Category Archives: Articles

The Election: Worry or Don’t Worry?

Biden’s lead in the polls has Democrats searching for what could possibly go wrong. But some worries should be taken less seriously than others.


Just about every Democrat I know wants to punish him/herself for being overconfident in 2016. Some of us have practical regrets, and wish we’d done more to put Hillary over the top, while others less rationally feel like we jinxed her by saying too loudly that she was going to win. But whatever we did or didn’t do then, we’re now determined to make ourselves suffer by refusing to accept any good news about Joe Biden’s chances. No matter what the polls say, something is going to go horribly wrong.

For what it’s worth, I think we’re going to win this. Not that there’s nothing to worry about, but some of our worries are less serious than others. Let’s assess them one by one.

Worry #1. The polls are wrong.

Biden’s average margin in national polls is somewhere in the 8-9% range, and has been there since mid-June. More importantly, he has solid leads in the swing states he needs to win: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. If he fails in one of those states, polls also give him a good shot at flipping Florida, Arizona, or North Carolina. And even Republican strongholds like Texas and Georgia are not completely out of reach.

But Democrats remember how confident we felt in 2016, and look for reasons to doubt the polls. Republicans, on the other hand, live in constant denial of reality, and doubt the polls because they don’t want them to be true. Poll-skeptics make two related arguments.

  • The polls were wrong in 2016, so why should we trust them now?
  • There is a “hidden” Trump voter that the polls either can’t count or don’t want to count.

Neither really holds water, as long as you remember that polls are snapshots of public opinion at a moment in time, and not predictions of what people will think or do months from now.

The first thing to understand is that the final polls in 2016 were not far off from the vote totals, and to the extent they were, the more likely explanation is that Comey’s reopening of the Clinton email investigation gave Trump late momentum. The polls probably weren’t wrong at the moment they were taken; but a small shift in public opinion at the last minute put Trump over the top.

Nationally, the final 2016 RCP polling average had Clinton up by 3.3%. Her actual margin in the national popular vote was 2.1%. In Pennsylvania and Michigan the polls were off by a bit more — but still not that much. And in both cases, Trump had been gaining in the final week. The only real surprise was Wisconsin, where Clinton led by 6.5% in the final polls and lost by 0.7%.

But in 2018, the reverse happened: The final general congressional ballot polls had the Democrats up by 7.3%, and their margin in the vote totals was larger: 8.4%.

So if there were “hidden Trump voters” in 2016, were their “hidden Democrats” in 2018? Or is there always a small shift in the final days and hours of a campaign?

For what my opinion is worth, I expect the 2020 last-minute shift to be in Biden’s favor. Late in a campaign, a certain number of voters are just sick of all the noise. This year in particular, those voters will be sick of four years of noise; the thought that the loud, obnoxious Trump Era could be over will just be irresistible.

Assessment: Don’t worry about this. Things could change before Election Day, but Biden really is ahead right now.

Worry #2. Trump will stage a remarkable comeback.

In the Trump Era, when every day brings a a few week’s worth of news, three months is a very long time. A month ago, who was predicting that Portland would be invaded by DHS secret police? So all kinds of things can happen before Election Day, and you can expect Trump to push all the buttons and turn all the knobs as he tries to change the public’s opinion of him.

However, nothing he’s trying right now is working at all, or is likely to work if he just keeps at it and pushes harder. Unleashing his goons on Portland was supposed to produce a wave of support for the “law-and-order President” (who is strangely indifferent when people in his administration break the law). But in the latest Ipsos poll, 52% of Americans say the federal response to protests made things worse, with only 30% saying it made them better.

The not-all-that-veiled racism of his “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” tweet doesn’t seem to be going over all that well either. Suburbs aren’t what they were in the 1950s. Black people already live there (though still not in proportionate numbers), so they aren’t as easy to demonize. And a suburb anywhere near high-tech industries (like Bedford, Massachusetts, where I live) is going to include lots of residents of East Asian or South Asian ancestry. If you’re looking for the lily-white experience, you have to go to ex-urbs or rural small towns.

A second factor: His ability to change tactics is limited by his inability to admit mistakes or take responsibility for bad outcomes. So he has to keep doubling down on points that the public already knows are false. Like: the virus really is spreading, it’s not just that we’re testing more. That stopped fooling anyone other than Trump diehards weeks ago, but he can’t stop saying it.

And it’s not just him. The Trumpists who picture a comeback have to engage in such flights of fancy that reading their scenarios makes me more confident, not less. For example, Grady Means published an op-ed Wednesday in The Hill: “Buy the Dip: Bet on Trump“. In Means’ fantasy world, Trump has done a great job and had a great strategy going into this year, but after Covid-19 got rolling “the president has been a complete failure at playing his winning hand.”

The mainstream media and social networks stepped up their withering and relentless Trump-attacks. Statistically meaningless (increased testing and obvious selection bias) COVID-19 “cases” data were weaponized into a strategy of continued lockdowns and sustained school closures.

That’s Trump’s problem — not that America on his watch has objectively screwed up its pandemic response worse than any other rich country, or that people are genuinely hurting economically with no relief in sight. No, it’s that the media has made something out of nothing, and convinced the public to shut down businesses and schools when the virus isn’t really out of control at all. As soon as Americans realize the virus is already beaten, learn to ignore the hundreds of thousands of bodies piling up in the corner, and recognize what a great job Trump has done on the pandemic and everything else, he’ll surge again.

I just can’t picture that plan succeeding.

If Trump is going to stage a comeback, it’s going to have to be through an October surprise: either foreign help (like he got from Russia in 2016 and tried to extort from Ukraine this time around) or some headline-making indictments from the Barr/Durham investigation of the investigators. In either case, whatever anti-Biden “scandal” Trump manages to puff up will probably have little substance, and the public will have been well warned.

Assessment: Worry a little. In particular, worry enough to keep doing whatever you can to ensure a Biden victory. (If we overshoot and wind up with a landslide, that might teach Republicans to give up not just on Trump, but on Trumpist fascism in general — no Tucker Carlson or Tom Cotton in 2024.) But if anxiety about a Trump comeback is causing you to lose sleep or plunge into depression, feel free to put it out of your mind.

3. Trump might lose the election, but refuse to leave office.

It’s important to keep two things in mind:

  • The power of the president functions almost entirely through other people.
  • The White House is a symbolic place, but has no legal or institutional significance.

So while it’s very easy to imagine Trump barricading himself in the Oval Office on January 20 and tweeting endlessly about voter fraud and how he’s still president, if the people who make up the government stop taking his orders, he’s not president any more. Removing him from the White House would become a problem for the Secret Service, aided by mental health professionals.

The transition-of-power process defined by the Constitution and implemented in various state and federal laws goes like this:

  • On November 3, an election is held — or rather 51 separate elections are held in the states and the District of Columbia. This date could be changed, but only by Congress. The Constitution says: “The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors”. Votes are counted by local officials, until at some point a state official verifies the names of the electors who will represent that state in the Electoral College.
  • On December 14 (the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December), the electors cast their votes. Like Election Day, this date was set by Congress and can only be changed by Congress. (The same sentence in the Constitution continues: “The Congress may determine … the Day on which [the Electors] shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.”) The electors meet in their own states, vote, and send the vote totals to Congress.
  • On January 6, a joint session of Congress meets and the electoral votes are officially counted. (This is the new Congress, with the new representatives and senators elected in November. The new terms start on January 3.) Whatever disputes there might be — rival slates of electors and so on — Congress has the authority to resolve them. The new president will be who the new Congress says it is.
  • On January 20, the new president is inaugurated, swearing an oath specified in the Constitution. There are lots of traditions around the inauguration — it happens just outside the Capitol, the Chief Justice administers the oath, the oath is sworn on a Bible or whatever book the new president holds sacred — but none of that is required.

Here’s something I have great faith in: If the joint session of Congress on January 6 recognizes that Joe Biden has received the majority of electoral votes, he will become president at noon on January 20 and the government will obey his orders. Where Donald Trump is at the time, and whatever he is claiming or tweeting, will be of no consequence.

If Trump’s tweets bring a bunch of right-wing militiamen into the streets with their AR-15s, they can cause a lot of bloodshed, but they can’t keep Trump in office. They are no match for the Army, whose Commander-in-Chief will be Joe Biden.

So if Trump wants to stay on as president, he has to screw the process up sooner; by January 6, it’s all in the bag, and probably it’s all in the bag by December 14. Even stretching out the process with legal proceedings won’t help him: The Constitution specifies that his term ends on January 20. If at that time there is no new president or vice president to take over, the job devolves to the Speaker of the House, who I believe will be Nancy Pelosi.

Assessment: Worry about the ways that Trump might screw with the electoral process (which we’ll get to), but not that he will just refuse to leave the White House.

4. Republican state legislators will overrule the voters and give their state’s electoral votes to Trump.

Awarding a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who wins that state’s popular vote is so traditional that most people think it must be in the Constitution, but it isn’t. The sum total of the Constitution‘s instructions are:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress

So, at least in theory, a legislature could ignore the popular vote and appoint anybody it wants to the Electoral College. However, states have codified their current processes in law, and a new law would have to be passed to circumvent that process. The swing states people are most worried about — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — have been gerrymandered to lock in Republican majorities in the legislatures, but they have Democratic governors who would veto a law to hand Trump the state’s electoral votes. Republicans don’t have enough votes to override a veto.

Assuming Trump wins at least one of those states legitimately, though — or manages to suppress enough Democratic votes to get a majority — Biden could still win if he carries Florida, Arizona, or North Carolina. North Carolina, like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, has a Democratic governor and enough Democrats in the legislature to sustain a veto. So Trump needs to win the popular vote there, too.

That leaves Florida and Arizona, where Republicans have unified control of state government. (You could also talk about Texas and Georgia, but if Biden wins the popular vote in either of those states, he’ll have such a landslide that no amount of backroom finagling could undo it.) Would they dare reverse the decision of their state’s voters? This would be a truly outrageous thing to do — even some people who vote for Trump aren’t going to like the idea that their votes don’t count — and the people who do it would risk being villainized for life. So I can only imagine it happening under two conditions:

  • They’re sure it will work. This scheme only makes sense if it gives Trump a second term, where he can reward the people who put him in office. So they need to be sure their law will pass and their electoral votes will make Trump president again.
  • Something taints the vote-count that says Biden won. You could imagine a legislature legitimately awarding its electoral votes by special law, if it were clear that the popular vote was fraudulent in some way. (Imagine a surprise win by the previously unknown owner of the company that makes vote-counting machines. Wouldn’t you want your legislature to stop that?) Republicans would need to be able to argue that they were following the real will of the voters, which had been undone by fraud.

That, I think, is the point of Trump’s bogus assertions that voting-by-mail-is-unsafe and the polls are skewed. He’s setting up the argument Republican legislators will need if they want to throw the election his way.

There are a bunch of scenarios where Biden is safe from this:

  • He wins the popular vote in enough states that no single state flipping to Trump would reverse the outcome.
  • He wins three of these four states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
  • He wins Florida and/or Arizona by enough votes that the fraud-made-the-difference argument loses credibility.

There’s also a wild card: If Democrats control both houses of the new Congress, they might decide to not to count the switched electoral votes. It would be an illegitimate, unconstitutional move, but hardball begets hardball. Trump might try to get the Supreme Court to rule against Congress, but it’s not clear they have jurisdiction. And if Congress simply refuses to declare a winner, Pelosi becomes president. (All this would do horrible damage to our political system, but if Republicans don’t care about that, why should Democrats?)

Assessment: Worry moderately. Probably we won’t wind up in a scenario where this is a possibility, and even if we did, it would only take a handful of Republicans with consciences to save democracy. Who knows? There might actually be enough of them.

4. A majority of Americans try to vote Trump out, but between voter suppression and the Electoral College, we fail.

During the impeachment process, Republicans liked to orate on the awesome standards necessary to reverse the choice of the American voters. But of course, the voters did not choose Trump — the Electoral College did. Trump got only 46% of the vote: 66 million votes to Hillary Clinton’s 69 million. His approval has never gone much above that 46% — largely because he has governed as if the other 54% doesn’t count — and is now hovering somewhere around 41%. Quite possibly, there has never been a moment when a majority of the American people supported Trump.

It’s easy to imagine the same thing happening again: Biden piling up millions more votes than Trump in California and New York, while losing by a few thousand in Florida and Wisconsin. With the usual Republican margin in Texas shrinking, the effect could be even more extreme in 2020 than it was in 2016: Biden might get as many as 5 million more votes than Trump, and still not become president.

What’s more, Republican voter suppression efforts are in high gear, and have already shown some success: By a wide margin, the voters of Florida voted in 2018 to re-enfranchise felons who have served their time — nearly 1.4 million Floridians. But yielding to the will of the people is not what the Republican Party is about.

The GOP-controlled Legislature, however, sought to limit the effects of the amendment by passing a law that conditioned the right to vote on payment of all fees, fines and restitution that were part of the sentence in each felon’s case. The state, however, had no central listing of this information, and the Legislature created no system to help felons ascertain how much, if anything, they owed. Even the state ultimately agreed that it would take six years to create such a system. … The estimated 85,000 who are already registered could be prosecuted if they vote and it turns out they have not paid the fees or fines owed.

The Supreme Court, which has consistently favored Republican voter-suppression efforts sincre John Roberts’ evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, thought this was a fine law.

Covid-19 has created new opportunities for mischief, as we saw in Wisconsin in April. The Republican-through-gerrymandering legislature insisted on few polling places and long lines, and resisted the Democratic governor’s attempt to institute vote-by-mail, or even to extend the deadline for submitting an absentee ballot to allow for the fact that many ballots were not mailed out on time. Research indicates that the brave Wisconsinites who came out to vote anyway could not fully avoid spreading the virus.

Nationally, Republicans are doubling down on this yield-or-die strategy for the fall. They are fighting vote-by-mail in states all over the country, trying to force people to brave the virus-spreading crowds if they want to vote. Worse, Trump is intentionally slowing down the mail, which could well result in a Wisconsin-like situation for the whole country: People can’t receive their mail-in ballots and return them soon enough to count. Some of the more obvious suppression tactics include not counting Michigan ballots that arrive late, even if they were postmarked before Election Day (“inherent variations in mail delivery schedules could result in one person having the ballot counted and another not, even if they send them back on the same day”), and trying to stop Pennsylvania from providing drop-off boxes for people who are afraid their mail-in ballots won’t arrive in time. These attempts come wrapped in rhetoric about “election security”, but they’re transparent attempts to keep legal voters from successfully submitting their votes.

I think there’s reason to hope that these efforts will boomerang, and that the more Trump tries to keep Americans from voting, the more determined we will be. In Wisconsin, the people who did risk their lives to vote were pretty pissed off by the time they got to the booth. The Republican Supreme Court candidate this tactic was supposed to save got defeated anyway.

All over the country, people have to be asking themselves: “Why don’t Republicans want me to vote?” Trump is giving Democrats an issue, and we need to run with it. He wants to paint liberals as people who hate America, but this part of Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis sounds pretty fundamental to what America is supposed to mean:

Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance. By adding polling places and expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are somebody who’s working in a factory or you’re a single mom, who’s got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot. By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico. They’re Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering, so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around. And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.

Who hates America now, Mr. Trump? Not LeBron James, who together with other NBA stars is donating $100K to pay the fees of Florida felons, so that they can vote. We all need to be looking for ways that we can help our fellow Americans vote, and for ways to call out the anti-American politicians who are trying to stop them.

The ultimate voter suppression would be for Trump to deploy his storm troopers Portland-style in swing-state Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia and Milwaukee, harassing people in front of polling places. We can hope that mayors and governors will not stand for that, and that the police will obey their local orders rather than side with the feds. It could get ugly, and again, could boomerang against Trump. Hopefully his advisors will convince him that it will.

Assessment: Trump can put his thumb on the scale, but only up to a point. It shouldn’t have to be this hard to get rid of him, but it is. I think we’re up to the challenge. So worry enough to take action, but not so much that you paralyze yourself.

5. Trump will lose and leave office, but he’ll trash the country on his way out the door.

Of course he will. This isn’t even something to worry about, just start getting ready for it. It’s going to happen.

Look for a flurry of pardons for all his henchmen (and probably himself, leading to an interesting legal battle), abrupt closures of American bases in any country that hasn’t treated him as well as he thinks he deserves, and at least one more big favor to pay off his debt to Vladimir Putin. (Putin would be crazy not to invade Estonia or something as soon as Trump loses.) And what’s more important: Taiwan’s independence, or a new Trump Tower in Shanghai?

Biden is going to have a historic mess to clean up when he takes office. But I believe he will take office.

The Cancel Culture Debate

Expressing views out of step with the common sense of your era has always been risky. But now, as cultural power shifts and common sense changes, it’s harder to know what’s safe.


It has long been a staple of conservative thought that good people should have nothing to do with bad people. The very first verse in the Book of Psalms says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” And in 2 Corinthians 6:14 the New Testament echoes: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

This conservative idealization of purity is currently playing out in the treatment of the Never-Trump Republicans, who are seen as heretics rather than wayward brethren. Justin Amash had to leave the Republican Party. Mitt Romney was dis-invited from CPAC. Even Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz is under fire for her occasional criticisms of the Great Leader.

But those incidents are dogs biting men. What really has drawn public attention is the man-bites-dog phenomenon of liberals casting people out. Liberals define themselves as open-minded and tolerant, and yet now they are often the ones who get people expelled from social media or dis-invited from speaking engagements or even fired from their jobs.

