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You Have to Laugh


Whatever else you may have thought about last week’s Republican Convention, it was a gold mine for comedians.


If you watched the Republican Convention live, it didn’t seem like a laughing matter: chants of “Lock her up!”, endless talk about the Muslims and Mexicans who are coming to kill us, and assertions that “our very way of life” is threatened. Even Donald Trump’s attempt to assure us that “I alone” can fix the rigged system was a bit creepy, along with his claim that “I am your voice.” (I’d been wondering why I’ve sounded so raspy lately.)

Away from the podium, the situation was even worse, with calls for Hillary Clinton to be “shot for treason” or left “hanging from a tree“. Perhaps even more disturbing was the Trump campaign’s half-hearted distancing from such rhetoric: “We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments [about shooting Clinton].”

Admittedly, there were a few moments of unintentional humor, like when Trump’s third wife did a Rickroll testifying to his loyalty, or his daughter introduced him by talking admiringly about policies — equal pay for women and affordable childcare — that are part of Hillary Clinton’s platform, not her father’s. Those thigh-slapping moments, though, were few and far between.

But events and people that are nothing to laugh about are often precisely the ones that we need to laugh at, so for comedians Donald Trump has been maybe the best opportunity since Charlie Chaplin had that German guy to spoof. And last week our political humorists did not let us down. Jon Stewart may have walked into the sunset last year, but the Daily Show alums — Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver — brought their A-game. The other late-night hosts pitched in admirably. And never say Donald Trump never did anything good for us: Jon even came back to cover him.

Trevor Noah got the week off to a good start, with his coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s opening-night fear-mongering.

In my opinion, he also had the best response to the Melania Trump plagiarism flap:

We should be encouraging her. Because if she feels comfortable stealing Michelle’s speeches and we make it normal, maybe Donald Trump will feel OK stealing Obama’s policies, and then the country won’t be in such a dangerous place. And I know people might say, ‘Wait, Trevor, we can’t just just plagiarize President Obama, can we?’ And I say: Yes. Yes we can.

Here’s the whole segment:

Runners-up for Melania coverage were Bill Maher, who reached a similar conclusion by a somewhat crueler path:

She stole a speech about her parents teaching her values, confirming what Donald has always said: Immigrants steal. I hate to generalize, but Slovenia is not sending us its best people. They’re plagiarists, they’re models — some of them I assume are good people.

… And of course in the media this is the only story anybody cares about. Have they been watching this convention? These assholes cheered letting off the cops who killed Freddie Gray. They’re against health insurance and for coal mining. I want them to steal more ideas from Michelle Obama.

and Late Night‘s Seth Meyers, who had the best one-liner:

Melanie did it: She found something less original than being a model married to an old billionaire.

Throughout the week, Meyers had a series of on-point characterizations. Trump’s fog-and-silhouette entrance Monday was “like ET returning to Earth“. Chris Christie’s Tuesday-night speech — with it’s repeated calls to the audience to pronounce Clinton “guilty” — was “a Stalinesque show trial“. Ben Carson’s linking of Clinton to Saul Alinsky to the Rules for Radicals dedication and from there to Lucifer was “the old six-degrees-of-Satan technique“. In his acceptance speech Thursday, “Trump talked about America like he was pitching a post-apocalyptic show to the SyFy network.” And Marco Rubio appeared by video

probably in hopes that once he was projected on a giant screen, Trump would stop calling him Little Marco. “Did you see me Donald? I was 50 feet tall!”

After Ted Cruz’ boo-provoking refusal to endorse Trump, Meyers asked: “Is there anybody more comfortable being hated than Ted Cruz?” Which was followed by my favorite: After playing a clip of Cruz telling the Texas delegation:

That pledge [to support the nominee] was not a blanket commitment that if you go slander and attack Heidi, that I’m gonna nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say “Thank you very much for maligning my wife and maligning my father.”

he imagined Chris Christie’s response: “Ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff.”

About Christie’s speech: Trevor Noah demonstrated how easy it is to evoke the verdict you want from a friendly audience by getting the Daily Show audience to pronounce Christie guilty of Bridgegate and a variety of other things, some completely absurd. And he protested the RNC’s favoring a chant of “Lock her up” over any serious discussion of the issues facing ordinary Americans, by leading his audience in a chant of “Cut the shit.”

Daily Show reporters also had some good moments. Here, they ask conventioneers: “When was America last great?

Samantha Bee’s Monday-night time slot was mistimed for convention coverage, so instead she emphasized her journey to Cleveland, during which she stopped in on a moderate Republican politician from Pennsylvania.

SAMANTHA: So we’re stuck with this shit sandwich, let’s eat it.

REP. JIM CRISTIANA: I think that’s a fair way to characterize what I just said.

She also filed short updates from Cleveland.

Trump named Omarosa as his African-American outreach person. She is uniquely qualified, since she is actually the only African-American the campaign has ever reached out to.

Stephen Colbert brought back the Bill-O’Reillyish character from his old show, and did a “The Word” segment on “Trumpiness“.

Eleven years ago, I invented a word: truthiness. Truthiness is believing something that feels true,  even if it isn’t supported by fact. … I have to admit [Trump] has surpassed me now. Truthiness has to feel true, but Trumpiness doesn’t even have to do that. In fact, many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises, and they don’t care.  … Truthiness was from the gut, but Trumpiness clearly comes from much further down the gastro-intestinal track.

Colbert rediscovered his alter ego when he tracked Jon Stewart to the wilderness cabin where he has been hiding, and called him back to service.

I found that segment surprising, because I was sure Jon was hiding in the ruins of the old Jedi temple on the planet Ahch-To. But Colbert’s mission led to Jon taking over Colbert’s Late Show desk Thursday night.

And Jon closed by addressing Sean Hannity and other conservative voices directly:

I see you. You’ve got a problem with those Americans fighting for their place at the table. You’ve got a problem with them because you feel like the — what’s Rep. Steve King’s word for it? — subgroups of Americans are being divisive. Well if you have a problem with that, take it up with the Founders: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those fighting to be included in the ideal of equality are not being divisive. Those fighting to keep those people out, are.

Prior to the convention, Colbert took on a different character and invaded the podium to announce “The Hungry for Power Games“.

As for printed humor, Andy Borowitz is the champion.

Donald J. Trump was jubilant Thursday night after accomplishing his goal of delivering a speech that no one will ever want to plagiarize, Trump aides confirmed. …

“There was one sentence toward the beginning that had traces of humanity and rational thought,” Manafort said. “Fortunately, we caught it in time.”

Of course, we can’t forget the great Trump comedy pieces of previous weeks. Like Australian comedian Jim Jefferies’ Trump rant:

He’s a lot of fun. And there’s a little bit of me that thinks: “Fuck it. Let’s do it. Let’s do it and see how fucking crazy shit can get.”

… But this is where it’s not fun. … You’re a 16-year-old boy or girl that’s a Muslim living in this country. You’ve lived your entire life in this country. You’ve always considered yourself American. And then all of a sudden, someone who could be your president says “You are not welcome here” and that you should be put on a register. Now that kid … how fucking quickly do you think that kid could be radicalized now?

And Jimmy Kimmel’s parody of The Producers.

Finally, John Oliver summed it all up last night:

It was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts. … This is a graph of the violent crime rate in the United States. It’s not a fucking Rorschach Test. You can’t infer anything you like from it. … [Newt Gingrich] just brought a feeling to a fucking fact fight. … I think we can all agree that candidates can create feelings in people. And what Gingrich is saying is that feelings are as valid as facts. So then, by the transitive property, candidates can create facts. Which is terrifying, because that means somebody like Donald Trump can essentially create his own reality.

OK, I have to admit: That part wasn’t funny. There was a lot to laugh at last week, but when you boil it all down, the scary essence is still there.

Even Charlie Chaplin couldn’t sum up the reality of The Great Dictator in a funny way. The climax of his movie was both serious and a fantasy.

We didn’t get that speech Thursday night. So after we laugh — and hopefully regenerate our energies by laughing — we have to go back to the reality of a frightening political situation.

The Big Lie in Trump’s Speech

Stopping Mexican or Muslim immigration will not make you safe.


To explain Donald Trump’s acceptance speech properly, I have to go back to two previous posts: 2015’s “How Propaganda Works”:

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

and also 2012’s “How Lies Work“:

You can’t be blamed for the false information, irrational prejudices, and ugly stereotypes that already sit inside people’s heads, waiting to be exploited. So good propaganda contains only enough false or repulsive information to leverage the ignorance and misinformation that’s already out there.

In other words, the central lie in an effective propaganda campaign is the one you never explicitly say. It’s out there already, sitting in the minds of your followers, so you just need to allude to it, suggest it, and bring it to consciousness in as many ways as you can. Your target audience will hear it, and afterwards most will believe you said it. But because you aren’t saying it in so many words, it’s immune to fact-checkers, and you barely need to defend it at all. Let PolitiFact and NPR carp all they want about the details of your speech. They can’t touch your central point because it’s not really there.

The explicit promise of Trump’s speech is that he will make the country safe, not just eventually after doing the long, hard work of changing public policy, but almost instantly.

The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.

So if you have been hiding under your bed, you’ll be able to come out next January.

This is the kind of sweeping pledge that ordinarily would be met with embarrassed laughter. It’s as if Barack Obama had promised not just that he would get health insurance for millions of people before he left office, but that all the uninsured would be covered by the time he got done with his inaugural address.

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were to promise this week in her acceptance speech that poverty and unemployment “will very soon come to an end, beginning on January 20”. I’m voting for Clinton, but I’d laugh at that promise. I might give her credit for good intentions, but systemic problems like poverty and unemployment are obviously beyond the power of presidential wand-waving.

So are crime and violence, but for some reason Trump’s audience was not laughing. Why not? What in the worldview of Trump or his followers makes it credible that “the crime and violence that afflicts our nation” can be ended “very soon” by presidential action?

If you don’t already know, the speech will not tell you. In fact, if you don’t already understand the big lie that the speech is based on, you will have a hard time making sense of it at all: The whole hour-plus speech will seem like a grab bag of loosely related anecdotes and factoids, many of which are false.

Since the speech never lays out that central claim, I will: The main threat to your personal safety is the street crime and terrorism brought to America by Mexican and Muslim immigrants.

If you hold that (false) fact in your head, the speech hangs together. Many of its details are still untrue, but at least it begins to tell a coherent story.

Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.

Here we begin to see how crime and violence might come within the president’s power, and what could instantly change on Inauguration Day: President Obama doesn’t enforce the law; President Trump will.

But what laws has President Obama stopped enforcing? Murder laws? Rape laws? No: In the American law enforcement system, those crimes are almost entirely the responsibility of state and local officials. But there is one kind of law that falls almost entirely under federal enforcement: immigration laws.

Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens. [See endnote 1.] The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total of 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.

Trump goes on to mention several individuals (some of whom previously spoke to the Convention) who are victims of violent crimes by Hispanic immigrants. The existence of such stories should not surprise anyone; it wouldn’t be hard to compile anecdotes of crimes by any reasonably large group of people, like the left-handed or the red-haired. What makes these immigrant-crime stories more than just talk is the unspoken implication that they illustrate some kind of trend: an immigrant crime wave.

But in reality, the anecdotes are just anecdotes: There is no trend. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer violent crimes per capita than American citizens. They are responsible for such a tiny amount of violent crime in America that, if Trump does manage to make them all disappear somehow, your safety will be virtually unaffected. In short: There is no immigrant crime wave.

One more thing you should notice in that quote: how effortlessly Trump glides from immigrant criminals to immigrant families, and from public safety to public resources. Since there are so few violent immigrant criminals, the white voters Trump is targeting are very unlikely to be their victims or to know any of their victims. But many white families send their children to school with Hispanic children whose immigration status they don’t know. (Most are either legal immigrants or American citizens.) The point of lumping families and criminals together is to imply that those Hispanic children are a threat to your white child. [2]

In addition to crime, Americans are afraid of terrorism. This is another part of “the crime and violence than today afflicts our nation”. The federal government has a key role to play in disrupting 9-11 style plots, in which terrorist groups conspire to kill large numbers of Americans. In recent years it has been doing that job very well (or else the threat is not a large as we thought immediately after 9-11). No plot remotely comparable to 9-11 has been carried out.

But it’s not clear how much the feds can do to stop lone-wolf terrorists like Dylann Roof (a native-born American white Christian who bought a gun legally and used it to kill nine members of a black Charleston church) or Omar Mateen (a native-born American Muslim of Afghan heritage who used legal guns to kill 49 people in a LGBT nightclub in Orlando). For every American who carries out an attack, countless others fantasize about one in some vague way, and may even discuss their fantasies on social media. We can’t lock them all up.

But Trump again ties this threat to immigration.

Lastly, and very importantly, we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. We don’t want them in our country.

My opponent has called for a radical 550 percent increase — think of this, this is not believable, but this is what is happening — a 550 percent increase in Syrian refugees on top of existing massive refugee flows coming into our country already under the leadership of president Obama.

She proposes this despite the fact that there’s no way to screen these refugees in order to find out who they are or where they come from. I only want to admit individuals into our country who will support our values and love our people. [3]

The only Muslim immigrant tied to a recent terrorist act is Tashfeen Malik, half of the couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino last December. (Her husband was native born, as was the shooter in Orlando. So were the assassins who killed police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.) She came to this country on a fiancée visa, not as part of any refugee program or by sneaking across a border. So even in that exceptional case, building a wall or refusing to help Syrian refugees would have made no difference. There is no Muslim refugee terrorism problem.

The real American terrorist threat is overwhelmingly homegrown, and includes white supremacists, violent anti-abortion activists, and Bundy-and-McVeigh-style anti-government militiamen, in addition to native-born ISIS-inspired jihadists. Nothing Trump has proposed will do anything to make you safer from them.

The speech then segues from fear of violence to economic fears, and again immigrants are at fault:

Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens

Two things to notice here: First, in TrumpWorld those low wages have nothing to do with the decline of unions, which has diminished workers’ negotiating power. They also have nothing to do with the decades-long decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage, which Trump wants to see continue. In short, anything real the government could do to improve the lot of low-wage workers has been pushed aside in order to scapegoat immigrants.

Second, and perhaps even more important, adjectives like illegal or undocumented have vanished: All immigrants are the problem now. Having raised fear with anecdotes of violent crime by undocumented Hispanic immigrants and implications that Muslim refugees are responsible for our terrorism problem, that fear is now channeled into anxieties about jobs and money, and targeted at everyone who comes to America, including those who come legally hoping to find legal jobs, as my ancestors did 150 years ago.

So now that I’ve laid out the larger structure of Trump’s speech, and the unspoken big lie that pulls it together, I invite you to go back and read his text end-to-end, preferably one of the versions annotated by fact-checkers. If, as you read, you bear in mind that there is no immigrant crime wave and no Muslim refugee terrorism problem, I predict that the speech’s whole theme will fall apart. You will be left with a collection of cherry-picked statistics and random falsehoods, which the fact-checkers can handle quite well.


[1] The Chicago Tribune adds context to this number:

The actual crimes committed by this group are not documented, however, so Trump cannot easily claim that all of these illegal immigrants “threaten peaceful citizens.” A significant percentage of their crimes involve immigration violations and nonviolent offenses, according to historical records.

In other words, we’re more likely to be talking about paper crimes, like faking a driver’s license or other ID, rather than the violent crimes Trump is implying. And that stands to reason: If you’re in this country without legal status, you’re trying to hide from authorities, not call attention to yourself by assaulting someone.

[2] Obama’s most obvious non-enforcement of immigration laws is that he is not deporting the Dreamers, those undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children, who grew up in the U.S. and know no other country. Trump’s rhetoric also makes them a threat to your child.

Today, Dreamer Astrid Silva addresses the Democratic Convention. I invite you to watch her and do your own threat evaluation.

[3] Fact-checkers can catch all the individual lies here: We are admitting only a tiny number of Syrian refugees, so even a 550% increase will still be just a drop in the bucket. (About 5000 since October 1, and 1682 in the year before that. For comparison, Germany already had about 100,000 Syrian refugees a year ago, and is talking about admitting 500K a year. There are about five million Syrian refugees worldwide — 11 million if you count the ones displaced to other parts of Syria.) We are vetting them extensively. So far, the refugees who make it through the U.S. vetting process are responsible for zero acts of terrorism.

The “support our values and love our people” line is a dog whistle to Islamophobes. Newt Gingrich spelled it out on July 14:

Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be: Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door.

As other people have explained in more detail, sharia is not the same as terrorism, and asking Muslims whether they “believe in” sharia is like asking Jews if they believe in the laws of Moses. At some level of interpretation, of course they do; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to kill adulterers or gay men. Gingrich’s implication — that we can accept Muslims in America only if they don’t take their religion seriously — ought to offend any person who does take religion seriously.

BTW: Cutting off Syrian immigration means turning away Syrian Christians, who are being wiped out in some areas and whose relief is a special project of many Evangelicals. But if Trump makes an exception for them, then he’s back to having a religious test for letting people into the U.S.

A Real Pro-Police Agenda is Liberal

Police are killing and being killed because we keep putting them in impossible situations. Let’s stop.


Americans love to tell stories with well-marked villains. For the last two or three years, my social network of liberal friends has been telling a lot of stories about black men killed by police, and in nearly all of them the police are the villains: They strangled Eric Garner as he gasped “I can’t breathe.” They gunned down 12-year-old Tamir Rice with barely a thought. They shot Alton Sterling at point-blank range, while two officers were holding him down. They killed John Crawford III in a Walmart where he was planning to buy a toy gun.

Conservatives have also been telling police stories, but theirs have different villains. Sometimes they make villains out of the same people who were victims in the liberal stories: Michael Brown was a thug, and Tamir Rice was acting like one. Freddie Gray injured himself to make police look bad.

Sometimes the villains are the civil rights leaders who mobilize a community to protest, the people Bill O’Reilly calls “the grievance industry“.

Sometimes the villains are the Black Lives Matter protesters and their allies — people like me and my liberal friends, who are “anti-police”. When gunmen killed police in Dallas on July 7 and in Baton Rouge yesterday, such story-tellers felt validated: This is what happens when you villainize police. People start killing them.

Occasionally, the villains are fantasy people who exist only in the perverse imaginations of hate-mongers like Donald Trump. When Black Lives Matter protests continued after the Dallas shooting, he made up this lie about people who honor the assassin:

The other night you had 11 cities potentially in a blow-up stage. Marches all over the United States—and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac! And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer!

Not even his campaign can explain where he got that or what he based it on. But of course he offers no apology. (A more typical BLM response to the shootings came from DeRay McKesson, who had been arrested in the demonstrations immediately after Alton Sterling’s death: “The movement began as a call to end violence. That call remains. … My prayers are with the victims of all violence.”)

Three narratives. In short, what we’ve been seeing in the media are two opposing narratives: the liberal “anti-police” narrative in which police are killing young black men for no good reason, and the conservative “pro-police” narrative in which young black men deserve to be killed, and unscrupulous political leaders get publicity by raising anger against the police, resulting in unstable minds deciding to kill them.

I want to propose a third narrative that supports both the police who are trying to do their jobs without killing or being killed, and also the communities of color that feel constantly harassed by police and in danger of violence from them.

Unfortunately, the villains in my story are most of the rest of us, who are in denial about the true state of our country: We throw police into the gap between our Fourth-of-July fantasies and the unjust society we actually live in. We tell them to make those contradictions work, and when they can’t we go looking for someone to blame: either the police themselves, or the victims of injustice they were supposed to keep under control so that we don’t have to notice them.

Scandinavia and Missouri. When liberals argue that violent police are not necessary, we often point to small Scandinavian countries. In Finland, for example, police handle about a million emergency calls every year. In 2013, they dealt with those million situations while firing exactly six bullets. With 5.4 million people, Finland is small as countries go. But it’s bigger than Chicago, and one Chicago police officer fired 16 shots into Laquan McDonald in 13 seconds.

Or take Iceland, which has had one fatal police shooting in its 71-year history. Sure, it only has about 330,000 people, but it’s bigger than Stockton, California, which had three fatal police shootings in the first five months of 2015.

That sounds bad for American police. But I want to propose a thought experiment: What if those non-trigger-happy Finnish and Icelandic police had been covering Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was killed? The reason I choose Ferguson for my experiment is that we know a lot about what Ferguson police were asked to do, based on the Justice Department reports that got written after the Michael Brown shooting. Here’s what I think is the key sentence:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.

Let me flesh that out a little: Like several other near suburbs of St. Louis, the kind populated by the people who get pushed out of city centers as they gentrify, Ferguson doesn’t have a sufficient tax base to support schools, street repair, and the other services it needs to offer. Neither St. Louis County nor the State of Missouri wants to take responsibility for this situation, so Ferguson and various other towns came up with what probably seemed like the only solution: They’d use the police and the municipal courts to squeeze fines out of poor people.

In other words, the relationship between the police and the mostly black community was designed to be adversarial, a predator/prey arrangement: The purpose of the police was to find violations they could ticket people for, and the purpose of the courts was to make compliance difficult, so that small fines could be multiplied into ongoing revenue streams. (John Oliver did a great job describing how this system works in municipalities across the country.) When citizens found themselves unable to pay their fines, the police would be called on again to bring them to what was essentially a debtor’s prison.

