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What should “electable” mean?

I want to beat Trump as much as anybody does, but figuring out which candidate has the best chance isn’t as simple as many make it sound.


Democrats and other liberals may be splitting their loyalties among more than 20 candidates at the moment, but nearly all of us agree on one thing: It’s vital that we beat Donald Trump next year.

If Trump has four more years to assault the norms of democratic government, the rule of law, and the separation of powers, by 2024 the country will be virtually unrecognizable. For four more years, the US would be fighting for climate change rather than against it. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court would rise from 5-4 to 6-3 or 7-2 — locking in for decades the advantages corporations have over workers and consumers, upholding all the tools of minority rule, and constantly inventing new rights for conservative white Christians. Executive-branch corruption would become even more blatant, with Congress unable even to investigate it, much less do anything about it.

We can’t let that happen.

Searching for the anti-Trump. So there’s very good reason why a large chunk of the Democratic primary electorate lists “somebody who can beat Donald Trump” as their top criterion when looking for a candidate to support. Polls on this question are volatile and depend significantly on how the question is phrased, but all of them show electability as a huge factor. One poll in February found 56% of Democrats preferring “a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues, but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump” to “someone who agrees with you on most issues, but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump”. Only 33% made the opposite choice. A more recent poll phrased  the question differently [“What’s more important to you – that Democrats nominate the presidential candidate whose positions on the issues come closest to yours, or the candidate who seems most likely to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020?”] and showed smaller but still sizeable emphasis on winning [47% for “closer on the issues” vs. 40% for “more likely to win”].

Admittedly, it’s easy to overstate those results, because poll respondents undoubtedly assume that any Democrat will share certain core positions. Democratic candidates may, for example, disagree about whether universal health care is an immediate priority or a long-term goal, but none oppose it in principle. They may have more ambitious or less ambitious plans for dealing with climate change, but none argue — as Trump has — that Obama was already doing too much. Within these bounds, though, a large number of Democrats are willing to sacrifice ideological purity for someone they think will win.

But there’s a problem. Electability is not an objective quality. Without much argument, we can sort candidates into bins like male and female, white and non-white, gay and straight, young and old, and perhaps even progressive and moderate. But who is electable and who isn’t?

The economist John Maynard Keynes once compared investing in the stock market to gambling on a beauty pageant: You win not by betting on the most beautiful contestant, but by identifying the one that other people will find beautiful. That’s what we’re trying to do when we search for an electable candidate. It’s not enough to find the one who would be the best president by your own lights; you need to pick out the one that other people will vote for. The New Republic’s Alex Pareene doubts that anyone can do that:

While the impulse to vote according to how you think a candidate would appeal to people who don’t share your priorities might make sense in theory, practice has revealed time and time again that no one involved in electoral politics—from the pundits down to the caucus-goers—has a clue who or what Americans will actually vote for.

WaPo’s Dan Balz examines past failures to predict electability, starting with Donald Trump in 2016, and going back from there to Barack Obama in 2008, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. All started their campaigns by outcompeting candidates that the consensus said were more electable, and then proved their own electability by getting elected.

I confess to feeling conflicted about all this. I recognize what critics are saying, but I really, really want to beat Trump in 2020. So I want electability to mean something. But how should I look for it?

False notions of electability. Polls only help up to a point. Several polls have Joe Biden beating Trump by the widest margin, while one recent poll had Beto O’Rourke as the Democrats’ best bet. But do polls now tell us much about who the voters will support 18 months from now, after a long (and presumably dirty) campaign? Biden’s candidacy already seems a bit dull; by Election Day will marginal voters be too bored with him to show up? Beto is more exciting, but also less well known. I expect the Trump campaign to have limitless resources to devote to smearing his opponent. Will the mud more easily slide off of a candidate we already know well? Or does a long career just provide more targets?

I had similar qualms in 2016. Leading up to the primaries, polls consistently showed both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton beating Trump, but Sanders by a wider margin. (Hillary ultimately did beat Trump by 3%, which wasn’t quite enough to counter his Electoral College advantage.) But Republicans had been smearing Hillary for decades, and had not yet begun to go after Bernie. So I tried to imagine how they would in a pre-New-Hampshire-primary post. How durable, I wondered, would Sanders’ poll lead over Trump be once he had his own invented scandal, like Obama’s birth certificate or Hillary’s role (whatever it was supposed to have been) in Benghazi? (This time around, Republicans are already working to create a scandal for Biden.)

Another thing electable shouldn’t mean is white straight Christian male. A black man and a white woman have won the popular vote in the last three presidential elections. Nancy Pelosi was supposed to doom Democrats’ chance of taking the House in 2018, but she didn’t. Women like Amy Klobuchar have won Senate seats by wide margins in the kinds of states Democrats need to win in 2020 (Minnesota). Kirsten Gillibrand’s first seat in Congress came from a red district in upstate New York. Pete Buttigieg may be the first major gay contender, but I want to see what actual voters have to say before I eliminate him.

I’m also suspicious of ideological definitions of electability. The centrist version says that Trump has abandoned the educated suburban Republicans, whose votes might be available to a Democrat moderate enough not to scare them away. 2018 seemed to bear this out; the gains that allowed Democrats to retake the House came mostly in suburban districts that had formerly elected Republicans. But the long-term record of this idea is poor; Republicans have been constantly shifting to the right since Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination from incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976, and yet somehow the abandoned center never provides enough votes to sweep Democrats into uncontested power. Instead, Democrats’ refusal to defend their left flank has pushed ambitious liberal ideas out of the national conversation entirely, and (until recently) has caused the center to move steadily to the right at the Republicans’ pace.

So electable can’t just mean moderate. It also can’t just mean progressive. The left-wing theory of electability is that in a polarized country, elections depend on turnout, so the candidate who best excites the base is most electable. Since turnout tends to be lowest among the poor, non-whites, and young people, candidates who appeal to these groups — generally more progressive candidates — should do better than moderates.

As sensible as that may sound in theory, evidence of it actually working is pretty thin. I’m still waiting for the progressive version of Marco Rubio: In 2010, he ran as a Tea Partier, won the Republican primary against an establishment candidate, and then went on to capture a Senate seat in a purple state. Stacey Abrams almost pulled off an even more impressive feat last year in the Georgia governor’s race, but fell short (with some voting irregularities that may have made the difference). So far, successful progressive stars have come areas that Democrats would hold in any case, like Vermont (Bernie Sanders), Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren), and Queens (AOC). They’re winning blue districts by matching the people who already vote, not by stimulating new turnout that flips red districts.

Both sides try to claim Barack Obama as an example of their theory working, because Obama’s 2008 landslide did everything right: He inspired new turnout and he held the center. In the most impressive Democratic victory of recent years — Doug Jones winning a Senate race in Alabama — Jones won as a moderate alternative to the far-right Roy Moore, not as a progressive. But he got a big turnout from black voters anyway.

How the 2020 campaign shapes up. Trump won in 2016 with only 46% of the vote, and many his voters did not have a particularly high opinion of him. (In an exit poll, only 41% of Trump voters said they strongly favored Trump, while 50% cited dislike of his opponent as their motivation.) According to 538’s weighted average of approval polls, he had a brief honeymoon period shortly after the inauguration, when his approval was higher than his disapproval, but still not over 50%. (Obama’s approval during his honeymoon period was in the high 60s.) More recently, he’s been stuck in a narrow 39%-43% approval range. No jobs report can bring that number up; no gaffe or evidence of corruption can bring it down.

In short, it is inconceivable that Trump will be re-elected because a majority of voters actually like him or want him to continue as president. The number of people who say they will definitely not vote for Trump in 2020 has been running in the 55%-58% range.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t win; just that he only has one route to victory: Some chunk of the electorate — just enough to let Trump sneak through the door — needs to conclude that the Democrat is even worse. So Trump needs to sow dissension among Democrats, as he (and the Russians) did in 2016.

To a certain extent he’ll run by raising support: He’ll take credit for the economy (assuming that it’s still good) and for a few other (mostly fake) accomplishments like the denuclearization of North Korea. He’ll remind Evangelicals how he came through for them with judicial appointments. He’ll tell nativists about the invasion of Hispanics he’s prevented. He’ll wink and nod at white supremacists, while distancing himself from the terrorists he clearly inspires. He’ll claim to have helped farmers, even though he hasn’t. He’ll conjure up another fantasy about the fantastic healthcare plan he’ll reveal someday, the one that covers everybody and costs less and doesn’t require any new taxes.

But a lot of the positive hopes he inspired in 2016 aren’t credible any more. We all know he isn’t going to fill his administration with “the best people” or make “great deals” to end the trade deficit. He’s not going to make other countries respect America. His tax cut isn’t going to pay for itself and isn’t going to provide any serious relief to working people. His infrastructure plan is always going to be vapor. He isn’t going to settle down and become more presidential someday.

In short, that 39%-43% isn’t going to grow, because he’s really not even talking to anyone else. His famous “What have you got to lose?” message to black voters in 2016 is paradigmatic: It wasn’t delivered to blacks at all. He was speaking about blacks in Detroit, but to whites in a suburb of Lansing. The point of that speech was to convince his base that he has a message for blacks. That’s all.

Without growing his base, how will he get up to the 46%-or-so that he needs to let the Electoral College work its dark magic? He’ll need to smear the Democratic candidate enough that dissident Republicans will get behind him and marginal Democrats will decide not to vote. That’s the only path to victory, so that’s what he’ll do.

How do we cope with that? The #1 thing Democrats need to avoid is framing the 2020 primary campaign as a death struggle between rival factions, one of which will lose and probably still feel disaffected in November. If Bernie-ites see beating Biden as revenge on the establishment for his loss to Hillary in 2016, or if centrists who are still angry with Bernie for pushing his 2016 campaign long past the point of hopelessness pull out all the stops to deny Bernie again, then we’re in trouble. There’s going to be conflict in the primaries, but it needs to be a fight between siblings, not enemies.

Each campaign talks about “vetting” its rivals, but there’s a difference between raising difficult issues and laying the groundwork for a Trump smear. So, for example, it’s fine to question Sanders or Warren about how they plan to pass and pay for their ambitious plans, but it’s out of bounds to make them answer for “socialism” in Venezuela. It’s fine to point out that Klobuchar and Booker are not supporters of Medicare for All, and that each has benefited from pharmaceutical-industry contributions in past campaigns. But it’s out of bounds to declare, as if it were a proven fact, that either is “bought and paid for”. And so on.

Admittedly, my Facebook news feed is probably not the most representative window into American opinion. But there’s one pattern among progressives that has me worried: a tendency to inflate Bernie’s support (the one recent poll that had him ahead of Biden got an amazing amount of attention on my feed, and the other recent poll that had him far behind got dissed on bogus grounds) combined with a persecution narrative about all the dark forces that are working behind the scenes to ruin his chances. (MSNBC is supposedly in the tank for Biden because it’s owned by Comcast, even though I’ve seen no evidence that Comcast is either rooting for Biden or interfering with MSNBC’s editorial decisions.) It’s obvious how that could play out disastrously: If Bernie’s support turns out to be less than his supporters have convinced themselves it is, the conspiracy-theory explanation of that shortfall will be ready, and Trump will be ready to exploit it to divide his opposition.