Such incidents have led to much bad-faith criticism from conservatives, and the popularization of the label “cancel culture”. But it has also resulted in introspection among liberals, most recently and publicly in “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by around 150 intellectual heavyweights and published in Harper’s.

The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

This intolerant-climate rhetoric has predictably played into the both-sides-do-it narrative that mainstream media uses to establish its objectivity. But what exactly is the “it” that both sides do? The Harper’s letter is vague and sloppy about this, and the coverage the letter generated has often talked about “free speech”, when that is not the issue at all.

So let’s start at the beginning and try to get this right: What exactly is “cancellation”, and why might people of good faith want to do it?

When cancellation is merited. Judy Mikovits has a theory: She thinks Covid-19 was created in the United States by public health officials led by Dr. Anthony Fauci. They shipped it to Wuhan where it was either released or escaped, starting the current pandemic. Mikovits also holds Fauci personally responsible for destroying her career in science; she says he distributed millions of dollars to cover up the conspiracy that persecuted her. She has also made several other bizarre claims about Covid-19 in the video Plandemic, which went viral in right-wing circles until it was removed from most social media platforms: Flu vaccines have distributed coronavirus, which is activated when you wear a mask. Bill Gates was part of the plan to spread Covid-19, so that he can profit off the eventual vaccine. And so on.

Actual evidence for these claims is virtually non-existent.

So what should happen to Mikovits and her theories? In my ideal world, not much. She would be free to run around making whatever claims she believes, but no one would take her seriously, either. Groups would not invite her to speak. People who stumbled across her video online would say “Really?” and do some checking before deciding not to pass it on to anyone else. If Facebook, Twitter, et al. discovered “Plandemic” gaining popularity on their platforms, they would remove it, exactly as they did in the real world, but maybe sooner. And of course, being a distributor of wild misinformation about science would make Mikovits unemployable by legitimate scientific institutions.

In short, I think Mikovits deserves to be canceled — not imprisoned, not fined, not punished in any discernible way, just removed from the national conversation — not by government edict, but by the shared standards and good judgment of society in general.

Instead, Sinclair Broadcasting, the Trumpist network of local TV stations, decided to give her a platform. [1] Eric Bolling (who you may remember from his time as a Fox News host, until he left under a cloud of sexual harassment accusations) has a TV show America This Week, which Sinclair distributes to its stations. This week’s episode includes interviews with Mikovits and with her lawyer Larry Klayman.

For balance, Bolling also interviewed a Fox News medical contributor who describes Mikovits’ claims about Covid and Fauci as “unlikely”. But for much of the episode, the chyron asks the question: “DID DR. FAUCI CREATE COVID-19?” Many of Bolling’s viewers — especially the ones who might be cooking dinner or paying bills and only looking up at the TV occasionally — will probably come away thinking that “yes” is a plausible opinion, one that reasonable people should consider.

Is Sinclair’s decision to air Mikovits’ views a defense of free speech? I don’t think so. I believe it’s irresponsible and does a disservice to viewers who trust their local news stations.

Legal vs. acceptable. I bring Mikovits up not because I want to spend significant time debunking her, but for the sake of her example: Widespread rhetoric about “cancel culture” professes to be about “free speech” or censorship, but it really isn’t. [2] We’re not discussing what speech should be legal. We’re discussing what speech should be acceptable in various forums. And the answer to that question should not be “whatever anyone wants to say”. Failing to cancel someone can be irresponsible management of an information forum. [3]

The acceptability question is not absolute; it is forum-dependent. Suppose I agree with Mikovits and say so. What should happen depends on where I say it or try to say it.

  • If I’m talking to my friends at a bar (assuming it’s ever safe to go back to bars), they should scoff at me, but the conversation should move on with no further consequence.
  • If I submit an article to a general-interest newspaper or magazine, they should reject it; but maybe I could get away with raising the question of whether the virus was created in a lab, and suggesting that maybe it was.
  • If I’m writing for Scientific American or some other popular magazine with scientific respectability, I should only be able to make claims that I can support with significant scientific evidence. The created-in-a-lab theory probably couldn’t pass muster.
  • A scientific journal like Nature should require not just evidence, but proof. Otherwise, my opinion should not be heard.

If I am employed by Scientific American or a scientific journal, and I develop a reputation as a promoter of the Fauci-created-Covid conspiracy theory, they should fire me, because my reputation would conflict with the reputation the magazine wants to maintain.

None of this would constitute a violation of my free speech. I can say whatever I want, but other people are also free to react to what I say. No one has to offer me a platform or lend me their respectability.

Zack Beauchamp makes this point in more detail.

Contrary to the original letter signers’ claims, what’s actually happening here is more subtle than a war between free speech’s defenders and its opponents. It is, as the University of Illinois’s Nicholas Grossman writes, an argument over “drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.” That’s not a conflict over the principles of a free society but the rules that govern its operation in practice.

Before we called it “canceling”. If there ever was a moment in American history when all speech was acceptable and any idea could be advocated in any forum, it hasn’t been in my lifetime. I grew up during the Cold War, an era when it went without saying that no major newspaper or magazine would have an openly Communist columnist. [4] Slightly before my time, the Hollywood blacklist banned movie people suspected of Communist sympathies. One famous victim was the black singer/actor Paul Robeson, who you may have heard sing “Ol’ Man River“.

The range of opinions acceptable on major-network TV may have expanded somewhat in the 21st century, but is still quite narrow. Bill Maher ran into the limits shortly after 9-11. At the time, he hosted ABC’s Politically Incorrect, a comic-but-serious discussion of the news similar to his current Real Time show on HBO. But Maher made the mistake of responding to President Bush’s characterization of the 9-11 hijackers as cowards by saying something fairly obvious:

We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.

Soon, local ABC affiliates were refusing to air Maher’s show and sponsors were dropping it. It was not renewed for another season, after having been on ABC for five years.

In 2003, the Dixie Chicks (now just “The Chicks”) faced retribution after singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that the band opposed the upcoming invasion of Iraq: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” In response

The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations. On May 6, Colorado radio station KKCS suspended two DJs for playing their music.

So “cancel culture” may be a relatively recent term, but the phenomenon is not at all new.

Moving the boundaries. If cancel culture isn’t new, why is it suddenly getting so much attention? It’s hard to argue with the assertion that something feels different now. But what and why?

For one thing, more and more people are unsure about where the boundaries are, and so they withhold opinions they might previously have expressed. In a poll by Cato Institute — not an unbiased source, but faking a poll is not their style — 62% of Americans agree with the statement: “The political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe, because others might find them offensive.” That’s up slightly from 58% in 2017.

The question is why. I think Beauchamp has this right: It’s not that the bounds of acceptable speech are getting narrower, it’s that the range is shifting. Activists on the left are succeeding in moving the range leftward, and some would like to shift it further.

That may sound partisan and even nefarious in the abstract, but there is justification for it: The range of acceptable speech has never been natural or God-given; it arises out of a society’s power dynamics. [5] We are emerging from a centuries-long era when power belonged exclusively to upper-class straight white Christian men. So the bounds we are used to — ones that seem “normal” to us — unfairly favor upper-class straight white Christian men.

Social justice advocates think the bands of acceptable opinion and arguments shouldn’t be narrowed, precisely, but rather pushed to the left — shifted to include formerly excluded voices from oppressed communities and to sideline voices that seek to continue their exclusion. Their critics think the traditional bands of debate are, broadly speaking, correct, and that we’d all be worse off if the social justice advocates succeed in moving speech norms in their direction.

Consider, for example, the Me-Too movement. Abusive men like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby used to be confident that their female victims would not be listened to or taken seriously, but now at least some of those voices are being heard. And if uncertainty about the new boundaries prevents men “from saying things I believe, because others might find them offensive”, that isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t doubt for a minute that Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida was saying what he believes when he called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes a “fucking bitch”. But if he restrains himself in the future (because he doesn’t want to be eviscerated again on the floor of the House), I don’t see the loss.

As a professional-class straight white brought-up-Christian man myself, I have often been corrected for running afoul of the new boundaries — by  commenters on this blog, for example. I have been called out for using the verb “bitch” for a certain style of complaining (done by men and women alike), or for referring to someone as “transgendered” (as if it were something that happened to them) rather than “transgender” (something they are). Occasionally someone observes that my attempts to write about privilege are themselves tainted by a privileged viewpoint. Of course it stings to be criticized for something I did without conscious malice, and that no one would have mentioned ten or twenty years ago. But I also recognize that a world where people like me get criticized for giving offense is better than one where the people we offend are not heard.

Who decides? A glance at the list of signers of the Harper’s letter reveals that they aren’t all upper-class straight white Christian men: Margaret Atwood, Atul Gawande, Michelle Goldberg, Khaled Khalifa, Dahlia Lithwick, John McWhorter, Gloria Steinem, Fahreed Zakaria, and many others. So why is this their issue?

For some, the motivation is obvious: Salman Rushdie had to spend years in hiding because his writings offended a powerful Muslim cleric. J. K. Rowling has faced a huge backlash to her opinion that transwomen are not “real” women. But not all the signers have some clear personal ax to grind. What’s up with them?

Let’s go back to Beauchamp:

What’s new in the modern era, according to [York University philosopher Regina] Rini, is that the mass public has gained an unprecedented ability to influence and reshape those rules [defining acceptable speech] — a process that used to be the province of the elite. … [Intellectual elites] believe that social media, and Twitter in particular, is starting to exercise a kind of veto over editorial judgment — running roughshod over editors and forcing journalists to be subject to the new activist rules of political discourse. The objection here is not just that activist speech norms are bad, but that those speech norms are being imposed on the intellectual elite by the loudest voices on social media — that a silent majority of conventionally liberal journalists are being silenced by radicals.

Here’s what the Harper’s letter says:

We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

A response letter from a collection of generally less famous intellectuals points out that the examples vaguely alluded to in the paragraph above are both less unjust and less representative than they appear.

The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. … Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.

For years, the people at the top of the intellectual pyramid have been insulated from the disapproval of the lower orders. [6] Now they are less insulated. Some problems may result from that trend, but it’s not obvious that the trend itself is a problem.

What is common sense? In David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, he defined the success of revolutions not by the the new governments they establish, but by “planetwide transformations of political common sense”. [7] We seem to be in such a revolutionary period now. Just a few months ago, for example, defunding or abolishing the police were ideas outside the bounds of acceptable discussion in most popular forums. Now the idea is openly discussed in The New York Times and other establishment forums. On the other side of the spectrum, the President is floating the possibility that he might refuse to accept an election that he loses.

No one can really say what “political common sense” means right now; it’s in flux. Similarly, “acceptable speech” is in flux. That is not the fault of anybody in particular. It’s just an uncomfortable feature of this historical moment.

In this situation, mistakes are going to be made. We’re all going to say things that we’ll regret after standards settle down. And some of our responses to other people’s transgressions will turn out to be inappropriate — sometimes too harsh, sometimes too lenient. It will be so obvious in hindsight.

What can we say? Recognizing that our current sight suffers fog-of-war-type limitations, how much can we say? Here are a few incomplete conclusions I’ve come to.

Disagreement is not censorship. Back on May 26, when Twitter attached a fact-check link to one of Trump’s lying tweets, the President tweeted back:

Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!

Trump was so stifled that a week or so later (June 5) he tweeted 200 times. But this complaint has a long pedigree in conservative circles. When she was John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Sarah Palin claimed that her rights had been violated by media accounts labeling her paling-round-with-terrorists rhetoric as “negative campaigning”.

If (the media) convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.

The same observation holds for liberals, moderates, or anybody else: If you say something and somebody disagrees with you, your rights have not been violated. If they label what you say as racist or sexist or some other ist-word, that’s their opinion and they have as much right to it as you have to your opinion.

Reserve your sympathy for people suffering real consequences. Someone surprised to be criticized for what he says or does should never be lumped together with others who have lost something real, like a job. If your house is getting vandalized and your inbox is full of death threats, that’s different that just “somebody called me a homophobe”. Hannah Giorgis made the point like this:

Facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.

Michelle Goldberg objected:

This sentence brought me up short; one of these things is not like the others. Anyone venturing ideas in public should be prepared to endure negative reviews and pushback on social media. Internal workplace reviews are something else. If people fear for their livelihoods for relatively minor ideological transgressions, it may not violate the Constitution — the workplace is not the state — but it does create a climate of self-censorship and grudging conformity.

However, a review is not a firing. And that leads to the next point.

Responsibility belongs to the decision-makers. If you say something innocent that unfairly provokes (in the words of the Harper’s letter) “calls for swift and severe retribution” on Twitter, and then your boss fires you, the problem is with your boss, not with Twitter or the people who complained. Storms of public opinion are going to be a regular feature of public life, and institutions are going to have to learn how to weather them. People in positions of responsibility are going to need to have the courage of their convictions.

Universities are a good example: Students can ask for whatever they want; the university doesn’t have to give it to them. If some student group calls for the scalp of a professor who offended them by doing something that is well within the terms of ordinary academic freedom, and the university gives in, that’s on the university. Universities who make a habit of this kind of cowardice should be shunned by the kind of intellectuals they would otherwise try to recruit.

Saying anything substantive requires courage. This much has always and everywhere been true: It’s risky to express opinions that are out of step with the common sense of your time and place. [8] The problem now is that, since common sense itself is in flux, nobody can be sure what opinions are safe, or will continue to be safe when people a few years hence look back with new eyes.

This situation is regrettable. But at the same time, I have limited sympathy for intellectuals who are trying to be inoffensive and failing. The point of intellectual life should be to state your truth. If your truth turns out to be popular and make everybody happy, how fortunate for you. But nobody should go into intellectual life expecting that.

What goes around comes around. Everybody needs to remember that revolutions eat their young. Robespierre died on the same guillotine that he had sent many other people to. The more harsh judgment we build into the system, the more likely we are to be judged harshly when our time comes.

We need to always keep in mind the point of shifting the boundaries of acceptable thought: to bring in new voices, ones that the old distribution of power had shut out. Bringing in those new voices sometimes requires squelching old voices who are telling the new voices to shut up, or intimidating them out of speaking at all. Making new space on the platform may require asking some people to step aside. Creating a safe workplace or discussion space for a wider group of people may require that previously acceptable speech become unacceptable. [9]

But squelching old voices should never become an end in itself, even if they are obnoxious voices.

 

It would be nice to have a big finish for this post, but for all the reasons explained above, I don’t have one. As I said, someday (in hindsight) how we should have handled this will all be obvious. But right now, it isn’t.


[1] This description is based on the version of the episode that was posted online. After it caused an uproar, Sinclair decided to pull the episode back for re-editing to give it more “context. Presumably, however, its distribution to Sinclair’s stations has only been delayed.

[2] In the current news, I know of only one example of actual censorship: When Michael Cohen was furloughed from prison due to the risk of coronavirus, the Federal Bureau of Prisons conditioned the continuation of his furlough on an agreement not to write a book critical of President Trump. Cohen refused to sign and was sent back to prison, but was soon released by a federal judge. The judge said, “Why would the Bureau of Prisons ask for something like this … unless there was a retaliatory purpose?”

Telling someone: “If you write a book you’ll go to jail” — that’s censorship.

[3] Another good example of a viewpoint deservedly canceled is Q-Anon.

[4] That’s still true today. For all the charges of “socialism” that get flung at pundits and politicians these days, when was the last time you heard somebody advocate public ownership of the means of production? That idea hasn’t gone away; you just don’t hear it.

[5] That’s the 21st-century version of Karl Marx’ dictum: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

[6] However, even world-famous philosophers have occasionally lost jobs because they were too liberal. In 1940, City College of New York tried to hire Bertrand Russell to teach classes on logic, mathematics, and the metaphysics of science — three areas in which he was among the world’s foremost authorities at the time. That appointment was challenged in court because of his criticism of religion and advocacy of unpopular sexual practices. (Wikipedia lists “sex before marriage, homosexuality, temporary marriages, and the privatization of marriage”.) Ultimately the New York Supreme Court ruled against his appointment, claiming that Russell was morally unfit to teach at CCNY.

[7] The French Revolution is a good example. The government it established was a disaster, but afterwards monarchy became hard to justify.

[8] Even if you were white, being an abolitionist in the Old South could get you horsewhipped.

[9] Sara Robinson pushed back against Cato’s implication that it was political bigotry to be skeptical of hiring Trump supporters.

As an employer, I have a legal obligation to provide my workers with a safe workplace where they can do their jobs free of harassment and bigotry. If I fail, I can be sued, so there’s serious liability attached here.

If I hire a Trump follower, that liability goes straight to 11. How can I convince my female employees that they’ll be safe if I hire someone who thinks it’s fine for a man to grab a woman by the pussy? How do I look my Iranian clients in the eye after I bring in an employee who approved of the Muslim ban? What can I say to reassure my Jewish staffers when I’ve put their futures in the hands of a supervisor who agrees that the Charlottesville mob included “some very fine people”? What do I tell our Mexican-American vendors when they have to deal with someone who’s cool with seizing their nieces and nephews and sticking them in baby cages? … You don’t need to be a bigot to steer clear of these people.

Who Are Those Guys?

Customs and Border Protection has finally claimed the anonymous federal law enforcement agents who have been abducting people off the streets in Portland. But it still won’t say who they are or exactly what they’re doing.


Often, when the Trump administration is described in totalitarian terms, it’s hyperbole, or at least debatable.

