of the blue and asked to meet. Unlike most of my detractors, his note was so cordial that it seemed churlish to say no. We met the next day.

Englander is a trim, affable and eloquent man of 72 who once ran the Cousteau Society and reminds me of a bearded Patrick Stewart, albeit with an American accent. His pitch was simple: The coastline we have taken for granted for thousands of years of human history changed rapidly in the past on account of natural forces — and would soon be changing rapidly and disastrously by man-made ones. A trip to Greenland, which holds one-eighth of the world’s ice on land (most of the rest is in Antarctica) would show me just how drastic those changes have been. Would I join him?

Again, it seemed churlish to say no (though the pandemic would delay my trip by two years). More to the point, if my main objection to the climate activists was my impression of their overweening certitude, didn’t it behoove me to check my own? Where — except in the risk of changing my mind — was the harm in testing my views?

In other words, Englander made an assumption of good faith. He reached out not with insults or claims of authority, but simply said “Come and see for yourself.”

Now, most of us are not in a position to take people to Greenland. But we can approach them in a manner that offers them an opportunity to be their best selves.

That approach defuses precisely the propaganda I pointed to above. If you and I are real people, then we might have a discussion where real ideas get exchanged. But if we’re two caricatures, that’s not going to happen. So it’s important to break the frame in both directions: I’m not casting a negative image on the other person from the outset, and (because I’m aware of the caricature in their head) I’m not invoking their negative image of people like me.

Lesson 2: risk. The conservative caricature of a climate-change activist is “alarmist” — someone running around saying “We’re all gonna die!” And yes, there are a few such people; drawing undue attention to them is one way that Fox News supports the caricature. Stephens ends up restating the risk for himself:

Talk of an imminent climate catastrophe is probably misleading, at least in the way most people understand “imminent.” A continual drumbeat of alarm may do more to exhaust voters than it will to rouse them. A more accurate description of the challenge might be a “potentially imminent tipping point,” meaning the worst consequences of climate change can still be far off but the end of our ability to reverse them is drawing near. Again, the metaphor of cancer — never safe to ignore and always better to deal with at Stage 2 than at Stage 4 — can be helpful.

I’m not sure who he thinks will find this description new — certainly not most climate scientists. And how is it inappropriate to sound the alarm about a “potentially imminent tipping point” or a stage-2 cancer?

But the key point here is to recognize that people are bad at thinking about distant but high-impact risks. Stephens addresses this problem by consulting the kind of risk-assessor conservatives respect: a hedge-fund manager. That’s not where I would have gone, but he ends up getting good advice.

“If you face something that is potentially existential,” he explained, “existential for nations, even for life as we know it, even if you thought the risk is, say, 5 percent, you’d want to hedge against it.”


“One thing we try to do,” he said, “is we buy protection when it’s really inexpensive, even when we think we may well not need it.” The forces contributing to climate change, he noted, echoing Englander, “might be irreversible sooner than the damage from climate change has become fully apparent. You can’t say it’s far off and wait when, if you had acted sooner, you might have dealt with it better and at less cost. We have to act now.”

Lesson 3: Purity. When you frame something as a moral problem, one temptation is to “Go and sin no more.” In other words, we’ve been harming the environment, so from this day forward we should fight against anything that harms the environment.

But there’s a problem with that: Any form of drastic climate action is going to have environmental side-effects, not all of them good. One example Stephens cites is mining: If we’re going to switch to electric cars, we’re going to need a lot more rare-earth minerals for batteries. All that mining is going to have some negative consequences, especially local ones in the mining communities.

Similarly, hydro-electric dams produce power without carbon emissions, but they also change the eco-systems of the dammed rivers. Nuclear power plants produce zero-carbon power, but leave us with a thousands-of-years waste-management problem. If regulated properly to minimize methane leaks, fracking can produce a fuel that still emits carbon, but less of it than coal.

None of those are sin-no-more solutions. They’re paths into the future that trade some environmental damages off against other environmental damages.

And this is where conservatives who actually want to solve the problem can play a role. Because while markets suck at sinning no more, if they’re properly regulated they can be good at trading some kinds of risks and harms off against others.

Purity makes for good slogans. But actual solutions are going to involve trade-offs. We’re going to have to make judgments about how much pain the public is willing to accept at any given moment, and to work as efficiently as possible within that pain-budget.

So is he serious? Maybe, maybe not. But I think we have to hope that he is, and that he is blazing a trail for some larger number of conservatives who don’t want their grandchildren to remember them as villains. The kind of action we want requires a bigger consensus than we have. So we need to gather converts wherever we can find them.

Closing Arguments: Biden’s accomplishments

With a refreshing lack of bombast, President Biden and the Democratic Congress have gotten a lot done.

People who believe the media has a liberal bias should consider two phenomena:

  • How easy it is to make people forget the disasters that Democratic presidents inherit from their Republican predecessors.
  • How quickly Democratic accomplishments pass out of the public’s attention, as if they never happened.

So any account of Joe Biden’s accomplishments has to start by recalling where we were on Inauguration Day, a memory that has somehow grown rosy in some people’s minds. (President Obama had to deal with a similar amnesia, as many people forgot Bush had handed him the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression.)

  • Unemployment was at 6.3%, compared to 3.5% last month.
  • 104,265 Americans died of Covid in January, 2021, a rate of 3,363 per day. The current rate is 361 per day.
  • 12-month GDP was $22.22 trillion, barely more than the February 2020 level of $21.92, and well below August 2022’s $25.80 trillion.
  • American troops were still in Afghanistan, having accomplished virtually nothing after 20 years of nation-building that Trump pledged to end, but didn’t.
  • The federal budget deficit for FY 2020 (October, 2019 through September 2020, Trump’s last full year in office) was $3.1 trillion. The FY 2022 deficit was $1.4 trillion. We are currently in FY 2023, whose deficit is projected to be $1.2 trillion.

So let’s start there. Under Biden, we have significantly lower unemployment, higher GDP, fewer Covid deaths, a lower deficit, and our troops are out of Afghanistan.

The economy. In 2019, when unemployment spent most of the year in the 3.5-3.7% range, Trump declared it “the greatest economy in history“. Then the pandemic hit, the economy collapsed, and unemployment skyrocketed to 14.8% in April, 2020.

Both Trump and Biden fought to keep the economy going with emergency stimulus measures, including direct payments to individuals. As a result, the March-September period of this year once again saw unemployment in the 3.5-3.7% range. Jobs are once again plentiful, wages are rising, and many businesses complain about not being able to find enough workers.

The cost of this impressive economic performance in challenging circumstances has been inflation, which peaked at 9.1% (year-over-year) in June and has since been trending downward, though it remains an uncomfortably high 8.2%. (The war in Ukraine also factors into rising energy and food prices.) However, the US is doing relatively well in comparison with similar economies. Inflation is running at 10% in the 19-country eurozone and 10.1% in the United Kingdom.

It is hard to see how any of this will improve if Republicans reclaim either house of Congress. Looking forward to 2024, it will be in Republicans’ interest to block whatever Biden tries to do, especially if it would help the economy. In particular, we can expect a Republican-controlled house of Congress to return to the ransom-demanding practices the GOP used against President Obama. Expect another debt-ceiling crisis, and perhaps this time they’ll push the country into default.

Covid. In spite of his overall mismanagement of the Covid crisis, Trump deserves credit for funding the “warp speed” plan to develop a vaccine quickly. The first vaccines were approved in December 2020, leaving Biden to figure out how to get shots into Americans’ arms.

That was a key part of the American Rescue Plan that Biden got through Congress and signed less than two months after taking office. Remember how, under Trump, states competed with each other for resources to fight the pandemic? That hasn’t happened under Biden. Vaccines have been distributed fairly and for free. (Pfizer recently announced its intention to charge $110-130 per dose when government funding runs out. Imagine if we’d had to pay that from the beginning.)

Republicans could have given Trump credit for the vaccines and made vaccinating the country a bipartisan goal, but instead decided to go the other way. Together with conservative media, they ran a disinformation campaign about vaccines, masks, and everything else Covid-related. As a result, blue Massachusetts has an 82% vaccination rate; red Alabama 52%. Nonetheless, Biden still managed to get 68% of Americans fully vaccinated, including 93% of those over 65.

One cost of Republican disinformation, it’s worth pointing out, has been paid by their voters.

Average excess death rates in Florida and Ohio were 76% higher among Republicans than Democrats from March 2020 to December 2021, according to a working paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Believing what Republican politicians and Fox News hosts tell you can endanger your health.