I think that all candidates currently in the race deserve a presumption of good will. No matter now much I may disagree with some position one of them takes, I’m going to listen to their justification and consider the possibility that they really believe it. I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that they must be either crazy or corrupt, as Trump is bound to claim.

Who is electable? When I judge electability, I’m not looking for a demographic profile or a particular set of policies. Instead, I’m looking for someone who will make a good spokesperson for Democratic values, who has the skills to perform well in a debate with Trump, who thinks well on his or her feet, and who demonstrates an ability to appeal to people of all races and classes and religions and genders. I’m looking for someone who can deliver an anti-Trump critique without sounding like the pot criticizing the kettle.

I’m looking for someone mud won’t stick to, who can deflect criticism with humor, and who can deliver a sting without sounding nasty. I want a candidate who can stand up to hostile questioning without getting flustered or testy or evasive. I want someone who can get specific on policy details, but never loses sight of the millions of Americans who aren’t political wonks.

Most of all, I’m looking for someone who uses the Light Side of the Political Force, someone who can raise enthusiasm without resorting to fear or anger. Fear and anger live on Trump’s home turf; going there plays into his hand, and will motivate his voters more than ours. But our candidate also can’t be dull. If none of the people who pay attention to politics this early can get excited about a candidate, how are we going to convince the apathetic to come out and vote?

As I hope you can tell, I haven’t determined yet who the most electable candidate is. I think establishing who does or doesn’t have these qualities is what this part of the campaign is for. At this point, I’m rooting for all 20+ of them. I hope one of them surprises me.

Impeachment: On second thought …

Just as I was turning against impeachment, Trump changed my mind.


Last week I re-examined my prior standards and determined that removing Trump from office was a job for the voters, not for the impeachment process. That judgment went against my inclinations, but my purpose in writing down general standards last summer (long before I knew what the Mueller investigation would find) had been precisely that: to keep me from warping my standards to match the facts available.

The logic behind my conclusion was that impeachment needs to be a forward-looking process, not a backward-looking one. (I hadn’t put it that concisely until just now, but that really is the gist of it.) When presidents have done bad things, most of the time the right solution is to wait for the term to expire and elect somebody else, then prosecute the ex-president for any crimes. Impeachment shouldn’t be a form of punishment, but rather a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. You impeach not because a president is guilty, but because leaving him or her in office is dangerous.

That’s why treason and bribery are the crimes explicitly mentioned in the Constitution: If the president is under the control of some foreign power or wealthy paymaster, that’s dangerous. The country can’t wait for the next election, not because of what the president has done, but because of what the president might do between now and then.

As you might imagine, my model didn’t look kindly on the Clinton impeachment. I understand why some people would be outraged or embarrassed by the sexual revelations in the Starr Report, and might have wanted to punish Clinton in some way. But by no stretch of the imagination was it dangerous to leave him in office, and in fact the country did just fine after the Senate failed to remove him.

From that point of view, Mueller’s failure to find evidence of Trump conspiring with Putin was the key point. Leaving in power a president who was beholden to a foreign dictator would be precisely the kind of situation that impeachment is meant for. Mueller did find considerable evidence of Trump obstructing justice, and I hope both that the voters will take that seriously and that he’ll be prosecuted for it after he leaves office. But it’s not the same kind of emergency.

That said, I don’t think the Mueller Report is the final word on Trump’s culpability. I think we still need to know whether he is being financially influenced by Moscow, Saudi Arabia, China, or private interests in the US. And with regard to the other scandals of the administration, from Stormy Daniels to the widespread corruption in the cabinet to Jared’s clearance, Congress should be acting to collect information for the 2020 voters, who, if they are doing their duty by our founding principles, will resounding kick Trump out of office. (If they don’t, we’ve got bigger problems that just a bad president.)

So it’s very disturbing that Trump is once again upping the stakes: The Washington Post’s Steve Vladeck summarizes:

Trump, characteristically, seems to be taking the sort of fight most of his predecessors have had with the legislative branch and making the stakes far greater — and the possible damage far worse — than ever before.

The administration’s emerging position appears to be that Congress does not really have the power to investigate the president, at least not when one chamber is controlled by his political adversaries, even if whatever information it seeks might eventually be used in an impeachment proceeding. That’s a deeply disturbing argument, and one that, if successful, would tilt the separation of powers, perhaps irrevocably, toward the executive branch.

And the NYT’s Charlie Savage went into detail:

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said a civil rights division official, John Gore, would defy a subpoena to testify on Thursday about its addition of a citizenship question to the census. This week, White House lawyers indicated that they would tell the former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II and other former officials not to comply with subpoenas for their testimony, a person familiar with the legal strategy said.

Mr. Trump has also sued to block a congressional subpoena of his accounting firm, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin missed a deadline to turn over Mr. Trump’s tax returns to lawmakers and the former head of White House personnel security, Carl Kline, ignored a subpoena ordering him to appear for a deposition about overriding recommendations to deny security clearances.

Together, the events of the week made clear that Mr. Trump has adopted a strategy of unabashed resistance to oversight efforts by the House — reveling in abandoning even the pretense of trying to negotiate accommodations and compromise with the institution controlled by his political opponents.

“The president is attempting to repeal a congressional power of oversight that goes back to the administration of George Washington,” said Charles Tiefer, a former longtime House lawyer who is now a University of Baltimore law professor. He said “the comprehensiveness and intensity of this presidential stonewalling” exceeded anything he had seen in his 40-year career.

In other words, he wants to stop Congress from collecting information that would help the voters make their judgment about him and his administration, or that could reveal additional avenues for impeachment. And that changes the game: If the president interferes in this way, he’s preventing not just Congress from doing its job, but the voters as well. If that’s allowed, then the idea that removing Trump is the voters’ job falls apart — and once again, impeachment becomes necessary.

That thought sent me back to look at “What is impeachment for?” again. My fourth legitimate reason for impeachment is:

Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment. This is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Constitution, but constitutional government doesn’t work otherwise. Congress necessarily relies on the executive branch to carry out the laws it passes. Presidents famously find loopholes that allow them to do things they want and avoid doing things they don’t want. But if a president ignores clear laws or disobeys direct court orders, Congress has to have some way to preserve the powers of the legislative and judicial branches of government. Waiting for the next election isn’t good enough, because (once the pattern is established) the next president might usurp power in the same way. Impeachment is the ultimate arrow in Congress’ quiver.

That’s the situation we seem to be in at this moment. If Trump won’t submit to the same level of congressional oversight that all previous administrations have allowed, that’s reason to impeach.

Charity Liberalism and Justice Liberalism

Should the point of liberal programs be to help the poor? Or to change the economy so that people don’t become poor?


In Thursday’s Washington Post, Catherine Rampell pointed out a subtle but important distinction that liberals should never lose sight of: Elizabeth Warren’s free-college and student-debt-relief plans, Rampell claimed, are “liberal but not progressive”, because “they give bigger benefits to higher-income families than to lower-income ones that actually need the help.” Rampell would rather see money targeted more directly at college-eligible low-income students.

This is a longstanding argument in liberal circles. On the one hand we have universal programs like Social Security, and on the other hand are targeted programs like food stamps. In an economic sense, targeted programs are more efficient at helping the poor — doing more with less. But that efficiency comes with some non-economic costs: increased red tape (you have to prove you qualify) and greater stigma for the recipients.

A universal entitlement is conceptually simpler: If you go to college, we’ll help you pay for it. But it costs more, because (as Rampell points out), we’ll be helping Bill Gates’ kids too. And since everything has to be paid for somehow, the universal program is more invasive to the pre-program economy. You have to tax more so that you can spend more.

A related (but not quite identical) distinction applies to our motives for having a program to begin with: Targeted programs have an air of charity about them. They don’t argue with the underlying structure of the economy, they just try to change the results. Do some people not make enough money to eat properly? Very well, then, we’ll give them food. We’ll leave alone whatever it is about the economy that creates unemployment or produces jobs that pay below-subsistence wages. We’ll just fix the food part.

Universal programs tend to be motivated more by notions of social justice: It isn’t just the outcome that’s wrong, it’s the fundamental structure of things. Yes, a targeted program would be a lighter-handed tweak of the underlying economy. But if the underlying economy is fundamentally unjust, why is a lighter hand good?

Rights. The reason it’s important to understand this distinction is that it’s easy for charitable and targeted-program attitudes to sneak their assumptions into a discussion. “Efficiency” always sounds good. But as soon as you start arguing about efficiency, you’ve bought the assumption that smaller changes are better. And often you’ve also bought an additional assumption about the program’s proper goal.

A universal program establishes a basic right, and re-defines the economy to fulfill it. Re-defining the economy is, in large part, the purpose of the program. The point of making public colleges free isn’t just to help the poor pay for education. The point is that public colleges ought to be free. A society in which public colleges are free is a more just society.

The same ideas apply across the board. One failing of our healthcare system is that too many people get priced out it, with corresponding effects on their ability to survive and thrive. ObamaCare targets people in danger of being priced out and subsidizes their health insurance, so it helps resolve that particular failing (or would if it were properly funded and overseen by an administration that believes in its purpose). But ObamaCare does not establish health care as a basic right.

The point of Medicare for All or some other universal-healthcare plan isn’t just to help the people who are being priced out of healthcare. The point is to make healthcare a basic right. That requires more government spending and taxing than even a fully funded ObamaCare. In that sense, it’s a “less efficient” use of the government’s fiscal powers, a heavy-handed reorganization rather than a light-handed tweak. If you believe that the current economy — where many people who work fulltime still can’t afford to take care of themselves or their children — is fundamentally just, then this heavy-handedness must seem outrageous.

But if you believe that the current economy is unjust, then changing it is a virtue, not a vice. There are efficiency/inefficiency arguments to be made at a number of levels, but the more important point is this: A society in which healthcare is a basic right is a more just society than the one we have now. The problem isn’t just that the current economy produces some downtrodden people who need charitable help from the rest of us, which we choose to channel through government. It’s that everyone should have a basic right to healthcare, and right now they don’t.

Vulnerability. Whether a plan gets framed as a basic right or as charity channeled through the government makes a huge difference in the politics. Most voters see charity-justified, means-tested programs as something the government does for “them”, not for “us”. Such generosity is fine as long as “we” are feeling prosperous and “they” seem deserving. But either of those factors can change, or can be changed through political rhetoric.

Means-tested programs are always open to forms of attack that universal programs are immune to: denigration and demonization of the beneficiaries. “Those people” don’t deserve our help because they are lazy or immoral or have made bad life choices. And usually, there’s no obvious place to draw the line: Are the best-off recipients truly in need, or are they just scamming us? Wherever the cut-off is, why shouldn’t it be lower?

If you think about it — and we seldom do — plenty of Social Security recipients fit the same profile as the demonized beneficiaries of means-tested programs: They’re healthy and could get jobs, but don’t want to. The reason conservative politicians don’t rail about their laziness and sense of entitlement is that Social Security is an “us”, not a “them”. They’d be demonizing their own voters, not some isolated scapegoat class.