I’m willing to bet that the Finnish and Icelandic police have no experience making a system like this work. Could they do it without ratcheting up their level of violence? I’ve got my doubts.

My point is that if you watched the Ferguson protests unfold and told a story that made either Michael Brown or Darren Wilson the villain, you missed the bigger picture: Both of them were victims (though of course not equally). Michael Brown had to live (and then die) in a hellish community, and Darren Wilson’s job was to enforce that Hell, and keep it from leaking out and bothering the people who live in more privileged communities.

When social services fail. If you Google “mentally ill man killed by police in parents yard”, you don’t just get one story. That’s a generic description of something that happens over and over. The mother of a victim in Denver described her experience: “I told the cops he was mentally ill. He was schizophrenic. I called for help. I didn’t call for them to kill him.”

The ACLU notes the larger pattern:

Many people recognize the names Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, African-American men, and a child, killed by the police.

Less well known are the names Milton Hall, James Boyd, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, and Tanisha Anderson.

They are people with psychiatric disabilities – most of them people of color – shot and killed by police. In many cases, police were responding to requests for assistance to get the person mental health care.

Teresa Sheehan’s name might also be included in the list. In 2008, she was shot five times by police after her caseworker sought assistance in getting her to the hospital for treatment. She, unlike the others, survived. And she sued.

Schools increasingly have been using police to handle discipline problems. Cops don’t understand kids any better than teachers — probably less so — but they are empowered to use more force. So they do.

As we cut taxes and cut the government services that they fund, police are left to pick up the slack. If you find yourself in a situation you can’t handle, you call 911 and they send the police. The officers who arrive probably have no more training to deal with the situation than you do, but they have no one to pass the buck to. They are not psychologists or negotiators, and the tools they have been trained to use are guns and tasers. The barked orders that will get compliance from a drug dealer may not work on a psychotic or a bratty middle-school student throwing a fit, but it’s what they know.

Sometimes it goes wrong.

Sentinels of the gated community. In the Ozzie-and-Harriet fantasy of middle class America, police are seldom necessary, and when they do show up, they help find a lost child or support the community in some other way. Citizens in this vision of America comply with laws voluntarily, because the laws were made by and for people like them. If you find injustice, you just tell someone, and eventually the word gets to people who can solve the problem.

If the United States was ever that country, it isn’t now, and the situation is getting worse. Again, let’s compare to Finland and Iceland: In a list of 34 OECD countries, Iceland had the lowest level of income inequality after taxes and transfers, with a GINI coefficient of .244. Finland was a bit higher at .260. The United States was the second-most-unequal country (after Chile, a country we don’t usually compare ourselves to), with a .380 coefficient.

When 17 of those same countries are compared according to a standard measure of social mobility (the correlation between the wages of fathers and sons), the United States is the fourth most immobile society. Iceland is not listed, but Finland has the third most fluid society, after fellow Scandinavian countries Denmark and Norway.

As our distribution of wealth and income gets more skewed, our restrictions on campaign contributions are being dismantled, with the result that the concerns of middle-class people — much less the poor — draw less and less attention from government officials. A study by two Princeton political scientists concluded:

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

In short, we are becoming a society of haves and have-nots. The lack of social mobility means that if you are born a have-not, you have less and less chance of doing anything about it. And if you can get a lot of have-nots to support changes to make the system fairer … you probably still can’t do anything about it.

In that situation, the case for voluntarily obeying the laws gets less and less compelling. And Sheriff Andy of Mayberry has to get replaced by people who look a lot scarier.

A real pro-police agenda. The phrase “pro-police agenda” conjures up images of bigger budgets, ever more militarized hardware, and decreased accountability when bad things inevitably happen. But that’s “pro-police” only if you believe that police actually want the role we have given them, or that a future as paid thugs for the 1% appeals to them.

But I suspect a lot of American cops envy those Finns who only had to fire six bullets in a million emergency situations, or the Icelanders who only had to kill one person in 71 years.

That’s not some magic of the Northern climate, it’s democratic socialism. It’s the best public school system in the world. It’s mental healthcare integrated into a national healthcare system that interacts with schools and businesses. It’s tuition-free universities. It’s an economy where your parents’ income doesn’t decide your caste. It’s a political system not dominated by money. It’s refusing to segregate poor people into dysfunctional communities.

We could do all that here. And if we did, the United States would be a much easier country to police.

Mike Pence. I’ve heard that name before.

He hasn’t come up often, but the examples are illuminating.


Friday, a few days before the Republican Convention that begins today in Cleveland, Donald Trump announced his vice presidential choice: Governor Mike Pence of Indiana.

This is a liberal blog and I make no secret about rooting for Democrats. After all, my commitment to my readers is to be honest, not unbiased. (I’m skeptical of people who believe they can be totally objective.) Being honest, I confess to this perceptual bias: Whenever the Republicans nominate someone, all his previous actions seem to take on a sinister aspect, and I find myself suddenly realizing that he is the worst human being since Hitler. (“How did I miss that until now?” I wonder.)

So to discipline my thinking, I thought I’d look back and see where Pence has come up in the The Weekly Sift in the past, before I knew he’d be a national candidate. Two kinds of Republicans make frequent appearances in the Sift: decision-making leaders like Paul Ryan and fringe voices like Sarah Palin or Louie Gohmert, who are constantly saying things too crazy to ignore. (Ted Cruz is a bit of a hybrid: a leader of the crazy faction.) So where and when has Pence shown up?

I found two mentions of him by name and a third story I somehow left his name out of, even though he was right in the middle of it. That verified my initial impression that he has been around a while and done a few things, but so far has had little historical significance.

The first mention is just two sentences and falls into the crazy category: In March, 2009, when the economy was still plunging and even conservative economists were talking about a stimulus of some kind, Pence was urging Congress to push demand down further:

Indiana Republican Congressman Mike Pence knows just what to do in these times when nobody but the government is spending: “Freeze federal spending immediately!” I’m speechless.

The second is harder to pigeonhole: During the 2012 campaign, I was reviewing the bait-and-switch by which the Tea Party had focused on the deficit during the 2010 campaign, but then immediately pivoted to a right-wing social agenda once they took office. This 2011 Pence quote demonstrated that pivot:

Our economy is struggling and our national government is awash in a sea of debt. Amidst these struggles, some would have us focus our energies on jobs and spending. … I agree. Let’s start by denying all federal funding for abortion at home and abroad. The largest abortion provider in America should not also be the largest recipient of federal funding under Title X. The time has come to deny any and all federal funding to Planned Parenthood of America.

And my comment was:

Annual Planned Parenthood funding under Title X was about $70 million. Take that, trillion-dollar deficit!

In March, 2015 I didn’t name Governor Pence, but he was right in the middle of Indiana’s Christians-have-a-right-to-discriminate-against-gays law, summed up by this cartoon.

The law is basically identical to the one that Governor Jan Brewer — never known as a defender of gay rights — had just vetoed in Arizona, but Pence signed Indiana’s version. That left me facing the emptiness of my own threats:

How the heck am I going to boycott Indiana, when I was never planning to go there anyway?

(Ultimately, Indiana’s business community pushed the legislature to pass a second law, which mitigated some of the damage. Pence signed it.)

The GOP’s anti-science tendencies often come up in the Sift, but Pence has never been the national face of those issues, so I haven’t written about him in that context. However, I can’t conclude this article without mentioning a number of anti-science positions he has taken:

  • He won’t say whether he personally believes that evolution happened, but he wants public schools to teach the evolution/creation pseudo-controversy (“teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas, and let our students, let our children and our children’s children, decide”), a back-door position through which tax dollars can be spent promoting scientifically baseless religious theories in science classes. This practice not only encourages the relativistic view that you can believe whatever you want about science, but also wastes classroom time that could be spent teaching actual facts.
  • Pence wrote: “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
  • Pence wrote: “Global warming is a myth … the Earth is actually cooler today than it was about 50 years ago.” (This was not as obviously false when he wrote it in 1998 as it is today, but it was still false. At the time, you could cherry-pick your data (see the second graph in this link), compare an unusually cool 1995 against an unusually warm 1945, and claim they were about the same. But even then you had to know you were playing deceptive games with numbers.) In 2009 he claimed: “In the mainstream media, there is a denial of the growing skepticism in the scientific community on global warming.” (That “scientific” skepticism comes almost entirely from the fossil fuel industry. In the actual scientific community, the consensus is solid and growing in certainty.)

All in all, I have a hard time arguing with Steve Benen’s assessment (which he bases on the DW-nominate system of quantifying congressional voting records on a left/right scale) that Pence is “the most far-right running mate in modern history”.

Let’s put this another way: during his congressional career, Pence wasn’t just more conservative than Paul Ryan. His voting record also put him to the right of Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin, Steve King, and even Louie Gohmert.

So I’m going to restrain myself from speculating about where Pence ranks on the Hitler Scale of human beings. But if we’re looking at the Jan Brewer Scale of right-wing extremist governors, or the Bachmann/Gohmert Scale of crazy congresspeople, he might take it to 11.

Are we overdoing the Founding Fathers?

When we turn Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton into divinely inspired prophets, our political disagreements become religious schisms.


We Americans love our Founding Fathers, especially on the Fourth of July. How did you honor them over the weekend? Did you go out and hear a speaker praise them? Watch 1776 on TV? Listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, or read the best-selling biography it was drawn from? Call up HBO’s John Adams mini-series on demand?

Or maybe this year you did it up right and took the kids to the Washington and Jefferson Monuments near the Capitol, or to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or even to the Founders’ holiest shrine, Colonial Williamsburg, where Washington, Jefferson, and the other great Virginians still give speeches and answer your questions every day.

Personally, I devoted a chunk of the weekend to a book that asks whether we’ve overdoing it, or maybe just doing it wrong: The Jefferson Rule: how the Founding Fathers became infallible and our politics inflexible by David Sehat. [1]

Looking around our current political landscape, it’s not hard to find examples of people going overboard in ways that embarrass the Founders’ memory. The WWFFD (“What would the Founding Fathers do?“) billboard above comes to us courtesy of fringe congressional candidate Rick Tyler, whose more famous billboard instructs us to “Make America White Again“. As they seized the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge and held it by force, the Bundy militamen waved tiny booklets of the Constitution — as annotated by right-wing crank W. Cleon Skousen. “What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government,” Cliven Bundy told the L.A. Times. Apparently America is so far gone from the Founder/Skousen vision that this teaching can only be done by heavily armed men threatening to shoot any officials who come to enforce the law.