Foreign policy. When Biden took office, NATO was in shambles. Trump had repeatedly questioned the value of the alliance, and had even suggested the US might not fulfill our treaty obligations to defend other NATO countries if they were attacked. He seemed unable to criticize Vladimir Putin, and even took Putin’s side against US intelligence services in a particularly egregious meeting in Helsinki.

Biden’s reassembly of the alliance has been masterful. NATO has stood together in helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion, and has even drawn Sweden and Finland into the alliance. Putin, who dominated Trump, has been completely outplayed by Biden. (Trump has continued to be in thrall to the Russian dictator. Shortly after the Ukraine invasion began, Trump described Putin’s move as “genius“.)

The US exit from Afghanistan was ugly, but necessary. To his credit, Biden was willing to swallow the medicine that three previous presidents had passed on to their successors. Trump had entered office promising to end the Afghan war, and repeatedly said he was doing so (including ordering an abrupt withdrawal after the 2020 election, which was not carried out). But he didn’t. Biden did.

After 20 years of nation building, including countless billions spent training and equipping the Afghan army, the Afghan government couldn’t even hang on long enough for us to get out of the country. Sad as those events were to witness, they demonstrated conclusively that our presence, and the continuing sacrifices of our troops, were accomplishing nothing.

Legislation. Another unfulfilled Trump promise that Biden delivered on was the bipartisan infrastructure package.

The legislation will put $110 billion into roads, bridges and other major projects. It will invest $66 billion in freight and passenger rail, including potential upgrades to Amtrak. It will direct $39 billion into public transit systems.

The plan will put $65 billion into expanding broadband, a priority after the coronavirus pandemic left millions of Americans at home without effective internet access. It will also put $55 billion into improving water systems and replacing lead pipes.

That bill didn’t just start the long-delayed rebuilding of America, it also proved that the two parties can still work together. 19 Republican senators and 13 representatives voted to pass it.

Biden’s third major piece of legislation was the Inflation Reduction Act, which he signed in August. This is the first major piece of legislation to fight climate change, and is projected to result in the US’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 being 40% below 2005 levels. It also cuts the deficit and reduces prescription drug prices.

Executive orders. President Biden has used his power to help Americans who need it. Among many other moves, he has ordered a limited student debt forgiveness (though Republicans have gone to court to block it), and is also pardoning non-violent federal prisoners whose only offense is marijuana possession.

Closing Argument: Abortion

Will women make their own decisions, or will government decide for them?

For decades, abortion has been a get-out-the-vote issue for Republicans, but not so much for Democrats. After all, as long as the Supreme Court was there to protect your rights, what practical difference could an anti-abortion legislature or Congress make?

But now that Trump’s three appointees have taken their seats on the Court, women’s rights (and privacy rights of all kinds) are up for grabs again. If you want to defend those rights, you have to vote.

The two parties’ positions. Last June’s Dobbs decision has allowed states to pass some truly horrible laws that not only deny women’s bodily autonomy, but even put their lives in danger. Initially, Republicans claimed the Court had simply returned the abortion question to the states, implicitly promising that women in blue states would keep the rights they had before Dobbs. But now many are pushing for a national abortion ban.

If history is any guide, Republicans who haven’t publicly supported such a ban — and perhaps even some who have taken a stand against one — will get in line once it comes up for a vote. Few GOP congresspeople have the backbone to stand up against the anti-abortion movement, and even fewer have shown a willingness to buck Donald Trump. So if a bill is on the floor and Trump is pushing them to support it, what do you think they will do?

By contrast, Democrats support a law that would restore the rights women lost when Roe was overturned.

“Why haven’t they already passed it?” is a fair question. Such a law has passed the House, but fell one vote short of a majority in the Senate. Two Democratic senators haven’t been willing to create an exception to the filibuster that would allow a majority to pass the law. But if Democrats gain two seats in the Senate — say, if John Fetterman replaces Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes replaces Ron Johnson in Wisconsin — the law will pass and President Biden will sign it.

What’s wrong with the state abortion bans? The best argument against the various state abortion bans is to look at specific examples of what they’ve done.

The case that got the most publicity was when a raped 10-year-old had to leave Ohio and go to Indiana to get an abortion. (Indiana has since passed a ban nearly as extreme as Ohio’s, but it does have a rape exception. That law is being challenged in state courts.)

But while they may appear comforting, the exceptions in state abortion bans often provide little protection in practice. The ban in Texas, for example, includes an exception to protect a pregnant woman’s life. But when Amanda Zurawski found out that her fetus was not viable and that continuing to carry it was dangerous, all she could do was wait. The fetus wasn’t dead yet, and she wasn’t dying yet, so under the law, nothing could be done. She describes her experience like this:

People have asked why we didn’t get on a plane or in our car to go to a state where the laws aren’t so restrictive. But we live in the middle of Texas, and the nearest “sanctuary” state is at least an 8-hour drive. Developing sepsis—which can kill quickly—in a car in the middle of the West Texas desert, or 30,000 feet above the ground, is a death sentence, and it’s not a choice we should have had to even consider. But we did, albeit briefly.

Instead, it took three days at home until I became sick “enough” that the ethics board at our hospital agreed we could legally begin medical treatment; three days until my life was considered at-risk “enough” for the inevitable premature delivery of my daughter to be performed; three days until the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals were allowed to do their jobs. 

By the time I was permitted to deliver, a rapidly spreading infection had already claimed my daughter’s life and was in the process of claiming mine.

I developed a raging fever and dangerously low blood pressure and was rushed to the ICU with sepsis. Tests found both my blood and my placenta teeming with bacteria that had multiplied, probably as a result of the wait. I would stay in the ICU for three more days as medical professionals battled to save my life.

Mylissa Farmer tells a similar story. Her fetus was dying and her own life was in danger, but she wasn’t quite sick enough yet for doctors in Missouri to help her. She had to travel to Illinois for treatment.

Since their ordeal, Farmer has lost trust. While she still feels her obstetrician at Freeman Hospital in Joplin is a good doctor, she’s worried about whether medical professionals in Missouri will be able to offer patients necessary care.

“I haven’t lost trust in care, but I’ve lost trust (doctors) will be allowed to make the medical decisions they need to make,” she said.

She’s lost trust in the politicians who represent her, as well.

Despite reaching out to various legislators, she has yet to receive an answer that satisfies her: Why is this law written this way? If it’s to protect women, why did she have to be in danger before she could get care in-state? Why is it such a binary law?

“The world is too nuanced to put such strict rules in place,” Farmer said.

Farmer’s story is not unique. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, preterm premature rupture of membranes happens in 2% to 3% of pregnancies in the United States, and leads to preterm birth in one out of four cases.

Imagine if a similar law were in place nationally. Where would women like Farmer go then?

The new laws treat other health dilemmas with similar disdain. Imagine discovering, shortly after you miss your first period, or perhaps during a prenatal physical, that you have cancer. Chemo-therapy and radiation can seriously harm or even kill a fetus. So what’s the alternative? Wait until the baby is born, and hope that your cancer is still treatable by then? If you’re not facing immediate death, that could be the only legal option. No wonder an article in the journal Demography concludes:

Overall, denying all wanted induced abortions in the United States would increase pregnancy-related mortality substantially, even if the rate of unsafe abortion did not increase.

Who decides? Pro-life rhetoric tends to gloss over such complexities. Pregnancies are problem-free, loving families are lined up to adopt even the most damaged newborns, and so the right thing to do is obvious. All we need is a law to make women do it.

But once you admit that there are any valid exceptions, then someone has to decide which individual cases are exceptional enough to qualify. Republicans believe that those decisions should be made by legislatures, or perhaps by hospital lawyers trying to avoid liability under laws the legislature left vague.

Democrats believe those decisions are best made by the people involved: the pregnant woman, advised by her family, her trusted friends, and the best medical and moral advisors she can find. This is especially true when there are significant risk-tradeoffs to weigh. Take the cancer example: Some women may feel so committed to the life growing inside them that they don’t hesitate to risk their own lives. That decision could be heroic, but the law should not force heroism on people.

And I can easily imagine a husband protesting against heroism: “I’m not ready to sign up for a future where you die and I’m left to raise a child by myself.” Those kinds of discussions need to happen inside families, not in Congress or in front of a hospital ethics board.

Religion. Most abortion decisions are not driven by health considerations, but by how a woman pictures her life proceeding with or without a child, and how she frames the moral questions abortion raises.

Different individuals and different religions see those questions differently. Some (but not all) Christian sects believe that a fertilized ovum already has a human soul, and that killing it is murder. Some (but not all) Jewish sects believe that the soul enters the body much later, perhaps not until the first breath. (See the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7.) Other religions and non-religious people’s opinions are all over the map. Most Americans appear to believe that the moral status of a fetus starts low and increases as it develops, which is why few people worry much about fertilized ova frozen in fertility clinics.