But if Social Security ever became means-tested — as conservatives and a few efficiency-minded liberals often propose; I mean, what’s the point of sending government checks to Warren Buffett? — we’d soon see the same kinds of rhetoric and tactics: outrage at people who spend their benefits on luxuries, tightening requirements so that fewer and fewer people qualify (“I want to help the truly needy, but …”), and making the experience degrading and dis-spiriting with drug tests, long lines to file your annual re-applications, paternalistic restrictions on how you spend the money, and so on.

The rhetoric just writes itself: Picture all those lazy, able-bodied 60-somethings living on the beach in Florida, spending your tax dollars instead of working. They didn’t save when they were younger, and now they expect the government to make up the difference! Doesn’t that boil your blood?

Local services. You can see the same logic play out locally. In some cities everybody uses public transit. (I’ve taken the BART during rush hour in San Francisco. There were a lot of three-piece suits in the car.) Correspondingly, the service is good in those cities, because transit-riders are an “us”, not a “them”. But in cities (or even neighborhoods within cities) where only the poor use public transit, bus-riders are a “them” and you can forget about rail. In those places, buses are crowded and dirty; schedules are sparse and inconvenient.

Ditto for public schools. In towns where kids of all economic classes go to the same schools, standards are high and it’s not hard to pass a funding increase. But in towns where the public schools are for the poor, and the wealthy all send their kids to private schools, public education is a charity. What do “those people” expect the rest of “us” to provide for them?

Expect worse outcomes yet if Betsy DeVos ever gets her way and public schools are phased out entirely, in favor of private schools that accept government vouchers. The system will quickly devolve into two tiers: Schools that you can pay for solely with a voucher, and schools where the voucher only covers part of the cost. The voucher-only schools will be for the poor, and the vouchers will gradually shrink down to charity levels: Do “those kids” really need music or foreign languages? Are they capable of appreciating literature or higher mathematics? Why should we pay for more than just keeping them under control all day?

Of course, we’d never ask those questions about “our” kids. But “their” kids?

Back to Warren’s proposal. What Senator Warren proposed last week was a program to end tuition-and-fee costs for undergraduates at all public colleges and universities, and to cancel up to $50,000 of student debt. (There are a few means-tested pieces in her program, the biggest being that you’re only eligible for the full $50K if your annual family income is $100K or less, with the benefit phasing out by the time you hit $250K.)

It’s expensive. It costs $1.25 trillion over ten years. She plans to pay for it with an idea that will make plutocrats rage: a wealth tax on households with $50 million or more in assets.

So, no doubt about it, it’s a heavy-handed intervention in the economy. Rampell’s efficiency argument is correct: We could spend and tax a lot less if we carefully targeted the benefits on students who won’t be able to go to college otherwise, and calibrated the size of the benefit to correspond to their precise needs. That would achieve the effect of helping poor kids and working-class kids go to college with minimal changes to the rest of the economy. If you think the rest of the economy is just, that makes perfect sense.

But Warren’s plan does something that no efficiently targeted and calibrated plan can ever do: The option to go to college becomes a basic right. Whose kids are the beneficiaries? Everybody’s. It’s something that we are joining together to do for ourselves, not for some downtrodden “them”. The affected students are not recipients of our charity who constantly have to prove that they come from the deserving poor rather than the undeserving poor.

Socialism? South American Archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, hardly anybody is really a communist any more, if they ever were. Our era’s scare-word is socialism, but it means roughly what the archbishop was talking about: building a society where a certain level of dignity and opportunity is a basic right, and does not require that you meet the standards of some paternal benefactor, who can withdraw patronage if you begin to appear undeserving.

I don’t just want to maintain the well-behaved poor at some subsistence level, while the productive power of the Earth and of our complex society accumulates in a few hands. I want our collective inheritance — the planet and the productive legacy of past generations — to work for all of us. If that earns me the title of socialist, well then, so be it.

[If you want to hear more about this point of view, check out a sermon I’ve done at several churches “Who Owns the World?“]

Is Impeachment the Right Answer?

The downside of doing something to keep yourself honest is that it might force you to stay honest.

Last June, I anticipated that the Mueller Report would eventually come out, and that we might then have to decide whether to support an impeachment. I also anticipated that partisan pressures would be intense at that point, and that people on both sides would face a strong temptation to shape their ideas about impeachment around the particulars of the evidence Mueller had found: If you were pro-Trump, no amount of wrong-doing would justify impeachment, but if you were anti-Trump, whatever Mueller found would be enough.

Certainly, we have seen enormous flip-flops among politicians who have been around since the Clinton impeachment. (Lindsey Graham is the most egregious example.) But the partisan winds affect all of us, and so I decided I wanted to get my ideas about impeachment written down before I knew precisely what Mueller would find. So I thought things through in the more-or-less abstract and posted “What is impeachment for?” I was trying to come up with an answer that I could stand by whether the target of impeachment would be a Republican or a Democrat. It should be consistent with the Founders’ intentions as expressed in the Constitution, as well as with my intuition about the impeachments in my lifetime. (I thought the Nixon impeachment was justified but the Clinton impeachment wasn’t.)

My standards for impeachment. Here’s what I came up with:

The Founders believed that any legitimate sovereignty had to come from the People, but they understood that the People would make mistakes. It was inevitable that sooner or later the United States would elect a bad president — a demagogue who was unwise, uninformed, and temperamentally unfit for the job.

It’s clear what they saw as the primary remedy for a bad president: Wait for his term to end and elect somebody else. (In the meantime, the other branches of government should use their checks and balances to minimize the harm he could do.) … Impeachment is in the Constitution for those rare cases where the country just can’t wait. … A legitimate impeachment case needs to argue that the Republic is in danger. There must be some reason why waiting for the next election either won’t work or isn’t good enough.

That led me to four situations that merit impeachment:

  1. The president is not loyal to the People of the United States.
  2. The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process.
  3. The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2).
  4. Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment.

So if Mueller had found that Trump was conspiring with Putin, that would be a slam-dunk example of (1). But that’s not what he found. Instead, he assembled evidence of obstruction of justice, which I find convincing. So I believe that the President of the United States is a criminal.

However, back in June I anticipated this situation too:

The offense Mueller is most likely to find is obstruction of justice. The question I would have at that point is whether the obstruction succeeded. (Firing Comey, for example, may have been intended to derail the Russia investigation, but it obviously didn’t.) If Mueller’s conclusion is that Trump’s obstruction prevents us from knowing whether he was part of a treasonous conspiracy, then I would want to impeach him for that. But if Mueller did in fact get to the bottom of the Russia affair, then the impeachment decision should be based on the answer to that question.

The only loophole I can picture in that is if you hold Trump responsible for Paul Manafort’s non-cooperation, and believe that a cooperating Manafort would have revealed a treasonous conspiracy. That’s not impossible, but it seems like a stretch at this point.

Is the Republic in danger, and if so, from what? I won’t pretend that I wasn’t frightened by what I read in Mueller’s report. In one example after another, Trump displayed an attitude of lawlessness; he wanted what he wanted, and if someone told him it was illegal, he’d ask someone else to do it. (We’re getting similar reports about his immigration policy. He is already ignoring our laws defining the asylum process, and his rhetoric is preparing his cult of followers for worse abuses — for example, when he refers to laws he doesn’t like as “Democrat laws“, as if that invalidates them.) I don’t think we’ve ever had a president with such a cavalier disregard of his prime constitutional duty: to see that the laws are faithfully executed.

The president’s refusal to be interviewed by Mueller, and the answers he did give to written questions (Appendix C of the report), also show a frightening level of disrespect. If Trump really has so little memory of what he has done and who he has talked to, then the Vice President should invoke the 25th Amendment on the grounds of senile dementia.  More likely, though, he just sees “I don’t remember” as a lie no one can catch you in.

In 2016, the 46% of the voters who voted for Trump, and so allowed the Electoral College to install him in office, clearly made precisely the kind of mistake that the Founders foresaw. Elections have consequences, and so our Republic is suffering for that lack of wisdom. We have already lost many of the norms that protect us from authoritarianism; for example: the independence of the Justice Department, the expectation that a president would be shamed if caught in a lie, and the expectation that a president would not profit from dealing from foreign countries (and would show us his finances so that we can check).

If the House doesn’t impeach Trump and the Senate remove him from office, what is the remedy?

In part, we’ve been living it for two years now: checks and balances need to limit the damage Trump does until the voters can repudiate him. Other government officials have repeatedly refused to carry out some of Trump’s illegal orders, and judges have stood in the way of others. Congress has refused to let him pay Putin back by relaxing sanctions. The voters elected a Democratic House that can block many of his worst ideas, and can expose wrongdoing to the public.

In some ways, though, the checks and balances are failing. It is within Congress’ power to enforce the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution more rigorously, but it hasn’t done so. Congress could have defended its own power by overriding Trump’s veto of the resolution rescinding his state of emergency, but it didn’t. But these are failures of the same people who would have to remove Trump from office in impeachment. If you can get two-thirds of the Senate to see the problem and take action, then arguably you don’t need to remove Trump from office.

But that points to the real problem: Congress doesn’t have a supermajority willing to defend the Republic against a bad president. And behind that is another problem: While polls consistently show that Trump is unpopular, the public has not decisively rejected him in the way that, say, they rejected Richard Nixon once the details of the Watergate scandal became clear.

That’s the real source of danger: About 40% of the public doesn’t believe in the American system of government any more. They are fine with a lawless, dishonest president, as long as they believe he’s on their side.

A thought experiment. How would you feel about impeachment if Trump were already a pariah, if Congress routinely overrode his vetoes, and if candidates were lining up to challenge him not just on the Democratic side, but on the Republican side also? If you were confident that he faced a landslide loss in 2020, and that Republicans might anticipate that and not renominate him — would you feel better about waiting for his term to end?

I would. In large part, my urge to impeach is driven by my fear that the electorate can’t be trusted to repudiate Trump.

But of course, as long as that’s true, the Senate will never remove him from office. If the voters won’t defend the Republic, nobody else will either.

Hazards of not impeaching. In large part, Democrats are facing now the kind of problem that Republicans faced during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal: What can we do with our moral outrage? Republicans read the Starr Report in 1998 (unlike Mueller, Starr timed his report for maximum political effect), were outraged at the thought of extra-marital oral sex in the Oval Office, and felt: “This can’t stand. We have to do something.” [1]

The danger of doing nothing is that it creates the impression that Trump did nothing wrong. “If this were serious,” his supporters will say, “you’d be trying to impeach him.” It also immunizes him against further revelations that may come out of the investigations that Mueller spun off. It encourages him to take even more lawless actions, and may convince his subordinates that it would be no big deal to go along with him.

The politics. Some leading Democrats are taking the position that impeachment should be off the table because it’s not the best political move: Making Trump the center of the 2020 campaign plays into his hand. Instead, 2020 should be about health care, climate change, income inequality, and voting rights.