So, for example, describing ICE as a “Gestapo” is hyperbole. They violate civil rights and are out of control in a lot of ways, but comparisons to the Gestapo are overblown. Similarly, there has been debate (yes and no) about whether the detention facilities that hold legal asylum seekers and unauthorized border-crossers qualify as “concentration camps”. (My opinion: Yes, as long as we remember that concentration camps are not always death camps. Concentration camps isolate unpopular and dehumanized groups in harsh conditions outside of public view; death camps target them for extermination. Dachau was a concentration camp when it opened in 1933, but it didn’t become a death camp until much later.)

However, the federal law enforcement agents who have been roaming around Portland this last week are literally “secret police” — no hyperbole, no exaggeration. Their uniforms say POLICE, but do not identify what federal agency they are from or who the individual officers are. They cover their faces, drive unmarked vehicles, and grab people off the street without identifying themselves, their unit, the reason for the arrest, or where they are taking their victims. If right-wing militia groups start putting POLICE patches on their camo uniforms and kidnapping protest leaders, no one will know the difference; neither their appearance nor their behavior will give them away.

So that’s where we are: We’ve crossed one more bridge on the road to fascism, and it’s arguable that we’ve already arrived. Let’s think about how we got here.

Lafayette Square. On June 1, after the peaceful protests of George Floyd’s murder had also spawned looting and property damage in cities across the nation, President Trump called for law enforcement to “dominate the streets“. He urged governors to call in the National Guard, and made the following threat:

“If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump said, referring to himself as “your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”

He said he was already dispatching “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers” to Washington to stop the violence that has been a feature of the protests here.

While he was speaking, federal law enforcement agents of various stripes attacked peaceful protesters near the White House, pushing them out of Lafayette Square so that Trump could have his infamous hold-up-the-Bible photo op at historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Meanwhile, active-duty troops were being deployed to the DC area. Unnamed sources claimed Trump wanted to deploy 10,000 troops. Fortunately, generals and Pentagon civilians all the way up to Defense Secretary Esper pushed back, arguing that suppressing domestic dissent is not the military’s role. (I’m guessing the 10,000-troop story was leaked by a military person who wanted the plan stopped.) In the end, active-duty troops were never used against protesters and were withdrawn, but not before the incident “badly strained relations between Mr. Trump and the military”.

From Trump’s point of view, though, the week had one bright spot. The regular military might be reluctant to take the field against American protesters, but he did identify a force he could use: a motley assortment of armed federal law enforcement agents temporarily commanded by Attorney General Bill Barr.

Few sights from the nation’s protests in recent days have seemed more dystopian than the appearance of rows of heavily-armed riot police around Washington in drab military-style uniforms with no insignia, identifying emblems or name badges. Many of the apparently federal agents have refused to identify which agency they work for.

In the words of Butch Cassidy: “Who are those guys?”

It turns out that the federal government has something like 132,000 law enforcement officers spread out over dozens of agencies in multiple departments. Yahoo News called the roll:

The show of force outside the White House is a task force operation that includes U.S. Secret Service, National Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Park Police, … Federal Protective Service, … elite SWAT teams from the Border Patrol and sniper-trained units from ICE have also descended upon Washington. TSA’s air marshals arrived too, and three of the agency’s “VIPR teams,” which have previously faced criticism for not coordinating well with local law enforcement. Eight Coast Guard investigators were deputized by the Department of Justice upon arrival in Washington, though it remains unclear how they are being deployed.

Which raises an obvious question: What kind of rules apply to people from one agency deputized by another? The rules of their home agency? Their temporary commander’s? None? There are all kinds of restrictions, both legal and institutional, on what the President can or can’t do with the military inside our borders. But these guys, apparently, not so much. Through the years, whenever Congress increased the budgets of the Bureau of Prisons or ATF or one of the dozens of other armed law enforcement agencies, who realized they were helping build a 132,000-man Praetorian Guard?

As democracy-threatening as this seemed in June, though, comforting speculation held that DC’s special relationship with the federal government made it unique. (That even became an argument for DC statehood.) Surely these little green men could never be deployed in a state over the objection of its governor.

After all, this is America.

The Portland protests. The George Floyd protests have had remarkable longevity, challenging the conventional wisdom that the Powers That Be can always wait these things out. But nothing lasts forever, and by July 1, even Seattle’s famous CHOP autonomous zone had been reclaimed by local authorities.

In Portland, however, the spirit of resistance is still very much alive. Friday marked the 50th day of protest. OregonLive describes the situation like this:

Portland has experienced weeks of daily protests since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police. The largest of them, involving thousands of people chanting and marching for racial justice and police non-violence, have been peaceful.

But almost like clockwork, tensions flare late at night between law enforcement officers stationed at the Justice Center and courthouse and a crowd of 20- and 30-something demonstrators, a small number of whom toss projectiles at police, shine lasers in their eyes or otherwise poke and prod officers to engage.

… Although the Justice Center and federal courthouse are covered with angry graffiti decrying police, evidence of other demonstrations in the city are scarce.

But you get a different sense from local journalist Robert Evans, who has been covering the nightly clashes, which he describes as “as close up to the line as you can get to actual war without live rounds”.

The craziest night so far was July 4, where kids stockpiled thousands of dollars in illegal fireworks. They were in the center of downtown where the bulk of the protests happened around the Justice Center.

It started as drunken party, more or less. At random, cops began shooting into the crowd. Protesters coalesced around the idea of firing commercial-grade fireworks into the Justice Center and Federal Courthouse. You had law enforcement firing rubber bullets, foam bullets, pepper balls and tear gas as crowds circled in around the courthouse firing rockets into the side of the building. That went on for a shocking length of time — there was this running three-hour street battle. I couldn’t tell whose explosions were whose.

Trumpist media and administration spokespeople have been desperate for something to talk about other than Trump’s failure to control the coronavirus pandemic, and so they have seized on “mob rule” as a theme, with Portland as a prime example of a city “under siege”. But OregonLive pushes back against that narrative: “A tour of the town shows otherwise.”

The images that populate national media feeds, however, come almost exclusively from a tiny point of the city: a 12-block area surrounding the Justice Center and federal courthouse. And they occur exclusively during late-night hours in which only a couple hundred or fewer protesters and scores of police officers are out in the city’s coronavirus-hollowed downtown.

Daily life in Portland is greatly restricted by the virus, but is barely affected by the demonstrations. Evans agrees:

One of the things I think people get wrong about this place, though, is that they see the protests and the right-wing coverage and the city is depicted as convulsed and collapsing. It’s just not true. You go three blocks from the center of downtown and life goes on as normal. Where I live, you could go every day and see no real signs of the protests.

Having totally given up on doing anything to combat the virus, though, Trump had to be seen doing something about something. And so he intervened in Portland.

DHS’ little green men. If you get your view of the world through Fox News, you understand that the biggest current threat to the United States and the American way of life is not the virus that has killed nearly 140,000 of us with no end in sight. No, it is the wanton destruction of our historical statues and monuments. Any time I have channel-scanned through the Fox News evening line-up in the last month, that’s what they’ve been talking about.

To combat this scourge, on June 26 President Trump heroically signed the “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence“. If you read past the polemics all the way to the end, you’ll find this authorization:

Upon the request of the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Administrator of General Services, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, personnel to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property.

He’s talking about the 132,000 federal law enforcement agents, the Little Green Men. And unlike in a riot or a natural disaster where a governor might ask for the help of the National Guard, here one part of the federal government asks another part to send the Little Green Men. The Secretary of Homeland Security, you might notice, is authorized to ask himself for assistance.

As it happens, we don’t have a Secretary of Homeland Security, and haven’t since Trump forced Kirstjen Nielsen to resign in April, 2019 because she “pushed back on his demands to break the law“. Since then we’ve had acting DHS secretaries, because Trump says “I like acting. It gives me more flexibility.” (In fact, Josh Marshall observes that every DHS official who figures in this story is acting: “acting secretary, acting deputy secretary and acting head of CBP. Not one of these men has been confirmed by the Senate to act in this role.” Having avoided confirmation hearings where senators might demand promises or commitments, all three get their authority from and owe their allegiance to no one but Trump.)

So Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf responded to Trump’s executive order by creating the Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT) “a special task force to coordinate Departmental law enforcement agency assets in protecting our nation’s historic monuments, memorials, statues, and federal facilities”. The PACT announcement quotes Wolf: “We won’t stand idly by while violent anarchists and rioters seek not only to vandalize and destroy the symbols of our nation, but to disrupt law and order and sow chaos in our communities.” (“Violent anarchist” is a phrase you’ll hear again. It is to the Trump administration what “terrorist” was to the Bush administration: a term stripped of all its original meanings until it is simply an insult, i.e., “someone we don’t like”.)

Notice the subtle shift: We’re not talking about statues of Andrew Jackson any more, as Trump was when he signed the executive order. We’re talking about “federal facilities” like the Mark Hatfield Courthouse in Portland, the courthouse mentioned above. PACT’s mission also extends beyond “protecting” those facilities to the much more nebulous goal of maintaining “law and order” and fighting “chaos in our communities”. But the Hatfield Courthouse is more than just a center of “chaos”, it is also the scene of a heinous crime: graffiti.

Maybe the Trump administration will stand idly by while American coronavirus deaths once again approach a thousand a day, and maybe it will do nothing when Putin puts bounties on the lives of our soldiers in Afghanistan, but graffiti on a federal courthouse is an affront up with which it will not put.

Send in the Little Green Men.

The federal invasion of Portland. Sometime after the Fourth of July — no one seems to know exactly when, because there wasn’t an announcement — unidentified federal law enforcement agents from no particular agency began battling protesters alongside the Portland police. And they did not just support the local officials, they significantly escalated the violence. Here’s Robert Evans again:

Since the feds got involved with police it’s gotten really brutal. I’d argue we’ve seen more police brutality in the last 50 days from Portland Police Department than anywhere else in the country. It’s brutal but it’s also predictable. There are rhythms to the way police work. It’s become an orchestrated dance with both sides.

There are warnings and kicking people out of the demonstration area. But the feds have deliberately defied the rhythms. Last Saturday [July 11], the crowd was 100 or so. It was very chill — nothing going on beyond the now-normal occupation of the Justice Center. And feds came out grabbing people seemingly at random and beating people with sticks. There was the kid who got shot in the head and his skull was fractured. The federal law enforcement violence is unpredictable violence.

The “kid shot in the head” was Donovan LaBella, and we have the shooting on video. The Oregonian summarized in a tweet:

Video shows nothing suggesting that La Bella, 26, who was standing across the street from the federal courthouse holding a speaker over his head, was a threat to anyone.

What appears to be a tear gas canister bounces in front of him. He kicks at it, bends down to toss it underhanded into the street, and lifts up his speaker again. Then he goes down, apparently struck by a sponge grenade or some other “less lethal” projectile that is never supposed to be aimed at someone’s head. (LaBella’s sister says he’s making a “remarkable recovery“, but the photo of his stitched-up forehead looks pretty gruesome.)

Who shot LaBella? Hard to say. Some unmarked federal agent in camo with a mask on, from some unnamed federal law enforcement agency.

How actions like this protect federal facilities is hard to figure. And then the abductions started.

Unmarked vans. NPR reports:

Federal law enforcement officers have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters since at least Tuesday. Personal accounts and multiple videos posted online show the officers driving up to people, detaining individuals with no explanation about why they are being arrested, and driving off.

To the people being kidnapped arrested, it’s not obvious that their abductors the officers are police at all.

“I see guys in camo,” O’Shea said. “Four or five of them pop out, open the door and it was just like, ‘Oh s**t. I don’t know who you are or what you want with us.'”

See any identifying marks?

And again the question: Who are these guys? As this widely shared video shows, two agents in camo with no label other than POLICE grab somebody off an empty street and throw him into a van. They are repeatedly asked who they are and what they’re doing, but they do not respond.

For hours no one knew who the masked kidnappers were working for. But eventually, Customs and Border Protection took responsibility for that particular “arrest”. (In an interview, though, Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli identified Federal Protective Services as the lead agency; CBP is assisting them.) Their statement is a series of lies wildly inconsistent with the video, or with numerous accounts of similar abductions.

CBP agents had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property.  Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location.  For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning.  The CBP agents identified themselves and were wearing CBP insignia during the encounter. The names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country.

In fact, the street is virtually empty. The officers do not identify themselves, and if you can spot any insignia other than POLICE on their uniforms, you’re sharper than I am. I’m also struck by the “suspected of assaults against federal agents OR destruction of federal property”. The “or” suggests that this is a generic explanation rather than the specific reason for this particular arrest. Whoever wrote the statement probably has no more idea why the suspect was arrested than we do.

Robert Evans reports:

I’ve seen them rolling around in the vans and tackling people. My partner has watched them do a few snatch and grabs. The difference is they’re not cops. They go after people like soldiers, where the goal is to be unpredictable.

Acting Secretary Wolf’s justification of the entire operation, which didn’t appear until Thursday, is ridiculous. The phrase “violent anarchists” appears 72 times, along with a list of their “violent” crimes, which mostly consist of tagging the Hatfield Courthouse with graffiti. One “violent anarchist” was caught with a loaded weapon, but there is no report of the weapon being brandished or fired. (Compare to the AR-15 toting conservative protesters at the Michigan State House in May, whom Trump supported by tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”.)

OregonLive responded:

It’s telling that in Wolf’s extensive listing of incidents over the past several weeks, he neglects to mention the most violent act of these protests – a deputy U.S. marshal’s shooting of Donavan La Bella in the face with an impact munition. … That Wolf would fail to even acknowledge such a severe injury exposes how suspect his definition of “violence” is.

(OL appears to just be guessing who the shooter works for; I don’t believe the Marshals have claimed responsibility.) To repeat: “violent anarchist” has no meaning. It’s just an insult; it tags someone as an enemy.

Remember federalism? One hallmark of the Trump Era is that any principles conservatives used to claim — free trade, standing by allies, fiscal responsibility, the importance of character — have been exposed as hollow. One such relic of the age of principled conservatism is federalism: the doctrine that states share sovereignty with the federal government, and are not just subjects of federal rule.

Under federalism, policing is a state responsibility. In this case, it’s important to bear in mind that no local official asked for the federal government’s help in dealing with the protests. Acting Secretary Wolf did not even make a courtesy call to tell Oregon Governor Kate Brown or Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler what he was planning to do. This whole episode began not with an offer of help, but with Trump’s threat: “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.

That’s how this all came about: Trump and/or Wolf came to the conclusion that Portland was not treating protesters harshly enough, so Wolf asked himself to intervene.

Now that they have had a chance to see what DHS is doing, local officials at all levels have asked the federal agents to leave. Governor Brown tweeted:

This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety. The President is failing to lead this nation. Now he is deploying federal officers to patrol the streets of Portland in a blatant abuse of power by the federal government. I told Acting Secretary Wolf that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets. His response showed me he is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes. He is putting both Oregonians and local law enforcement officers in harm’s way.

And Mayor Wheeler acknowledged the government’s right to protect its buildings, but called for it to pull its agents off the streets:

I have no problem with the federal government and federal officers inside their facilities protecting their facilities. That’s what they do. That’s what they always do. What I have a problem with is them leaving the facilities and going out onto the streets of this community and then escalating an already tense situation like they did the other night.

Subsequently he made a stronger plea:

Their presence is neither wanted nor is it helpful and we’re asking them to leave. In fact, we’re demanding that they leave.

To which Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli responded:

We don’t have any plans to do that. When the violence recedes, then that is when we would look at that. This isn’t intended to be a permanent arrangement, but it will last as long as the violence demands additional support to contend with.

Also:

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a federal lawsuit against Homeland Security and its subagencies Friday alleging the federal government had violated Oregonians’ civil rights by seizing and detaining them without probable cause during protests against police brutality in the past week.

Oregon’s senior Senator Ron Wyden:

The Trump administration’s claim that DHS police are needed to enforce the president’s executive order to protect statues is laughable. Terrorizing peaceful protesters and arresting people for graffiti and other nonviolent offenses has nothing to do with securing federal property. My colleagues and I in the Oregon delegation have demanded that these occupying troops leave Portland, demanded answers from the administration and called for an independent investigation. And this week, my fellow senator from Oregon, Jeff Merkley, and I will introduce a measure to require Trump to remove these unwanted forces from our city.

Senator Merkley made his own comment:

Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters. These Trump/Barr tactics designed to eliminate any accountability are absolutely unacceptable in America, and must end.

As Governor Brown’s tweet indicates, Acting Secretary Wolf has refused to withdraw his Little Green Men. Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli also refused to pull the LGM back to the federal facilities whose protection is the pretext for their presence.

And I fully expect that as long as people continue to be violent and to destroy property that we will attempt to identify those folks. We will pick them up in front of the courthouse. If we spot them elsewhere, we will pick them up elsewhere. And if we have a question about somebody’s identity – like the first example I noted to you – after questioning determine it isn’t someone of interest, then they get released. And that’s standard law enforcement procedure, and it’s going to continue as long as the violence continues.

Results 1. Sometimes when you break the rules, the results will give you an after-the-fact justification: The problem is solved now, so who’s going to complain? But that’s not the case in Portland. Instead, DHS’ authoritarian overreach has drawn increased local attention to the protests and raised local sympathy for the protesters.