Whose opinion should control? Consider that if you ate a hamburger yesterday, a Hindu might tell you that the steer it came from had a soul every bit as significant as your own, one that may have inhabited a human body in a previous incarnation. Should this Hindu theology limit what you can eat?

Democrats believe that disputed religious questions should be decided by individuals, and that, unless the government has a secular reason to intervene, your behavior should be governed by your own beliefs (or lack thereof). Republicans believe that conservative Christian theology should control everyone’s behavior, a position they sometimes call “freedom”.

Late-term abortions. Anti-abortion activists believe late-term abortions are their trump card. In one typical attack, the National Republican Senatorial Committee claims “Radical John Fetterman Supports Abortion Up Until the Moment of Birth“. The headline conjures up an image of Fetterman (or any Democrat) actively supporting abortion, as if he recommends that women get abortions and tries to persuade them to do so.

But nothing remotely like that is actually happening.

What most (not all) Democrats believe is what I said in the previous section: The decision whether or not to have an abortion can be difficult, and is best made by the people involved rather than by the government. Republicans, on the other hand, believe in some absolute cut-off: After some number of weeks, the government’s judgment automatically becomes better than the family’s. Your case is exceptional if the government says it’s exceptional.

In fact, late abortions are precisely the situations where the government’s arbitrary rules have the least to offer. Such abortions are rare (about 1% of all abortions take place after 21 weeks, and far fewer after 24 weeks), and almost every one is a unique story in which something has unexpectedly gone wrong with a wanted pregnancy. (Though many abortions near the deadline take place because jumping through anti-abortion hoops can delay a poor woman, who may have trouble assembling the resources she needs to travel to a distant city and stay there through a waiting period.)

The Guardian quotes one woman’s husband:

For those who believe these babies are unwanted, Matt says: “You’re not going to wait until halfway through your pregnancy to finally have an abortion.”

I can think of no better closing than to repeat what Mylissa Farmer said:

The world is too nuanced to put such strict rules in place.

Closing Argument: Democracy

One of the two parties in these elections has stopped believing in elections.
You should vote for the one that still does believe.

The last time a Republican was president, he did one of the worst things any American president has ever done: He tried to stay in power after losing an election.

The testimony we have heard since, from his own campaign workers and appointees, as well as elected Republican officials in state and local governments, have stripped away all innocent explanations: He knew he had lost. He knew his claims of fraud were false. He knew his plot to appoint fake electors and count their votes was illegal. He knew the crowd he incited to storm the Capitol was prepared to do violence. And after violence broke out, he refused to tell his mob to go home until it was clear that their attempt to intimidate Congress had failed.

His schemes were thwarted only when elected Republicans and his own appointees refused to do his bidding: Mike Pence, Brad Raffensperger, Aaron Van Langevelde, Jeffrey Rosen, Mike Shirkey, Rusty Bowers, and many others at all levels of government. If not for them, he might have succeeded in overthrowing our Constitution or sparking a civil war.

Afterwards, some Republicans in Congress tried to hold the would-be usurper accountable for his actions and reaffirm their party’s commitment to our system of government: Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Peter Meijer, and several others.

You could imagine a Republican Party in which all those people are heroes: They did their jobs, fulfilled their oaths, and saved American democracy. But that party doesn’t exist. Instead, almost all the Republicans who resisted the coup attempt have been drummed out of office. (Raffensperger, who survived a primary challenge, is a lonely exception. Whether Pence will ever again win a Republican primary is an open question.)

Instead, the ex-president’s personality cult has solidified its hold on the GOP. The most strident promoters of the stolen-election lie, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, have risen, while those who briefly denounced the coup, like Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham, have had to eat their words to retain their influence. Mitch McConnell can’t even defend his own wife against racist abuse. In the current election cycle, the party has been saddled with absurd candidates like Herschel Walker “because he scored a bunch of touchdowns back in the 80’s and he’s Donald Trump’s friend“.

Across the country, Republicans who still refuse to recognize their candidate’s loss in 2020 are running to oversee the 2024 elections, while his Supreme Court appointees consider whether to re-interpret the Constitution to allow state legislatures to ignore both their state constitutions and the will of their voters. Republicans running for governor in swing states — Kari Lake in Arizona, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania — have said they wouldn’t have certified Biden’s 2020 victory, without citing any evidence to justify such a move (because there is none). Some Republican candidates — Ron Johnson in Wisconsin — were active participants in illegal 2020 plots.

Worse, many MAGA Republicans are following Trump’s example by undermining elections in general: If they lose, they claim fraud without any evidence. Others are openly attacking democracy, like Utah Senator Mike Lee, who said: “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Like their leader, many Republicans flirt with racism and anti-semitism, and some don’t even try to hide it.

Even a liberal like me can see that America needs a viable conservative party. It’s healthy that our national conversation include voices saying that government should do less, that traditions should change slowly, and that free enterprise plays an important role in our prosperity. Even as I support the consensus of scientific opinion on subjects like climate change or vaccination, I recognize that those views should not go unchallenged. Every party, even one that I support, needs someone looking over its shoulder.

But the conservative party America needs would be loyal to our Constitution rather than to one man. It would support the institutions of democracy and defend the People’s right to elect someone else.

The current GOP is not that party, and it will not become that party until voters have disciplined it for supporting illegal and violent attempts to seize power. It is the insurrectionists who need to be run out of town, not the people who stopped the insurrection plot from succeeding.

That discipline needs to start in these elections. You may agree or disagree with me about inflation, government spending, regulations, taxes, how to balance women’s rights against fetal rights, and many other issues. But we can have those arguments later. Because in the long run, if we lose our democracy, it won’t matter which of us makes the better case.

American democracy has been in trouble before

If we knew our history, we’d realize that the country is more resilient than we think.

Unprecedented. Every year, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster announces a “word of the year“: a single term that in some way tells you what the year was about. Typically, it’s not a new coinage, but a common word suddenly getting more use. 2021’s word of the year was vaccine (though insurrection was a competitor), and 2020’s was pandemic. 2019’s word was an old pronoun being used in a new way: the singular they.

I don’t know what Merriam-Webster has in mind for 2022, but if it were up to me, the word of 2022 would be unprecedented. I seldom go a day without running across it somewhere.

All kinds of recent events are being cast as unprecedented. Just this week, Delta Airlines described a surge in fall air traffic as “unprecedented”. An ergonomic research group claimed recent strains on industrial workers are “unprecedented”. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee pitched an anti-crime proposal with a twofer: “Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.”

Both the Covid-19 pandemic and policies for containing it have been labeled “unprecedented”. Climate change has brought on all sorts of unprecedented events: not just heat waves, but droughts, storms, and floods.

But what makes unprecedented the word of 2022 is its eruption into American political news and discussions about the state of our democracy. No matter which side of the partisan divide you’re on, you see the other side doing unprecedented things that pose an unprecedented threat.

The FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago was unprecedented, but so was the criminal activity that made it necessary. If the ultimate result is an indictment of a former president, that too would be unprecedented. The January 6th Committee’s vote to subpoena Trump wasn’t quite unprecedented, but sets up an “unprecedented” confrontation. The Committee’s hearings themselves have been unprecedented, but so was the riot (or insurrection or failed coup) they are tasked with investigating. A Trump-and-January-6 documentary released this summer was titled Unprecedented.

Day after day, we are being told that the current threat to American democracy is unlike anything that has ever happened before.

It’s a discouraging, dispiriting message, because it implies that we are on our own. History has nothing to teach us and offers no reassurances. If American democracy is Patient Zero of an previously unknown disease, who can advise us or make any predictions about our survival?

But what if our current predicament isn’t unprecedented? What if American democracy has faced crises before and muddled through them?

Historic blind spots. This is a point where the patriotic version of US history that most of us learned in high school fails us. We know about the Civil War, of course, and the Native American genocide (which used to be known as “how the West was won”). We know that Jim Crow walled Black Americans out of democracy in the South, and that women didn’t get the vote until 1920. Various consensual sexual acts were illegal for much of our history, and same-sex couples couldn’t marry until fairly recently.

But still.

The history I learned in school embedded those failings in a narrative of progress, in which democracy and human rights were constantly expanding. We made mistakes, but we fixed them. The villainies of our past are simply backstory for the heroic saga that followed.

This upbeat narrative is what Ron DeSantis wants Florida schools to teach today:

It was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. No one had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights and that we are all created equal.

So (in this telling) when Thomas Jefferson enslaved hundreds of human beings, took sexual advantage of at least one of them, and then raised his own children as slaves, he was foreshadowing abolition. His vision of human equality wasn’t hypocritical, it was prophetic.