That’s true up to a point. Many of the voters we need to turn out aren’t concerned about “process issues” like whether the president respects the law. They want to know what each party plans to do for them, and what the Democrats plan has far more appeal than what Trump plans. (Most of those voters don’t really care about stopping migrant caravans either.)

Democrats shouldn’t get so caught up in opposing Trump that they lose sight of all other values. But in addition to pocketbook issues, Democrats need to be the party of honesty and good government. The very idea that Trump is a threat to American democracy, but that we’ll ignore it because that issue isn’t polling well for us right now — it undermines everything else. Some things are too important to calculate over, and this is one of them. The world where principles are just for show, and really everybody does whatever works to their advantage — that’s Trump’s world. If we move there, we lose.

Keeping the pressure on. The trick will be to find a middle way: to continue calling Trump’s lawlessness to public attention, while arguing that political repudiation is the voters’ job, and that indictment after he leaves office is a sufficient legal response. The issues raised by the Mueller report need to stay in the spotlight. For now, congressional hearings should be able to serve that purpose: Mueller and Barr need to testify in public, certainly, and probably a number of the administration officials who were told to break the law, like Don McGahn.  Lawlessness in other areas, like border enforcement, needs to be pulled into the theme.

But there’s no reason why these sorts of hearings have to eclipse all other issues. The House has already passed a comprehensive voting-rights bill. It can pass bills to define the rest of a positive agenda.


[1] Our outrage, I think, is far more justified, for two reasons: The obstruction case against Trump is far stronger than the one against Clinton, and it involves misuse of his presidential powers rather than just personal vices.

When I listened to the Senate hearing of the Clinton impeachment, I was amazed by how weak the obstruction case was: Republican prosecutors told a plausible story of obstruction — Clinton induced Monica Lewinsky to lie in a civil deposition by convincing Vernon Jordan to get her a good job at Revlon — but beyond showing that all the people who needed to conspire had opportunity to communicate with each other, they had no evidence.  The conspiracy was denied by everyone supposedly involved, including people who had nothing to gain by lying, like Lewinsky (who had immunity) and the folks at Revlon.

Yes, Obstruction

Mueller gave his reasons for not reaching a conclusion on obstruction. Those reasons don’t apply to the rest of us.


I draw three main conclusions from the Mueller Report:

  • Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign for the purpose of electing Donald Trump.
  • While Trump and his campaign welcomed and at times even encouraged Russian help, the evidence the investigation collected doesn’t support a charge of criminal conspiracy, and the evidence isn’t sufficient to charge any individual connected to the Trump campaign (officially or unofficially) with acting as a Russian agent.
  • In view of the Justice Department guideline that a sitting president can’t be indicted, Mueller assembled evidence about the instances where Trump may have obstructed justice, but left the ultimate judgment to people in a position to take action: Congress or post-Trump-administration prosecutors (and not Bill Barr).

Since these are not at all the conclusions Attorney General Barr put forward in his four-page summary or his introductory press conference, I am led to a fourth conclusion: Barr has been acting as a personal attorney for Trump, and not as the attorney general of the United States. [1]

No judgment about obstruction. The third conclusion is the one most distorted by Barr, so it needs the most explanation. Here’s what the report says in the introduction to Volume II, which discusses Trump’s possible obstructions of justice:

[W]e determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes. … Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought. The ordinary means for an individual to respond to an accusation is through a speedy and public trial, with all the procedural protections that surround a criminal case. An individual who believes he was wrongly accused can use that process to seek to clear his name. In contrast, a prosecutor’s judgment that crimes were committed, but that no charges will be brought, affords no such adversarial opportunity for public name-clearing before an impartial adjudicator.

On the other hand, if the evidence clearly showed that no crime was committed — that would be the “total exoneration” Trump keeps announcing — Mueller had been prepared to say that. Unfortunately, he couldn’t.

[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

In addition to the facts investigation has assembled, convicting Trump of obstruction of justice would depend on judgments about his intent as well as legal judgments about when the official actions of a president can be considered obstruction. Mueller has opinions about those subjects and expresses them in the report, but is not comfortable drawing all of that into a conclusion that could not be tested in court for the rest of the Trump administration.

Nothing in the report suggests that he is kicking the decision upstairs to the attorney general, as Barr put forward.

Actions that might be considered obstruction. The report examines ten incidents as possible obstruction-of-justice counts. [2] In each case, Mueller analyzes the three factors that would need to be established:

  • an obstructive action (which need not necessarily succeed),
  • some connection (“nexus”) to an official proceeding
  • corrupt intent

Some of the ten, Mueller dismisses as not chargeable. For example, Trump’s effort to keep the content of the Trump Tower meeting from becoming public, including his dictation of a false statement that the meeting concerned Russian adoptions rather than a Russian offer of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton: It’s not obstruction because Trump was hiding the truth from the press and the public, not from an official investigation.

Each of these efforts by the President involved his communications team and was directed at the press. They would amount to obstructive acts only if the President, by taking these actions, sought to withhold information from or mislead congressional investigators or the Special Counsel.

Trump asking Comey to let Flynn go. Mueller’s analysis seems to confirm that each of the three factors is present here, but the case hangs on believing James Comey’s version of his conversations with Trump rather than Trump’s version. However, it’s not a pure he-said/she-said: “substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account”.

Trump’s reaction to the continuing Russia investigation. This includes pressuring Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself, and pressuring the DNI, CIA director, and NSA director, as well as Comey, to make public statements clearing him of involvement with Russia.

While these actions are “relevant to understanding what motivated the President’s other actions towards the investigation”, they don’t seem chargeable in themselves because “the evidence does not establish that the President asked or directed intelligence agency leaders to stop or interfere with the FBI’s Russia investigation”.

Firing James Comey. While Trump’s “stated rationales for why he fired Comey are not similarly supported by the evidence”, this action also was arguably motivated by Comey’s refusal to tell the public that Trump wasn’t under investigation, rather than by a desire to shut down the investigation. [3]

In fact, Comey’s firing didn’t shut down the investigation, and could not have been expected to. (Steve Bannon had told Trump that he could fire Comey, but he couldn’t fire the FBI.) It would also be obstruction if Trump intended Comey’s firing to intimidate the next FBI director, but that also has not been proved.

Attempts to remove the Special Counsel. Trump denies that he ordered Don McGahn to instruct Rod Rosenstein to fire Robert Mueller (and McGahn ignored him anyway). [4] But “substantial evidence” supports the conclusion that he did.

the attempt to remove the Special Counsel would qualify as an obstructive act if it would naturally obstruct the investigation and any grand jury proceedings that might flow from the inquiry. Even if the removal of the lead prosecutor would not prevent the investigation from continuing under a new appointee, a factfinder would need to consider whether the act had the potential to delay further action in the investigation, chill the actions of any replacement Special Counsel, or otherwise impede the investigation.

That sounds like a yes to me. At this point Trump knew he was under investigation for obstruction of justice, at the very least. So the second box is checked as well, and checked for all subsequent incidents.

Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked to the Special Counsel’s oversight of investigations that involved the President’s conduct

So this count is a good candidate for an obstruction of justice charge. The fact that McGahn didn’t do what the president told him to do saves McGahn from being guilty of obstruction, but not Trump.

Attempts to curtail the scope of the investigation. Two days after telling McGahn to get Mueller fired, Trump was telling Corey Lewandowski to instruct Jeff Sessions to unrecuse himself and instruct Mueller to limit his investigation to “election meddling for future elections”. (Lewandowski likewise didn’t deliver Trump’s message. Instead he passed it on Rick Dearborn, who didn’t deliver it either.)

The three factors are all present here. This is another good candidate.

Further attempts to get Sessions to unrecuse and take control of the investigation. This count hangs on whether Trump believed Sessions would impede or restrict the investigation if he were back in charge of it.

A reasonable inference from those statements and the President ‘s actions is that the President believed that an unrecused Attorney General would play a protective role and could shield the President from the ongoing Russia investigation .

The charging decision would revolve around whether a “reasonable inference” is strong enough.

Ordering McGahn to deny that Trump told him to fire Mueller. When the New York Times broke the story about McGahn being ordered to get Mueller fired, Trump wanted McGahn to deny it, and to write a letter “for our records” denying it.

The President’s repeated efforts to get McGahn to create a record denying that the President had directed him to remove the Special Counsel would qualify as an obstructive act if it had the natural tendency to constrain McGahn from testifying truthfully or to undermine his credibility as a potential witness if he testified consistently with his memory, rather than with what the record said.

… Substantial evidence indicates that in repeatedly urging McGahn to dispute that he was ordered to have the Special Counsel terminated , the President acted for the purpose of influencing McGahn ‘s account in order to deflect or prevent further scrutiny of the President’s conduct towards the investigation.

The fact that Trump wanted a letter for the files indicates that this wasn’t just a press strategy.

Another good candidate.

Attempting to affect the cooperation or testimony of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and somebody else whose name is redacted. This has to do with the repeated hints that Trump might pardon people who stand by him. His public comments also might have been intended to sway the jury in Paul Manafort’s trial. In Flynn’s case, the broadest hints came primarily through Trump’s lawyers, so it’s not possible to know whether that message came from Trump himself.

Evidence concerning the President’s conduct towards Manafort indicates that the President intended to encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government.

That would be witness tampering, which is a type of obstruction.

Attempts to influence Michael Cohen. This is similar to the Flynn/Manafort stuff in the last section, but moreso.

We gathered evidence of the President ‘s conduct related to Cohen on two issues: (i) whether the President or others aided or participated in Cohen’s false statements to Congress, and (ii) whether the President took actions that would have the natural tendency to prevent Cohen from providing truthful information to the government.

On (i), Mueller says that the evidence does not establish that Trump “directed or aided” Cohen’s false testimony. On (ii), the logic is similar to Flynn/Manafort, but also included Trump accusing Cohen’s wife and father-in-law of committing crimes.

The evidence concerning this sequence of events could support an inference that the President used inducements in the form of positive messages in an effort to get Cohen not to cooperate, and then turned to attacks and intimidation to deter the provision of information or undermine Cohen’s credibility once Cohen began cooperating. … the President’s suggestion that Cohen ‘s family members committed crimes happened more than once , including just before Cohen was sentenced (at the same time as the President stated that Cohen “should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence”) and again just before Cohen was scheduled to testify before Congress. The timing of the statements supports an inference that they were intended at least in part to discourage Cohen from further cooperation.

In other words, witness tampering.

Summary of obstruction incidents. By my count, six of the ten incidents look like obstruction of justice. The other four may not contain all the elements of obstruction, but they lend themselves to an overall pattern of obstruction.

Although the events we investigated involved discrete acts- e.g., the President’s statement to Comey about the Flynn investigation , his termination of Comey, and his efforts to remove the Special Counsel – it is important to view the President ‘s pattern of conduct as a whole. That pattern sheds light on the nature of the President ‘s acts and the inferences that can be drawn about his intent.