Political fundamentalism. If you’ve ever paid attention to debates between fundamentalist sects — be they Christian, Islamic, or whatever — this is what they sound like: One particular interpretation of sacred scripture is projected onto the text, as if it were literal and inescapable. Anyone who reads it differently must be an infidel; to entertain their heretical ideas, even briefly or for the sake of argument, is flirting with damnation.

Voting cannot resolve such conflicts. At some point you either have to let an issue go or resort to violence.

That fundamentalist style in American politics is not just a fringe phenomenon. Even as he constructed justifications for torture and placing the decisions of the unitary executive beyond the reach of Congress, high-ranking Bush-administration legal adviser David Addington carried a well-worn pocket Constitution with him everywhere. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign, one candidate after another cast himself as the pro-Founder, pro-Constitution candidate — as if President Obama led an anti-Founder, anti-Constitution party. Ted Cruz, for example, made “Restore the Constitution” one of the key planks of his campaign, and Donald Trump said, “The Constitution of this country has been absolutely riddled with bullets from the Obama administration.”

To such opponents, President Obama is not a constitutional scholar with different — and discussable — interpretations, he’s an infidel. His actions are not based on a different understanding of the laws, they are “lawless“.

Ironically, such a heresy-avoiding and heresy-denouncing conversation is a far cry from the kind of debate the actual Founders had at the Constitutional Convention, where everything from a new monarchy to the abolition of the states was open for consideration.

Such hero-worship demands that the human and historical flaws of the Founders be papered over. They weren’t slave-owners who made sure the founding documents protected their human property, they “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States“. If they reserved the vote for white male property owners like themselves, they were right to do so. To the extent that subsequent generations have altered their system — say, by letting the voters rather than the state legislatures elect senators — we should change it back.

America the Exceptional. Those of us who have lived our entire lives in the United States have a hard time recognizing how strange our Founder-worship is. But other democracies don’t talk this way. From time to time French politicians may still invoke the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity ideals of their Revolution, but they don’t feel obligated to explain away the Reign of Terror. Rousseau and Voltaire still get quoted occasionally, but not as holy writ.

The English understand their evolution towards democracy as a long messy process that remains unfinished. King John stumbled his way into the Magna Carta, which was a great advance in its day, but not a timeless capital-T Truth. No one expects a proof-text from Edmund Burke or John Locke to end a debate once and for all. And Germans are more likely to quote their history as a cautionary tale than as Golden Age that needs restoration.

Maybe that’s healthy.

Locating the problem. Sehat’s criticism of the WWFFD approach to contemporary politics has two main parts:

  • It’s false history. The Founders were not a collective consciousness with a single point of view. The Constitution is full of compromises, and its authors began arguing about its meaning almost immediately. [2]
  • It’s destructive. Policy disagreements are hard enough to resolve without turning them into schisms of religious intensity. Republics depend on the ability of conflicting factions to work things out. That’s much harder if you view your opponents as infidels disloyal to the whole idea of America.

What would the Founders do? They’d argue. If the Founders really had formed a solid consensus around a well-worked-out worldview, the Washington administration would have been a time devoid of political tension. After all, the first Congress and the first cabinet didn’t have to ask what the Founders would do; they were the Founders.

In actual history, though, Washington presided over factions intriguing against each other, and many of their disagreements are still with us.

For example, today one of the marks of faithfulness to the Founders’ vision is supposed to be a “strict construction” of the Constitution, limiting the powers of the federal government to the ones very specifically granted in the text. For example, this is the essence of the conservative critique of ObamaCare: The Constitution nowhere mentions a power to force citizens to buy health insurance.

On the surface the strict-construction folks seem to be on firm ground. After all, the very phrase strict construction goes back to one of the holiest of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson coined that phrase in an argument with another ranking member of the Founder pantheon: Alexander Hamilton, who had already coined the phrase most often used to oppose strict construction: implied powers.

They were arguing about Hamilton’s proposal to establish the Bank of the United States. Secretary of State Jefferson’s reading of the Constitution did not see any bank-establishing power there. But Treasury Secretary Hamilton argued that the Constitutional Convention — where he had been a delegate and Jefferson hadn’t — had never intended to spell out every detail. In his view, whenever the Constitution gave the federal government responsibility for an area of governance, it also implicitly granted it the powers necessary to fulfill those responsibilities.

Hamilton’s job would have been impossible without such implied powers, and he had already exercised them on numerous occasions. The Constitution had, for example, given Congress the power to impose a tariff; it had done so, and Hamilton was collecting it. But the Constitution never specifically mentioned the power to construct custom houses, hire port inspectors, or deploy a coast guard against smugglers — which he had also done, and without which the taxing power was meaningless. To him, the Bank of the United States was a similarly implied means to assigned ends: managing tax receipts, paying down the national debt, and supervising the currency.

This disagreement got as vicious as anything we see today: Jefferson painted Hamilton as a monarchist seeking to return us to British rule, while Hamilton painted Jefferson as a France-loving Jacobin, ready to unleash the guillotines on unsuspecting Americans.

Jefferson lost on the Bank, but won the larger political struggle: Hamilton died in middle age and his Federalist Party collapsed, while Jefferson and his Virginian successors Madison and Monroe held the presidency from 1801 to 1825. In practice, though, Hamiltonianism survived under the surface: Jefferson and the other Virginians often made use of implied powers of their own, as when Jefferson stretched the treaty-making power to allow the Louisiana Purchase.

It was during this period, in Sehat’s telling of the story, that the history of the Founding Era was rewritten into an orthodoxy: Jeffersonianism represented the one true vision of the Revolution. To this day, politicians who invoke “the Founders” as a unified consciousness are probably invoking the Founders as re-envisioned by Jefferson. [3] The more ambitious government of Hamilton — and the pragmatism of Washington, who often saw Hamilton’s approach as the best way to solve practical problems [4] — has been swept under the rug.

The fundamentalist style in American politics. The bulk of Sehat’s book is a history of how the Founders have been invoked in American politics through the centuries. He portrays the influence of this style of argument as pernicious: It has hardened disagreements and mythologized politics. Rather than discuss the pluses and minuses of available policy options, Americans have instead cast themselves as the true successors of the Founders’ vision and demonized their opponents as treacherous infidels. As a result, it has been easier for each side to overlook the other’s love of country, and harder to reach the compromises necessary to move forward together.

The most extreme example of Founder-fundamentalism hardening a position beyond any compromise was that of the Southern nullifiers and secessionists from Calhoun to Jefferson Davis. On the other side, Lincoln tried it both ways. In 1862 he told Congress “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” But his Gettysburg Address reclaimed the Founders for “a new birth of freedom”.

In the decades after the Civil War, the Founders lost their central position in political debate, as leaders saw little resemblance between their problems and those of the 18th century. As President Grant wrote in his memoirs:

It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them.

And Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in his 1905 inaugural:

Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee.

But 20th-century conservatism revived Founder rhetoric. President Harding is credited with coining the term Founding Fathers, and opposition to FDR’s New Deal built its message around the myth of a single founding vision. FDR’s central opponent, the Liberty League — representing the 1% of its day — invented the technique of defending “the Constitution” as a vague unity rather than discussing any particular passages, which might bear divergent interpretations.

The progressive temptation. Another point Sehat makes is that Founder-worship inevitably looks backwards, and so privileges conservative arguments over progressive ones. Progressives are often tempted to enter into WWFFD arguments, because the conservative mythologizing of the Founders so often approaches the ridiculous, and is easily refuted by reference to historical facts. Also, it can be hard to resist harnessing the mythic and symbolic power of the Founders to more worthy causes than the preservation of slavery or the further aggrandizement of the propertied class.

In the short term, this often is very effective, as when Martin Luther King framed the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “All men are created equal” as a “promissory note” that the nation had never redeemed for its black population.

But as much as the idealism of certain individuals from the Founding Era can still inspire, in the long run the ahistorical fusion of “the Founding Fathers” is going to work mischief on contemporary politics. Once welded together, the Founders are a slave-owning propertied class that wants to preserve its privileges, and is suspicious of spreading power to too many people. Any fair reading of the Constitution has to recognize the sheer distance its system places between the People and their government. The People are not supposed to govern themselves; they are supposed to recognize their betters, and choose them to administer the government. [5]

Government of the Living. Americans can rightly be proud of our founding generation. Most revolutions fail, and when time-honored systems are swept aside, they are often replaced by something worse. The first democratic revolution in England produced Cromwell; in France, Napoleon; in Germany, Hitler. The newly created 20th-century nations of Africa again and again saw the pattern of “one man, one vote, once”, as the winner of the first election saw no reason to hold a second.

The United States avoided all that. We have had our turbulent moments, including one of the bloodiest civil wars you’ll find anywhere. We have done terrible things, from the Native American genocide and African slavery through the many vicious and greedy strongmen we inflicted on third-world nations during the Cold War. And from time to time we continue to do terrible things, as global superpowers have always done.

But we have also often been a force for progress in the world or for liberation from tyranny, and our example has inspired progressive change in many other countries. The documents left behind by the Founders, and the example of their conduct, has a lot to do with that.

So absolutely, we should honor them. They deserve to have monuments in our capital, to appear on our money, and to have fireworks and parades in their honor every summer.

But they were men and women, not prophets or gods. The argued with each other, compromised on important issues, and in general did what they could with the problems of their day, just as every generation does. The did not foresee nuclear weapons, or even automatic ones. They had absurd medical theories, primitive notions of macro-economics, and self-serving beliefs about race and culture.

To the extent that their opinions still make sense today, we should quote them. But the fact that they believed something does not obligate us (or our opponents) to agree. Those who disagree with them should be met with evidence and arguments and a willingness to consider that their disagreement might be justified.

A government of the People must always be a government of the Living. If our ancestors would have disagreed with us, so be it. They had their day, and now we have ours.


[1] Ironically, I found the book at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor’s Center.

[2] This mistake is typical of fundamentalisms. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, picture the early Christian community as a model of the pure doctrine they want to recover and preserve. But if you actually read the documents of the era, they are more theologically diverse than Christian churches are today.

Similarly, Muhammad didn’t have a worked-out theory of governance; he just governed. Sharia was constructed centuries later.

Unified doctrine is usually achieved by some later generation — often through political power or by force — rather than by those who actually heard the gods or prophets speak.

[3] Or possibly as re-re-envisioned by slavery advocate John Calhoun, as I explained in “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

[4] In the Hamilton musical, Jefferson and his allies sing, “It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

[5] The most egregious example of this is the Electoral College. The popular vote in presidential elections was not even tabulated until 1824.

What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?

Extreme tactics draw attention to the real source of our government’s dysfunction.