While that onward-and-upward story may fill at least some Americans with a warm glow, it fails us in moments like these, when democracy itself is in trouble and human rights may be starting to contract. How can we cope with such unprecedented challenges?

But what if they aren’t unprecedented?

This week I spent some time examining two of the darker eras of American politics: I listened to the opening episodes of Rachel Maddow’s new podcast “Ultra“, about a fascist plot to overthrow FDR. And I read the new book by Smithsonian curator Jon Grinspan about the hyper-partisan politics of late 1800s, which he has dubbed The Age of Acrimony.

Ultra. The first episode of “Ultra” includes its own best introduction:

This is a story about politics at the edge. A violent, ultra-right authoritarian movement, weirdly infatuated with foreign dictatorships. Support for that movement among serving members of Congress who prove willing and able to use their share of American political power to defend the extremists, to protect themselves, to throw off the investigation. Violence against government targets. Plots to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. And a criminal justice system trying, trying, but ill-suited to thwart this kind of danger. …

This is a story of treachery, deceit and almost unfathomable actions on the part of people who are elected to defend the constitution, but who instead got themselves implicated in a plot to undermine it. A plot to end it. …

Perhaps most importantly, this is also the story of the Americans— mostly now lost to history— who picked up the slack in this fight, who worked themselves to expose what was going on, to investigate it, to report on it, ultimately to stop it.

And there’s a reason to know this history now. Because calculated efforts to undermine democracy, to foment a coup, to spread disinformation across the country, overt actions involving not just a radical band of insurrectionists, but actual serving members of congress working alongside them, that sort of thing is… that’s a lot of things. It’s terrible. But it is not unprecedented.

We are not the first generation of Americans to have to contend with such a fundamental threat. Lucky for us, the largely forgotten Americans who fought these fights before us, they have stories to tell.

“Ultra” begins with a mysterious 1940 plane crash that killed Minnesota Senator Ernest Lundeen, along with several government agents who had begun to shadow him. Lundeen was on his way to deliver a Labor Day speech that not only urged America to stay out of the war in Europe (where Hitler had already taken over France and was threatening Britain), it was openly pro-German, and “had been ghost-written for Senator Lundeen … by a senior, paid agent of Hitler’s government operating in America”.

There was a time when I considered myself a World War II buff. But I had never heard of Senator Lundeen, or of the insurrection plot described in Episode 2, for which 18 members of the Christian Front were arrested.

The participants in that plot were never convicted, largely because of the popularity of their cause.

Prosecutors were blamed for not appreciating— not factoring in to their jury presentation— just how favorably the Christian Front was viewed in the community where the trial was held. The local press affectionately nicknamed them “The Brooklyn Boys.” The local Catholic Church supported them loudly. Nobody who was Jewish was allowed to sit on the jury. There was a local Catholic priest who was advising the Christian Front, who had been leading rallies to support them, who was close to [Father Charles] Coughlin [who coined the term “Christian Front”]. His first cousin was picked as the foreman of the jury.

And yet democracy was not overthrown by fascism, not in 1940 and not since. We’ll have to wait for future episodes (Episode 3 just posted this morning) to find out what Rachel thinks we can learn from democracy’s survival.

The Age of Acrimony. Eight years ago, in the most popular Sift post ever, I first pointed to the biggest hole in my US history education: Reconstruction.

In my high school history class, Reconstruction was a mysterious blank period between Lincoln’s assassination and Edison’s light bulb. Congress impeached Andrew Johnson for some reason, the transcontinental railroad got built, corruption scandals engulfed the Grant administration, and Custer lost at Little Big Horn. But none of it seemed to have much to do with present-day events.

And oh, those blacks Lincoln emancipated? Except for Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, they vanished like the Lost Tribes of Israel. They wouldn’t re-enter history until the 1950s, when for some reason they still weren’t free.

Reconstruction and much of the Gilded Age get skipped over because (in every area but technological advancement and GDP growth) they don’t fit very well into the ever-upward narrative of American progress. As Grinspan tells the story:

Americans claim that we are more divided than we have been since the Civil War, but forget that the lifetime after the Civil War saw the loudest, roughest political campaigns in our history. From the 1860s through the early 1900s, presidential elections drew the highest turnouts ever reached, were decided by the closest margins, and witnessed the most political violence. Racist terrorism during Reconstruction, political machines that often operated as organized crime syndicates, and the brutal suppression of labor movements made this the deadliest era in American political history. The nation experienced one impeachment, two presidential elections “won” by the loser of the popular vote, and three presidential assassinations. Control of Congress rocketed back and forth, but neither party seemed capable of tackling the systemic issues disrupting Americans’ lives. Driving it all, a tribal partisanship captivated the public, folding racial, ethnic, and religious identities into two warring hosts.

In hindsight, it’s hard to cast either Democrats or Republicans as the heroes of late 19th-century politics. Democrats were the proud descendants of the Confederacy in the South, combined with the corrupt big-city political machines of the North. On the other side, Republicans soon abandoned the ideals of Reconstruction and 15th Amendment’s new Black voters in favor of the vast business empires of the Rockefellers and Morgans.

More and more of the country was being herded into an impoverished urban proletariat that neither party truly represented. Republicans were on the opposite side entirely, while Democrats would “help” by distributing patronage jobs to loyal party members. Neither party saw a structural problem requiring the kinds of solutions that wouldn’t appear until the 20th century: a minimum wage, workplace safety laws, bans on child labor, unemployment insurance, an old-age pension, and protection for union organizers.

The “Wide Awakes” marching for Lincoln in 1860.

What political campaigns lacked in substance, they made up in noise. Both parties had militaristic marching clubs not entirely unlike the Nazi storm troopers of the 20th century, and torchlight parades were common demonstrations of political strength. Neighborhood political centers were typically saloons where glad-handing ward bosses would pour free drinks in exchange for votes.

The spoils system, in which the victorious party handed out government jobs to those who worked hardest on the campaign, was not a dirty secret, but rather an orderly process that people counted on. President Garfield was assassinated not by an ideological terrorist or a lunatic looking for fame, but by a disgruntled member of his own party who felt his electioneering efforts should have earned him a plum appointment.

The result of all this was a widespread belief that democracy had failed. In 1878, one of the era’s top American historians, Francis Parkman, wrote “The Failure of Universal Suffrage“.

When a man has not sense to comprehend the questions at issue, know a bad candidate from a good one, or see his own true interests — when he cares not a farthing for the general good, and will sell his vote for a dollar — when, by a native instinct, he throws up his cap at the claptrap declamation of some lying knave, and turns with indifference or dislike from the voice of honesty and reason — then his vote becomes a public pest. Somebody uses him, and profits by him.

Rule by the majority, it seemed, meant rule by the ignorant and the easily manipulated. No one appeared to know what to do about it. Parkman, for example, didn’t want a king, and thought any attempt to restrict the vote would be impractical: The People would never give up their power voluntarily, no matter how little good it was doing them. And politicians would never agree to change the system that had put them in power.

Journalist Lincoln Steffens examined seven large political machines, and assembled his conclusions in magazine articles that were reprinted in his 1904 book The Shame of the Cities.

When I set out on my travels, an honest New Yorker told me honestly that I would find that the Irish, the Catholic Irish, were at the bottom of it all everywhere. The first city I went to was St. Louis, a German city. The next was Minneapolis, a Scandinavian city, with a leadership of New Englanders. Then came Pittsburg, Scotch Presbyterian, and that was what my New York friend was. “Ah, but they are all foreign populations,” I heard. The next city was Philadelphia, the purest American community of all, and the most hopeless.

The problem, Steffens concluded, wasn’t any specific group, and it wasn’t the politicians. It was the people in general. Hoping that electing businessmen would improve the system (a perennial claim of businessmen) was pointless, because the politicians were already businessmen. They supplied what the electoral market wanted: corruption.

If we would vote in mass on the more promising ticket, or, if the two are equally bad, would throw out the party that is in, and wait till the next election and then throw out the other party that is in—then, I say, the commercial politician would feel a demand for good government and he would supply it.

But the electorate wouldn’t do that, leading Steffens to this conclusion:

The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.

And yet, somehow, things began to turn around. They had, in fact, already started their long slow turn when Steffens was making his tour.

Solutions? One aspect of Grinspan’s book that is alternately annoying and satisfying is that he has no concise explanation of how change happened. He’s very clear that it didn’t happen all at once, and there was no obvious turning point. Neither party took on the job of reform, and no Gilded Age Solon designed an improved political system.

The change seems to have been primarily cultural rather than political or legal. Systemic changes were the result, not the cause.

It is tempting to tell this story solely as an evolution of law, of amendments ratified granting wider and wider access. But the driving force behind our changing system has been America’s popular culture, the way we use politics.