While President Trump on Sunday described the unrest in Portland as a national threat involving “anarchists and agitators,” the protests have featured a wide array of demonstrators, many now galvanized by federal officers exemplifying the militarized enforcement that protesters have long denounced. Gatherings over the weekend grew to upward of 1,000 people — the largest crowds in weeks.

Saturday, mothers (some wearing bicycle helmets in case federal agents would decide to club them) formed a human chain between police and demonstrators and chanted: “Feds stay clear. Moms are here.” Sunday night, a similar group of mothers was in fact dispersed with clubs and gas. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, one woman had a creative response to the threat of police violence.

In one extraordinary moment, a woman, completely naked except for a face mask and a hat, strode through the protests and squared up to federal agents and did a series of ballet and yoga moves. The striking moment was captured on social media and the unidentified woman has been dubbed “Naked Athena.”

Police apparently didn’t know what to do next. OregonLive reported:

About 10 minutes after she arrived, the officers left. The woman left soon after without any additional fanfare. “She was incredibly vulnerable,” [Oregonian/OregonLive photographer Dave] Killen said. “It would have been incredibly painful to be shot with any of those munitions with no clothes on.”

One good place to get a play-by-play of the weekend demonstrations is the Twitter feed of journalist Donovan Farley.

On the whole, it’s hard to argue with Governor Brown’s assessment:

It’s simply like adding gasoline to a fire. What’s needed is de-escalation and dialogue. That’s how we solve problems here in the state of Oregon.

Results 2. How you judge results depends on what your goal is. If the goal is to end the nightly conflicts between police and protesters, and to restore “law and order”, then the federal intervention has been an abject failure.

But when has Trump ever tried to end conflict? Trump thrives on conflict. Arguably, it’s in his political interest to make things worse. The violent federal escalation and abuse of civil rights may annoy Oregonians, but Trump was never going to carry Oregon in November anyway. The more interesting question to him is: How is this playing in swing states? Governor Brown has it right:

Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.

If Fox News can spin this as the President taking strong action to preserve law and order in a city where Democratic officials are unwilling to get tough with the violent anarchists, that’s all he wants. Even better if his “toughness” takes headlines away from his Covid-19 failure. And the more violence, the more headlines.

In short, he’s doing on the ground what he often does on Twitter: provoking a conflict with somebody his base doesn’t like in order to change the narrative from a story where he’s failing. Violent anarchists and feckless Democratic officials are playing the role usually reserved for black athletes like Colin Kaepernick or LeBron James, or charismatic women of color like AOC or Ilhan Omar.

Judged by that standard, Trump may think his intervention in Portland is going quite well.

Where it goes from here. PACT was not created to be a one-off, so Portland can be thought of as a test, a “dress rehearsal” (as Esquire’s Charles Pierce puts it) for a show that might be taken on the road all over the country. The groundwork is being laid to intervene in Chicago, whose black lesbian mayor has already been tagged a “derelict” by press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. A famously liberal city like San Francisco would also make a good target for Trumpist media. A Reichstag fire won’t be necessary; a few lines of graffiti on some federal building will suffice.

Three things are being tested in Portland:

  • Will the PACT agents do whatever they’re told, heedless of the rights of American citizens?
  • Will Trump get away with this legally, or will federal courts put his secret police under injunction? Will Congress intervene in some way?
  • Will Trump pay a political price, either in the media or by losing the support of the congressional Republicans who kept him in office in spite of the crimes he was impeached for?

The first test is clearly a success: Federal agents are acting like secret police in a classic banana republic, and there have been no signs of defections. No leaks, no scandalous stories attributed to anonymous sources.

Remarkably, Portland is a second-layer headline in both the New York Times and Washington Post this morning. You’ll find a Portland story if you scroll down, but they’re not calling your attention to it. I’ve also looked for a biting editorial cartoon on the subject and haven’t found one yet. So at the moment Trump is not paying a price in the mainstream media.

Elected Republicans are also ignoring the story, in spite of the traditional conservative principles being violated. (A satire article published after the first appearance of the Little Green Men in DC is being recirculated: “NRA Accidentally Forgets to Rise Up Against Tyrannical Government“.) It remains to be seen whether Democrats in Congress will insert some anti-LGM language into some must-pass appropriations bill, and whether Mitch McConnell will allow it.

Our best hope at the moment is the courts, where I don’t know what to expect. Neither do the folks at the LawFare blog, which is where I’m hoping to find insight before long. LF’s Steve Vladeck closes that article by wondering which would be worse: that the PACT agents are abusing their authority, or that all this is actually legal somehow?

The ultimate threat. As Trump continues to sink in the polls, more and more pundits raise the question: How will he try to cheat in the election? (The question “Will he try to cheat?” has already been answered. That’s what he was impeached for.) Various voter suppression schemes are brewing, and some are already working. Many of us are hard at work imagining scenarios where some combination of Covid-19 and voting by mail create new vote-stealing or vote-suppressing opportunities.

The true nightmare scenario is if he loses the election but refuses to leave office. Or perhaps he constructs some elaborate conspiracy theory in which the outcome of the election is doubtful, and decides to hang on until the doubt can be resolved to his satisfaction, which it never will be. Obviously, he can’t succeed in that plan entirely on his own, and different scenarios require different accomplices: Republicans in Congress, the Supreme Court, and so on.

If any of those play out (and I’m far from convinced they would) we could find ourselves in a true third-world-country situation, where the last line of defense is that the People refuse to accept a stolen election and take to the streets. In a typical third-world situation, the next question is: What does the Army do? An election-stealing President can often survive if the Army is willing to sweep into the major cities and put down protests.

One reason I have not worried too much about these scenarios is that I don’t think our Army would do that. The traditions of non-interference in the political process go all the way back to George Washington, and are very strong.

But Portland raises an additional question: What do the Little Green Men do? Could Trump really call his Praetorian Guard into the streets against the American people?

That too is being tested in Portland.

Back to School

When schools began closing in March, everyone said it was just for a few weeks. The logic was simple: The virus’ incubation time was two weeks or so; if we all just stayed home through one incubation cycle, everyone already infected would show symptoms, they’d go into quarantine, and the rest of us could get back to our normal lives. When things didn’t go that way, schools were closed for a little longer, and then for the rest of the year. Still, few imagined that it wouldn’t be safe to go back in the fall.

Now it’s mid-July, time (or maybe past time) to start making commitments for the 2020-2021 school year. The virus’ widely anticipated summer lull never arrived. And although the world’s well-governed countries have been getting their epidemics under control, the United States has not been well governed for some while. The experts at the CDC established sensible standards for restarting normal life in stages, but our president pushed the states to ignore them, encouraging lawsuits and even armed protests against governors who tried to follow them. As a result, Covid-19 is still spreading like wildfire in all but a handful of states.

So what do we do with schools in the fall? Several fundamental facts about schools, children, and the virus point in different directions.

  • As a group, compared to the general population, children are less vulnerable to the most serious consequences of Covid-19. The odds that your child will die from catching it at school may not be zero, but they are very low. At the same time, the long-term consequences of a “mild” case are still not well understood.
  • Leaving schools closed also has risks and costs, especially for children whose home life is stressed in some way. Some children live in homes with large indoor and outdoor play spaces, robust internet connections, and extensive book collections; their parents may also work at home and may be well equipped to supervise online learning. Some other children not only lack those advantages, but live in dangerous or abusive homes; before Covid, school was the safest part of their day.
  • Traditional classrooms share a feature that has made meat-processing plants and prisons such fertile ground for Covid-19 to spread: “prolonged close proximity to other[s]”. Worse, strict protocols of masking and social distancing will be hard to enforce in schools; violating them provides an easy way for difficult students to disrupt the classroom.
  • Schools link households that would otherwise have little contact. With schools open, the community becomes a denser network that is easier for the virus to traverse. (For some reason, elementary schools have not been implicated in major outbreaks, but schools for older children have.)
  • Children are not the only ones in the classroom. Many teachers are near retirement age, or have other Covid-19 risk factors. Is it age discrimination, or a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, to require teachers in high-risk categories to either endanger themselves or quit? Will teachers unions agree to open schools under conditions that are unsafe for many of their members?

And we are once again going through the familiar pattern: The CDC has established guidelines for opening schools safely, but the president and his education secretary are pushing communities not to follow them, to the point of threatening their federal funding. [1]

we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open. And it’s very important. It’s very important for our country. It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.

The CDC’s advice includes closing schools for extended periods if there is “substantial community transmission” of the virus, and making major adjustments (no field trips, desks six feet apart, students wear masks, staggered scheduling, …) when there is “minimal to moderate community transmission”. The President has pronounced those measures “impractical“, but has offered no alternative plan beyond just opening the school doors and letting the epidemic run its course.

Worse, he has turned school reopening into a test of loyalty. If you’re on his side, you support his alternate reality, where the virus surge is just an artifact of overtesting, 99% of cases are “totally harmless“, and there’s no reason not to fully open all parts of the economy, including the schools — unless, of course, you’re a Democrat trying to hurt his re-election chances.

Corrupt Joe Biden and the Democrats don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons! They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it! [2]

New York City. A number of school districts have already announced their own plans for the fall. New York City, for example, intends to have students physically present only two or three days a week, cutting the number present on any given day in half. The school-system chancellor said:

We know that we cannot maintain proper physical distancing and have 100% of our students in school buildings five days a week. It’s just geographically, physically not possible. Health and safety requires us to have fewer students in the building at the same time.

This is not nearly good enough for the Trump administration, which wants five full days a week. NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg offers a liberal parent’s view: She agrees, up to a point.

I want schools to open full-time at least as much as Trump does. On Wednesday, New York City announced its plan to send kids back to school part time, and it is a calamity. To accommodate C.D.C. guidelines calling for six feet of distance between desks, students will be able to go to school only one to three days a week. It is not yet clear if schools will be able to ensure that siblings will attend on the same days. Working parents could end up needing full-time child care indefinitely, and there are, as yet, no plans to provide it publicly. …

So far, the results of so-called “remote learning” — a term I dislike, since it presumes that learning is happening — have been terrible for students, especially disadvantaged ones. The fallout for many parents’ financial prospects and mental health is catastrophic. And part-time schooling is likely to significantly amplify educational inequalities that are already enormous. As those who can afford it hire private teachers and tutors, we are rapidly heading toward a system of neo-governesses in which basic schooling becomes a luxury good unattainable for many people outside the 1 percent.

But she also recognizes that Trump’s politicization of the argument has made any rational discussion of reopening plans much harder:

Trump’s interference means that now no departure from the current C.D.C. guidelines will be seen as credible outside of MAGAland. “The recklessness has made people distrust anything that they say because they have downplayed the virus from the beginning,” said [American Federation of Teachers President Randi] Weingarten. … This is a president with negative credibility. The more Trump demands that schools open, the more people who’ve paid close attention to him will fear they all must remain closed.

Florida. As if to prove the point that we should do the opposite of whatever Trump urges, there’s Florida. New York was once the worst-hit state in the nation, but has been doing comparatively well lately. Florida is one of the states currently experiencing the worst outbreaks, but Education Commissioner Richard Corcora is insisting on a full reopening of the state’s schools.

Under the emergency order, all public schools will be required to reopen in August for at least five days a week and to provide the full array of services required by law, including in-person instruction and services for students with special needs.

Governor Ron DeSantis, who got the state into its current mess by following Trump’s advice on early reopening of businesses and bars, compares schools to big box stores.

I’m confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools.

This silly pronouncement has received the widespread disrespect it so richly deserves. California Congressman Ted Lieu’s response was one of many:

Did I somehow miss the true Home Depot experience? I didn’t realize Home Depot packed 35 people together in a room for 6 hours a day.

Similarly silly was this Trump tweet:

In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!

Yes, let’s compare Florida and Denmark. Florida has a little less than four times the population of Denmark. But in Covid-19’s entire history, Denmark has had 13,000 cases. Florida found 15,000 new cases yesterday. Denmark had 159 new cases in the last week; Florida over 69,000. Safely opening schools in Denmark is a completely different problem than opening them in Florida.

It is absolutely insane for Florida schools to be planning to open five days a week. If this hadn’t become a Trump-loyalty issue, no one would support doing it.

What at least one teacher thinks. If there’s one blog you ought to be reading right now that you’re probably not, I’d say it’s Teacher Life, written by Mrs. Teacher Life. Start with “Nobody Asked Me: A Teacher’s Opinion on School Reopening“, where you’ll find this kind of insight:

Let’s discuss hand washing. If an average class size of kindergartners is 25, then it would take 8.3 minutes for them each to wash their hands for 20 seconds- not too bad you might think. That’s doable- let’s reopen! Unfortunately that does not account for transition time between students at the sink, the student who plays in the bubbles, or splashes another student, or cuts in line, or has to be provided moral support to flush the toilet, because they are scared. It doesn’t account for the fact that only a few students will be allowed in the bathroom at a time and the teacher must monitor whose turn it is to enter and exit the bathroom, and control the hallway behavior, and send the student who just coughed to the “quarantine room” that doesn’t exist BECAUSE THERE ARE NO EXTRA ROOMS. Where are the students in hallway waiting? In line? All together? Six feet apart? No wait, three feet is okay now. Either way, 25 children standing three feet apart is a line over 75 feet long. Who is monitoring this line? Keeping them quiet, reminding them to keep their hands to themselves?

When you take a classroom-level view, you start to see a strange disconnect: Getting schools open is somehow both a top priority and barely an afterthought. On the one hand, it’s absolutely essential, because the economy can’t get back to normal (and the President can’t get re-elected) until parents can go back to work without leaving unsupervised children at home. But on the other hand, if it were actually that important, you’d think some roomful of geniuses would have been convened long ago to work out

  • exactly what conditions need to hold in our communities for it to be safe to reopen schools
  • how we’re going to achieve those conditions (i.e., do we really need to re-open the bars?)
  • how schools are going to function when they do reopen
  • what additional resources they need to function that way.

So, for example, what about that quarantine room Mrs. Teacher Life doesn’t have? Or the bigger classrooms that allow socially distanced desks? Or the extra assistants who supervise those 75-foot lines at the bathroom? Or new desks to replace the tables where children can no longer sit together? Or the extra crayons and scissors and whatnot, now that it’s unsafe for kids to share? Who is going to sub for all the teachers who are quarantined, or who ordinarily would come to work even when they feel sick, but shouldn’t do that now?

If we do find a sub- what germs are they bringing in? Where have they been? If they test positive do all schools they have been subbing at have to quarantine?

If school reopening were really a priority, there would be a plan and there would be money to implement that plan. There isn’t. That’s got to tell you something.


[1] For what it’s worth: I would not take these threats seriously. Trump does not understand how the government works, so he often makes threats he has no idea how to carry out. In this case, attempts to redirect funding approved by Congress would be blocked by the courts, at least until the next presidential term begins in January. If we can vote Trump out, those cuts will never happen.

What he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seem to be hinting at is turning federal aid into a voucher that students can use for private schools in areas where public schools are not physically open. (This is what DeVos wanted to do even before the pandemic.) But neither DeVos nor the White House press secretary have been able to explain what legal authority would allow them to do this.

And I know it’s petty, but comparisons between DeVos and Harry Potter’s Delores Umbridge never get old.

[2] I think Trump is the one who doesn’t get it here, probably because he doesn’t understand people who live for others. Parents will accept risks to themselves — going to an unsafe job, for example — if the family needs it. But they have a far lower tolerance for risks to their children. Statistics don’t help here. Once you’ve told parents that their child could die, they’re not going to pay much attention to the exact probabilities.

In the Land of “No We Can’t”

The Trump administration’s surrender to Covid-19 is just a symptom of a larger dysfunction. Whenever a problem calls for collective action, whether that problem is a disease, mass shootings, climate change, economic inequality, out-of-control police, chaotic elections, or systemic racism, Republicans tell us nothing can be done; we just have to live with it. And until we can banish them from positions of power, we do.


In 2008, a young black senator with an odd-sounding name, facing a well-known and well-financed rival with the full backing of his party’s establishment, won the Democratic nomination for president. He went on to a landslide victory in the fall, with large majorities in both houses of Congress riding on his coattails. The slogan he ran on was “Yes We Can”.

Like most effective political slogans — “Make America Great Again” has the same quality — “Yes We Can” meant different things to different people. Most obviously, African Americans heard it as: “Yes we can elect one of our own. We don’t have to pick our leader from a list of white men drawn up by other white men.” But depending on what you were listening for, “Yes We Can” could also mean: “Yes we can reform our healthcare system” or “Yes we can rebuild our infrastructure” or “Yes we can overcome inequality” or “Yes we can do something about climate change” or “Yes we can offer all our children a 21st-century education” or “Yes we can create enough jobs for everybody” or “Yes we can get our troops out of Iraq”.

In all of its interpretations, “Yes We Can” meant that we weren’t stuck. We aren’t doomed to watch our country (or planet) decay — perhaps retaining the freedom to complain about it, but not the power to choose a new course. Instead, we can band together, elect a government that represents our real interests, and focus the power of America on shaping the future we want.

Obama himself put it like this:

When the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful, and told that it can’t be done, then it doesn’t. I’m running for president because I want to tell them: Yes We Can.

Yes vs. No. Opposing “Yes We Can” is the Republican belief that government is never the solution, it can only make problems worse. And so, if some nationwide problem keeps you up at night, all you can do is change your individual behavior or circumstances — assuming you can afford to.