And the pattern is the point. In some of the six obstructions, you might decide that the “substantial evidence” Mueller cites is not beyond reasonable doubt. But when you see the whole list, reasonable doubt vanishes. The President obstructed justice. [5]


[1] ] As Joyce Vance put it: “the President’s lawyer, not the People’s lawyer”. The notes of sadness, disappointment, and puzzlement in her voice are worth listening to. She “looked up to and admired attorneys general” during her 25 years in the Justice Department, which included Barr’s term as AG under the first President Bush. “To hear an attorney general lie from the podium at the Justice Department about the contents of a report that had been done on a serious criminal case is so stupefying.”

Barr raises the same question as John Kelly, Kirstjen Nielsen, and countless other administration officials: You had a respectable career and a solid reputation; why are you lighting it on fire for this unworthy leader?

[2] If you want a more detailed description of each incident, look here, or in the report itself. I’ve chosen to focus on Mueller’s obstruction reasoning.

[3] This was an extraordinarily petty reason for a president to tear down the norms of FBI independence that previous administrations had built up, but norms are not laws.

[4] This is a pattern in many of the incidents Mueller examined: Trump ordered a subordinate to do something illegal, but the subordinate didn’t do it.

The President ‘s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests. Comey did not end the investigation of Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. McGahn did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President’s order. Lewandowski and Dearborn did not deliver the President ‘s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so. Consistent with that pattern, the evidence we obtained would not support potential obstruction charges against the President’s aides and associates beyond those already filed.

This is also a pattern we can see elsewhere in the administration: in immigration policy, for example. Trump wants people who will break the law for him. You have to figure that eventually he’ll find some, if he hasn’t already.

An attempt to obstruct an investigation need not succeed in order to be illegal. And if it does succeed, and the underlying crime is covered up, you run into the opposite argument, which Trump’s people are also making: How can it be obstruction if you don’t know of any crime for the investigation to find? Between the horns of that dilemma, the crime of obstruction disappears completely.

An example of the opposite horn: We’ll never know what crimes Paul Manafort might have revealed if he had actually cooperated.

[5] The next question is: What should be done about it? I’ll take that up in my next post, which should be out in a few hours.

Buttigieg vs. Pence

Liberals have been yielding the high ground on religion for far too long. Maybe that’s going to stop.


There are two ways to seek people’s political support: You can lay out policy proposals to address the problems that concern them — like Medicare for All or a plan to cancel student debt — or you can show them that you’re on their side by taking on the people that threaten or intimidate them.

It’s not an either/or, of course. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has no trouble taking on the bankers who illegally foreclosed on your house while at the same time laying out policies that would stop them from foreclosing on someone else. Ultimately, a politician’s willingness to fight for you in the public square will come to nothing if he or she doesn’t also enact substantive changes after taking office.

But if you doubt the power of a pure I’ll-stand-up-to-your-enemies message, you need look no farther back than 2016. Candidate Trump’s policy proposals were often an incoherent mess. He said he’d replace ObamaCare something “fantastic” and “wonderful” that would take care of everybody. The government would pay for it, but it would neither raise your taxes or impinge on your freedom. (That’s not a synopsis of his program; that’s the whole program.) His foreign policy was both bellicose and promised an end to the endless wars. He was in favor of both LGBT rights and the religious right. He would simultaneously cut taxes, increase defense spending, and repay the national debt. He promised to build a wall, while his supporters argued among themselves about whether the wall would be literal or metaphorical.

But whatever he might propose, and however he might contradict that proposal the next time he opened his mouth, one part of Trump’s message was clear, and remains clear today: If you feel threatened by immigrants of color, by people who don’t speak English, by scientists who think they’re smarter than you, or by advocates of “political correctness” who tell you that you can’t say this or do that any more, then Trump has your back. If you’re sick of liberals calling you “racist” or “sexist”, well, Trump glories in being called those names, and strikes back at the accusers twice as hard.

A week ago yesterday, in his own soft-spoken way, Pete Buttigieg did something similar: At the annual champagne brunch of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, he took on Vice President Mike Pence by name, and challenged the religious right not just politically, but morally and religiously. When his words got national attention and Pence answered (dishonestly), Buttigieg did not back down.

The message was clear: He’s not intimidated by Mike Pence, so you don’t need to be either. And if the “Mike Pences of this world” think that they own religion or Christianity or words like morality and freedom, then Pete Buttigieg has news for them.

The speech. His 19-minute speech is worth listening to in its entirety, if you have the time. He is talking to a friendly audience of those who fight for LGBTQ rights, so it may not be as immediately courageous as, say, Catholic JFK’s speech to the protestant ministers of Houston. But in an era when everything is recorded, everything gets out, and your words live on forever in hard drives all over the world, it is quite striking.

We often hear the term “gay pride”. Buttigieg’s speech is a clear and simple assertion of gay pride. He’s not claiming to be better than straight people, but he’s also not apologizing for his sexuality or hoping that critics will ignore it. He is proud of his life, proud of his marriage, and proud of the spouse he married. He will not keep Chasten hidden and hope that his opponents will be gracious enough not to bring him up. Instead, Buttigieg talks about meeting Chasten, and adds:

One of the best things about these last couple months has been watching America meet him too, and start to fall for Chasten just like I did.

But he then goes on to talk about his struggle to accept his sexual orientation.

When I was younger, I would have done anything to not be gay. When I began to halfway realize what it meant that I felt the way I did about people I saw in the hallways in school or the dining halls in college, it launched in me something I can only describe as a kind of war. And if that war would have been settled on the terms that I would have wished for when I was 15, or 20, or frankly even 25, I would not be standing here. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water.

It is a hard thing to think about. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.

The room is completely silent at this point. What he is presenting is the religious right’s fantasy: that homosexuality is curable, and that 15-year-olds like Buttigieg could be offered the chance to sign up for some kind of conversion therapy (which is now illegal in 16 states, partly because it doesn’t work, and partly because forcing a child into such therapy is believed to increase the risk of suicide). The fantasy says that these men will be grateful later, when they look back on a life that includes wives and naturally-conceived children. But Buttigieg represents the polar opposite of that fantasy: Looking back on his life, he is grateful that he didn’t get that choice.

The real reason it’s so hard to think about is that if I had had the chance to do that, I would never have found my way to Chasten. The best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all. … How dark the thought, that the man that I admire and care about, and love sharing with the rest of the country, and even more importantly, can’t wait to share one day with raising children, might not have been part of my life at all. Thank God there was no pill. Thank God there was no knife.

And “thank God” is not just figure of speech. It segues Buttigieg into religion, and into the moral issue of marriage equality.

It’s a moral issue because being married to Chasten has made me a better human being, because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent. My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.

He explains exactly what “closer to God” means to him.

You may be religious and you may not. But if you are, and you are also queer, and you have come through the other side of a period of wishing that you weren’t, then you know that that message, this idea that there’s something wrong with you, is a message that puts you at war not only with yourself, but with your Maker.

And speaking only for myself, I can tell you that if me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.

The response. This is a story and an argument that many straight Americans have never heard: Accepting your sexual orientation or gender identity or some other aspect of yourself (that you didn’t choose and can’t un-choose) can be part of a journey of coming to terms with God.

The religious right will tell you that accepting homosexuality means rejecting God. (In a Fox News piece responding to Buttigieg, Log Cabin Republican Rob Smith says precisely that: “those on the left … have been very successful at convincing a generation of young gays and lesbians to reject God in favor of their cult of intersectionality and identity politics.”) It will tell you that gays want to tear down Christianity, and that the point of same-sex marriage is to undermine marriage in general. But Buttigieg is saying the exact opposite: Accepting how you were made is part of accepting God’s creation.

Buttigieg is challenging not the politics of the religious right, but its morality and its theology. This isn’t just about the Constitution or the law, it’s about what it means to be in right relation with God.

You can tell how threatening Buttigieg’s message is to the Mike Pences of the world by how hard they try not to hear it, and to pretend that Buttigieg said something else. Pence himself responded with this non sequitur:

I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the President as he seeks the highest office in the land. He’d do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.

But Buttigieg didn’t “attack” anybody’s Christian faith. He challenged Pence’s interpretation of it. In particular, there was no attack on Pence’s “religious freedom”. No one, least of all Buttigieg, is preventing Pence from believing whatever he wants, from trying to convince others to agree with him, or from living his faith. [1]

But you know what prominent conservatives did next? They attacked Buttigieg’s Christian faith. Erick Erickson, for example, described progressive Christianity as “hypocritical farce”  and “corrupt and flawed”. The Episcopal Church that Buttigieg belongs to “is no longer a Christian institution“.

Buttigieg did not back down to Pence, saying:

I don’t have a problem with religion. I’m religious too. I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people. … I’m not interested in feuding with the Vice President. But if he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say that he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are.

Some very old arguments. Buttigieg’s challenge brings up several longstanding theological issues that conservative Christians would prefer to sweep under the rug. Though different, they all revolve around the notion that (in spite of the purported changelessness of Christian doctrine) the image of God that was taught centuries ago is something most people just can’t believe in today. [2]

One of those issues is predestination, the idea that God’s omniscience included knowledge of the destiny of the souls He was creating. [3] From the beginning of time, a few souls were predestined for Heaven and the vast majority for Hell. This belief turns God into a monster, because He created most of humanity for no other purpose than to torture them for all eternity.

Current religious-right teachings about gender and sexuality contain echoes of this monstrosity. If LGBTQ people in their many varieties are not choosing a lifestyle, but in fact are discovering an inner nature that has been theirs from birth, and if that nature either damns them to eternal torment or permanently cuts them off from sex, children, and the kind of deep relationship that Buttigieg describes making with Chasten, then something very similar to predestination is happening. [4]

An even larger and older issue goes back to the reformulations of the Axial Age, which never quite completed its mission: Is religion fundamentally about a list of rules and the rewards and punishments that enforce those rules? Or is it about becoming (in Buttigieg’s words) “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent”. If it is about rules, do those rules have to make sense, or is their very arbitrariness a measure of God’s majesty? [5] In the Christian tradition, this issue is the heart of the New Testament arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees. But the modern religious right has forgotten Jesus and taken the Pharisee side: The rules are the rules, and if we have to be cruel to enforce them, that’s just how it is.

And finally, there is the issue that religion itself can become a kind of idol: Rather than worshiping God, you can find yourself worshiping a scripture or a church or a set or rituals.

It’s not surprising that the religious right doesn’t want to talk about any of this.

We’re not supposed to challenge them. Conservative Christians have gotten used to being able to define the playing field. When they involve themselves in political discussions, we are all supposed to accept as given that they are good, decent people who are just trying to live according to their faith. We are supposed to accept the moral and theological premises they offer, and yield to them all the powerful vocabulary and imagery of Christianity.

But they don’t deserve that kind of consideration. They are offering us a God who is monstrous, and a religion that justifies discrimination and bigotry. They need to be called on that, not just because it’s bad law and bad politics, but because it’s bad religion.

I’m still waiting for a detailed set of policies from Buttigieg, and who knows whether I’ll like it when I see it. But this part of the message he’s gotten right.