The widespread conviction by people of both parties that the current system was distasteful and embarrassing led, over time, to a long series of changes, no one of which stands out as the pivot point.

  • Secret ballots. Believe it or not: “Before the final years of the 19th century, partisan newspapers printed filled-out ballots which party workers distributed on election day so voters could drop them directly into the boxes.” Between 1885 and 1891, all the states (acting on their own) switched to more-or-less the current system: An official ballot is printed by the government and given to voters at the polling place, where they fill it out in secret.
  • Civil service. The Pendleton Act was passed in 1883, establishing a merit system for jobs in the federal bureaucracy. State governments soon began passing their own versions.
  • Mass-market advertising. The new business model of newspapers and magazines aimed at offering advertisers near-universal distribution, rather than niche-marketing to a partisan audience. (Why would Coca-Cola want to be known as a Republican or Democratic drink?) This paved the way for standards of objectivity. Mass media has never truly been objective, and there’s some debate whether that idea even makes sense. But prior to, say, 1920, objectivity was not even an aspiration for most newspapers.
  • Parties changed their campaign styles. The torchlight parades and saloon headquarters became unfashionable, too reminiscent of the fat-cat politicians skewered by the newspaper cartoonists. Campaigns started focusing more on platforms, pamphlets, and buttons — things that you read or wore rather than things that you did.
  • Reformers began learning the nuts-and-bolts of politics and getting their hands dirty. In the post-Civil-War era, politics was considered a odious profession, unbecoming to a gentleman. One positive point in Parkman’s essay is a plea for idealistic and well-educated people to run for office. Over the next few decades many did.
  • States provided tools for direct democracy. The referendum and recall processes come from this era.
  • Political energy shifted away from the two major parties and into causes. Rather than crusading as a Republican or Democrat, you might instead devote yourself to temperance or free coinage of silver or women’s suffrage.

Very little of this was decided in elections. For example, neither party was visibly for or against the secret ballot. it didn’t take hold in one part of the country but not another.

Not all the changes were positive: This was also the era when Jim Crow was being established in the South, and the Chinese Exclusion Act passed.

And some of the beneficial developments had dark sides that we have since forgotten. A printed ballot listing all candidates also served as voter suppression: Illiterate or drunk voters might not be able to recognize candidates’ names. Southern Democrats supported the Pendleton Act because the spoils system kept allowing Republican presidents to give good jobs to their Black supporters. Temperance was a way of shutting down the saloons and taverns where working people might gather and plan.

Today, saying that a change requires a constitution amendment is equivalent to admitting that it can’t be done. But four constitutional amendments passed between 1913 and 1920: the federal income tax, direct election of senators, prohibition, and women’s suffrage.

Perhaps the oddest story of the change concerns women’s suffrage. The proposal was going nowhere in the 1880s, because politics was so obviously masculine. Who wanted his wife or daughter marching with a partisan militia, and possibly brawling with a similar group from the other party? Or hanging around in saloons getting men drunk and asking for their votes?

In a weird way, women’s inability to vote or run for office stimulated the push towards causes. Women were largely immune to the hoopla that gave men their political identities, and often diverted them away from their real interests. Undistracted by party politics, a woman might instead devote her energy to crusading for temperance or against lynching. She might organize a union or co-found the NAACP.

Giving women the vote in 1920 isn’t what changed politics. It was only because politics had changed that men could imagine including women in it.

What can we learn? Neither the 1940s nor the Gilded Age is exactly like the present era, and neither provides a blueprint for democracy’s survival. But both, I think, provide a context that give us reasons to hope.

A rose-colored view of our history, one that tells our story as one of continuous progress towards freedom and inclusion, can make us feel uniquely beset today. But in many ways democracy has always been a struggle, and the battle is never completely won.

But knowing about our past struggles may allow us to hope that American democracy is more resilient than we have been thinking. Reforms that seem impossible in one decade can become obvious in the next. The pivotal moments of history are hard to spot, because they’re probably happening inside the culture rather than in Congress.

Things may have already started to turn, and we just don’t see it yet.

Does anything matter?

For the Republican base, individual candidates don’t matter. The only thing on the ballot is control of the Senate.

In living memory, all kinds of scandals could topple a candidacy, including some that today wouldn’t be scandals at all. Way back in 1972, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern had to replace his running mate, Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton, when it came out that (years before) Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression. Newt Gingrich resigned as Speaker of the House for multiple hypocrisies: He profited from the same kind of shady book deal he had targeted previous Speaker Jim Wright for, and he was having an extramarital affair with a much younger woman at the same time he was impeaching Bill Clinton for doing precisely that. (None of that stopped him from being a serious presidential contender a few years later.)

Gingrich’s designated successor Bob Livingston soon resigned after his own affairs became public, giving way to Dennis Hastert, who (it later turned out) had sexually abused at least four male students when he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach.

Two New York governors have had to resign under fire: Andrew Cuomo for sexual harrassment, and Eliot Spitzer for patronizing prostitutes. Minnesota Senator Al Franken resigned after accusations of groping. Louisiana politician David Vitter survived his prostitution scandal for years, and was even reelected to the Senate, but it came back to bite him when he ran for governor. Idaho Senator Larry Craig was arrested for “lewd behavior” in a public restroom, and several gay men described encounters with Craig, but he backed away from his announced intention to resign from the Senate, and instead decided not to seek reelection. Mark Foley resigned from Congress after sexually suggestive texts and emails he sent to teen-aged male congressional pages became public.

But all that was in a different era. In 2016, Donald Trump toughed out the Access Hollywood scandal, along with numerous accusations from women who claimed that his “grab them by the pussy” quote was more than just the “locker room talk” he claimed it was. Later it was revealed that he paid two women (one a porn star) to keep quiet about sexual affairs while he was married to Melania. His political career not only survived, but he continues to be the hero of Evangelical Christians and other “family values” voters.

During the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal of 1998, Evangelical leader James Dobson wrote:

As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring” (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no.

But when Christianity Today supported Trump’s first impeachment, Dobson forgot James 3:11 and jumped to Trump’s defense with talk about policy, not character. (He also completely ignored the existence of Vice President Pence.)

The editors didn’t tell us who should take his place in the aftermath. Maybe the magazine would prefer a president who is passionately pro-abortion, anti-family, hostile to the military, dispassionate toward Israel, supports a socialist form of government, promotes confiscatory taxation, opposes school choice, favors men in women’s sports and boys in girl’s locker rooms, promotes the entire LGBTQ agenda, opposes parental rights, and distrusts evangelicals and anyone who is not politically correct.

Trump’s refusal to be shamed, and Evangelical leaders’ unwillingness to hold it against him, inaugurated the nothing-matters era, at least in the GOP. (Franken’s resignation was in 2018, and Cuomo’s in 2021. But they were Democrats.) As late as 2004, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg could title a Clinton-administration retrospective “Character Matters“, and conclude: “The man never had the character for the job.”

But character apparently doesn’t matter any more. All that matters is which side you’re on.

Herschel Walker. Walker’s candidacy to replace Raphael Warnock as one of Georgia’s senators looked sketchy from the beginning. As as Georgia’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan put it

Herschel Walker won the primary because he scored a bunch of touchdowns back in the 80’s and he’s Donald Trump’s friend.

Walker repeatedly exaggerated (or just invented) his accomplishments. He not only didn’t graduate in the top 1% of his class at the University of Georgia, he didn’t graduate at all. He didn’t work in law enforcement. He falsely claimed to “own” or to have “started” several businesses. He has a record of domestic violence. It’s not even clear that he lives in Georgia. He published a book about struggles with mental illness that dwarf anything Tom Eagleton went through.

After the primary, it came out that he has three more out-of-wedlock children than the public knew about.

But never mind: The bad stuff, he claimed, was all in the past. He got help for his dissociative personality disorder and Jesus has forgiven him, so he’s a new man now. Nothing in his past should count except for the touchdowns and his friendship with Trump.

The abortion scandal. This week serious scandal blew up again: The Daily Beast reported that Walker paid for a girlfriend’s abortion, in contradiction to the no-exceptions anti-abortion position he takes in public. Subsequently, his son went off on him on social media, raising once again the issues of Walker’s violence, lying, and hypocrisy.

Walker claimed not to know who The Daily Beast might be talking to, but a follow-up report narrowed it down for him: She’s also the mother of one of the children Walker has acknowledged.

Saturday, the NYT reported that it had independently verified the Beast’s article.

A woman who has said Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate nominee in Georgia, paid for her abortion in 2009 told The New York Times that he urged her to terminate a second pregnancy two years later. They ended their relationship after she refused.