If your town’s public schools are poorly funded and badly run, you can move somewhere richer with better schools, or find the money to send your kids to a private school, or quit your job and homeschool. Ditto for infrastructure and public services: If your town can’t afford to fix its potholes or keep the parks open, move somewhere that can. If you don’t want to die in some country you don’t care about, stay out of the Army. If climate change worries you, buy a Prius and recycle. If you can’t find a job, start your own business. Search out better health insurance and pay what it costs. Buy a gun to defend your family, and if you can’t stop imagining a mass shooting at your child’s school, pray.

It’s all up to you. You’re on your own. If you can’t solve it, don’t look at us, because No We Can’t.

Around the world. The dirty secret of “No We Can’t” is that lots of other countries do take collective action, and so they already enjoy the nice things Americans can’t have. Every other first-world country has universal health care; if you get sick, you get the care you need and your family doesn’t go bankrupt. And they provide that health security by spending less of their national wealth on it.

Thursday’s New York Times included a number of compelling graphs showing America’s unique dysfunction. Only in America does increased GDP not lead to increased life expectancy. A smaller share of our economy goes to worker pay. We imprison more people. Our “free market” system provides the most expensive cellphone service in the world.

Just about all the countries of Western Europe and Scandanavia have free college. Little Costa Rica can run itself on sustainable energy for months at a time. China, Japan, and Europe have extensive bullet-train networks. China is building enormous public-infrastructure projects. Finland is beating homelessness and has the best schools in the world. Fourteen other countries offer their residents faster internet than the US does; average download speed in Taiwan or Singapore is more than double ours.

And while we watch our public infrastructure and services decay, other countries give their citizens beautiful presents like the Hovenring bicycle interchange in the Netherlands,

or the Oodi Library in Helsinki, whose library director describes it as “book heaven”.

Imagine proposing marvelous things like that in an American city.

Covid. The most obvious current example of “No We Can’t” is the Trump administration’s surrender to Covid-19, which now we are told we just have to “live with” — unless we get unlucky and die of it. I often criticized George W. Bush’s response to 9-11, but at least he never told us we just had to live with mass terrorist attacks.

Public health is the original us problem. Throughout history, no matter how rich or powerful you might have been, you were in trouble if the people who prepared your feasts or changed your bed linens got the plague. At the margins, there were things you could do individually to try to save yourself, but ultimately the solutions had to come from the public sector: sanitation, pure water sources, untainted food supply chains, quarantines, and other treatment plans that contained diseases before they spread.

No matter how much medical technology advances, that aspect of it hasn’t changed: Public health is a public problem. Nothing you can do on your own is going to find a Covid-19 cure or vaccine. And you can try to be careful, but nobody is completely self-sufficient, so eventually you’re going to deal with other people. If they’re infected, you’ve got a problem. We’re all in this together.

Public-health problems are solved by government action, or they’re not solved at all. Early in the pandemic, we heard stories of governments that got ahead of the spread and took effective action to protect their populations. South Korea has gotten a lot of attention, partly because its first verified case of Covid-19 appeared on the same day ours did: January 20. The Koreans used the full public-health playbook: aggressive testing, quarantining, contact tracing, and public-information campaigns to encourage good hygiene.

It worked, and despite occasional flare-ups, it continues to work. As of yesterday, South Korea had 13,030 total cases of Covid-19 and 283 deaths. Adjusting for population, that would be like the US having around 85,000 cases and 1,800 deaths. Actually, we’ve had 2.9 million cases and 132,000 deaths.

Americans more-or-less sloughed that comparison off. Whatever the Koreans did couldn’t possibly have worked here, because No We Can’t. Through March and April, we ignored South Korea (and Taiwan and New Zealand and even Germany) and instead focused on what was happening in Italy and Spain. Looking down rather than up reassured us. We had it bad, but so did a lot of other places. We weren’t some special loser country.

But now we are.

Europe locked down harder than we did, and its people whined about it less. European political leaders united behind their public health officials, so basic hygiene measures like mask-wearing didn’t become political issues. It shows: Even including Italy and Spain, the EU as a whole, with about a third more people (446 million) than the US, now averages less than 4,000 new cases a day. This week, Arizona (population 7.5 million) has been averaging around 3,600 new cases each day, hitting a peak of 4,877 on Wednesday. The US as a whole hit 50,000 new cases for the first time on July 1, and stayed above that level for four days. (Yesterday was “down” to 43K, but I wonder how much of that was due to fewer tests being done over the holiday weekend.)

In the face of that horrifying comparison, the Trump administration has just decided to move on. His televised daily briefings ended in April, not long after his inject-bleach embarrassment. Since then Trump has talked about the virus only to minimize it, mock Joe Biden for wearing a mask, urge states to ignore the recommendations of his own CDC, and assemble his own supporters In rallies that have all the earmarks of super-spreader events. In highly promoted speeches on Friday and Saturday, Trump neither acknowledged our national failure to contain the virus, nor proposed any plan for the future beyond waiting for a vaccine — which we can’t even be sure is coming at all.

Other nations can beat this virus, but No We Can’t.

The post-policy GOP. The Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell noticed the pattern, and connected its dots like this:

Much as they gave up on coronavirus containment, U.S. political leaders previously gave up on solving our epidemic of gun violence. And on our high numbers of police-perpetrated killings. Also our high rates of child poverty, uninsurance and carbon emissions. On these and other metrics, the United States fares worse than most if not all other industrialized countries. Yet U.S. officials — from one party in particular — treat these crises as imaginary or unsolvable.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had a similar epiphany:

Covid-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the [Republican] party wants to acknowledge.

It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate — people of a different race or supercilious liberals.

So instead of dealing with Covid-19, Republican leaders and right-wing media figures have tried to make the pandemic into the kind of threat they want to talk about. It’s “kung flu,” foisted on us by villainous Chinese. Or it’s a hoax perpetrated by the “medical deep state,” which is just looking for a way to hurt Trump.

Steve Benen, who writes the companion blog to the Rachel Maddow Show, elaborated on this theme at book length in The Imposters: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics. Benen coined the label “post-policy party” to describe the current GOP. His book goes issue by issue, and shows how Republicans have systematically ditched their policy-making apparatus in favor of marketing, with the result that they have plenty of good one-liners, but no programs they’re ready to implement once they take power.

The most obvious example is health care. Republicans have been running against ObamaCare since Obama proposed it in 2009, and Trump has been claiming since 2015 that ObamaCare “can be replaced with something much better for everybody. Let it be for everybody. But much better and much less expensive for people and for the government.” What would that “much better” replacement look like? We still have no idea. “Repeal and Replace” was a nice slogan, but once you’ve heard the slogan, you’ve heard all they have.

That’s true across the board. There are no Republican policies, just slogans.

You can see that in Congress, where the Democratic House passes bills that the Republican Senate never debates. Nothing comes back in the other direction. If the Democratic solutions seemed to liberal to Mitch McConnell, his Senate could amend those bills with Republican solutions and send them back. But there are no Republican solutions, so the bills just sit in Mitch’s in-box.

You can see it in the presidential campaign. Ordinarily, candidates for president are dying to tell you what they want to do in office. (For comparison, here’s the Biden policy page.) But here’s how Trump answered Sean Hannity’s question about the “top priority items” for his second term.

One of the things that will be really great — the word experience is still good, I always say talent is more important than experience, I’ve always said that — but the word experience is a very important word, a very important meaning.

I never did this before, never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington maybe 17 times and all of a sudden I’m the president of the United States, you know the story, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady and I say this is great but I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York, and now I know everybody. And I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes, like an idiot like Bolton, you don’t have to drop bombs on everybody.

What American problems does he hope to address in the second term? None. He’ll grapple with imaginary enemies like Antifa, and “far-left fascism“. He’ll protect our endangered statues of Confederate generals, but not our soldiers in the field. He’ll continue tweeting and preening in front of crowds and playing at being president. But he won’t actually lead us in accomplishing anything, because No We Can’t.

The Republican Party must be removed from all positions of power. Much ink has been spilled lamenting the loss of bipartisanship, and waxing nostalgic about the deals cooked up by Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, or Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan. Usually this is presented in a pox-on-both-houses tone, as if the two sides were equally intransigent.

Here’s the point that is often lost: You can’t compromise with people who aren’t trying to do anything. If you and I both recognize a problem and each have our own approaches to solving it, chances are good we can work something out. But if I care about climate change and systemic racism but you claim both are hoaxes, or if I want universal health care and you don’t care about healthcare at all, or if you fake concern for the budget deficit when my party is in power, then forget about it the moment you take office, or if I want DACA dreamers to have a path to citizenship, and you won’t say what you want for them … where can we go from there? What can I offer you in exchange for your help with my agenda?

Steven Benen is right: Our two-party system only works when we have two governing parties, two parties that have directions they want to go and policies they think will take us there, two parties that have plans for dealing with the nation’s problems. At the moment we only have one such party, the Democrats. Our political system will be broken until Republicans get serious about governing again.

And they won’t until the electorate forces them to. That means voting them out, up and down the ballot. You don’t have to believe that the Democratic direction is ideal, just recognize that they have a direction. You may wish they would go much farther or faster, but at least they want to move. If we enter 2021 with Biden as president and two Democratic houses of Congress, we can at least try to address our national problems.

But if Republicans are left holding any lever of power at all, we’ll be stuck in the Land of No We Can’t.

Back to Square One

This week the number of new Covid-19 infections spiked up to even higher levels than before the shutdown. Other governments have avoided this scenario, but ours has no plan for dealing with it.


What if we have a crisis? In one of the less-noticed parts of John Bolton’s new book, Chief of Staff John Kelly complains that he is frustrated to the point of quitting. “What if we have a real crisis like 9/11,” Kelly asks Bolton, “with the way he makes decisions?”

As Bolton — like so many other former Trump insiders before him — demonstrates with numerous examples, “the way he makes decisions” is to start from a place of complete ignorance. (Prior to his ill-fated Helsinki meeting with Putin, he asked aides whether Finland was part of Russia. He also seemed not to know that the United Kingdom has nuclear weapons.) Then he ignores the briefings that come from the intelligence community or other government experts, and doesn’t ask for any studies or position papers from people the government employs to do research like that. Instead, he spends hours each day talking to friends on the phone and listening to the pundits on Fox News. If he hears something he likes, maybe that becomes government policy immediately, or maybe it turns into a line he uses at rallies. If the rally-goers cheer, then that’s what the world’s greatest superpower will do.

If you think there ought to be a more rigorous process than that, you must be part of the Deep State.

This is how we got the border wall project. No one who studies border security for a living ever concluded that a wall between the US and Mexico was the most efficient way to accomplish some desirable goal. But Trump’s 2016 campaign advisers decided he needed a “mnemonic device” to get him to focus on immigration. Any realistic plan to deal with unwanted border-crossings is full of the kind of legal, diplomatic, environmental, and other details Trump hates, but “Build a Wall” was simple enough to hold in his head, and the crowds loved it — especially when he added the fantasy that Mexico would pay for it.

Those cheering crowds are why some adviser’s mnemonic device is turning into a physical wall that takes years to build, costs billions of dollars, and doesn’t solve any identifiable problems. We just lucked out that Trump wasn’t still holding rallies when the inject-yourself-with-bleach idea got into his head.

Own-goal crises. The reason Bolton and Kelly were having a what-if conversation rather than recalling an actual disaster is that until that point the United States had been having an extraordinary run of good luck. You may remember these last three-plus years as a high-wire state of constant national anxiety, but in fact the real world was unusually tame. Barack Obama had handed Trump a country in pretty good shape, particularly compared to the one Obama had received from George W. Bush. All the major economic trends were in the right direction, Obama’s light-footprint strategy to defeat the ISIS caliphate was working, and so on. Obama did leave behind a number of worrisome long-term challenges, like climate change, the ascension of China, nuclear proliferation, the decades-long decline of America’s middle class, and so on. But no one really expected Trump to make progress on any of that, and on any given day all those problems have been pretty easy to ignore.

Instead, what made the pre-Covid Trump years feel so tense were the crises Trump created himself: He ratcheted up his “fire and fury” rhetoric against North Korea to the point that war seemed inevitable, and then arranged a marvelous reality-show resolution when he “fell in love” with Kim Jong Un, a performance so compelling that Trump wanted a Nobel Peace Prize for it. Of course, nothing was actually accomplished by the whole up-and-down cycle (other than some great propaganda for the Kim regime), but didn’t it look grand on TV?

The low points in his approval rating were similarly self-inflicted: when he described the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville as “fine people” or sided with Putin against the US intelligence agencies or couldn’t let go of a spat with a military widow. His China trade war spooked the markets and slowed the economy, but that was also something he brought on himself, so he could create good news whenever he wanted by tweeting about “progress” in the negotiations or delaying some tariff he had threatened to impose unilaterally.

Since those were all holes he dug himself, he could just stop digging, divert the public’s attention elsewhere, and wait for it all to blow over. Easy-peasy.

And then there was the ever-rising budget deficit, which would have been framed as an existential crisis for Obama, but became acceptable once a Republican was in the White House.

Before Covid, Trump only had to face two truly external problems: impeachment and his complete botch of the federal response to the Puerto Rican hurricane. Impeachment was never a big worry for two reasons: First, no matter how guilty he was, the Republican Senate was never going to convict him. (In the end, they decided that the House’s evidence wasn’t good enough to remove a president chosen by 46% of the people, and that if there was better evidence, they didn’t want to see it.) And second, the underlying offense (the extortion of Ukraine) didn’t really matter to Trump’s base. As for the Puerto Rican hurricane, well, that mainly affected Spanish-speaking people of color that the Trump base also didn’t care about. (Yeah, thousands of them are dead, but it’s not like they were ever “real Americans”, right?)

The virus is real. But Covid is different. There’s a real virus out there killing people. It can’t be intimidated by tweets or derogatory nicknames like “Wuhan virus” or “kung flu”. Even though it has been killing people of color at a rate disproportionate to their numbers, it kills white people too. And now it’s even spreading in red states (Texas) or purple states (Florida) that Trump needs to carry if he wants to be re-elected.

Trump has no plan to defeat the virus, but that’s par for the course. He doesn’t have a plan to deal with any of America’s problems. For example, he’s still promising a “FAR BETTER AND MUCH LESS EXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVE” to ObamaCare, and to “ALWAYS PROTECT PEOPLE WITH PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS,ALWAYS!!!” But in the five years since he came down the escalator, he has not produced so much as a back-of-the-envelope sketch of a program to deliver on such promises. I’m sure the words in those capitalized phrases sound good to him and his fans, but as soon as the sound waves fade out the air is empty again.

Like his bromance with the North Korean dictator, Trump’s coronavirus briefings also made good TV for a while, but eventually they became embarrassing and he got bored with them. So he applied his usual crisis-control tactic: He congratulated himself for defeating the virus, which is “dying out“; flattered or browbeat Republican governors to reopen their states too early; stopped talking about the whole crisis, even as additional thousands of Americans continued to die each week; tried to divert our attention elsewhere; and waited for it all to blow over.

But here’s the thing: Reality doesn’t blow over. Covid-19 isn’t a PR flap or a misstep he can back away from, it’s a pandemic. For a short time, he may be able to get large segments of the public to “ignore that pile of dead bodies over in the corner” (as Bill Gates put it), but people keep dying even when everyone’s looking the other way, and eventually we start to notice again.

Comparisons. Covid-19 started out in China in December, and from there spread around the world, taking different courses in different countries. Some small countries with good leadership and a strong public spirit — New Zealand, Iceland, and South Korea pop to mind — reacted quickly, got the epidemic under control, and continue to hold it in check through a combination of testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and public cooperation in preventive measures like mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing.

A number of EU countries, beginning with Italy, had really bad outbreaks, but then shut down just about all activities other than food distribution and medical care, using their national wealth and strong social-welfare systems to keep individual and family budgets above water. After a month or two of extreme sacrifice, the number of new infections began to collapse, to the point that they can now make use of the tactics that the fast-reacting countries used.

And then there’s the United States, where Covid-19 became the kind of crisis Kelly had been worrying about. Here’s how our daily reported new infections compared with the EU and South Korea as of Saturday.

South Korea’s infections stayed down. The EU’s went up and came down. But in the United States infections went up, started to creep down a little, and then shot back up.

What did we do wrong? A lot of things. Thursday The New York Times presented an illuminating series of graphics describing about how the virus spread in the US.

At every crucial moment, American officials were weeks or months behind the reality of the outbreak. Those delays likely cost tens of thousands of lives.

A short list of early failings:

  • The CDC’s initial set of test kits were faulty, and tests were not imported to fill the gap, resulting in what the NYT described as “the lost month“. This was both a CDC failure and a White House failure, because it’s the role of the White House to keep tabs on the workings of the government and intervene when something important is falling through the cracks in the system.
  • As a result, the initial spread of the virus was grossly underestimated. The NYT article suggests that in mid-February, when the US had 15 known cases (that Trump said “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero“) there were actually around 2,000 cases spread across ten major cities.
  • Unlike other countries, the US did not use its lead time to build its stockpile of masks and gowns for medical personnel, as detailed by HHS whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright.
  • The federal government did not prepare the public for the sacrifices that would eventually be asked of it. Instead, officials from President Trump on down consistently reassured the public that the virus was “totally under control” and “the risk is low”.
  • Trump began politicizing the virus response early, charging on March 9 that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

By mid-March, states began to respond, with Republican Governor Mike DeWine shutting down schools in Ohio, Democrat Andrew Cuomo closing businesses in New York, and local health officials in six San Francisco Bay counties issuing a shelter-in-place order. A national campaign to “flatten the curve” began. Even Trump got on board for a month or so, rewriting history to claim: “I’ve always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Undermining the national will. The number of new cases reached an initial peak of 33,000-a-day in early-to-mid April and then began to slope downward. But unlike Europe, the United States lacked the national will to finish the job.