[1] I won’t go into this in detail today, because I already have here and here. What masquerades as “religious freedom” for conservative Christians is actually a demand for special rights. They want a special exemption from discrimination laws, because they’re Christians. As the cartoon below demonstrates, it’s laughable to imagine the rights that conservative Christians claim being applied generally, to issues other than their hobby horses of homosexuality, abortion, or birth control.

[2] I mean can’t in a literal sense. If you can picture such a being at all, you will feel revulsion, not awe or wonder. If this is God, then maybe Lucifer was right to rebel.

[3] I’m describing God as “He” here, because in the theologies I’m describing, God is male. That’s not something I do when I describe my own beliefs.

[4] In contrast to Buttigieg’s coming closer to God, Chris Steadman describes (in the book Faitheist) going through a period of rage at a God who created him gay and then condemned gays to Hell.

In Evolving in Monkey Town Rachel Held Evans, whose path of spiritual growth has taken her out of Evangelicalism and into the Episcopal religion that Erickson finds so objectionable, recounts one of the first cracks in her childhood faith: Going on a mission trip to China, looking out a bus window, and realizing that a billion people out there were going to Hell. What kind of God would set the world up like that?

[5] Occasionally you’ll hear the conundrum expressed like this: Do we worship God because He is good, or because He is God? In an earlier era, this question made sense, but today we are more inclined to ask: Why would we worship a God who is not good?

Mueller by Gaslight

Last Monday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report had only been finished for a few days, and Attorney General Bill Barr’s first letter to Congress had only come out the day before. All through this process, I’ve been urging patience over speculation, so my initial impulse was to give Barr the benefit of the doubt, at least for a little while. After all, he was promising to do the right thing:

[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.

His second letter, written Friday, fleshed that out a little.

I anticipate we will be in a position to release the report by mid-April, if not sooner.

In between, though, Trump and his supporters have gone on a scorched-earth victory lap. First he claimed a vindication that so far is not supported by the available facts,

No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!

He went on to demand revenge against the enemies who supported investigating the President’s dubious relationship with Russia in the first place.

Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress!

Trumpists in Congress — who said nothing when Schiff’s predecessor Devin Nunes ran the House Intelligence Committee in a thoroughly partisan manner — joined in:

Republicans in Congress and the White House are calling for Rep. Adam Schiff to resign his position as the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee. The president and his supporters say Schiff perpetuated a false narrative about Trump and his potential illegal activities.

At a rally in Grand Rapids Trump listed his enemies — Schiff, Jerry Nadler, the media — and led a chant of “Lock them up!“. Lindsay Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to investigate the people who investigated Trump:

We need a special counsel to look at the potential crimes by the Department of Justice — the FBI — regarding the Clinton e-mail investigation and the Russian investigation against Trump early on.

Trump also wants revenge against the media.

So funny that The New York Times & The Washington Post got a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage (100% NEGATIVE and FAKE!) of Collusion with Russia – And there was No Collusion! So, they were either duped or corrupt? In any event, their prizes should be taken away by the Committee!

(MSNBC’s David Guru examined how the NYT and WaPo reporting holds up: pretty well, it turns out.)

The Trump campaign sent out a memo asking networks to blacklist critics of the administration:

“Moving forward, we ask that you employ basic journalistic standards when booking such guests to appear anywhere in your universe of productions,” the memo read. “You should begin by asking the basic question: ‘Does this guest warrant further appearances in our programming, given the outrageous and unsupported claims made in the past?‘”

The memo, written by communications director Tim Murtaugh, lists Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and former CIA Director John Brennan.

And all this is based on what exactly? A four-page letter written by an attorney general that Trump hand-picked for this purpose. And that letter itself may not say as much as it seems to.

Barr’s summary. In general, as facts trickled out of the Special Counsel’s office during the last two years, I have tried to avoid tea-leaf reading. I figured that there would eventually be an actual report that said things clearly. I stuck to that policy last week, and did not do a word-by-word analysis of Barr’s letter. But if Trump and his supporters are going to get this far ahead of the facts, and to try to bully various players in our political system into actions based on their extreme interpretation of Barr’s letter, then I think it would be irresponsible to let those interpretations own the field until Barr sees fit to release some version of Mueller’s actual report.

So what exactly did Barr say?

The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

I think it’s rational to assume that Barr is being a good servant to his master here: Assuming that what this passage says is true at all (always a major concession when dealing with the most dishonest administration in my lifetime), it reads Mueller’s report in the way most favorable to Trump’s interests. And it does not say “no collusion”. It says that Mueller could not prove that the Trump campaign and the Russian government were directly conspiring. But was Roger Stone part of the Trump campaign? Was Russian oligarch (and Paul Manafort’s former employer) Oleg Deripaska part of the Russian government? What if WikiLeaks was a middleman, conspiring on the one hand with Russia and on the other with the Trump campaign?

In other words, the quote could mean what Trump wants it to mean: that Mueller found the accusations of collusion entirely baseless. Or it could mean that Mueller found a lot of suggestive and suspicious evidence, perhaps better than 50/50 evidence, but no smoking gun — at least not one that would stand up in a criminal trial — that could be tied all the way back to Trump in one direction and Putin in the other. We won’t know which is closer to the truth until we can read the full report.

The second part of Trump’s claim — “no obstruction” — has nothing to do with Mueller. Barr writes:

The Special Counsel did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct [of the President] constituted obstruction. … The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Again, not a clean bill of health, just a statement that the evidence is insufficient to prove a crime in court, at least in Barr’s mind, though not necessarily in Mueller’s. (If Rod Rosenstein really does agree with Barr’s conclusion, I’d like to hear him say so himself, rather than let Barr put words in his mouth.) And if that’s the most favorable-to-Trump interpretation possible, then I have to agree with George Conway (Kellyanne’s husband):

Americans should expect far more from a president than merely that he not be provably a criminal.

To conclude this section: Nothing in the information currently available would justify making Schiff resign, rescinding the Pulitzers of the Times and Post, investigating the investigators, letting the Trump campaign write a media blacklist, or locking up any Trump critic. If Trump thinks the full Mueller report contains such information, well, release it and then we’ll all see.

Why the delay? Which brings up the question of why no one can see the report yet. (Alex Cole pointed out how typical this is: “Donald Trump is: 1) ‘a billionaire’ but you can’t see his taxes 2) ‘a genius’ but you can’t see his grades 3) ‘exonerated’ but you can’t see the report.)

In his first letter, Barr listed two things he needed to redact before making the report public. His second letter expanded it to four things:

  • proceedings of a grand jury
  • whatever might compromise intelligence sources and methods
  • material that could affect “other ongoing matters”, which I take to mean open investigations
  • “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties”.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler has pointed out that these may be considerations that limit what can be released to the public, but they shouldn’t (and usually don’t) apply to Congress.

[R]ather than expend valuable time and resources trying to keep certain portions of this report from Congress, [Attorney General Barr] should work with us to request a court order to release any and all grand jury information to the House Judiciary Committee — as has occurred in every similar investigation in the past.

Similarly, the House Intelligence Committee routinely deals with intelligence sources and methods; there’s no reason to keep any part of the report secret from them on that account. Having seen how Mueller writes his indictments, I would be greatly surprised if information that could affect “other ongoing matters” hasn’t already been identified and segregated.

And then we come to the “reputational interests of peripheral third parties”. This looks like a black hole that could suck down anything Barr doesn’t want the public to know. Because who exactly are peripheral third parties? Trump family members? Anybody not specifically indicted? And I’m not aware of any widely accepted definition of “reputational interests”.

Since there really is no good reason that the report has been held so closely, I have to assume that the motive is political: to intimidate Trump’s critics, and so create a period during which Trump’s defenders would own the field. If during this period they succeed in bullying Democrats into silence, then perhaps they won’t have to release the report at all.

Don’t think nobody has thought of that. A recent poll showed that 40% of Republicans think that Barr’s letter is enough; nobody needs to see the rest of Mueller’s report. If Democrats got sufficiently intimidated, not releasing the report could be spun as a magnanimous gesture: There’s no need to embarrass Democrats further; let’s just move on.

And what about Barr’s promises? Well, these things have a way of evaporating if nobody insists on them. Remember when Trump was going to have a news conference to present the evidence that Melania came to America legally? Never happened. And who can count the number of times Trump said he was going to release his taxes?

The gaslighting hasn’t worked. For a few days, Barr’s first letter and Trump’s response to it threw Democrats for a loop: What if Mueller’s report really does totally vindicate Trump? What if it all does turn out to be a big nothingburger and we have to eat all the words we’ve said in the last two years? Do we really want to say more words, knowing that they might come back to us along with all the others?

But by mid-week I think a lot of people independently came to the same conclusion: If this report really did exonerate Trump, it would already be public. And the rush to judgment among Trump supporters has been a little too extreme. You don’t do that when you know that the slowly grinding mills are going to get you what you want.

Thursday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee read a letter asking Chairman Adam Schiff to resign, and Schiff was ready for them. He listed all shady stuff we know about Trump and Russia in a litany of “You may think it’s OK if …”. It went viral.

Since then, I think a lot of us have been in a mood to call Trump’s bluff: You think you’ve got the goods? Let’s see them.

It will all come out eventually. I suspect we will at some point see nearly all of the Mueller Report. It will come out, because the benefit of keeping it secret is fading: If it exonerates you, let’s see it. If we can’t see it, it probably doesn’t exonerate you.

Some parts of the public report may be redacted, and a few names of more-or-less innocent people may be replaced by the kind of placeholders that labelled Trump as “Individual 1” in the Michael Cohen indictment. But we will see it, and Congress will see it in its original form.

This is a testing period, where Trump’s people have been gaslighting us with their interpretation of the report we can’t see, and are floating the idea of keeping the report secret just to see if they can get away with it. In the end, I suspect, the public and the Democrats in Congress will stand firm, and Barr will magnanimously fulfill his promise. “See,” we’ll be told, “you’ve been getting all upset about nothing again. We said we’d release it, and here it is.”

However, the test is real. If they could get away with burying the report, they would. The first version Barr releases will probably be inadequate in one way or another, and the deadline for releasing it might slip further, just to see if anyone cares. But people care.

And when it does come out, the Adam Schiff approach is exactly right. “Does this evidence establish a crime beyond a reasonable doubt?” shouldn’t be the only question. We also need to ask: “Is this kind of behavior OK? Are we willing to accept that American democracy will look like this from now on?”

Inside the Trump bubble it will make no difference. Fox News has trumpeted that the Mueller Report clears Trump, and that conclusion will be allowed to stand after the report comes out, whether it is accurate or not. Anyone who dares to raise the issue will be treated as a traitor and drummed out of the community.

But for the rest of the country, I think the answer will be No. We don’t want our presidents getting elected this way. And once they’re in office, we don’t want them to behave in a way that makes us wonder if they’re loyal to a foreign adversary. That may or may not be a crime. But it’s not OK.

Confronting Season-Change Denial

How can we be sure those predictions of 90-degree August days aren’t just alarmism?