In a series of interviews, the woman said Mr. Walker had barely been involved in their now 10-year-old son’s life, offering little more than court-ordered child support and occasional gifts.

Both pregnancies took place after the 2008 book in which Walker claimed to have turned his life around.

When the first Daily Beast article came out, Walker said he would file a lawsuit “tomorrow morning”. But he hasn’t.

Parties, not individuals. One reason politicians used to respond to scandal by resigning or withdrawing was that other politicians treated them like lepers. The thing to do when someone had been tainted by scandal was to get far away from them, lest you be drawn into the scandal yourself. (As a song that turns 100 next year puts it: “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.“) That fickleness was one reason why Harry Truman famously quipped “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

But something more than public morality and judgment has changed: All elections have been nationalized. The names on the ballot may be Walker and Warnock, but what Georgia voters are really deciding is whether Republicans or Democrats will control the Senate.

And that matters, in turn, because of the increasing partisanship within the Senate. Whether or not judges will be confirmed, for example, depends less on the character or qualifications of the nominees than on the party of the president who nominated them. Whether senators are trying to boost the economy or sabotage it depends on whether or not they belong to the president’s party. (If Republicans get control of either house this year, you can expect another debt ceiling crisis in 2023. And maybe this time they’ll force the US into default.)

The result is a more tribal party that sticks together in crisis, and circles the wagons around any embattled candidate, no matter how undeserving that individual may be. And while Republicans are much further down that road than Democrats, I feel the pull myself: What could I possibly find out about his opponent that would make me root for Walker to win?

That’s the tacit message in all the “X is on the ballot” slogans. Democracy is on the ballot. Abortion is on the ballot. The planet is on the ballot. Compared to those stakes, what do Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock — or any competing pair of candidates — matter? You may not know or care who the candidates are in your district, but you should vote anyway.

Conservative radio host and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, for example, tweeted

IF true, Walker paid for one broad’s abortion compared to Warnock who wants your tax dollars to pay for EVERY broad’s abortion-as-birth control with no limitations. This isn’t a difficult choice and conservatives shouldn’t look to the left to validate their vote.

(But wait: Warnock isn’t pushing any woman to get an abortion, as Walker did. He’s just supporting women who make that decision for themselves.)

Also Loesch:

I want to control the senate and you should, too. The end.

The individual hypocrisy — for his own convenience, Walker pushed his girlfriend to exercise options he wants to take away from all the women he didn’t impregnate — doesn’t even figure. Nor does the “personhood” of a fetus matter. Republicans claim to believe fetuses are babies and that abortion is murdering a child. So if Walker had paid someone to murder one of his four breathing-and-walking-around children, would that not count either? Would conservative talking heads say “That’s just one murder. How many more murders will there be if Democrats control the Senate?”

So does anything matter? Watching Republicans circle their wagons around Walker, it’s tempting to conclude that all this, bad as it obviously is, will make no difference.

But if you think that, you’re looking in the wrong direction. OK, hardcore MAGA types are not going to change their minds. They have convinced themselves that Democrats are going to destroy America, so if the only way to prevent that is to elect grifters, hypocrites, or even outright criminals to high office, so be it.

But if the hardcore supporters of either party were the only people who voted, nobody would bother to campaign. And while it seems to be true that the number of persuadable swing voters is shrinking, there’s still a considerable pool of folks who (whatever they think) may or may not vote.

WaPo quotes conservative radio host Erick Erickson:

Every dribble of new stuff between now and the election I think increases the pool who say, ‘Screw this, let’s vote for Brian Kemp and let’s not do the other race at all.’ Those people exist in Georgia.

Those are the people who might be swayed. It’s not that some ultra-conservative Georgian is going to get pissed enough at Walker to vote for Warnock. But a sizeable number of the voters any Georgia Republican needs are racists who didn’t really want to vote for a Black guy anyway, even if he did win the Heisman. A lot are people who lean Republican, but sometimes don’t vote because they think politicians are all crooks. If they get disgusted enough with Walker, they might just forget to show up at the polls, decide at the last minute to skip the Walker/Warnock line on the ballot, or maybe write in the name of some YouTube influencer they really agree with.

Conversely, watching Christian Walker rail against his Dad on social media might convince a few young men to get off their butts and register to vote. Seeing yet another example of the hypocrisy of the religious Right might give some marginal female voters a push to go protect their bodily autonomy.

If you want to know what difference this scandal will make, you have to look there, not at the Dana Loeschs.

One final note on Christianity. Walker is responding to the scandal obliquely, with an ad his campaign calls “Grace“.

Raphael Warnock’s running a nasty, dishonest campaign. Perfect for Washington. The Reverend doesn’t even tell my full story. My true story. As everyone knows, I had a real battle with mental health. I even wrote a book about it. And by the grace of God, I’ve overcome it. Warnock’s a preacher, who doesn’t tell the truth. He doesn’t even believe in redemption. I’m Herschel Walker, saved by grace, and I approve this message.

This ad is an opportunistic mishmash of themes. On the one hand it hints at a denial: Warnock’s campaign is “dishonest”, so whatever they’re accusing me of, I didn’t do it. On the other hand, maybe I did do it, but God has forgiven me. So anyone who brings up the bad things I did or tries to hold me responsible for them “doesn’t believe in redemption”.

If there still are any Trump-era conservatives who have anything more than an opportunistic relationship with Christianity, I have a theological question: In what theory of grace does God forgive you for stuff that you still deny you did? What kind of repentance allows you to keep saying that your accusers are liars?

All the theologians I know refer to this kind of grace disdainfully as “cheap grace”, which Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined as “forgiveness without repentance”. Your sin goes away because taking responsibility for it is inconvenient. Or, as the mother of the child Walker wanted aborted put it: “He picks and chooses where it’s convenient for him to use that religious crutch.”

Amanda Marcotte points out the long-term cost Christianity is paying and will continue to pay for this kind of hypocrisy: The adults may not believe what they’re saying, but the kids do — until they realize it’s all a con.

The kids are watching. Young people raised in churches often DO believe the lies about chastity and “pro-life.” This hypocrisy exposes them to the truth before they’re too deep to extract themselves. And they turn their backs on their parents. I have met SO MANY people who became liberals because of the hypocrisy of the conservative environments they grew up in. It’s a major reason every generation is more liberal than the last. So this shit matters.

When Christians lament about the decline of their religion and the growing number of Americans with no religious affiliation, they shouldn’t vaguely blame “the culture” or “Hollywood liberals”, because they’re doing it to themselves. Christianity is losing its children because the kids see their elders saying one thing and doing something else.

The Court’s problems run deeper than Roe

On September 10, the New York Post ran the headline “Chief Justice John Roberts defends Supreme Court legitimacy“. His speech the previous evening at a conference of judges in Colorado inspired discussions on several news networks around the question: Is the current Supreme Court legitimate?

I was reminded of this passage from the 1948 political novel All the King’s Men.

It was one of those embarrassing questions like “Do you think my wife is virtuous?” or “Did you know I am a Jew?” which are embarrassing, not because of anything you might say for an answer, the truth or a lie, but because the fellow asked the question at all.

The problem isn’t so much how anyone might answer the question of the Court’s legitimacy, but that we have to answer it at all. It didn’t used to be up for debate; but now it is. The Court has done that to itself.

Polls show the Court’s approval rating at record lows. Court-packing — expanding the Court [1] so that new justices can be appointed — had been off the table politically since FDR tried it in the 1930s. But in a Marquette Law School poll taken earlier this month, 18% strongly favored increasing the number of justices, and 33% somewhat favored it, adding up to a slim majority. With some demographic groups, court-packing was fairly popular:

Expanding the court was favored by larger majorities of a number of groups: 63% of Black respondents, 61% of Hispanic respondents, 60+% of those ages 18-44, 60% of women and 56% of those making less than $30,000 per year.

These kinds of numbers matter, not because Congress is likely to take up a court-packing proposal, much less pass one, but because the whole idea constitutes a blasphemy against the mythology of the Court. The Supreme Court is supposed to be a kind of priesthood, whose lifetime appointments remove them from the hurly-burly of worldly concerns. In his confirmation hearing in 2005, Roberts waxed idealistic:

Mr. Chairman, I come before the committee with no agenda.

I have no platform.

Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.

I have no agenda, but I do have a commitment. If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind. I will fully and fairly analyze the legal arguments that are presented. I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

So what’s Roberts’ defense of the Court now?

Simply because people disagree with opinions, is not a basis for questioning the legitimacy of the court

But the problem isn’t just that the Court’s reversal of Roe — or its rulings on guns or voting rights or campaign finance or the separation of church and state — aren’t popular. The Court’s legitimacy problem runs much deeper.