That failure came from the top. As soon as it was clear a peak had been reached, Trump began pressuring states to relax restrictions and reopen their economies without waiting to achieve the milestones listed in his administration’s own guidelines.

Trump encouraged armed demonstrators to intimidate state governments. When protesters with rifles came to the Michigan statehouse carrying signs saying “Tyrants get the rope”, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”. He also encouraged “liberators” in Virginia and Minnesota. Without once calling for the protesters to disarm, he tweeted:

The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.

Michigan more-or-less held firm, but Republican governors in red states knew they could not survive a Trump tweet storm and could benefit from White House photo ops. Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona began to open their economies without achieving the statistical milestones laid out by the CDC. When the Republican members of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court invalidated the Governor Ever’s stay-at-home order and plunged the state’s gradual-reopening plan into chaos, Trump was jubilant.

The Great State of Wisconsin, home to Tom Tiffany’s big Congressional Victory on Tuesday, was just given another win. Its Democrat Governor was forced by the courts to let the State Open. The people want to get on with their lives. The place is bustling!

Meanwhile, he was campaigning against wearing masks, which nearly all public health officials recommend when people are unable to maintain social distance. He mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public, and for “cowering in the basement” rather than holding face-to-face events. Trump refused to wear a mask while touring a mask factory in Arizona, even as “Live and Let Die” played on the sound system.

Long after it had become clear that the reopenings were premature and cases were spiking, Trump pushed to hold dangerous large-crowd events in Tulsa and Phoenix. (Fortunately for the nation, the crowd in Tulsa was not nearly so large as he had expected.) In Tulsa, he discounted the rising case numbers, arguing (falsely) that they just reflect increased testing, and offering a 10-year-old with “sniffles” as an example of a case. He said he had asked his administration to “slow down the testing”, and later contradicted aides who tried to downplay that suggestion as a joke. “I don’t kid,” he told reporters.

This anti-social leadership has had its effect: Around the country outraged people, many sporting MAGA hats or Trump shirts, are refusing to abide by rules that mandate mask-wearing or social distancing. Michelle Goldberg summarizes:

This is what American exceptionalism looks like under Donald Trump. It’s not just that the United States has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths of any country in the world. Republican political dysfunction has made a coherent campaign to fight the pandemic impossible.

The viral resurgence. New infections have been rising sharply in precisely the southern and western states that have reopened quickly, refuting the theory (which Trump had long promoted) that the pandemic would fade in warm weather. Nationally, cases had flattened out at less than 20,000 per day in late May and early June. But they have been above 38,000 each of the last five days.

On the state level, the best measure for comparison is the 7-day-weighted-average of new cases per day per 100K people. Here are the most seriously affected states:

Arizona 44

Florida 30

South Carolina 25

Mississippi 23

Arkansas 20

Louisiana 20

Nevada 19

Texas 19

California also has an large number of cases, due partially to its size. Its daily-new-case-per-100K number is 12. New York, which was the center of the epidemic in April, is down to 3.

And as for Trump’s attempt to discount those numbers, 10-year-olds with “sniffles” don’t show up in the ICU. Hospitals are reportedly close to capacity in Arizona, Florida, and Texas, and perhaps other states getting less national attention.

The Washington Post assesses what went wrong in Arizona:

At critical junctures, blunders by top officials undermined faith in the data purportedly driving decision-making, according to experts monitoring Arizona’s response. And when forbearance was most required, as the state began to reopen despite continued community transmission, an abrupt and uniform approach — without transparent benchmarks or latitude for stricken areas to hold back — led large parts of the public to believe the pandemic was over.

And now, Arizona is facing more per capita cases than recorded by any country in Europe or even by hard-hit Brazil. Among states with at least 20 people hospitalized for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, no state has seen its rate of hospitalizations increase more rapidly since Memorial Day.

And Republican governors or not, Texas, Florida, and Arizona have all had to retreat on their reopening timetables.

Deaths haven’t turned back up yet, but they will. The one saving grace is that nationally, deaths are still declining. For weeks I’ve been commenting on the mystery of how the death rate could continue downward while the new-case rate flattened and then turned upward.

Med school Professor Florian Krammer points to the same three explanations I’ve given: more testing has raised the new-case rate (or more accurately, made it better match the actual spread of the infection); better care is keeping people alive; but most of all, that the age-distribution of the infected population is shifting to younger people who are more likely to survive.

But he then goes one step further: Something similar happened in Iran in May. The new-case curve had been dropping, but started going up again around May 1.

But deaths did not go up. People explained to me, that now mostly young people are getting infected so nothing bad would happen.

Deaths started going up May 25.

What happened? First, it takes time to die of COVID-19. Second, cases probably really built up in younger people. But they diffuse into older populations. And then the deaths rose.

Each state has its own version of the pandemic, and death rates might already have started upward in some of them, like Arkansas and Texas. (The curves are jittery enough that it’s hard to be sure.) But nationwide, the new-case curve started rising around June 10. That would suggest deaths will begin rising about July 4.

Similar ideas (with a similar timeline) show up on the COVID Tracking Project Blog.

New daily positive cases only began to exceed the plateau of the previous two weeks around June 18-19, which means that an increase in deaths as a result of the rise in new cases would not be expected to show up until July.

So where are we? In some ways, we’re back where we were in April, and in some ways we’re worse off. Except in the northeast, whatever we gained through the sacrifices of the shutdown has been frittered away by bad leadership.

So now John Kelly knows: What happens if we have a real crisis “with the way he makes decisions”? This.

What is needed at this point is another wave of restrictions, and every state that thinks it is about to reopen its bars or arenas needs to think again. The American people can’t be trusted in bars; that is now a proven fact, at least until we have a vaccine. But a second wave of stay-at-home orders is hard to feature given that most of the country has nothing to show for the first wave.

We also need the kind of public spirit we had in the early days of “flatten the curve”: We need to encourage each other to wear masks, avoid crowds, keep our distance, and in general use common sense. Unfortunately, this is very unlikely to happen now that flouting common sense is necessary to establish your identity as a Trump conservative.

As best I can tell, this hasn’t happened in any other country (except maybe Brazil, which is also in very bad shape). Things got bad in Italy and Spain, but taking stupid risks never became a political identity.

And that reminds me of another famous question, this one raised by Trump himself in the 2016 campaign. “What the hell do you have to lose?

Now we know.

What’s in a Slogan?

Democrats may reach consensus about the future of policing more easily than they reach consensus about what to call that vision.


If the demonstrations set off by the murder of George Floyd (and now possibly extended by the killing of Rayshard Brooks) are going to be more than just a way to blow off steam, they have to lead to substantive change in the ways America enforces its laws. As I laid out last week, some reforms are already happening. Cities and states across the nation are banning chokeholds, instituting new procedures for reporting incidents of excessive force, and making it easier to identify and prosecute police officers who step over the line.

Is that enough? While those reforms are welcome and overdue, it’s hard to be confident that they will solve the problem, which goes to the heart of how police function in America: They are heavily armed, are inclined to escalate conflicts rather than de-escalate them, and reflexively cover for each other when rules are broken. Making more rules may not help, as long as police are motivated to help other police get away with breaking those rules. The pseudonymous author Officer A. Cab of “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop” testifies:

“All cops are bastards.” Even your uncle, even your cousin, even your mom, even your brother, even your best friend, even your spouse, even me. Because even if they wouldn’t Do The Thing themselves, they will almost never rat out another officer who Does The Thing, much less stop it from happening.

… I really want to hammer this home: every cop in your neighborhood is damaged by their training, emboldened by their immunity, and they have a gun and the ability to take your life with near-impunity. This does not make you safer, even if you’re white.

Police also cost a huge amount of money. Bloomberg estimates:

Over the past four decades, the cost of policing in the U.S. has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017

The number of violent crimes peaked in 1993 and is down by more than 1/3 since then, but police budgets have continued to eat up about 3.7% of all state and local spending. That figure does not include the estimated $81 billion spent on prisons or the $29 billion spent processing people through the criminal courts. Some large cities spend considerably more than 3.7%: New York City budgets about $5.9 billion, which is more than 6% of its total spending.

Given all that, a surprisingly wide range of people are proposing a very simple idea: What if we just had fewer police?

The predictable backlash. That suggestion is easy to exaggerate and demonize.

Here’s an obvious attack ad to run against any politician who endorses it: Some white woman reenacts her totally true story of hiding in the closet with her toddler and calling 911 while strange men ravage her home. The invaders run away when they hear sirens approaching, and she and her boy emerge unharmed. She expresses her perfectly genuine gratitude to the helpful and reassuring officers who arrive on her doorstep. (I’d make one of the cops black, just to insulate against charges of race-baiting.)

Then a male narrator says: “Julie and Luke escaped their harrowing experience without a scratch, and the damage to their home was soon repaired. But if Senator Liberal Democrat had his way, no one would have answered her desperate call.” [A busy signal gets louder and louder as the camera slowly zooms in on the window the invaders broke to enter.] “Far-left politicians like Senator Democrat want to fire Officers Good and Noble, and slash the budgets of their departments. Let’s fire Senator Democrat instead, before the call that goes unanswered is yours.” [visual fade to the sound of an annoyingly loud busy signal]

It’s no wonder that people planning to have their names on ballots in the fall — people like Joe Biden and Jim Clyburn — have been running away from the “Abolish the Police” or “Defund the Police” slogans. A recent YouGov poll (scroll down to page 58) says that only 16% of the public favor cutting police budgets, while 65% oppose such cuts. So it’s also no wonder the Trump campaign is already running this ad:

 

But think about it. The fewer-police proposal isn’t just that we get rid of police and do nothing else. The point is that interrupting crimes in progress and arresting dangerous suspects is a very small part of what police do. If we let them concentrate on stuff like that, and didn’t load them down with every public problem that their cities don’t have covered some other way, we wouldn’t need nearly so many of them. Minneapolis Councilman Steve Fletcher explained the council’s pledge to “dismantle” the MPD.

What we’re trying to change is how we answer 911. So many of the calls that we currently send police officers with guns would actually be better served by mental health professionals, by social workers, by outreach workers, by conflict resolution specialists.

This already happens in certain cases: If you call 911 and say your house is on fire, they don’t send police, they send a fire engine. If you say somebody is having a heart attack, they send an ambulance with EMTs. If a bear is rummaging through your garbage or a rabid raccoon is in your driveway, you might get connected to an animal-control department. There’s no reason cities couldn’t also have specialized emergency responders for many situations they currently handle by dispatching police: drug overdoses, domestic arguments, loud parties, homeless people camping out someplace they shouldn’t, and so on.

Friday night’s shooting of Rayshard Brooks is a case in point: The original problem was that he fell asleep while his car was parked, partially blocking a Wendy’s drive-through. Did someone with a gun need to handle that? If someone without a gun had been sent — the kind of plan San Francisco is rolling out, and a few smaller cities are already trying — Brooks would probably still be alive.

Even most criminal investigation doesn’t really need a policeman, or at least not an armed one. Typically, police show up in the aftermath of a crime: Your car has been stolen, or you came home to find your house had been burglarized. The perpetrators are long gone. Armed police come, but what the situation really calls for is someone with the skills of an insurance adjuster — someone who can take your statement, shoot some photos, collect some evidence, and write a report. Guns shouldn’t be necessary until it’s time to make an arrest, and maybe not even then.

The Washington Post assembled this graphic summary of what police do in a major American city:

In short, the fewer-police proposal is also a more-people-to-handle-stuff-the-police-should-never-have-been-asked-to-do proposal. And police departments’ funding gets cut, not to punish them, but because the money for those other specialists has to come from somewhere.

Some of that work would be preventive rather than responsive. For example, if a city put real resources behind finding each homeless person a home (like they do in Finland), police (or whoever) wouldn’t have to answer so many calls about them. (The homeless are probably a large chunk of that “suspicious person” block in the graphic.)

And one final point from Georgetown law professor Christy Lopez:

Once we begin to undertake this inquiry [of rethinking public safety], we quickly see that there are some things that police are doing that nobody should be doing, such as enforcing laws that criminalize poverty and addiction, arresting people instead of issuing citations, writing tickets to raise revenue rather than protect the public, and using armored vehicles to evict women and children from a home they have occupied to protest homelessness.

Political activism vs. electoral politics. “Abolish the Police” is probably a great slogan if you want to raise energy for a protest, but across most of the country it would be a suicidal slogan for a political campaign.

A good issue-activist slogan is provocative in much the same way that online clickbait is. It draws your attention, maybe shocks you a little, and pulls you into the discussion if only to argue against it. Once drawn in, you may consider ideas you had never thought of before, and the activists may elaborate their proposals in ways that make them more reasonable than they originally sounded.

To a large extent, that’s working. I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read explaining that “Abolish the Police” and “Defund the Police” don’t really mean “abolish the police” or “cut their funding to zero”: Somebody would still answer 911 calls, and if the needed response was for armed warriors to show up — say, in an active shooter situation — the city would still have some on the payroll. As Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing told NPR:

I’m certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police.

(Then again, some people really do mean “Abolish the Police”.)

Would I have read those articles and considered those ideas if they had just been labeled “police reform” or something equally bland? Maybe not.

But while it makes sense for an issue activist to shock you with a slogan and then explain the nuances later, that’s an insane strategy for a politician trying to get elected. Ronald Reagan was right: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Issue-oriented activists tend to underestimate the importance of low-information voters in electoral politics. But those voters are why every campaign works hard to oversimplify its opponents’ positions to the point of absurdity, and then to get those simple absurdities into the minds of voters who can’t be bothered to consider the complicated details.

In 1988, for example, Mike Dukakis had a huge lead in the polls after the Democratic Convention. But George H. W. Bush caught up and won handily on the strength of two “issues”: Mike Dukakis hates the Pledge of Allegiance, and Mike Dukakis will let big black dudes rape your wife. Both were nonsense, but explaining why they were nonsense derailed Dukakis’ whole message. He had to keep explaining, and so he lost. Bush’s 53% of the vote is more than any presidential candidate has gotten since.

Trump and Biden. You can already see Trump pushing a similar oversimplification on immigration policy: Democrats want “open borders“. None of the Democrats running for president in this cycle endorsed “open borders”, and I can’t think of a single Democrat in Congress who has even said the phrase. But nonetheless it’s a staple of Trump rhetoric: If Democrats take over, the Mexican border will be left completely unmanned and unprotected.

He has been helped in this effort by liberal activists who pushed the slogan “Abolish ICE”. Now, “Abolish ICE” doesn’t mean “leave the border unprotected”, but it sounds like it does. If you tell low-information voters that Democrats want open borders, and illustrate with demonstrators waving “Abolish ICE” signs, they’ll be convinced.

Similarly here, “Abolish the Police” or “Defund the Police” doesn’t mean “You’re on your own if a criminal attacks you.” But it sounds like it does. If I tell a low-information voter that Joe Biden won’t protect him from criminals, and then cut to a video of Biden saying “Abolish the police”, he’ll be convinced.

And that’s why Biden will never say, “Abolish the police.”

Rep. Jim Clyburn elaborates:

If you’re talking about reallocating resources, say that. If you mean reimagining policing, say that. If you’re going to reform policing, say that. Don’t tell me you’re going to use a term that you know is charged — and tell me that it doesn’t mean what it says.

California Governor Gavin Newsom explored the limits of how far a mainstream politician can go:

California Governor Gavin Newsom [said] Wednesday that while he’s not interested in “eliminating police,” he’s open to considering how a police officer’s role in a community could change.

“If you’re talking about reimagining and taking the opportunity to look at the responsibility and role that we place on law enforcement to be social workers, mental health workers, get involved in disputes where a badge and a gun are unnecessary, then I think absolutely this is an opportunity to look at all of the above.”

Is there any good electoral slogan here? Personally, I’m frustrated that no simple English verb expresses the idea I want. No everyday verb means “Expand other things so that one particular thing gets crowded out.” I can’t even think of a good metaphor to express that notion.

I agree with the abolition supporters that “reform” is too tepid. We’ve been reforming police for a long time now, and yet we still have George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. I can’t claim that nothing has changed, because Floyd’s killer is charged with murder when so many killer officers have previously gone uncharged. The Brooks incident has already pushed the Atlanta police chief to resign, and charges against the officer are expected soon. Stuff like that didn’t used to happen. But the unnecessary deaths continue, and (even assuming the reforms currently on the table become law) I can’t say when they’ll stop.

What is stronger than “reform”, but doesn’t have the unfortunate implications of “abolish”? I don’t have a good candidate. Some people are saying “dismantle”. “Reconstitute” might work. I’m tempted to steal a word from the business world, and talk about “downsizing” the police.

Another option might be to talk about “the police state” rather than just “the police”. Americans have ambivalent feelings about police, but nobody likes a police state. (Trump loves to defend the police, but defending the police state would be a gift to his enemies.) “Police state” would capture the idea that black neighborhoods are over-policed, and would also tie in to the idea of mass incarceration. It points to the observation that we currently deal with all kinds of social problems (like homelessness or addiction) through the police rather than through more appropriate institutions.

Downsize the police? Dismantle the police state? End policing as we know it? None of them strikes me as an election-winning slogan, but they’re the best I can do.