Few 70-somethings get to relive their youth with as much fanfare as Congressman John Lewis did this week. Back before he was a Freedom Rider or one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, Lewis got his start as an activist in 1960 by participating in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Nashville. And Wednesday, he was sitting in again, not as a 20-year-old student, but as a 76-year-old congressman. Led by Lewis, Democratic congresspeople occupied the well of the House chamber for about 24 hours, when the House adjourned until July 5. About 170 participated at one time or another, while Democratic senators cheered them on, and Elizabeth Warren stopped by with donuts.

In essence this was a continuation in the House of what Chris Murphy started last week in the Senate, when he held the Senate floor for 15 hours while demanding the Senate vote on two gun-control measures: One would have barred people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, and the other would close the gun-show loophole that allows people to buy guns without the background check they would need to pass if they bought from licensed gun dealers. [1]

Murphy was maneuvering within the complex Senate rules governing filibusters — the only time I can remember a filibuster being used to demand a vote rather than prevent one. But the House is stricter and control of the floor is tightly timed, so the only way to do something similar there was to break the rules. Good thing the Democratic delegation included an experienced rule-breaker. Lewis tweeted:

We got in trouble. We got in the way. Good trouble. Necessary Trouble. By sitting-in, we were really standing up.

So far, the sit-in has not accomplished its goal: Speaker Paul Ryan still has no plans to allow any gun-control votes. But Lewis is not giving up yet. “This is not over,” he says. “We must keep the faith. We must come back here on July 5 more determined than ever before.”

Getting attention. Ryan’s dismissal of the sit-in as a “publicity stunt” demonstrates some basic cluelessness: Sit-ins are always publicity stunts. They are a way for otherwise powerless people to call public attention to the bad behavior of powerful people.

Ryan says: “This is not about a solution to a problem. This is about trying to get attention.” But discussion is stalled and the public is on your side, getting their attention is key to solving the problem.

The famous civil-rights sit-ins, like Greensboro, could not by themselves change any laws or corporate policies. But before the demonstrations began, whites could obliviously use all-white public spaces without thinking about segregation at all, or imagine blacks happily using their own separate-but-equal all-black spaces somewhere else. The civil rights movement’s nonviolent tactics drew publicity to the reality of segregation, and once the nation was paying attention those practices could not stand.

Something similar could happen here: The public staggers from one gun massacre to the next, numbed by the belief that nothing can be done. Politicians call for prayer, and Congress holds moments of silence. Other countries somehow avoid getting 30,000 of their citizens killed by guns each year, and do it without being overrun by criminals or taken over by tyrants. But of course we couldn’t, because … because we just can’t.

The immediate point of Lewis’ sit-in and Murphy’s filibuster is to shake that fatalism and put responsibility where it belongs: There are things to do, but the people in a position to do them refuse to act.

Why this? While generally encouraged by the fact that Democratic congresspeople are finally showing some backbone, lots of liberals are complaining that the headline proposal  — stopping people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns — would be a bad law because of civil-liberty concerns. You can wind up on a terrorist-suspect list for all kinds of reasons, not even realize it until you are told you can’t do something (like get on a plane), and have no good way to face your accusers or clear your name. Worse, the lists are constructed entirely within the executive branch, so the process would be open to abuse by some future tyrannical administration.

That is all true, but it also misses an important point: We’re nowhere near passing a law. I am reminded of something Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Garry Kasparov said about uniting behind a somewhat unsavory challenger to Putin:

You have to work with the people who live here. We’re not trying to win elections yet. It’s all about having elections.

When we’re actually in a position to pass a gun control law, we can worry about whether that law is good policy. Now we’re just trying to vote on gun control. Right now, the no-guns-for-terrorism-suspects proposal polls at ridiculous numbers [2], but not even that proposal can reach the floor of the House. That’s what we have to work with, and the situation we need to expose to public attention.

Right now, we’re trying to turn the perception that nothing can be done into an expectation that Congress will debate and vote on changes to our gun laws. Given where we are, just that much would constitute progress.

The larger implications. If sit-ins are a way for the powerless to call the powerful to public account, the House sit-in contains a powerful meta-message: The class of powerless people now includes members of Congress. 

With bipartisanship dead and the Republican majority living by the Hastert Rule — nothing comes to the floor unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it — the normal procedures of the House offer Democratic representatives nothing. But that in turn invokes the Bobby McGee principle: There’s no reason to keep living by their rules if they’ve already taken everything away from you.

“This is not a way to bring up legislation,” Ryan scolded. But for House Democrats there is no way to bring up legislation. [3] So why pay any attention to Ryan’s rules, when the only way to win is to circumvent the Republican majority by appealing directly to the public? [4]

When “publicity stunts” work. One progressive complaint about the sit-in is: Why wouldn’t Democrats go to the mat like this for other progressive causes, like single-payer healthcare or free college?

The answer is that appealing to the general public only works if you can be certain of their overwhelming support. That’s just not true for most progressive causes. [5]

Tea Party Republicans ran into the same problem when they threatened to breach the debt ceiling if President Obama wouldn’t agree to massive spending cuts. Since no one really wanted to breach the debt ceiling, the showdown was mainly a publicity stunt, meant to rally public support for lower government spending.

But once the public started paying attention, it was horrified by the risk-to-benefit proposition the Tea Partiers were putting forward. The incident backfired on Republicans because the support for their position was neither as wide nor as deep as they had imagined.

However, there is at least one additional progressive issue where publicity-stunt politics would work: voting rights. Congress refuses to fix the hole that the Supreme Court blasted in the Voting Rights Act. If the public were paying attention to this, it would clearly be on the Democrats’ side.

Who is the obstacle to change? Independent of the issue, the optics of extreme tactics by congressional Democrats draws public attention to a meta-issue: In spite of holding the White House for the last two terms, Democrats are the party of change. The obstacle to change isn’t President Obama, it’s the Republican Congress.

This point is in danger of being lost in the 2016 campaign, as a large segment of the dissatisfied public thinks of change in terms of changing the president. Donald Trump gets credit for being the candidate who would “shake things up”, while Hillary Clinton is said to represent “more of the same” and “Obama’s third term”.

But on issue after issue — climate change, healthcare, voting rights, guns, rebuilding infrastructure, immigration reform, and on and on — Obama has been the one pushing for change and being frustrated by a Congress that does nothing. The way to get change isn’t to replace Obama with somebody very different, it’s to get a president who will keep pushing the way Obama has, and elect a more cooperative Congress. [6]

Republicans have no agenda. If Republicans actually had a change agenda of any sort and Obama were the obstacle to this change, Congress would be passing laws right and left and forcing Obama to veto them.

But that hasn’t happened. Even with Republicans in control of both houses, there has been no attempt to replace ObamaCare with a Republican alternative, no reform of the tax system, no plan for repairing the “bankrupt” systems of Social Security and Medicare, no plan for balancing the budget, or for much of anything else.

President Obama has had to cast only eight vetoes since the current Congress was seated a year and a half ago. None of vetoed bills embodied some grand new conservative solution, and most were attempts to undo some change the Obama administration had implemented: One repealed ObamaCare without replacing it, and most of the rest negated rules issued by the EPA, the NLRB, or the Labor Department. In each case, it was Obama who was trying to change something (like lowering greenhouse gas emissions or preventing financial advisers from cheating their customers), and Republicans who were trying to block change.

The best evidence of Republicans being stuck in the mud is in Speaker Ryan’s series of white papers, the ones that are supposed to promote a Republican agenda for the future. Independent of what they say, their very existence indicts Ryan for a simple reason: Speakers of the House aren’t supposed to write white papers, they’re supposed to write laws.

If Ryan had bills he wanted to pass, his caucus has the power to pass them. And yet, it doesn’t.

The Spirit of 48. Harry Truman faced an even worse version of this situation in 1948. In essence, he was running for FDR’s 5th term. And yet, he did not run as the more-of-the-same candidate. Instead, he ran the give-’em-Hell campaign against the do-nothing Republican Congress. He didn’t just hold on to the presidency, but Democrats regained control of Congress as well.

That should be the blueprint for 2016: Don’t just run against Trump, run against the do-nothing Republican Congress. Make the public realize where the real obstacle to change is. Anybody who wants to shake things up needs to shake up Congress.

It’s tempting to try to tie Republican congressional candidates to Trump, but it’s important to tie him to them as well: Where, specifically, does Trump disagree with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? Aren’t they all climate change deniers who are in the pocket of the NRA? Aren’t they all trying to cut rich people’s taxes and give corporations more power to do as they please? Don’t they all want to repeal campaign finance laws and the Dodd-Frank restrictions on the big banks?

The more attention Democrats can draw to the logjam in Congress, the better. So give ’em Hell, Hillary. Give ’em Hell, John Lewis. The American people need to understand where the real obstacle is.


[1] He got his votes, but lost. A subsequent bipartisan compromise put together by Republican Susan Collins of Maine looks doomed as well.

[2] According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 85% support barring gun sales to people on the terrorist watch list, while 92% support universal background checks. Anecdotally, the watch-list proposal seems to generate more fervent support than background checks. Picturing someone buying a gun without being checked doesn’t raise as much ire as picturing a terrorist buying a gun.

[3] The clearest example of this is immigration reform. In 2013 a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Numerous sources estimated that the bill would pass the House if it came to a vote, but since it didn’t have majority support within the Republican caucus, no vote has been held. In fact, in three years no House alternative proposal has come up for a vote either.

[4] I have an off-the-wall suggestion to circumvent the Hastert Rule. Democratic congressmen should all declare themselves Republicans and attend the Republican caucus. If that’s where the important votes happen, why not go there?

I’m sure the Republicans would find a way to prevent this, but it would be another way to dramatize the anti-democratic nature of the House.

[5] The polling on single-payer varies wildly depending on how the question is phrased. In one recent AP poll, 63% had positive feelings about “Medicare-for-all”, while only 44% felt positively about a “single-payer health insurance system”, and a mere 38% supported “socialized medicine”.  They didn’t ask about a “government takeover of the healthcare system”, but I doubt it would be popular.

[6] Those who criticize how little got done during Obama’s first two years not only underestimate how much accomplishment there was, they also usually overestimate the amount of time Obama was free from Republican obstruction.

Al Franken’s election in Minnesota was close enough that Republicans managed to drag a series of vote-counting challenges through the courts. Early on, they might really have thought they could get the outcome reversed, but eventually delay became its own goal:  They kept Franken from taking his seat in the Senate until July 7, 2009.

By then, Ted Kennedy was in the final stages of the cancer that killed him on August 25. (Already by July 9, it was headline news when he came to the Senate to cast a vote. No 60-vote plan could rely on pulling him off his deathbed.) Another legal challenge prevented Kennedy’s temporary replacement, Paul Kirk, from taking office until September 24. And then in the special election on January 19, 2010, Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory, taking his seat February 4.