The law changed not because anything changed in the world, but because new justices joined the Court.

It’s not unheard of for the Supreme Court to reverse a precedent that has stood for many years. Plessy v Ferguson, for example, established the separate-but-equal principle in 1896, and was reversed by Brown v Board of Education in 1954. But the contrast between the Brown and Dobbs reversals is striking.

The Brown reversal was unanimous, not a 5-4 decision where the three most recently appointed justices made the difference. The arguments in Brown represented a change in tactics from those in Plessy. And the world had changed around Plessy: The Brown decision cited recent psychological research on the effects of segregation on Black children; the federal government submitted a brief about how racial discrimination was hurting the United States in the Cold War competition in Africa and Asia; Black soldiers had fought for the US in two world wars; and the supposed inferiority of Black people had been challenged in sports by athletes like Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson.

But what created the Dobbs decision was the appointment of new justices. Donald Trump had run on the promise that his judicial nominations would be “all picked by the Federalist Society“, which opposed abortion rights. He fulfilled that promise: He made three appointments, all of whom voted to overturn Roe.

Squaring that record with Roberts’ confirmation-hearing idealism requires a lot of unconvincing verbal gymnastics: True, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett didn’t get votes in the Senate by promising to overturn Roe. (Quite the opposite, they secured the final votes they needed by promising to respect precedent, which they did not do.) The political process was more roundabout: Trump promised to let the Federalist Society pick his judges, and Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett sent the Federalist Society sufficient signals to convince them that they would overturn Roe.

So yes, they are politicians who got their positions by (indirectly) promising to do certain things. They were put on the Court to pitch and bat, not to call balls and strikes. That fact was widely known, and anti-abortion legislatures intentionally teed up laws that would allow the new justices to overturn Roe.

The Court’s conservative majority is due to political shenanigans in the Senate.

When Justice Scalia died, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace him. Garland had a spotless record that left Republican senators no excuse to vote against him. So instead Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just refused to recognize that Garland had been nominated at all, ignoring the Constitutional directive to advise and consent on nominations, giving the excuse that the Garland nomination was too close to the 2016 election. That argument went out the window, though, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and Barrett’s nomination was raced through the Senate so that she could be seated in time for any 2020 election controversies.

The exchange below is instructive: Al Franken says the Garland/Barrett hypocrisy “destroyed the legitimacy of the Court”. Republican Alice Stewart argues that the Garland maneuver is what happens “historically” when the Senate is controlled by a different party than the White House. And Franken refuses to let that lie pass: “When has it ever happened before?” he demands, and won’t stop asking the question, because Stewart can’t answer. It had never happened before.

The Court’s conservative majority is the result of minority rule.

The Founders strongly believed in the sovereignty of the People, but they left two major loopholes in the Constitution that have opened the door to minority rule: the Electoral College and the Senate. The Court’s current majority could not exist without both of them.

Trump’s three justices would never have been appointed if the Electoral College in 2016 had not reversed the decision of the voters: Hillary Clinton beat Trump nationally by nearly three million votes. [2] Worse, Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority did not represent a majority of the American people.

For the last thirty years, Republican Senate majorities have relied not on the support of a majority of American voters, but on using small-state victories to overcome large-state defeats. Since 1990, there has been only one six-year election cycle (i.e., the period during which all Senate seats come up for election) when Republican Senate candidates got more votes than their Democratic opponents. It hasn’t happened since the 1994/1996/1998 cycle. [3]

In other words, if the Senate represented the American people, Mitch McConnell would never have been majority leader.

Under a majority-rule constitution, a Democratic-majority Senate would have seated Merrick Garland, Hillary Clinton would have nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement to a Democratic-majority Senate, and Justice Kennedy would be hoping to live long enough to see a Republican president. Liberals would have a 5-4 majority, counting the sometimes-liberal Kennedy as part of the conservative 4.

The Court actively participates in a minority-rule vicious cycle.

It would be one thing if happenstance (such as who dies when) had created the conservative Court majority, and that Court went on to make impartial principled rulings about elections.

But conservative justices on the Court have been actively promoting the minority rule that installed them. Justice Roberts, for example, wrote the 5-4 opinion that gutted the Voting Rights Act, and has continued to chip away at what remains of it. [4]

That opinion has allowed Republicans to pass voter suppression laws in swing states like Georgia and Wisconsin, which might well decide which party controls the Senate next year. Roberts’ ruling could make the difference that puts Mitch McConnell back into a position where he could block a Biden nominee if some member of the Court’s conservative majority should happen to die or retire unexpectedly.

It’s a vicious cycle: A Court approved by minority rule extends minority rule.

The Roberts Court has put its thumb on the electoral scales in a variety of other ways, consistently favoring Republicans. It has refused to ban gerrymandering, arguing the absurd point that the voters should take action against the very gerrymandering that makes their votes irrelevant. It has opened the spigots of corporate campaign donations and dark money, which overwhelmingly flows to conservative candidates.

Again, we can see the results: Democrats currently lead in the generic congressional ballot polls by an average of 1.3%. And yet Republicans are favored to control the House. Why? Because Democrats have to win by 3-5% to gain a majority of seats.

Compare two recent “wave” elections. In 2018, 53.4% of voters supported Democratic House candidates, compared to 44.8% who supported Republicans. Those votes gave Democrats a 235-199 majority.

In 2010, 51.7% voted for Republican House candidates compared to 44.9% for Democrats. The resulting Republican majority? 242-193.

Fewer Republican votes yield more Republican seats. That’s a problem for people who believe in democracy, but not for the Roberts Court. The more Republican seats, the better.

It could soon get worse. The Court has decided to hear Moore v Harper, a case which raises the once-absurd “independent state legislature” doctrine. Under this theory, rules for federal elections are set by state legislatures, and no one can overrule them: governors can’t veto and state supreme courts can’t find that they violated the state constitution.

When you consider that some state legislatures are so gerrymandered that they aren’t really democratic institutions any more [5], giving them total control of federal elections is a recipe for permanent minority rule.

The Court has an ethics problem.

The only ethics code that applies to the justices is the vague “good behavior” standard in the Constitution. Each justice makes his own decisions about conflicts of interest and whether to recuse from a case. The current justices are abusing that lack of standards.

The most egregious recent case is Clarence Thomas, who rules on cases where his wife has an interest.

But also, a federal panel in 2018 dismissed 83 ethics complaints against Brett Kavanaugh, not because they weren’t serious, but because “there is no existing authority that allows lower court judges to investigate or discipline Supreme Court justices.” And we have since discovered that the FBI investigation into Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault accusation against Kavanaugh was rigged to find nothing.

Unpopularity is just the beginning.

Any judge has to be ready to bear the heat of making an unpopular decision, if that’s what the rule of law requires. But when changes on the Court immediately lead to changes in the meaning of the laws, the public is right to be suspicious.

And when those changes on the law are based on a minority’s ability to change the Court without ever changing the minds of the electorate, that’s a problem. Vox’ Ian Millhiser sums that problem up:

The Dobbs decision is the culmination of a decades-long effort by Republicans to capture the Supreme Court and use it, not just to undercut abortion rights but also to implement an unpopular agenda they cannot implement through the democratic process.

Worse, the Court is abusing its power to change the democratic process itself, and so is rewarding the party that installed it.

That — and not a few unpopular decisions — is the source of the Court’s legitimacy problem.

[1] Many people think the number of justices is set in the Constitution, but it isn’t. Article III says simply:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.

leaving the details of the Court totally up to Congress. The actual number of justices has changed many times. The original court had six justices. The nine-justice court was established in 1869, and has stayed at nine ever since.

The objection to court-packing is obvious: It sets up the possibility of a tit-for-tat cycle, where new justices are approved whenever a new party takes power. But accepting that argument leaves a question unanswered: The Court has already been packed. What should be done about that?

[2] Some people add Justice Alito to this total, because he was appointed by George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000. However, Bush nominated Alito during his second term, after winning the popular vote in 2004. You can argue that if Gore had been elected in 2000, Bush couldn’t have been re-elected in 2004. But that argument takes us a little too far down the alternate-history rabbit hole. Gore might have lost his re-election bid in 2004, and the Republican who beat him might have appointed someone like Alito.

[3] The Senate that confirmed Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 is a good example. During the 2014/2016/2018 election cycle (when the senators serving in 2020 were elected), Democratic Senate candidates got 50.3% of the votes compared to the Republicans’ 43.3%. But that minority of votes netted the Republicans a 53-47 majority.