Do activists and politicians need to say the same words? Another way to look at this is to let activists advance issues and let politicians win elections. Activists could keep saying “Abolish the police”, and no electoral harm would be done as long as they understood that no national figure could say it with them. The redefinition of police and of public safety is going to have to happen locally anyway. Maybe the best thing the federal government can do is stay out of the way.

Maybe it could be enough for Biden and other major Democrats in the fall election to say things activists could interpret positively, while still holding back from “Abolish the police”, as Governor Newsom did. Maybe it would be enough if Biden could say something like “The beauty of our federal system is that cities and states are free to experiment and try new things. If some of them want to find creative ways to deliver public services, and if they want to develop a new vision of how to ensure public safety, then a Biden administration will try to work with them.”

But maybe it wouldn’t be enough. Trump won in 2016 by pounding two wedges: a “corruption” wedge between Hillary Clinton and the center-right, and a Bernie-was-robbed wedge between Clinton and left. He’s going to try the same thing again. “Abolish the Police” works for him either way: If Biden agrees with the slogan, that becomes a wedge separating him from the center. If he doesn’t, it’s a wedge separating him from the left.

So that’s the question activists will be left with: Is it enough for Biden to indicate a general sympathy with their movement (when Trump is steadfastly against it), or does he have to repeat their words?

How Should American Policing Change?

“Actually, we’re just getting started.”

This week it’s been easy to assemble video collections of misbehaving police. The current crisis began with a Minneapolis policeman killing George Floyd — not instantaneously, by shooting him in a moment of confusion or fear, but slowly, by kneeling on his neck as his life ebbed away. In the two weeks since, we’ve seen phalanxes of militarized police attack angry but non-violent crowds of protesters on multiple occasions. Friday, the NYT’s Jamelle Bouie put together a list:

Rioting police have driven vehicles into crowds, reproducing the assault that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. They have surrounded a car, smashed the windows, tazed the occupants and dragged them out onto the ground. Clad in paramilitary gear, they have attacked elderly bystanders, pepper-sprayed cooperative protesters and shot “nonlethal” rounds directly at reporters, causing serious injuries. In Austin, Texas, a 20-year-old man is in critical condition after being shot in the head with a “less-lethal” round. Across the country, rioting police are using tear gas in quantities that threaten the health and safety of demonstrators, especially in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic.

That list is sadly incomplete. For example, Bouie’s “elderly bystander” is not the one you’re thinking of. These bystanders are in Salt Lake City, not Buffalo. The video Bouie linked to also shows an old man being pushed to the ground, but he falls on his chest rather than striking the back of his head.

It is tempting to keeping throwing more and more videos at the dead-enders who refuse to see the widespread problem in American policing. But those who are not convinced by now will probably never be convinced, and in the meantime we have let them freeze the conversation. Something similar happens with climate change: A handful of stubborn denialists can freeze a conversation at the is-it-real stage, and prevent reality-based people from discussing what to do about it.

It’s time to ignore the dead-enders and move forward without them.

More than a few bad apples. It also time to start ignoring people who make the few-bad-apples argument, as White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien did recently. If there were no systemic problem, that handful of bad cops would be easy to identify and remove from the force. (Don’t tell me the other cops don’t know who they are.) But the problem is not just the occasional officer who violently abuses his power; it’s all the other cops who cover for him and resist any attempt to hold him accountable.

The initial police statement on George Floyd mentioned nothing about Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, but was titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” When Buffalo police shoved a 75-year-old protester — a white man, in this case — who hit his head on the pavement and soon had blood pooling around his ear, their initial statement said:

A 5th person was arrested during a skirmish with other protestors and also charged with disorderly conduct. During that skirmish involving protestors, one person was injured when he tripped & fell.

In both cases, that false account probably would have stood if not for bystander video, leaving us to wonder how many police assaults and murders are routinely covered up — not just by the “bad apples” who commit those crimes, but by the criminally complicit police around them.

The Buffalo situation demonstrates an even deeper rot. When bystander video showed that the police report was a lie, Buffalo’s police commissioner suspended without pay, pending investigation, the two officers who pushed the man down. (The officers who knowingly allowed a false report to be issued have not been punished.) But even this small move towards accountability was too much: All 57 fellow active members of the Buffalo Police emergency unit resigned from the squad (but not from the police).

“Fifty-seven resigned in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” Buffalo Police Benevolent Association president John Evans told WGRZ on Friday.

Their orders were to clear the square of protesters, not to assault old men. (The two officers were charged with assault Saturday. Over 100 police and firefighters showed up at the courthouse to support them.) But not a single member of the emergency unit looked at that video and said, “Hey, we shouldn’t be doing things like that.” They have chosen their side. There aren’t two bad apples on that squad; there are 57 bad apples. There’s probably no bureaucratic mechanism that can bring about this outcome, but none of them should ever be police anywhere again. (According to the local ABC TV channel, though, two of the 57 claim the union manipulated this outcome by saying they could no longer defend members of the emergency unit under these conditions.)

What can be done? We need to be thinking on multiple time scales. Some significant changes need to be announced immediately, while the crowds are still in the streets. But problems this deep and old resist quick fixes. So the country needs a long-term plan, but that plan has to visibly begin right now.

In Minnesota. In the specific case of George Floyd’s murder, most of what the protesters want has already been achieved: All four officers involved have been arrested and charged. Derek Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, and the other three face aiding-and-abetting charges. Unless we want to see the officers handed over for mob justice, that’s all that can be done right now. The legal process will play out over months, and ultimately a jury will have to decide what happens to them.

More broadly, the Minnesota Commissioner for Human Rights filed suit against the City of Minneapolis and its police department on Tuesday, claiming that

the City of Minneapolis Police Department has engaged in a pattern and practice of race-based policing in violation of the [Minnesota Human Rights Act]

Friday, the Commissioner and the City agreed to a plan that they have asked the Court to impose as an injunction. The plan has six provisions:

  • Ban chokeholds and neck restraints of any kind.
  • Police officers who witness another officer’s unauthorized use of force have an immediate duty to report the incident to their commanders.
  • Police officers who witness another officer’s unauthorized use of force have a duty to intervene “by verbal and physical means“, or face the same punishment as the offending officer.
  • Crowd control weapons (chemical agents and rubber bullets are specifically mentioned) can only be used after authorization by the Chief of Police.
  • Pending disciplinary actions must be decided within 45 days. Future actions have to be decided within 30 days.
  • The City’s Office of Police Conduct Review can audit body-camera footage “proactively and strategically”. (Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucerno explains: “Right now, body cam footage exists. However, it’s only reviewed when there’s a complaint.”)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his own proposal, which requires action from the legislature:

  • Make police disciplinary records transparent
  • Ban chokeholds
  • Make false race-based 911 reports a hate crime
  • Attorney General must act as independent prosecutor for any police murder case

Several other states and cities have announced plans to ban either chokeholds or tear gas or both.

8 Can’t Wait. Campaign Zero is an organization devoted to ending police violence. It put out the “8 Can’t Wait” agenda, of steps any city could take right away. (The “Data proves …” claim in the graphic below is theirs, not mine. I have not tried to evaluate it.)

Matt Yglesias explains the 8 in more detail, and looks at some of the supporting statistics. Some are easy to understand: banning chokeholds and the duty to intervene are already part of the Minneapolis agreement discussed above. The ban on shooting at moving vehicles and requirement to warn before shooting are self-explanatory.

A comprehensive reporting requirement means that officers need to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against a civilian. … The use of force continuum is a specific set of requirements governing what kinds of weapons can be used versus what levels of resistance. And a deescalation requirement mandates that officers try to secure their personal safety through distance and communication before resorting to force.

Medium-term proposals. A number of ideas are included in the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which Democrats in the House and Senate are introducing this morning. It’s hard to imagine Mitch McConnell allowing any of these reforms to be passed in time to bring this season of protest to a successful conclusion, but the problem isn’t going away until we have reforms more significant than anything that can happen quickly.

  • a national database of deaths in police custody. It’s hard to believe this doesn’t already exist, but apparently not.
  • a national police misconduct registry. So that bad cops fired in one city can’t just get a new job somewhere else.
  • ending or altering “qualified immunity”. Qualified immunity shelters government officials from civil lawsuits for violating someone’s rights, “unless the victims of those violations can show that the rights were ‘clearly established’.” In practice, this has made such suits almost impossible for plaintiffs to win.
  • changing the standard for police use of force. “victims of excessive force or other violations need only show that officers ‘recklessly’ deprived them of their rights. The current statute requires victims to show that officers’ actions were ‘willful’.”
  • formalize the Justice Department’s oversight of police departments with a history of bad practices. During the Obama administration, Justice took oversight of local police seriously, but when Jeff Sessions became attorney general, he abandoned those efforts.

A change more likely to be made on the state level than the federal level: setting up a special prosecutor or special process for investigating killings by local police. In Minnesota, for example, the state attorney general has taken over the prosecution of the George Floyd officers. Some states already have state guidelines for investigating officer-involved deaths that make sure police departments aren’t investigating themselves. All states should.

And finally, cities need to change their relationships with police unions. In general, unions are good, and collective bargaining for better wages and benefits is fine. But too often police unions intent on protecting their members torpedo any move towards public accountability.

Long term: police culture. Welcome as reforms like those mentioned above would be, many doubt they would solve the problem.

Two aspects of the problem are more complicated than just changing a few rules and hiring better people:

  • The institutional culture of police departments needs to change.
  • The tasks that belong to police departments need to be rethought.

Both of these are too big for a few paragraphs at the end of a long article, but here are some thoughts to get you started.

Friday night, Chris Hayes interviewed Patrick Skinner, a former CIA counterterrorism officer who came home to be a beat cop in Savannah. One of the themes of their conversation was the dysfunction of the “warrior” mentality of police. Skinner said that police would do better to think of themselves as neighbors rather than warriors. In a recent Washington Post op-ed he wrote:

As I got better at being a rookie cop, I kept asking myself this question: “If I didn’t have a badge and a gun, how would I handle this call?” Whatever I came up with that was legal, transparent and kind, I would try.

Hayes reviewed the video of the 75-year-old man being pushed down in Buffalo, and observed that probably none of the officers present would act that way in everyday life: They would not push an old man out of their way, and if they saw an old man bleeding on the pavement, they would stop to help. Somehow, their police training overrode those human reactions.

Long term: defunding. Philip and Thenjiwe McHarris note all the reform efforts by the Minneapolis police — none of which saved George Floyd’s life. They think it’s foolish to expect similar small-scale reforms to end the killing of black people in general.

The focus on training, diversity and technology like body cameras shifts focus away from the root cause of police violence and instead gives the police more power and resources. The problem is that the entire criminal justice system gives police officers the power and opportunity to systematically harass and kill with impunity.

The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public. We can do that by reinvesting the $100 billion spent on policing nationwide in alternative emergency response programs, as protesters in Minneapolis have called for.

In most American communities today, police get called to deal with all manner of disorder, from the homeless man sleeping on your stoop to the loud teen-age party next door to domestic violence to drug overdoses to episodes of mental illness.

But what defines the police is their ability to use force, all the way up to deadly force. Their very presence is a threat of force, and opens the possibility that someone could end up dead. I sincerely doubt that the clerk who called the police on George Floyd intended for them to come and kill him. The store owner now says: “If I was [there] I don’t think the authorities would have been called and we would have policed our own matters.”

Often situations would be better addressed by a civic official with different capabilities, different options, and different training. Or perhaps the disorder would not exist at all if some kind of preventive service had been provided during the previous weeks. But cities don’t have the resources for such alternatives precisely because they’re spending so much money on police.

Moves to cut both the responsibilities and the budgets of police, and to use that money to provide services in alternative ways, are often promoted with slogans like “Abolish the police”. This is poor messaging, in my opinion, and opens itself up to easy caricature from police advocates. (Are cities going to stop enforcing their laws? Should citizens buy more guns and take the law into their own hands?) But what abolish-the-police advocates really want is something far more reasonable: Reduce to the absolute minimum the number of occasions when Americans come into contact with people who could kill them and get away with it.

This Week, Democratic Protest Outlasted Riot and Repression

Fascism got out to an early lead, but a late comeback won the week for democracy.


A week ago, peaceful protests by day were competing with violence by night: violence by protesters, violence by opportunistic looters, violence from mysterious agitators seeking a wider conflict, and violence by police. President Trump seemed to think this unrest worked in his favor politically — perhaps his re-election campaign could ride a wave of white backlash, as Richard Nixon did in 1968 — so he ignored the peaceful protests, denounced the rioters, and focused on “dominating” American streets with overwhelming force.

That cycle peaked Monday. Washington D.C. had no governor with the authority to object, so Trump brought in National Guard units from across the country, and moved 1,600 active-duty troops to nearby bases. (According CNN, those troops were not used; “no active duty forces have entered the city yet to respond to civil unrest.”) CBS News reported a heated meeting at the White House Monday, when Trump demanded that the Pentagon deploy 10,000 active-duty troops in the streets in cities across the country. (To get around the restrictions the Posse Comitatus Act puts on military law enforcement, Trump would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act.) Defense Secretary Esper, Attorney General Bill Barr, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley all opposed the idea.

But if the Army wasn’t deployed, another ominous force was: unidentified federal police, who would say only that they came from the Department of Justice. They had no name tags or other means of identification, and hence zero accountability. One protester nailed the issue:

God forbid if there’s an escalation of violence and there’s a video circulating of an officer using his baton on a protester, and there’s no way to identify who that officer is,

Also Monday morning, after a conversation with his autocratic mentor, Vladimir Putin, Trump berated governors in a teleconference, calling them “weak” if they did not call out the National Guard and “dominate the streets”.

Trump also claimed to know the sinister conspiracy he needed to dominate: Antifa, which Wikipedia describes as “a diverse array of autonomous groups”. Trump is often best answered by laughter, so the satire site Beaverton posted: “ANTIFA surprised to discover it is an organization“.

“All this time all I thought I was doing was taking direct action to fight nazis,” stated self-professed anti-fascist Mattheus Grant of Eugene, OR. “But when I learned that I’m actually a member of an organization, I got so excited! Maybe we can get an office now?”

More seriously, The Nation obtained a situation report on the D.C. protests from the FBI’s Washington field office (WFO):

based on CHS [Confidential Human Source] canvassing, open source/social media partner engagement, and liaison, FBI WFO has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.

So either Trump knew more than the FBI, or he just made this up.

The photo op. Trump’s photo-op stunt with an Episcopal Church as a backdrop and a Bible as a prop happened Monday evening.

That PR gimmick began a half hour before curfew with an attack on peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. After the crowd was cleared away, Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Church to have his photo taken holding up a Bible. Brandishing the Bible like a weapon seemed to be the only use he could think of.

Leaders from The Episcopal Church have condemned the reported use of tear gas and projectiles to clear clergy and protesters from the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, so President Donald Trump could use it for an unauthorized photo op on June 1.

Video of the attack is disturbing in some places and boring in others, but I recommend watching chunks of it, particularly after the 30-minute mark when the police begin moving the crowd.

What I see in that video are angry but entirely non-violent demonstrators, mostly young adults and a surprising (to me) number of whites. Police push them back with gas, exploding projectiles, shields, and horses.

Perhaps even more disturbing was the baldly false statement issued by the Park Police afterwards:

At approximately 6:33 pm, violent protestors on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids. … As many of the protestors became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls. No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park

The video shows none of this, and none of the journalists covering the demonstration saw it. In the video, the police look entirely undisturbed. They do not flinch to avoid projectiles, and nothing bounces off their shields. After the police begin to fire gas and advance, I noticed two or three water bottles hit the pavement in front of them. The bottles hit with a splash — they are not frozen — and do not hit the police. No one appears to be trying to grab police weapons.

As the week went on, more and more people in the administration claimed to have nothing to do with the decision to launch this attack. No one was responsible. Not Mark Esper. Not General Milley. Not even Bill Barr. Success has many fathers, the proverb says, but failure is an orphan. By that standard, Trump’s church-and-Bible photo op was a failure.

Damage to America’s standing in the world. If you think this combination of factors — calling out the military against protesting crowds, blatant lying, secret police, using low-flying military helicopters to intimidate dissidents, attacking journalists, and denouncing imaginary conspiratorial enemies — sound like the kind of autocratic response to dissent that the US usually condemns, you’re not the only ones who noticed. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, who learned about autocracy by studying Putin, described it as “the performance of fascism“.

A power grab is always a performance of sorts. It begins with a claim to power, and if the claim is accepted—if the performance is believed—it takes hold. Much as he played a real-estate tycoon in the most crude and reductive way, Trump is now performing his idea of power as he imagines it. In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition.

China noticed too, and gloated. The editor of China’s Global Times tweeted:

The US repression of domestic unrest has further eroded the moral basis to claim itself “beacon of democracy”. The era that the US political elites could exploit Tiananmen incident at will is over.

And Thai Enquirer couldn’t resist an ironic jab at the oh-so-superior United States: “Unrest continues for a seventh day in former British colony“.

The United States has had a long history of suppressing and persecuting its various ethnic minorities since the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1776.

The treatment of its indigenous ‘Native Americans,’ its imported Asian and Black communities, and its Hispanic community has long been a source of friction.

American black minority groups were under a program similar to South Africa’s Apartheid policy until as recently as 1964. Today, the ethnic black community is still detained and killed with impunity by the state security forces and black Americans make up the majority of those incarcerated under the country’s archaic judicial system.