For months now, scientists have been predicting a warming trend in the northern hemisphere. The exact reasons are a little technical — something to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis as it makes its annual trip around the Sun — but the overwhelming majority of scientific experts have formed a consensus around a theory called “season change”. Supposedly, we were in “winter” back in January and February, but some time in the last couple weeks we passed into “spring”, which the theory says will lead into “summer”, a bizarre time when the snow will vanish completely, trees will sprout green leaves so dense that they will form shade-casting canopies over some small-town streets, and ultimately temperatures will be hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk (a practice that is not recommended).

I grant you that this all sounds a bit unlikely in light of our recent weather experiences here in New England, and the idea that we have crossed into a new “season” of growth and going outside without coats sounds a little New-Agey, a bit too similar to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. After all, we supposedly crossed into spring on Thursday, but I didn’t feel any change, and when I got up Saturday morning (in Bedford, Massachusetts) there was new snow on the ground.

All the same, though, I’m told that the science here is pretty solid. And if the eggheads’ predictions are true, then there’s no time to waste. We are already experiencing the early effects of season change, and if we’re going to be ready for the greater changes to come, we need to start taking action now: planting gardens, checking air conditioners, finding our baseball equipment, getting the lawn mower out of storage, reserving that cottage in Maine, and stocking up on the shorts, sandals, and sunblock that we will all need if we are going to survive the coming hot times.

If you start making these preparations, though, you’re bound to trolled by an annoying chorus of science-rejecting nay-sayers: season-change deniers. “All this talk of ‘spring’ and ‘summer’ is so much ivory-tower mumbo-jumbo,” says my friend Jim, who sells snow-blowers. “It’s a hoax perpetrated by the apparel companies to make you box up perfectly good wool sweaters and down jackets, so that they can sell you flip-flops and T-shirts. And don’t get me started on the seed companies.”

Season-change deniers have their own web sites and Facebook groups, where they share counter-arguments to anything you might throw at them in your attempts to prove that the seasons are changing. “It was 64 degrees in Boston on March 15,” I tell him. “That never happened in February. That must prove something.”

But, of course, pointing to a warm day just allows him to point to a cold day, like the snow I already mentioned on Friday night. One day’s weather, I’m forced to admit, does not make a season. And while I can find graphs of January through March that show a clear temperature uptrend, he can respond with his own graphs, like this one from timeanddate.com, that starts on that warm March 15.

“As you can clearly see,” his email tells me, “the temperature trends have been down for the last ten days. So even if there once was some kind of ‘seasonal warming’ going on, it ended in mid-March.”

I suppose I could reject his graph by throwing back at him his previous claim that data like this ultimately comes from weather services, which he doesn’t believe because they are all staffed by season-change believers. (That’s true, it turns out. If you call any weather service in the country, the person you talk to will endorse season-change theory without even mentioning arguments against it.) But conversations like that have not gone well in the past. They tend to spiral off into claims and counter-claims that make me lose track of how we got onto this subject.

Pointing to buds on trees only leads him to claim that he saw similar buds during that warm spell in January. I don’t remember them, but he does, so that discussion also goes nowhere.

There’s one argument, though, that Jim has never really had a good answer for: the days are getting longer and the nights shorter. The warmth of the sun is something we can all feel, so it seems intuitively clear that all the extra sunlight is eventually going to lead to warmer weather — and perhaps, by July and August, to oppressively hot weather, hard as that is to imagine. And unlike temperature, the length of the days doesn’t fluctuate: Every one is a little bit longer than the one before, and will be until the summer solstice in June.

In the past he has dodged and distracted when I bring up the lengths of days, so maybe if I compile a list of sunrise and sunset times going back to the winter solstice and projected ahead to the summer solstice, that will finally get through to him. I should probably try that. But I’m not sure I’m going to have time today; I need to go out and buy a pair of shorts.



Afterward. Obviously, I’m making an analogy to climate change, and the kinds of arguments you will hear from people who deny the science around that. The explanation of why climate change is happening is a little more complicated than the explanation of season change — the position of the Earth’s axis relative to its orbit around the Sun produces longer days in the northern hemisphere, and all that extra solar energy eventually warms the atmosphere — but not that much more complicated: Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, which collects in the atmosphere and acts as a greenhouse gas, preventing some of the Earth’s heat from escaping into space; the more carbon dioxide, the less escaping heat, and hence a warmer planet.

The analogy to the days getting longer is the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. (Temperature will, of course, fluctuate during the year according to time and place, and even year-to-year statistical measures like the average global temperature don’t increase in lockstep, with each year warmer than the last. That’s why you will see those claims that global warming ended in 1998 or 2005 or some other hot year. My season-denialist’s claim that seasonal warming peaked on March 15 is an exact analogy to that argument.) But other than an annual cycle caused by northern-hemisphere forests binding CO2 into their leaves, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere does indeed go up every year. Even if this year turns out to be cooler than last year, atmospheric CO2 is still increasing.

Living in New England, I experience a number of chilly March and April days when I think, “Is spring really going to happen this year?” But I look at the sunrises and sunsets, and that fear goes away.

Similarly, but with the dread pointed in the other direction, I also sometimes look at temperature graphs and wonder if maybe global warming has leveled off without us having to make any sacrifices. But then I look at the CO2 graphs and know that these hopes are just wishful thinking. As long as atmospheric CO2 keeps rising — and it has shown no signs of stopping for a long, long time — hotter years are coming just as surely as August will be warmer than March.

A Very Early Response to the Mueller Report

Yesterday afternoon, Attorney General William Barr delivered to congressional leaders his summary of the conclusions of the Mueller report, which he received Friday. You might as well read it yourself, because it’s only four pages long. Key quotes:

The report does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the Special Counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.

The report outlines the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts. … The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election … despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.

The Special Counsel did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct [of the President] constituted obstruction. … The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.

A few things worth noting.

1. Once Mueller found that Trump was not involved in the original crime, obstruction became harder to establish. Barr reviews the three factors needed to prove obstruction:

  • “obstructive conduct”, i.e., doing something that impedes the investigation
  • “nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding” i.e., not just making investigators’ lives difficult in some generic way, but disrupting an effort aimed at charging some particular crime
  • “corrupt intent”

All three have to be present in the same action. So while it’s undeniable that Trump has been undermining the investigation in all sorts of ways, proving in court that a particular action was done knowingly to prevent investigators from reaching a particular outcome might be difficult. If Trump had been involved in the Russian conspiracy, then the corrupt intent that he not be caught would be obvious.

Mueller apparently thought that judgment was beyond his pay grade, so he gathered the evidence and kicked the decision upstairs, where Barr and Rosenstein decided there wasn’t enough to prosecute. The issue of whether a sitting President can be indicted didn’t come up, because the process didn’t get that far.

2. The “applicable law, regulations, and Department policies” that could prevent parts of the report from becoming public have to do with the rules that prevent abuse of the grand jury process. This is not a phony issue, because theoretically a prosecutor could use a grand jury to dig up all sorts of non-criminal dirt about somebody — including speculative testimony that isn’t corroborated by any other evidence — and then publish it.

That said, the regulations themselves could be used to cover up stuff that the public ought to know. We’ll have to see how this plays out.

3. So far, the process seems to be working, despite fears on both sides. On the one hand, Mueller was allowed to finish his work and write a report, which (so far, at least) the Attorney General seems to be handling in a responsible way. On the other, there’s no sign of the “witch hunt” by “angry Democrats” that Trump has been ranting about.

4. If it’s really true that Trump didn’t conspire with the Russians to get elected, that has to count as good news.

5. One reason the Trump-conspired-with-Russia theory has been so persuasive was that it explained a number of things that otherwise seem mysterious: Why did so many of Trump’s people have contacts with Russians during the campaign? Why did they lie about those contacts later? And why has Trump been so subservient to Vladimir Putin since taking office?

If Trump didn’t conspire with Russia to get elected, those mysteries don’t go away, and they require some alternative explanation. The first could possibly be pinned entirely on Russia: Putin’s people tried really hard to infiltrate the Trump campaign, so they approached anybody they could. But the second still seems mysterious to me. Why, in particular, did Michael Flynn need to lie to the FBI about conversations during the transition concerning sanctions against Russia? Why did Jared Kushner leave his conversations with Russians off his security clearance form?

And then there’s the mystery of Helsinki. What makes it impossible for Trump to disagree with Putin in public, even when all his intelligence services tell him something different than Putin is saying? Does it have something to do with Russian money that has gone into Trump’s real estate projects in the past? Is it related to prospects for future Trump Organization profits? Congress needs to pursue this.

Fear of White Genocide: the underground stream feeding right-wing causes

The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto is a Rosetta Stone for multiple strains of crazy.


I don’t usually recommend that you read something I totally disagree with, but this week I’ll make an exception: If you have the time, look at the the 73-page manifesto posted by Brenton Tarrant, who apparently killed 50 worshipers Friday at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you don’t have quite that much time, just look at the Introduction on pages 3 and 4.

Manifestos of terrorist murderers are usually described in the press as the incoherent ramblings of diseased minds. And perhaps sometimes they are; I haven’t read that many of them. But reading this one struck me the opposite way: The ideas fit together, and once you accept a fairly small number of baseless notions and false facts, everything else spins out logically. What’s more: this ideology links a large number of right-wing notions that we on the left usually imagine as separate pathologies, and either ignore as absurd or argue against in a whack-a-mole fashion.

So I think it’s worth trying to understand.

The assumption in the background. One idea seems so obvious to Tarrant, and presumably to his target readers, that it goes without mentioning until fairly deep in the text: Races are real things. So there is a White race, and its members are united by something far greater than a tendency to sunburn. Whites are a “people” who have a culture. [1] Whiteness is an identity, an Us that exists in an eternal evolutionary war with all the Thems out there.

To Tarrant, there is some essential nature to all the races and peoples.

Racial differences exist between peoples and they have a great impact on the way we shape our societies. … A Moroccan may never be an Estonian much the same as an Estonian may never be a Moroccan. There are cultural, ethnic, and RACIAL differences that makes interchanging one ethnic group with another an impossibility. Europe is only Europe because if its combined genetic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. When non-Europeans are considered Europe, then there is no Europe at all. [2]

Birthrates. There’s a worldwide phenomenon that is fairly well understood: When a society becomes wealthy, educates its women, and gives them opportunities in addition to motherhood, birth rates go down. A woman who has a shot at being a CEO or a cancer researcher may or may not decide to have children, but she almost certainly won’t have 7 or 8 of them. That’s why educating women is seen as a possible long-term solution to the population explosion.

There’s nothing about this phenomenon that is specifically white — it applies equally well to Japan, for example, and countries in Africa have seen the same effect among their educated classes — but European countries (and countries like the US and Australia that were largely settled by European colonists) do tend to be wealthy and relatively feminist. So birthrates are down across Europe. And in the US, recent immigrants of non-European ancestry have higher birthrates than whites.

So largely as a result of their own economic success, majority-white countries tend to have birthrates below replacement level. As economic growth continues, opportunities open up for immigrants, who retain their higher birthrates for a generation or two after they arrive. All over the world, then, majority-white countries are becoming less and less white, with the possibility that whites themselves might eventually become a minority.