[4] It’s impossible to read Roberts’ 2013 Voting Rights Act decision as a legal argument; it’s a political argument, pure and simple. Here’s my summary at the time:

The VRA was vaguely justified in 1965 and is vaguely unjustified now, because “things have changed”. If I were a congressman, I would have no idea how to revise the VRA so that it passes constitutional muster. If Congress does revise it, lower court judges who rule on it will just be guessing about its constitutionality. It will have to go back to the Supreme Court before anyone knows whether it’s really a law again, because there are no standards in Roberts’ opinion by which a revision can be judged.

[5] According to a report by the Schwartzenegger Institute:

59 million Americans live under minority rule in their U.S. state legislatures following the 2018 elections. Minority rule is defined as the party with the minority of votes in the most recent election nevertheless controlling the majority of seats in the state legislature subsequent to that election. Six U.S. state legislatures were drawn by legislatures or partisan-leaning committees that resulted in minority rule following the 2018 elections. These states are Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin

Note that all six of those states were Republican legislatures ruling over a Democratic electorate.

How the Trump Grift Works

Trump’s lawsuit against Hillary’s vast conspiracy was dismissed, and the Durham investigation is winding down without proving much of anything. But in their day, these two Trump-will-be-vindicated hoaxes kept the money flowing in.

When I was growing up fundamentalist, Jesus’ second coming was always imminent. Any day now, the Heavens would open and there He would be, declaring an end to secular history and beginning a period of judgment that would separate the believers from the unbelievers. On that day, the doubters would be proven wrong and there would be “wailing and gnashing of teeth”. The righteous, on the other hand, would “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father”.

And in the meantime, you should keep sending in your money.

You can’t fully understand Trumpism without holding that picture in mind. Whatever evidence of Trump’s criminality the “fake news media” might present, and whatever testimony the 1-6 committee gets from Trump’s own people, the real Truth is going to be revealed any day now. His persecutors will be routed, and their sinister plots will be revealed.

In the meantime, keep sending Trump your money.

Like Jesus’ second coming, Trump’s final vindication can be predicted again and again — and those predictions can fail again and again — without undermining the basic narrative that it’s coming any day now. [1] Just scrap the old details for new ones and you’re good to go. Did Trump leave the presidency without invoking Q-Anon’s “storm”? Did none of his 82 post-election lawsuits prove fraud, even when he got them heard by judges he appointed? No problem: Those fantasies kept the money rolling in until new fantasies could be ginned up.

Recently, two other major Trump-vindication vehicles have gone bust: the Hillary conspiracy lawsuit and the Durham investigation. Each was a big deal in its day, but, you know, life moves on. The suit got dismissed and the investigation is closing up shop without finding any of the crimes Trump promised.

But never mind, they kept the money flowing.

The great Clinton conspiracy. It sounds weird to say this, but one of the most amusing things I read these last two weeks was Judge Donald Middlebrooks’ dismissal of Trump’s sprawling lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, Jim Comey, and everybody else the Former Guy has ever blamed for investigating his collusion with Russia.

Middlebrooks’ opinion reads like a professor grading the work of a particularly disappointing first-year law student. The judge keeps backing up to explain fundamental things the student (i.e., Trump’s lawyers) should have read in the textbook (i.e., landmark precedents).

A complaint filed in federal court must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Each allegation must be simple, concise, and direct. Each claim must be stated in numbered paragraphs, and each numbered paragraph limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances.

Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is 193 pages in length, with 819 numbered paragraphs. It contains 14 counts, names 31 defendants, 10 “John Does” described as fictitious and unknown persons, and 10 “ABC Corporations” identified as fictitious and unknown entities. Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is neither short nor plain, and it certainly does not establish that Plaintiff is entitled to any relief.

More troubling, the claims presented in the Amended Complaint are not warranted under existing law. …

At this stage, a court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept as true all the plaintiff’s factual allegations. However, pleadings that “are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” A pleading that offers “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”

The rest of the ruling is a series of that’s-not-what-the-law-says, the-reference-in-your-footnote-doesn’t-support-the-point-you’re-making, and so on, culminating in the judge’s refusal to let Trump’s lawyers amend their complaint a second time:

It’s not that I find the Amended Complaint “inadequate in any respect”; it is inadequate in nearly every respect. … At its core, the problem with Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is that Plaintiff is not attempting to seek redress for any legal harm; instead, he is seeking to flaunt a 200-page political manifesto outlining his grievances against those who have opposed him, and this Court is not the appropriate forum.

I’m reminded of the scene in The Paper Chase where Professor Kingsfield says to a student, “Here is a dime. Call your mother and tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.”

The inescapable conclusion of Judge Middlebrooks’ critique is that no competent lawyer ever intended this complaint to be the basis for a serious lawsuit. Rather, the only credible purposes would have been to get headlines for filing the suit, and to fund-raise off of those headlines.

In short, the anti-Hillary suit was part of the continuing grift against Trump’s own followers: Neither Hillary nor any of the other defendants was ever going to pay Trump damages, but the prospect of the vast Trump-persecuting conspiracy finally being exposed would induce the MAGA cultists to keep their wallets open.

What Trump wanted out of the Durham investigation. That’s Obama on the far left.

Durham. When Trump accuses his opponents of doing something, it’s only a matter of time before he does the same thing himself (if he hasn’t already). In his mind, the Mueller investigation was an expensive taxpayer-sponsored witch hunt against him. So of course he had to have his own expensive taxpayer-sponsored witch hunt.

When Bill Barr announced this investigation in 2019, conservatives were expecting the grand finale to the Mueller story, the counter-attack that would uncover all the illegal machinations the FBI and others had done to try to nail Trump. As recently as February, Trump was still promising that Durham was finding evidence of “the crime of the century” and “treason at the highest level”. He was “coming up with things far bigger than anybody thought possible”.

Durham may go down as a great hero in this country that will be talked about for years.

But that was all part of the grift. Trump was reacting with such glee to a court filing related to Durham’s indictment of Michael Sussman, a minor figure accused of a minor crime that Durham could not prove. (The jury acquitted Sussman after only six hours of deliberation.) No “crime of the century” involving high-profile conspirators like President Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Now the Durham investigation appears to be shutting down, having lasted longer and cost more than the Mueller probe it was supposed to be investigating. It also has accomplished far less: Mueller proved that Russia did help the 2016 Trump campaign, and that it committed crimes to do so. Mueller didn’t come up with enough evidence to indict the Trump campaign itself in the conspiracy, though he did trace a suspiciously large number of links between Trump’s people and Putin’s. The investigation dead-ended at Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, both of whom were convicted of felonies, but got pardons from Trump, presumably as a reward for their silence.

Durham has one case left: against Igor Danchenko, who is accused of lying to the FBI about the information in the Steele dossier, which Trump wants to claim was the sole source of the Trump/Russia investigation. (It wasn’t. It wasn’t even the primary source.) Again, somebody may have lied about something that, in the end, didn’t really matter. Or maybe not: Durham’s standards appear to be far lower than Mueller’s, so his Danchenko case may be no more convincing than the one against Sussman.

But while Durham’s long-running investigation may look like a flop from a legal point of view, Atlantic’s David Graham explains that it did what it was supposed to do:

Even if Durham approached the probe with earnest sincerity, the real reason he was appointed is that Donald Trump’s political con requires the promise of total vindication right around the corner. For a time, Durham provided that hope for Trump backers. But now, as Trump moves on to other ploys, the Durham probe has served its purpose, even though it has produced no major convictions or epiphanies.

The grift goes on. So now is Trump’s Save America PAC going to apologize for raising money under false pretenses and send it all back? Don’t be silly. The Great Orange Conman has indeed “moved on to other ploys”. Now that investigations on numerous fronts threaten to expose his crimes, he needs your money more than ever.

Don’t ask what he did with the quarter-billion-plus he’s already collected, or why such a fabulously wealthy man needs your money at all. [2] The Forces of Evil are still at work, conspiring to find the top-secret documents Trump stole, expose his fraudulent business practices, and piece together his conspiracy to steal the presidency. So it’s time for all red-blooded Americans to step up, forget all the times Trump has lied in the past about conspiracies against him, and send in their money. (Also, stand by to riot again if he’s indicted.)

Objectively, things may keep looking worse and worse for Trump, but that’s how this story is supposed to go: the worse, the better. Signs of the End Times just lead to the Great Judgment.

Any minute now, the trumpet will blow, and the sky will be full of angels.

[1] I am reminded of one of the great opening paragraphs of any autobiography ever. In Knee Deep in Paradise, TV actress Brett Butler wrote:

I spent the first twenty years of my life waiting for two men I was reasonably certain would never come back – my daddy and Jesus Christ. I don’t wait for them anymore. My dad, anyway. And at least with Jesus I didn’t spend all that time thinking he was gone because of something I did.

[2] Again, there’s a religious parallel. As Captain Kirk once asked: “What does God need with a starship?