Religion also plays a major role in governance with religious beliefs separating key state organs including the country’s highest court where many social laws are passed based on the justices’ personally held religious convictions.

In short, US ambassadors around the world have just seen their moral authority collapse.

In addition to Trump’s proposed misuse of the Army, his unilateral dismantling of America’s soft power is probably a major factor causing previously silent military figures to speak out: Trump’s ex-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to name two out of many.

Peaceful protest wins out. But if Trump imagined that unleashing police power on the protesters at Lafayette Park would intimidate them, he was wrong. On Tuesday they were back in larger numbers, and have not stopped protesting near the White House since. Friday, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed the section of 16th Street that ends at Lafayette Park “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and painted an enormous “Black Lives Matter” on the pavement. (In the vanishing point of the photo below, you can barely make out the White House.)

Bowser’s move was an institutional version of the well-known protest chant: “Whose streets? Our streets.”

Wednesday, President Obama filled the healing role that Trump has left vacant, urging young African Americans to “feel hopeful even as you may feel angry”. Don’t choose between protest in the streets and action within the political system, he advised. Do both.

This is not an either-or. This is a both-and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented. … Every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals, has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable. And we should all be thankful for folks who are willing in a peaceful, disciplined way to be out there making a difference.

A memorial service for Floyd was held in Minneapolis on Thursday, and another in Raeford, North Carolina (where he was born) on Saturday. Both were surrounded by emotional, but nonviolent, crowds.

That turned into the pattern across the nation. As the week went on, violence faded and peaceful protest gained momentum. The largest protests occurred this weekend unblemished by violence from either looters or law enforcement.

Strikingly, protests occurred all over the country, in small towns as well as big cities, and included many whites as well as people of color. (Mitt Romney marched Sunday in Washington.) In this photo, taken Wednesday a few blocks from where I live in Bedford, Massachusetts, two passing police stop in the Great Road to take a knee in front of the protesters on the town common. The officers were later commended by the police chief, and every protester I’ve talked to was touched by the gesture. (Our local protests continued all week; I attended on Friday.)

There are two ways to interpret the late-week peace. In one narrative, the overwhelming display of force on Sunday and Monday sent the message that protester violence would not be tolerated. As rioters went away, law enforcement withdrew. But in another narrative, it was law enforcement’s lower profile that de-escalated the cycle of violence.

One inarguable point, though, is that the absence of burning buildings and marauding police left the media little to cover other than the substance of the protests. By this weekend, there was increasing discussion of proposals to get America’s police back under control. (See the next article.)

Thoughtful people can disagree about whether the early-week violence was necessary to focus the nation’s attention. But it was clearly necessary for that violence to end so that the message could be absorbed.

In the end, on balance, it was a good week for democracy and for the nation. But we’ll need a lot more good weeks to see change take root.

The Three Stories of George Floyd

The George Floyd story is really three separate stories: how he died, how he fits into the larger story of police brutality against black people, and the demonstrations and riots that have happened around the country since his killing.

His death. The first story is the most difficult to watch, but the easiest to tell: Last Monday in Minneapolis, police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck “for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that occurring after Floyd was unresponsive”.

We know the timing that exactly because a bystander uploaded a video to Facebook. It shows Floyd repeatedly complaining that he can’t breathe, and then becoming motionless while bystanders plead with police to “check his pulse” and ask the policeman who was keeping the growing crowd away “You going to let him kill that man in front of you?”. Chauvin doesn’t get off Floyd’s neck until an ambulance has arrived and a stretcher is ready to receive his (possibly already lifeless) body.

The police account, from a few hours before the video went viral, tells none of that. The New York Times summarizes:

Minneapolis police said they were investigating an accusation of forgery on Monday night in the southern part of the city. They confronted a man who was sitting on the top of a blue car. The police said the suspect had “physically resisted officers” as he was placed in handcuffs. He appeared to be “suffering medical distress,” according to the police statement released on Monday night after an ambulance was called to the scene.

That account is true, as far as it goes. Floyd was being arrested on a complaint that he had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a local grocery. NBC reconstructed the arrest from a number of video sources. At times Floyd struggled with the police arresting him, but he presented no weapons and was always greatly outnumbered. (According to the criminal complaint against Chauvin, the struggle you can barely make out in the NBC video is Floyd resisting being put in the squad car.) At no point did he seem to be getting away. When Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck, Floyd was already handcuffed.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey commented:

The technique that was used is not permitted; is not a technique that our officers get trained in on. And our chief has been very clear on that piece. There is no reason to apply that kind of pressure with a knee to someone’s neck.

The four police officers involved in the incident were fired on Tuesday. On Friday, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. [1] According to the local Star Tribune, he is the first white police officer in Minnesota to be charged in the death of a black civilian.

The other officers have not been charged with anything, but the county attorney says they are under investigation and charges are expected. Local Channel 9 speculated on what those charges might be:

The most serious charge the other three fired officers could face is aiding and abetting the murder. “That could be giving him a tool or weapon, it could be keeping people away from interfering with that was going on,” Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor, told FOX 9.

Friday, a Washington Post editorial expressed dissatisfaction with the official response:

Minneapolis’s own police have done little to suggest they can earn the trust of the community they are sworn to serve. They have not released body-cam footage of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, nor apologized for the specious statement they published about the incident, which elided the fact that Mr. Chauvin’s knee choked Mr. Floyd. The head of the city’s police union, Lt. Bob Kroll, said “now is not the time to rush to judgment” on Mr. Chauvin or the other officers at the scene, who did nothing to interfere as Mr. Floyd begged for his life.

Racism and American police. Excessive violence against black people accused of crimes is a very old story in America. By various accounts, thousands of blacks were lynched between the Civil War and the 1930s, often on little more than a false accusation. By definition, a lynching is an extra-judicial killing, but local law enforcement officers commonly either participated or looked the other way. (For example, the local sheriff was identified as a conspirator in the Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights activists in 1964.) I don’t know any estimate of the number of African Americans who have died in police custody since the end of slavery. Such killings were easily attributed to the suspect resisting arrest, attempting to escape, or committing suicide in prison.

For most of my lifetime, whites have regarded police brutality against black people as a they-said/they-said story. Blacks almost universally complained that police treated them more harshly than whites, and statistics showed that blacks were arrested, charged, and convicted far more often. But police said that blacks committed more crimes and were more likely to have a bad attitude towards police. Most white people never saw police arresting or otherwise accosting blacks, so the problem was easy to deny, ignore, or minimize.

The advent of ubiquitous video has changed all that. In recent years, the whole world has seen police choke Eric Garner to death while arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes, shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice dead for playing with a toy gun, shoot Walter Scott in the back while he was running away from an officer who had stopped him for having a bad brake light, and many similar incidents.

Those videos made us see other incidents differently, even if the actual death was off-camera: John Crawford III was shot dead in a WalMart for carrying a toy gun he was thinking of buying. Stephon Clark was shot dead in his grandmother’s back yard when police mistook his cellphone for a gun. Philandro Castille was riding with his girl friend and her four-year-old daughter when a policeman stopped the car. Castille informed the officer that he had a legal gun in the car, and the officer shot him dead. Freddie Gray died from a “rough ride” that police gave him back to the station after arresting him for carrying a knife.

The great majority of these incidents — even the ones caught on video — resulted in no jail time for the police involved. No one was indicted for Garner, Rice, Crawford, or Clark’s deaths. The officer who killed Castille was acquitted. Gray’s death resulted in a mistrial, some acquittals, and dropped charges. Walter Scott’s killer was convicted on federal charges, eventually, after his trial on a state murder charge ended in a hung jury.

Police have also tended to look the other way when white civilians kill blacks. Trayvon Martin was shot dead by a neighborhood watchman as he returned to his father’s fiance’s house after buying Skittles at a convenience store. Rather than treating the shooting as a crime, police returned the shooter’s gun and sent him home. Massive protests pushed local authorities to indict the shooter eventually, but he was acquitted.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the American justice system doesn’t regard the killing of a black person as a big deal. The anti-brutality movement is called Black Lives Matter in response to the apparent reality that they don’t. [2]

Recent events. By the time Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, outrage had already been building for some while.

In late February, Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Brunswick, Georgia by two white men (a retired police detective and his son) while he was out jogging. The killers told police they suspected him in some local burglaries. For months the police took no action and the case got no attention in the press. But in early May, a video of the incident (which police seem to have known about all along) went viral. It showed Arbery being chased down and shot by three men in two trucks. It looked a lot more like a lynching that the resisting-citizen’s-arrest story the killers told.

Within two days of the video’s release, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had gotten involved and arrested the two men in the lead truck. The third man, who videoed from the second truck, was arrested later.

How, the nation wondered, could police have sat on this video for months without making an arrest? If the video hadn’t leaked, would the killers have gotten away with it?

Another recent case generating outrage: Breonna Taylor, a Louisville EMT. Plain-clothes police with a no-knock warrant burst into her home (her boyfriend claims without identifying themselves as police), setting off a gun battle in which Taylor was killed and her boyfriend wounded. The warrant was to look for drugs, which they did not find. The boyfriend’s story — that he thought he was defending against a home invasion by armed criminals — seems pretty credible.

Echoes of Ferguson. Before we get into this week’s demonstrations and riots, I want to talk about the last time something like this happened.

In 2014, after the Michael Brown shooting in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, demonstrations erupted and sometimes turned violent. I commented at the time on the coverage from Fox News and other conservative media, which framed the community reaction as a great mystery: Most of these people never knew Michael Brown and had no idea whether the police were telling the truth or not about his killing. What riled them up so much that they had to go break windows or burn down a store?

If you came to the Ferguson story with that question in mind, racist stereotypes provided an obvious answer, which Fox didn’t need to spell out (though some right-wing voices did): The Brown shooting was just an excuse for young black men to indulge their inherently lawless nature.

I addressed this “mystery” in “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“, a piece that I think holds up pretty well after nearly six years. What Fox did wrong was present the Brown shooting as a one-off event, when the real story was the ongoing predatory behavior of the Ferguson police towards the black community. [3]

The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence. … So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect? …

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

This week’s responses. That’s the context to keep in mind as you think about the sometimes-violent demonstrations that we’ve seen around the country since Floyd’s killing. It isn’t that thousands of people have suddenly decided to care about a guy they’d never heard of a week ago, and it’s not that lawless animals have been turned loose. The anger being expressed in these demonstrations, by both peaceful and violent demonstrators, is largely personal anger. George Floyd symbolizes that anger, but it’s much bigger than him.

Very large numbers of black people have had their own bad experiences with police, incidents where they felt humiliated or threatened or disrespected. (One young man in Ferguson schooled a condescending Fox News reporter: “We go through this shit every day.“) And for the most part they have had no recourse; no one who had the power to demand justice would take their complaint seriously.

So when they see the tape of Chauvin killing Floyd, their response isn’t, “Oh my God, can you believe that?” but “There! Look at that! That’s how they are!” Not “I can’t believe stuff like that happens in America” but “Finally somebody got the goods on them.” [4]

And at the same time, there’s the fear that even with this kind of evidence, nothing will change. Maybe Chauvin will be tried and maybe he’ll even be convicted, but maybe he’ll get off somehow, as so many others have. Maybe the other cops have been fired, but probably somebody — maybe even Minneapolis again — will hire them and put them back on the street. Or maybe they’ll be the rare cops to pay some kind of price for their racism, but the racist policing system as a whole will rumble on.

There is no reason for the demonstrators to have faith that something else will happen, that America finally gets it now. That’s why they’re on the street.

For comparison, think about school shootings. Again and again — Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland — an event is so shocking that it rises above the usual platitudes. And for a moment you think: “Now. Now something will change, because things like just can’t go on.”

But they do go on. Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes there’s some incremental change in how we sell or track guns. But before too long there’s a new shooting, one even more horrible than the last one. And we go through it all again. Remember how that feels?

Riots. What we saw rising through the week and then reaching a crescendo over the weekend was a pattern of peaceful demonstrations by day and violence by night — not just in Minneapolis, but in cities across the country.

I don’t know how to cover the destruction, or even how to grasp it. A news network may show you a store being looted or a police station being burned, but are all the stores being looted? Is the whole city burning? The destruction seems widespread, but I don’t know how to get a handle on it.

I think it’s important, though, that riots not become the story. The original injustice — both specifically in the Floyd case and generally in the racial bias of our law enforcement — needs to be the story. Yes, the riots need to stop. Yes, people who use the cover of the chaos to commit crimes should be arrested and punished. And we need to take a hard look at crowd-control policing to see whether its tactics set off people who might otherwise disperse on their own. But just returning to the status quo is not a solution, because before long there will be another George Floyd, and then it will happen all over again.

I think it’s important to remember that peaceful protest was tried and it failed. Remember Colin Kaepernick? What he was protesting when he knelt during the national anthem was precisely the racist nature of policing in America. The main result of Kaepernick’s protest was to end his NFL career, largely because Trump wouldn’t let up. LeBron James reminded us of this by posting this photo with the comment “This is why”

When you suppress peaceful protest against legitimate injustices, and punish the people who do it, you make violent protest inevitable.

And I don’t want to hear the platitude that violence never changes anything. In fact it does, and I think we’re seeing that now. The riots are sending white America the message that this can’t go on. It could have heard that message when Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe.” It could have understood that message when football players knelt. But it refused. Now the message is being sent with fire and broken glass.

This can’t go on.

The agitators. Finally, there’s the mystery of the Umbrella Man, and an indeterminate number of others like him. A white man dressed in black, hiding his face behind a gas mask and an umbrella, got the Minneapolis riots started by calmly and methodically smashing the windows of an AutoZone with a hammer. He then walked away. He does not seem to be either a protester or a looter; he’s just there to catalyze the transition from protest to riot.

There are many similar stories of mysterious people, many of them white, who perform some initial act of violence and then vanish. Sometimes they arrive in trucks with no license plates.

So far, a lot more is being said about these mystery men than anyone actually knows. Some say they’re white supremacists trying to set off the race war that their rhetoric says is coming. Trump says Antifa is behind it. [5] A number of protesters in Minneapolis suspect undercover police of agitating the violence to discredit the peaceful protests. (In the Umbrella Man video, bystanders keep asking “Are you a cop?”)

Any of those stories might have been false originally, and then become true. If you’re an isolated white supremacist or a left-wing anarchist, and you hear a false report that people like you are trying to turn the protests into riots, maybe you go out and do it without orders from anyone.

All those explanations need to weighed against the need of local officials to deny that their own constituents are so disillusioned that they’re ready to start burning stuff down. Blaming it all on “outsiders” is an easy out for them.

My advice: Pay attention to actual cases and the observations of specific witnesses, but don’t take anybody’s conclusions seriously yet.


[1] A local TV station summarizes what Chauvin was and wasn’t charged with.

A person commits third-degree murder when the person does not intend to kill another person but does so by acting recklessly, or “without regard for human life.”

It can lead to as many as 25 years in prison. The manslaughter charge carries a sentence up to 10 years, and is easier to prove.

A person commits second-degree manslaughter when their negligence causes another person’s death. Manslaughter only requires the person to create “an unreasonable risk,” while third-degree murder requires the person to act “without regard for human life.”

The more serious charge of second-degree murder would require establishing that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd, and first degree would mean that he planned the killing.

So it depends on what Derek Chauvin was thinking. If he walked into the situation thinking “I’m going to kill that guy”, it’s first degree. If in the moment he realizes “I’m killing this guy” and continues, that’s second degree. If he just thinks “Eh, if he dies he dies”, that’s third degree. If he should have known that Floyd’s life was at risk, it’s manslaughter even if he didn’t know.

In my personal opinion, the Floyd killing is second-degree murder. But if I wanted to give myself the best chance to win in court, I’d do what the prosecutor has done. I’m not sure I could prove to a jury that the thought “I’m killing this guy” went through Derek Chauvin mind (though being surrounded by people yelling “You’re killing him” should have given him a clue). Proving that Chauvin acted recklessly and should have known Floyd might die seems much easier.

[2] That’s why the response “all lives matter” is so off-base. If all lives really did matter, there would be no need to assert that black lives matter.

[3] That behavior was laid out in detail months later in a Justice Department report. One key quote:

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

In other words, the police went into the community looking for things to fine people for, not to protect life or maintain order. The racial attitude of the police was characterized by things like this:

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

[4] The Trump administration is still in denial about this. Sunday on CNN, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien rehashed the full a-few-bad-apples story.

No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism. I think 99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans and many of them are African-American, Hispanic, Asian. They’re working in the toughest neighborhoods, they got the hardest jobs to do in this country. … There are some bad cops that are racist, there are cops that maybe don’t have the right training,. There are some that are just bad cops and they need to be rooted out because there’s a few bad apples that are giving law enforcement a terrible name.

What the administration sees is a PR problem, not a race problem. The thing to fix is not black people getting killed, but police getting “a terrible name”.

A lot of people on social media are sharing this Chris Rock quote:

Some jobs can’t have bad apples. Some jobs, everybody gotta be good. Like … pilots. Ya know, American Airlines can’t be like, “Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains. Please bear with us.”

[5] Over the years, Trump has said a lot of nonsense about Antifa, which is not even an actual organization so much as a collection of local groups who share some ideas and tactics. The general idea is that fascists are violent, so anti-fascists need to be prepared to match their violence. But Trump needs a left-wing group to distract from white supremacist violence, so Antifa is it.