So effectively, Obama had a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority for slightly more than four months. Since it ended by surprise, no one realized that everything had to be passed at once.

Our gun problem IS a terrorism problem

ISIS has found the biggest hole in America’s defenses: our lax gun laws.


When Democrats in Congress responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting by renewing calls for gun control, Ted Cruz made a sharp distinction:

This is not a gun control issue; it’s a terrorism issue.

In other words, if it’s one it can’t be the other. Gallup implicitly endorsed that framing by making its respondents choose. The result was the usual partisan polarization: 79% of Republicans described the Pulse attack as “Islamic terrorism”, while 60% of Democrats called it “domestic gun violence”. [1]

But following just half a year after the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando shooting makes the guns-or-terrorism argument obsolete. It’s all one issue now. ISIS is actively encouraging lone-wolf attacks, and the easy availability of AR-15s and other military-style weapons makes the United States uniquely vulnerable to lone-wolf terrorism. Our political inability to control or track even the most destructive guns keeps that hole in our defenses open.

I’m amazed it took Islamic State strategists so long to figure that out. About a year after 9-11, the Washington metro area was terrorized by someone the press called “the D.C. sniper“. Over a three-week period he shot 13 people apparently at random, ten of whom died. Rather than a mass killing, these were individual attacks that seemed completely unpatterned and unpredictable: one victim was sitting at a bus stop reading a book, another was pumping gas at a self-service station, and a third was walking down a street.

That’s what made the attacks so terrifying: Wherever you were in the D.C. area and whatever you happened to be doing, if you were out in public you had to consider the possibility that you might suddenly be killed.

The press speculated about Al Qaeda, but the killers turned out to have no connection to international terrorism. They were just two guys with a rifle who had drilled a barrel-hole into the trunk of a rusty old car. Their plan was breathtakingly simple: They found obscure spots with clear views of public places and parked there, with the middle-aged sniper hidden in the trunk until a target appeared. After the shots were fired, his 17-year-old accomplice drove them away.

By comparison, 9-11 had been such a complex operation: It was planned in Afghanistan, then communicated to conspirators in Germany, America, and who knows how many other places. The attackers had to gain entry the U.S., where they spent months training in skills like flying a plane. On the designated day, they assembled in airports to play their roles in the plan.

Because 9-11 had so many moving parts and involved so many people, it had many possible points of failure: Communications could be intercepted. Conspirators might raise suspicion while entering the country or during training, then crack under interrogation. They might lose their nerve and defect. They might look suspicious at the airport. The other passengers might fight for control of the plane.

Those failure-points allowed the U.S. government to respond quickly, closing down many of the vulnerabilities that let 9-11 happen. Changes were made in cockpits, in airports, in our screening of people entering the country, and in how we track terrorism suspects. Nobody has succeeded in pulling off a 9-11-style attack since.

But effective as they had been in terrorizing a major urban area, the D.C. sniper duo changed nothing. If Osama bin Laden had realized the significance of that, he and his successors could have kept Americans far more frightened than we have been these last 14 years.

Which is not to say we haven’t been frightened, but more by each other than by foreign terrorists. The years since the D. C. sniper have seen a series of ever-more-horrific mass shootings. Each time, Congress took no action to reduce our vulnerability.

Terrorist plotters may be slow, but eventually they catch on. By now, as Pulse and San Bernadino make clear, ISIS understands very well: One disgruntled, alienated, or insane American (or permanent resident [2]) can easily kill dozens, without breaking any laws until the moment he or she opens fire. A tourist could be equally deadly; the only additional point of legal danger in that plan would be a black-market gun purchase [3], which is made simpler by the fact that we have no system for keeping track of guns, even military-style weapons. [4]

Carrying out such an attack requires little planning or training, so such plans have very few points where they are vulnerable to detection or interruption. Omar Mateen, Rizwan Farook, and Tashfeen Malik did not have to spend weeks at some terrorist camp in Syria or Libya. They didn’t need to smuggle anything into the country or coordinate their plans with some handler from ISIS central command. [5] They just had to buy guns, practice shooting them, and then go kill people.

Best of all (from ISIS’ point of view) the Islamic State didn’t even need to think this up for themselves. All they had to do was observe how defenseless we are against mass shootings (as Sandy Hook made obvious) and how dysfunctional our political system has been in responding to that weakness (as Congress’ complete lack of response to Sandy Hook made obvious). Even after two wildly successful attacks, ISIS doesn’t have to worry all that much about the government shutting down points of vulnerability. With the NRA on the case, no pro-terrorism lobby is needed. [6]

So it may have taken them a while, but the terrorists have adapted. The question is whether we will adapt, overcome the NRA’s resistance, and force our representatives to face the new reality. Will we find ways to reduce the number of the most lethal guns and make the existing ones easier to track? Will we limit guns’ mass-killing potential by banning high-capacity magazines? Will we allow authorities to track suspicious guns-and-ammunition purchasing patterns?

That isn’t just a gun-control agenda any more. It’s an anti-terrorism agenda. Given what we’ve seen, any purported anti-terrorism agenda that does not include such gun-control measures is just not serious.


[1] A third option of “both equally” was offered and drew only 6%. But that choice still paints a picture of two distinct factors that just happen to be present in equal quantities. “Both equally” does not express what I’m claiming here: that mass shootings are our primary terrorism vulnerability.

[2] Guns laws are stricter for non-citizens than for citizens, but permanent residents have all the same second-amendment rights citizens do.

[3] A black-market purchase might not even be necessary, because existing gun laws are so poorly enforced at gun shows, and many laws don’t even apply there. Here, for example, a 13-year-old boy buys a rifle.

[4] The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 forbids the federal government to compile a list or database of gun owners and the guns they own. Paperwork related to background checks on gun buyers is supposed to be thrown away within 24 hours. Jacob Paulsen of usaFirearmTraining.com writes: “Generally speaking for the majority of American gun owners there is no system, database, or registry that ties us to any of our firearms.”

By contrast, we have very tight controls on military weapons like machine guns, bazookas, and hand grenades. Those controls work: Such weapons have not been used in our series of mass killings.

[5] By contrast, the Paris attack was a complex plot involving multiple coordinated actions by experienced operatives, some of whom had fought in Syria. It required ISIS to use resources that authorities could then take off the board. Killing large numbers of Americans is much simpler.

[6] The fact that after Orlando and San Bernardino, the Senate is having so much trouble taking the simplest step — preventing already-identified terrorism suspects from buying more guns — does not bode well. Even if the two parties do manage water something down enough to pass it, the House is unlikely to go along.

About Those Emails

On the Right, it is an article of faith that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State involves her in crimes that deserve a jail term; either she will be indicted by the FBI or (if not) President Obama somehow is protecting her from indictment. Donald Trump has said “Hillary Clinton has to go to jail.” and “Anything Obama wants, she’s going forward with because you know why? She doesn’t want to go to jail.”

More recently, as it became clear that Clinton would be nominated, some Bernie Sanders supporters began expressing similar hopes: that legal troubles would take Clinton off the board, leaving the nomination for Sanders. Sanders himself has not gone that far, but has urged voters and delegates to “take a hard look” at the report of the State Department Inspector General.

One small place the Clinton/Sanders debate has been playing out is in the comments on this blog, and I have started getting criticism for ignoring or minimizing the issue, particularly the more recent developments. [1] So I thought I’d read the Office of the Inspector General’s report and other well-informed commentary on the Clinton’s emails and report.

What it’s all about. The OIG report says:

Secretary Clinton employed a personal email system to conduct business during her tenure in the United States Senate and her 2008 Presidential campaign. She continued to use personal email throughout her term as Secretary, relying on an account maintained on a private server, predominantly through mobile devices. Throughout Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the server was located in her New York residence.

Instead, she should have used a State Department email account for official business while she was Secretary of State. I don’t think anyone disputes that basic description of the situation. The entire argument is about how serious the issue is.

Separable concerns. The first thing to understand about Clinton’s emails is that there are two separate and more-or-less opposite concerns: security (i.e., keeping information in) and transparency (letting information out).

Most articles about the emails wander from one concern to the other, sometimes irresponsibly. But it makes no sense to jump from an OIG quote about Clinton breaking transparency rules to a charge that she has put the nation’s security at risk. Either, neither, or both might be true, but they are completely different issues.

We won’t know exactly what the FBI is investigating until they tell us, but indications are that they are focused on the security of classified information. If so, then the OIG report is almost a perfect complement: It focuses mainly on transparency; to the extent it discusses security at all, it talks about sensitive-but-unclassified information, which I assume includes things like personnel records.

Transparency. The OIG report is deadly dull to read, because it’s mainly a recent history of record-keeping at the State Department. Clinton is a central figure, but the sweep is much broader.

The report paints a picture of a common bureaucratic problem: The government has good intentions about keeping complete records. Some of those intentions have been written into laws like the Federal Records Act. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has issued government-wide regulations for meeting the legal requirements, and the State Department, like other departments and agencies, has created policies and procedures that (if followed) should fulfill the NARA regulations.

Unfortunately, though, State (like much of the government) never finds the money to create an up-to-date, usable record-keeping system, particularly with regard to modern forms of communication like email. So proper record-keeping is cumbersome, and employees are left with a conflict between following the proper procedures and getting their jobs done.

According to a 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, most agencies do not prioritize records management, as evidenced by lack of staff and budget resources, absence of up-to-date policies and procedures, lack of training, and lack of accountability. In its most recent annual assessment of records management, [the National Archives and Records Administration] identified similar weaknesses across the Federal Government with regard to electronic records in particular. NARA reported that 80 percent of agencies had an elevated risk for the improper management of electronic records, reflecting serious challenges handling vast amounts of email, integrating records management functionality into electronic systems, and adapting to the changing technological and regulatory environments.

You might think that just using the State Department email system would be enough to insure compliance, but no.

Several staff mentioned preserving emails by saving them in their Department email accounts. However, as previously noted, NARA regulations state that agencies may only use an electronic mail system to store the recordkeeping copy of electronic mail messages identified as Federal records if that system contains specific features; the current Department email system does not contain these features.

There’s a separate program for making sure emails get properly recorded, but most people don’t use it.

However, prior OIG reports have repeatedly found that Department employees enter relatively few of their emails into the SMART system and that compliance varies greatly across bureaus, in part because of perceptions by Department employees that SMART is not intuitive, is difficult to use, and has some technical problems.

So working around the system in one way or another has been common.