One recent estimate has the United States becoming a minority-white country by 2045. As I pointed out in August, we’re-losing-our-country is an old story in the US: Once the US was majority-English, until German immigrants (and Africans brought here by force) made the English a minority. For a while longer, it was majority-Anglo-Saxon, until a wave of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants put an end to that. Each time, alarmists claimed that the nation was losing its soul — Ben Franklin worried about the arrival of the Pennsylvania Dutch — but somehow America continued to be America.

But now combine the diminishing white population with the conviction that race really means something. Sure, 21st-century Americans can laugh at Franklin’s fear of people who put hex signs on their barns and make all those buttery pies. But now we’re talking about a whole different race. This was a white country, and now it’s being taken over by other races! Other peoples are taking what’s ours, but they’re doing it through demographics rather than warfare.

We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. [3] Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic bonds, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples — long before low fertility rates ever could. Thus, before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands. We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil. It is not just a matter of our prosperity, but the very survival of our people.

Tarrant presents demographic estimates of what will happen:

In 2100, despite the ongoing effect of sub-replacement fertility, the population figures show that the population does not decrease in line with these sub-replacement fertility levels, but actually maintains, and, even in many White nations, rapidly increases. All through immigration. This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement.

THIS IS WHITE GENOCIDE.

If you believe in this demographic invasion that is taking your people’s lands, then it follows logically that there are no non-combatants. People are stealing your country simply by being here.

There are no innocents in an invasion. All people who colonize other peoples’ lands share their guilt. [4]

In particular, children are not innocent. They will grow up and vote and reproduce (probably in large numbers, because “fertility rates are part of those racial differences”). So Tarrant was not worried that he might kill children. The point here is not to kill all the immigrants, but to kill enough to drive the rest out and deter future immigrants from coming.

Few parents, regardless of circumstance, will willingly risk the lives of their children, no matter the economic incentives. Therefore, once we show them the risk of bringing their offspring to our soil, they will avoid our lands. [5]

Why don’t I fear losing my country? As I said, Tarrant’s demographics aren’t wrong, at least in the US. (White nationalists in European countries tend to overestimate how many non-whites surround them. France, for example, is still about 85% white. The prospect of whites becoming a minority there is still quite distant.) So why don’t I, as a white American, feel as alarmed as he does?

And the answer is that I don’t see any reason why non-whites can’t be real Americans. Back in the 90s, my wife and I went to China to support our friends as they adopted a baby girl. That girl is now in her mid-20s, and I have watched her grow up, including seeing her on every Christmas morning of her life. To the best of my ability to judge such things, she is as American as I am. I do not worry in the least that some essential non-American nature is encoded in her genetic makeup, or that her presence is turning America into China. [6]

In my view, America (or Western culture, for that matter) isn’t something that arises from the essential nature of the White race. America is something we do, not something we are. It is an idea that can be shared by anyone who is inspired to share it.

So when I picture that white-minority America of 2045 (which I have a decent chance of living to see), I don’t see it as a country that “my people” have lost. That’s because I already see the idea of America and Western culture being shared by lots of other folks that Tarrant would see as invaders, like, say, Fareed Zakaria, Ta-Nahisi Coates, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have faith in the continuing strength of the American idea, which I believe will continue to inspire a majority of Americans well beyond 2045. California, where whites are already less than half population, still feels like America to me.

Assimilation. Tarrant lacks faith in assimilation, because he sees race as having a direct effect on culture. This is a common belief among white nationalists, and many whites who resonate with white-nationalist concerns, even if they don’t identify with the movement.

A frequent complaint on the American right, which you will hear often on Fox News, is that recent immigrants are not assimilating the way previous waves of immigrants did. The data does not bear this out, but it is believed because white-nationalist ideology makes it seem necessary: Hispanics and other non-white immigrants can’t assimilate the way Italians and Poles did, because they aren’t white.

In memory, we tend to forget how long it took waves of European immigrants to assimilate. Whites who can remember their grandparents speaking Hungarian at home are somehow appalled that Hispanic immigrants don’t instantly learn English, or that they form ethnic enclaves (like, say, Little Italy in New York). American Catholics may feel that immigrant Muslims are changing the essential Christian nature of their country, but they forget that America once saw itself as a Protestant nation, and many felt threatened by immigrant Catholics in precisely the same way. (Catholicism was viewed as a fundamentally authoritarian religion that could never adapt to republican America.)

In fact, Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries did change America. But America also changed Catholicism. The same thing is happening with Islam.

Anti-democracy. If shared genes are what makes us a people, if immigrants by definition can’t join us, and if my people are in danger of losing their land due to a demographic invasion, then democracy as it is currently practiced — where immigrants gain citizenship and become voters — is just part of the national suicide process. An invasion isn’t something that can be voted on, especially if the invaders are allowed to vote.

Worse, even before the invaders become the majority, democracy has been corrupted by those who hope to gain from the invasion and the “cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base” that it brings. So Tarrant has no love of democracy.

Democracy is mob rule, and the mob itself is ruled by our own enemies.

Until now, I’ve relegated comparisons to American politics to the footnotes. But this is where it needs to come into the foreground. Because several important Trumpian concepts have moved onto the stage:

  • the notion of a unified corporate/government “elite” whose interests are at odds with the American people
  • a fundamental disrespect for democracy
  • the righteousness of violent action if and when the wrong side wins elections.

Trump and his allies have not come out and said openly that democracy is bad, but the notion that gerrymandering, the Electoral College, purging legal voters from voter lists, and various forms of voter suppression are undemocratic carries very little weight with them. The myth that undocumented immigrants vote in large numbers, which circulates despite an almost total lack of evidence, persists as a stand-in for an unspoken underlying concern: that immigrants become citizens and vote legally.

Trump fairly regularly either encourages violence among his supporters or hints that violent action might follow his impeachment or defeat.

All of this makes sense if you believe that democracy is only legitimate as a way for a People to govern itself, and becomes illegitimate when a system designed for a People becomes corrupted by the votes of invaders.

Sex and gender. Tarrant’s manifesto is addressed almost entirely to White men, whom he urges to defend their homelands.

Weak men have created this situation and strong men are needed to fix it.

He has little to say about women, but the implications of his beliefs should be obvious: If the underlying problem is a low birthrate among whites, the ultimate fault lies with white women. Women who let their professional or creative ambitions distract them from motherhood, who practice birth control, abortion, or lesbianism — their failings aren’t just matters of personal morality any more, they’re threats to the survival of the race.

The closest Tarrant comes to addressing this is:

Likely a new society will need to be created with a much greater focus on family values, gender and social norms, and the value and importance of nature, culture, and race.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this new society: It will have fewer opportunities for women, and less acceptance of women in roles other than motherhood. It will also discourage men from abandoning their procreative roles through homosexuality, and will in general support the “traditional value” of separate and unchanging gender roles.

It is easy to see the attraction of this ideology to a variety of crazies, including incels, who have themselves at times become violent terrorists. The same opportunities that have diverted women from motherhood have likewise made them more picky about the men they choose to procreate with, with the result that some men find themselves unable to have the active sex lives they feel they deserve. Incels are already overwhelmingly white, so the attraction of a white-nationalist ideology that would restrict women’s choices should be obvious.

Power and purpose. All of these positions enhance the power of groups that are already privileged: whites, the native-born, Christians, and men. They could be attractive to those groups on that cynical ground alone. But cynicism alone seldom succeeds for long, because the pure quest for power and advantage only inspires sociopaths. The rest may pursue that quest, but never without misgivings.

The charm of an ideology, though, is that it can give power-seeking a higher purpose: I seek these advantages not just for myself, but to save my people from annihilation!

The underground stream. Few American politicians openly embrace white nationalism as a label, even if their views align with it. Even Steve King disclaims the term, and Republicans who share many of his white-nationalist views have felt obligated to distance themselves from him.

At the same time, though, something is motivating them. It is hard to listen to Trump’s litany of falsehoods about the border without wondering what the real justification for his Wall is. Obviously it’s something he doesn’t think he can get away with saying in so many words.

Similarly, it’s hard to see what other ideology unifies the full right-wing agenda: anti-illegal-immigration, anti-legal-immigration, anti-democracy, anti-abortion, anti-birth-control, anti-women’s-rights, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-black, and so on.

When asked about white nationalist terrorism after the Christchurch shooting, President Trump waved off the problem, saying: “It’s a small group of people.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the ideology that dares not announce itself: Its followers just “know” the truth of it, but can’t say so because of “political correctness”. More and more, white nationalism — and the demographic fear at its root — looks like the underground stream that feeds all the various insanities of the Right.


[1] I discussed and rejected this notion a couple years ago in a piece called “Should I Have White Pride?” The artificiality of “white culture” becomes obvious to me when I start trying to imagine a White Culture Festival: What food would we serve? What traditional costumes would we wear? It makes sense to hold a German Festival or a Greek Festival, but a White Festival, not so much.

[2] The evidence for this impossibility is of the we-can’t-imagine-that variety. If you picture a Moroccan and an Estonian next to each other, they just seem different, at least to Tarrant and his target audience.

But of course, the same is true for any lands that are far apart, even within Europe. Italians seem different from Swedes, when you picture them, but somehow they are all white Europeans. To see if the concepts of whiteness and European-ness have any real substance, you’d want to check what happens at the boundaries. So better questions would be: Could a Greek become a Turk, or vice versa? Could a Moroccan became a Spaniard? Those transformations don’t seem nearly so difficult, and in fact are easier for me to imagine than a Spaniard becoming an Estonian.

But in fact, such transformations happen all the time, particularly here in the United States, where we have a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as white, to the point that after a few generations the shift may be forgotten. If you have a Greek-American immigrant living on one side of you and a Turkish-American immigrant on the other, you might have a hard time telling the difference, either racially or culturally. Both would likely have dark hair and make baklava and strong coffee. Both sets of children will likely be as American as yours.

[3] President Trump agrees with Tarrant about this. On the same day as the 50 murders — and, in fact, during a public appearance that began with his statement of support for New Zealand in dealing with these attacks — Trump announced his veto of the bipartisan Congressional resolution to terminate the national emergency that he intends to use to commandeer money to build his wall. Within a few paragraphs, he went from denouncing the “monstrous terror attacks” in New Zealand to echoing the attacker’s rhetoric.

People hate the word “invasion,” but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.

[4] Several people have cited this and many other of Tarrant’s statements as examples of projection. Who, after all, has done more colonizing of “other peoples’ lands” than Europeans? Isn’t that how the US, New Zealand, and a bunch of other places became “White nations” to begin with?

Though accurate, I doubt this observation would unsettle Tarrant. “Guilt” here is a relative concept, and is not related to a universal morality. Of course peoples contest with each other for possession of lands in the evolutionary Us-against-Them struggle for survival and dominance. Of course native peoples should have regarded colonizing whites as invaders and tried to repel them.

[5] There’s a strong resonance here with the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Like Tarrant’s attacks, it is an intentional cruelty whose purpose is to deter future immigrants by threatening their children.

[6] Iowa Congressman Steve King disagrees. He tweeted:

[Dutch nationalist leader Geert] Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.