OIG also reviewed an S/ES-IRM report [don’t worry about the acronym, it looks to be State’s information technology office] prepared in 2010 showing that more than 9,200 emails were sent within one week from S/ES servers to 16 web-based email domains, including gmail.com, hotmail.com, and att.net. S/ES-IRM told OIG that it no longer has access to the tool used to generate this particular report. In another instance, in a June 3, 2011, email message to Secretary Clinton with the subject line “Google email hacking and woeful state of civilian technology,” a former Director of Policy Planning wrote: “State’s technology is so antiquated that NO ONE uses a State-issued laptop and even high officials routinely end up using their home email accounts to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively.”

Previous secretaries of state worked around the system in different ways. Colin Powell used a mixture of personal and official email, while Condoleezza Rice didn’t use email at all. (I’m having trouble imagining how you run a department without email, but somehow she managed it.) Clinton defenders who say that Powell did exactly the same thing as Clinton are exaggerating, but it’s true that no previous secretary had found a way to use email while fully complying with the official procedures.

Nobody worked around the system quite as completely as Secretary Clinton did, and in doing so she undoubtedly violated State Department policies. It’s possible she was in violation of a law against removing government records, though she claims the government still had all her correspondence because the people she was writing to were on government servers. (As we’ve seen, NARA wouldn’t consider that adequate.) She has since sent the government printed copies of her business emails, filtering them out from her personal emails, which were on the same server. (Though critics wonder if she filtered properly.)

But departmental policy is not the same as law, so it’s still iffy whether there’s a technical legal violation related to the FRA. Even if there is, prosecuting for it would be unheard of. The OIG report gives the example of an ambassador to Kenya:

the Ambassador continued to use unauthorized systems to conduct official business [after being told not to]. The Department subsequently initiated disciplinary proceedings against him for his failure to follow these directions and for several other infractions, but he resigned before any disciplinary measures were imposed.

That response — no legal charges, but internal discipline that vanishes when someone leaves State — seems to be how these things are typically handled.

Security. Another point that doesn’t get enough attention in the media is that the State Department’s email system does not have sufficient security to allow classified discussions. Classified discussions require use of a different messaging system, which can only be accessed from secure locations. (I’m wondering whether this system is the one whose messages Chelsea Manning released to the world, but I haven’t verified that.)

So, completely independent of whether Clinton’s email files were stored on her personal server or the State Department’s, those files are not supposed to contain classified information. If they do, there’s been a security violation before the email gets to the server.

In other words, if you’re worried about documents stamped TOP SECRET getting attached to emails and winding up on a hard drive in Clinton’s basement, stop. That’s not how State is supposed to operate or did operate.

The potential security violations we’re hearing about are almost all of the incidental or accidental variety: Somebody (usually not Clinton, but the person writing to her) should have known that certain information ought to be classified, but mentioned it in email anyway. [2] Or an email contained information that the State Department considered unclassified at the time, but was later classified by some other agency.

Politics and sources. Before going into detail about specific alleged violations, another thing to understand is that all our windows into the FBI investigation are distorted by politics. The FBI has not issued any official reports on Clinton’s emails and is not briefing the press directly. But it sometimes briefs members of Congress about what it has been finding, and that information sometimes gets leaked to the press.

So most of the news articles about the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails are based on leaks from Republican congressmen, who may slant their assessments or cherry-pick their quotes because they want to make Clinton look bad. Whenever a story mentions “congressional sources”, that generally means “Republicans”.

As a result, there has been a string of sensational “scoops” that subsequently had to be walked back as more accurate versions came out. (One report that 147 FBI agents were involved in the investigation — making it a Public Enemy #1 scale effort — eventually got reduced to less than 12.) As always, the sensational version sticks in the public mind even after it has been debunked. This is particularly true within the conservative echo chamber.

Recent revelations. This week the The Wall Street Journal published an article (sourced to anonymous “congressional and law-enforcement officials”) describing top-secret information allegedly found on Clinton’s server. These were email exchanges between lower-level State Department officials that got forwarded to Clinton. (I found no claim that Clinton participated in the exchanges.)

The circumstances are worth understanding: The U.S. regularly launches drone strikes in Pakistan without the official consent of the Pakistani government. This fact itself is considered top secret (even though everyone knows it), and plans for specific drone strikes are top secret, for obvious reasons. (If news about the strike got out beforehand, whoever we were trying to attack could get away.)

As you can imagine, the drone program is not popular inside Pakistan. Protests from Pakistani officials got more and more intense, and the State Department was the official channel for receiving these protests. So eventually, officials at State were given prior warning of drone strikes.

The CIA initially chafed at the idea of giving the State Department more of a voice in the process. Under a compromise reached around the year 2011, CIA officers would notify their embassy counterparts in Islamabad when a strike in Pakistan was planned, so then-U.S. ambassador Cameron Munter or another senior diplomat could decide whether to “concur” or “non-concur.” Mr. Munter declined to comment.

Diplomats in Islamabad would communicate the decision to their superiors in Washington. A main purpose was to give then-Secretary of State Clinton and her top aides a chance to consider whether she wanted to weigh in with the CIA director about a planned strike.

Drone strikes are time-sensitive events, because the terrorist leaders they target move around a lot. So if State was going to object, it had to do so quickly. And now we once again run into the limitations of State Department systems.

The time available to the State Department to weigh in on a planned strike varied widely, from several days to as little as 20 or 30 minutes. “If a strike was imminent, it was futile to use the high side, which no one would see for seven hours,” said one official. [3]

Adding to those communications hurdles, U.S. intelligence officials privately objected to the State Department even using its high-side system. They wanted diplomats to use a still-more-secure system called the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Community Systems, or JWICs. State Department officials don’t have ready access to that system, even in Washington. If drone-strike decisions were needed quickly, it wouldn’t be an option, officials said.

So once again, we see people facing a choice between following proper procedures and getting their jobs done. On at least a few occasions, then, discussions about drone strikes happened over insecure email channels.

One such exchange came just before Christmas in 2011, when the U.S. ambassador sent a short, cryptic note to his boss indicating a drone strike was planned. That sparked a back-and-forth among Mrs. Clinton’s senior advisers over the next few days, in which it was clear they were having the discussions in part because people were away from their offices for the holiday and didn’t have access to a classified computer, officials said.

I interpret “cryptic” to mean that the officials tried to be oblique in their references, so that anyone who might intercept the email wouldn’t immediately know what they were talking about. (I picture something like Tony Soprano’s phone conversations, or the ones KGB agents have on The Americans.) This is not considered an acceptable technique for securing classified information, but it seems to have worked.

U.S. officials said there is no evidence Pakistani intelligence officials intercepted any of the low-side State Department emails or used them to protect militants.

The WSJ article also notes that this kind of corner-cutting happens from time to time all over the government.

Several law-enforcement officials said they don’t expect any criminal charges to be filed as a result of the investigation, although a final review of the evidence will be made only after an expected FBI interview with Mrs. Clinton this summer.

One reason is that government workers at several agencies, including the departments of Defense, Justice and State, have occasionally resorted to the low-side system to give each other notice about sensitive but fast-moving events, according to one law-enforcement official.

So: Rules were broken, but not with malicious intent, and apparently without bad consequences. The most serious violations were not by Clinton, but the record of that rule-breaking is on her server and shouldn’t be. If the WSJ article is accurate, prosecuting anyone for these incidents would be highly unusual, and Clinton would not be at the top of the list.


[1] Here’s where I’m coming from: I voted for Sanders in the New Hampshire primary and have been raising many of his signature issues — inequality, campaign finance, etc. — for several years. But I have criticized the anti-Clinton turn in Sanders’ rhetoric. And I have been increasingly disenchanted with his campaign’s tendency to turn the ordinary politics of a presidential contest into a persecution narrative, one that unifies the media, the Democratic Party, election officials, and everybody else who isn’t 100% for Bernie into a sinister Clinton-supporting “Them”.

[2] If you’ve ever worked someplace that handles classified information (I used to and my wife still does), you know that such technical violations of security are not that unusual, because the boundary between what can and can’t be said in certain places to certain people can be hazy. (I’ve heard many face-to-face conversations end with: “But we probably shouldn’t be talking about this.”) Also, while any idiot should know not to mention the names of spies or technical details of weapons systems, a lot of stuff gets classified that really isn’t that important. That kind of information sometimes slides into conversations without anybody noticing.

[3] The article does not speculate about this, but I wonder if the CIA ever gamed the system: By picking particularly inconvenient moments to notify State and leaving very small time windows, they might make it harder for State to interfere with their plans.

What Should “Racism” Mean? Part II.

Republican leaders are disturbed by Trump’s racist comments. But two-thirds of Republican voters don’t think they’re racist at all.


In a week that saw Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to clinch a major-party nomination, probably more news-network air time got devoted to the effort of Republican leaders to distance themselves from Donald Trump. In the wake of his long series of attacks against the “Mexican” judge overseeing one of the Trump University fraud lawsuits, the word racist came up a lot, and few elected Republicans seemed willing to defend Trump from the charge that it applied to him.

Speaker Paul Ryan described a Trump statement as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Republican Senator Mark Kirk withdrew his endorsement of Trump, saying that in view of his recent statements “I cannot and will not support my party’s nominee for president”. Maine’s Senator Susan Collins refused to rule out voting for Clinton. Former senatorial candidate (and major Republican donor) Meg Whitman compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini. And on and on. The most blistering attack of all came from the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney:

I don’t want to see trickle-down racism. I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America. [1]

But if the primaries proved anything, it’s that the GOP’s leadership is out of tune with its voters, especially compared to Trump. So when YouGov asked whether Trump’s comments were racist, only 22% of Republicans were reading from Paul Ryan’s textbook, while almost 2/3rds said the comments weren’t racist. By a narrower 43%-39% margin, Republicans said that Trump was right to make those comments. [2]

What could they possibly be thinking?

Trump’s own explanation was far from convincing. In a prepared statement, he argued that his comments had been “misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage” when actually they were just targeted at Judge Curiel, who apparently had it coming because he didn’t dismiss the Trump U lawsuit.

To me, that’s like yelling “Nigger!” at a black driver who cuts you off in traffic, and then feeling misunderstood when the blacks in your carpool take offense. You didn’t launch a categorical attack on all blacks, you just used a racial insult against one guy who had it coming because he was in your way. Why can’t they see the difference?

I got a better clue from listening to Bill O’Reilly. Wednesday night, Bill challenged Congressman Bill Flores about the Texas Republican’s use of racist.

Do you believe that Donald Trump gets up in the morning and says, “You know what? I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.”? Do you believe that? … Don’t you think it was more about Trump being angry with the judge’s decision in a civil litigation rather than the judge’s ethnicity? … OK, I get your point, but I think you understand mine as well. That you don’t use the R-word unless you are [talking about] David Duke, unless you have got a history of trying to denigrate minorities or other people.

Trump isn’t ex-KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, so he’s not a racist. Even labeling specific quotes as racist (which is all Paul Ryan did; he didn’t call Trump a racist) is apparent going too far. The most O’Reilly would say was that they were “unwise”.

And now we’re back on a topic I covered two years ago in “What Should Racism Mean?“. At that time I reviewed a long list of pseudo-scandals that President Obama had started … by doing things that previous presidents had done without upsetting anybody: put his feet on a White House desk, let a Marine hold his umbrella, send secular Christmas cards, and so on. Similarly, the luxurious White House lifestyle — unchanged from previous administrations — suddenly began inspiring outrage when a black family moved in.

So I raised the question: Is that racist? And I allowed for the possibility that some might not want to call it that.

I sympathize with people who want to reserve racism for Adolf Hitler ordering the Final Solution to the Jewish problem or George Wallace standing in the door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The men who lynched Emmett Till or the grand jury that refused to indict them — those people were racists. I get that it doesn’t seem right to put them in the same category with the people who only just realized in 2009 that life in the White House is pretty sweet.

But a problem comes up: If you want to construe racist and racism very narrowly, then what words do you use for people who (for some reason other than conscious willful hatred) just can’t look at a black president or his family the same way they have always looked at white presidents and their families? It’s a thing; it really happens, and it has important political consequences. What do you call it?

The Trump/Curiel situation is similar. Trump is doing something morally objectionable here. He is taking advantage of his fans’ willingness to believe bad things about Mexican-Americans on flimsy or no evidence (just as, when he was pushing Birtherism, he was taking advantage of their willingness to believe bad things about a black president on flimsy or no evidence), in order to either put pressure on a federal judge or explain away why so many people are suing him for fraud.

In other words, once again he is looking at the public’s racial prejudices and saying, “I can make this work for me.” That doesn’t make him Hitler or David Duke, but it’s a despicable act that needs a name. What is it? O’Reilly’s suggestion of unwise doesn’t fill the bill, because there’s no moral component to unwise. Spending $35,000 on a Trump University course is unwise; Trump’s repeated and calculated abuse of Judge Curiel is something altogether different.

And if you are inside the conservative bubble, that “something” has no name. The word that the rest of the country uses — racism — has been declared off-limits and not replaced. And now that there is no way to talk about Trump’s offense, it doesn’t exist. Whatever is wrong with Trump’s statements can no longer be put into words, so they aren’t wrong — at least not to a plurality of Republicans.

George Orwell had this all figured out in the mid-20th century. As he wrote in “The Principles of Newspeak“:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. [my italics]

In today’s Newspeak, as spoken by devotees of AmCon, racism has been stripped of all meanings beyond getting up in the morning and saying “I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.” It applies to active white supremacists like David Duke, and no one else.

But if treating a black First Family differently from all white First Families isn’t racism, what is it? If citing a judge’s ethnicity as evidence of his unfitness isn’t racism, what is it?

Unless they’re trying to restrict the language to make these issues “literally unthinkable”, American conservatives owe us some new terminology.


[1] To flesh out what Romney might mean by “trickle-down racism”, look at this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center about how the bigotry in our presidential campaign is showing up in our schools and on our playgrounds.

[2] Among all voters, a 57%-20% majority said Trump was wrong, and a 51%-32% majority said the comments were racist. For some reason YouGov’s headline characterizes that majority as “thin”, but it really isn’t.

Preserving the Cult of the Job Creator

Members of the donor class must accept Trump’s personality cult to maintain their own.


Amazingly, on Wednesday somebody wrote an entire article about the presidential race that said hardly anything about Donald Trump. Even more remarkably, the article was an endorsement of Trump.

It’s true: Home Depot co-founder (and billionaire Jeb Bush donor) Bernie Marcus managed to endorse Trump without mentioning any particular thing he imagines President Trump will do, other than Make America Great Again and take the country in some unspecified “new direction”. No Mexican wall, no Muslim ban or database, no trade war with China, no deportation force rounding up 11 million people, no renegotiating the public debt, no ordering our military to commit war crimes, no nukes for Saudi Arabia. None of the positions Trump has made famous garner a single line.

OK then, maybe Marcus just dislikes Hillary Clinton. But why? That also is a little hard to get a handle on, because his denunciations of Clinton (or maybe President Obama; they’re interchangeable) are vague to the point of vanishing into rhetoric. Clinton will “push the [Supreme] court leftward for generations”, but no specific legal issue explains why Marcus believes that would be bad. Like Obama, Clinton is “hostile to free enterprise” in some unspecified way. Together, Clinton and Obama “have peddled a dangerous sentiment that government can provide for Americans better than the private sector.”

I’d be really interested to find a quote in which either Clinton or Obama actually expressed that sentiment, much less “peddled” it. (As No Democrat Ever said: “Damn this free enterprise system! Why can’t the government just own everything?”) I’ve listened to a lot of speeches from both of them, and I’ve never heard it. [1]

When otherwise intelligent people justify their actions and beliefs with vague claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny, I start to wonder what’s happening under the surface. Something about Clinton, Obama, and Democrats in general pisses Bernie Marcus off. What could it be?

Our main clue is the third major topic in Marcus’ article, one that he discusses at greater length and with more feeling than either Trump or Clinton: Home Depot, and (by inference) himself. In particular: all the wonderful opportunities that it/he has magnanimously provided for others. For example:

One young man started with us at 17 years of age, bringing carts in from the parking lot. Ultimately, he became a regional president. Imagine Americans vilifying this young man, who became a millionaire and earned every penny of it.

Indeed: imagine. You have to imagine, because in reality no one is vilifying Americans for getting ahead by working hard. If anyone were doing that, Marcus could quote them. But no one is, so he has to imagine.

He imagines a lot of other things too. What if the oppressive regulations of “Obama/Clinton-style government” had existed back in the 1970s when his wondrous Home Depot was getting started? Well, a (briefly) small business like his just couldn’t have happened under those conditions, because under Dodd-Frank, bankers would have required a solid balance sheet rather than basing their loan decisions on his “character and determination”. [2]

And Home Depot couldn’t have gone public under Sarbanes-Oxley because … I’m not sure why. IPOs continue to happen. Facebook went public. UnderArmour. Chipotle. But Home Depot wouldn’t have been able to figure it out for some reason.

And that would have been horrible for America because

the risks we took in the 1970s have resulted in millions of jobs – not just at The Home Depot, but at our suppliers, our vendors, and even our customers’ businesses.

This is where I think we start getting to the root of things, because by this point Marcus has left reality completely behind and vanished into self-glorifying mythology.

You see, Marcus may think of himself as a champion of small business and a job creator, but the reality is the exact opposite. Other than WalMart and maybe Amazon [3], I can’t think of any corporation that has destroyed more small businesses than Home Depot.

Whatever Marcus may imagine, Home Depot didn’t create the home-improvement retail market, it captured that market from other businesses that were already serving it.

Not so long ago, hardware stores and electrical supply shops and paint stores and lumber yards were just about all locally owned by businesspeople you could meet and talk to. If you were a tool-loving kind of guy [4] and could scrape some money together, you could start such a business and be your own boss. Now that’s a much dicier proposition — not because of Dodd-Frank or Sarbanes-Oxley or even ObamaCare, but mainly because of Home Depot (and its rival Lowes).

I haven’t done enough research to back this up with numbers, but looking at the merchandise and staff of my local Home Depot, I strongly suspect that (all together) those locally-owned stores of the 1970s employed more people, and probably stocked more American-made products. [5] Looking at the full picture, I’d guess that Home Depot isn’t a job creator at all, especially if we’re talking about American jobs. It’s more of a job destroyer.

So while you can argue that Home Depot captured its markets fair and square (because it provides a larger selection of products at a better price, or for some other reason), you can’t give it credit for millions of jobs, or any jobs at all.

Understanding the job-creator mythology and how divorced it is from reality puts us in a position to explain why Marcus (and so much of the donor class that supported Romney and Bush) has to come around to Trump eventually, even if all his policies and positions are too embarrassing to mention: Republicans have incorporated job-creator mythology into their larger myth of America, while Democrats have not. The reason Marcus and his compatriots think Democrats like Clinton or Obama (or me) are so hostile to “free enterprise” is that we don’t worship them the way they think they deserve to be worshiped.

Democrats readily acknowledge that billionaires like Marcus and corporations like Home Depot are currently King of the Hill. But they want to believe that they created the hill.

Republicans are happy to tell them that they did. Democrats, on the other hand, tell the story this way: Business in the United States has always been a game played under certain rules. Under the rules of the 1970s and the decades that followed, Home Depot succeeded and Marcus became a multi-billionaire. We don’t begrudge his success, or the success of his 17-year-old cart-pushing millionaire employee either (assuming that guy really exists). Marcus won the game and captured the prize, so congratulations to him.

But we’d like to shift the rules so that in the future the workplace becomes safer and less discriminatory, so that workers don’t have to go bankrupt if they or their children need serious medical care, and so that those cart-pushers who don’t rise to be regional presidents still make a wage that lets them feed their families without food stamps. With those amendments, we want the game to continue, and businesspeople to keep on winning or losing according to how well they play.

Maybe Marcus and his fellow Kings of the Hill would win the game under those rules too, or maybe not. But that doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s not the end of free enterprise. Conversely, restoring the rules of the 1970s or 1950s or 1850s won’t make America great again, whatever great and again mean in that context.

Understandably, though, Bernie Marcus and his friends are not going to come around to the Democratic point of view, no matter how reality-based it is. They see themselves as Gods of the Hill, and view our attempts to landscape the hill as sacrilege. I can only hope that their self-deifying religion is still a minority faith.


[1] Preserving a role for the private sector is kind of the point of ObamaCare: How do you get healthcare to millions more Americans without the government taking over everything, by working through the existing insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, and clinics? That’s what the conservative Heritage Foundation designed their proto-ObamaCare system to do, way back in 1989.

[2] They also couldn’t have considered his race. I wonder how many black businessmen were getting loans based on their “character and determination” back in the 1970s. I also wonder how much money the banking industry has lost over the years due to lenders making loans unjustified by financial principles. That was a major cause of the S&L crisis of the 1980s. To the extent that current law limits the digression of federally-insured bankers, it happens for good reasons.

[3] One of my friends recently closed a local bookstore that had existed in the same location since the 1920s. I never heard him complain about government regulation, but Amazon seemed to be a much bigger problem. I suspect a lot of small businesspeople would tell a similar story.

[4] Yeah, you probably did have to be a guy. It was the 70s.

[5] You can argue that retailers sell Chinese products because that’s what’s available, but the big-box stores — especially Walmart — have been instrumental in pushing their suppliers to manufacture overseas.

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