Category Archives: Articles

I Want To Believe

Eight days from the end of voting, the signs are good. I know you’re still worried.

Politico sums up how this race might look to a dispassionate observer:

Trump is an unpopular incumbent saddled with a recession and an out-of-control coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans. Meanwhile Biden has only seen his favorability ratings increase over time, emerging largely unscathed from Trump’s attacks on him and his son Hunter Biden. And Biden is outspending Trump down the homestretch almost everywhere

Those strategic observations are reflected in the polls: 538’s polling average has Biden up by 9.1% nationally, with few undecided voters: 52.0%-42.9%. And yes, the Electoral College rigs the system in Trump’s favor — the only reason he’s president now is that the electors overruled the voters in 2016 — but even that looks good: For some while 538’s tipping-point state has been Pennsylvania, where they project a 5.5% Biden advantage: 52.4%-46.9%. (That’s the margin in a model that projects ahead to election day. Their who’s-leading-now polling average is a bit bigger: 50.4%-44.7% or a 5.7% margin.)

If something goes wrong in Pennsylvania, Biden has other paths to victory. He’s also currently leading in North Carolina (2.5%), Florida (2.4%), Arizona (3.0%), Iowa (1.3%), and Georgia (.9%). (The model expects his leads to go away in Iowa and Georgia, but not in the other states.) And Trump’s leads are narrow in a number of states once thought to be safe for him: Ohio (1.4%) and Texas (tied).

That’s right: If you’re being all quantitative and wonky about it (like 538 always is), Biden currently looks way more likely to win Texas than Trump does to win Pennsylvania.

Feel better now? I didn’t think so.

Ghosts of 2016. Election Night 2016 was a trauma that Democrats may not recover from for a very long time. (I wonder if Republicans fretted this much about Eisenhower’s chances in 1952 after the Dewey debacle in 1948.) The Saturday before the election, the Princeton Election Consortium said Clinton had a 99% chance of winning. While other people’s speculations were less extreme — and Nate Silver’s election-eve estimate that Trump stood a 28% chance was probably about right; some unlikely things still had to happen, but everybody has gotten wet when there was a 28% chance of rain — few of us expected to see a President Trump.

And then it all fell apart: Florida and North Carolina early, and then Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

So why couldn’t that happen again?

If you insist on a strict interpretation of could, then sure: Everything could still go wrong. But this isn’t like the horror-movie sequel where only one character remembers what happened in the original. Everyone is out there looking for signs that the polls are wrong, or that subterranean forces are shifting the election under our feet. Nobody’s finding them.

What’s different now: non-college voters. 538’s Dhrumil Mehta explains the extent to which the polls were wrong in 2016 and what has been done to correct them in 2020. Nationally, the 2016 polls were pretty accurate; they only mildly overestimated Clinton’s 2% popular vote win. Late polls in Michigan and Pennsylvania showed Trump momentum, even if they still had a small Clinton lead. Only Wisconsin was a true polling failure.

Mehta explains a mistake that has since been corrected by many pollsters: They didn’t rebalance their samples for education levels.

What is rebalancing? When you already know the demographics of the population you’re sampling, you may notice that your sample is off in some way. Suppose, for example, that the electorate in some state is 14% black, but your sample is only 10% black. So you might adjust for that by counting each sampled Black person as 1.4 people.

In 2016, polls in the upper Midwest regularly undersampled people without college degrees. They didn’t intend to do that, it just happened. But it didn’t occur to them to rebalance for education, and the result was that more non-college people — and especially non-college whites — voted than anyone expected. That was Trump’s margin of victory.

Pollsters know about that mistake now, and are taking various steps to avoid it this time around.

So Trump doesn’t have some magical ability to conjure voters out of nowhere. We know where his 2016 margin came from, and we’re looking for it but not finding it this time.

What’s different: margins. Biden’s polling leads are bigger and broader than Clinton’s were. Clinton went into the election leading in the polls by 3 or 4%. Biden’s lead is running 8-10%.

What’s different: favorability. One reason the 2016 race went south at the end was that Hillary Clinton had very high unfavorable ratings. Many of 2016’s “undecided” voters were actually people searching for an excuse to vote against her, which the last-minute Comey announcement provided. (Trump’s negatives were also high, but that’s where we see the effect of sexism: A male president you dislike is unfortunate, but we’ve all disliked a male president at one time or another. A female president you dislike, on the other hand, may seem like an unimaginable horror.)

The same thing does not seem to be happening to Joe Biden.

He has emerged with more Americans viewing him favorably now than at this time last year, the opposite of the usual trajectory of a campaign and far different from the circumstances that faced Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Biden may not inspire dreams of a utopian future, but he’s hard to dislike. That’s why Trump keeps trying to run against somebody else, preferably some woman: Kamala Harris or AOC or Nancy Pelosi or Clinton again.

What’s different: the news. In 2016, Clinton’s weak spot was the suspicion of corruption. Largely that was the result of a decades-long Republican smear, and none of the so-called Clinton scandals subsequently amounted to anything. (Not even Bill Barr can find an excuse to “Lock her up!”)

But nonetheless, the final-week announcement that the FBI had found more Clinton emails and needed to examine them brought that weak spot to the fore.

The news cycle this time around is playing out very differently. The Trump tactic of insinuation-with-little-basis worked in 2016 largely because the country was doing pretty well. No urgent crises loomed that we had to picture Trump or Clinton trying to handle. “What have you got to lose?” Trump asked, and a lot of people had no compelling answer.

Right now, the country is in terrible shape, and the problems hit home every day. People worry about getting sick, they worry about their vulnerable relatives, they worry about their jobs. Nobody would ask “What have you got to lose?” now.

Trump’s weak spot is that he has completely bungled the only real crisis he’s faced: the pandemic. More than 220,000 Americans are dead on his watch, and he doesn’t seem to care. “It is what it is,” he says. We’ll have to “learn to live with it”. We should thank him because millions haven’t died.

And the news cycle is bringing that to the fore: The virus is surging precisely at the moment people are voting. There’s no way to put that out of the voters’ minds.

Election night. One more consideration that’s on everybody’s mind is what will happen on November 3. Will we actually know anything that night? Or will we be in painful suspense for days or weeks?

538 has a video where Galen Druke talks through what election night might look like, and in particular the question of whether we’ll know a winner. The upshot: Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona should count ballots fairly quickly, so we probably will know who wins those states (unless they’re very close). If Biden takes any of them, he’s going to win. If Trump takes all of them, it’s still a race, but the odds tip in Trump’s favor.

You can also play with the interactive tool Druke is using. When I do that, and give Trump FL, NC, AZ, but give the other states where Biden has sizeable leads to him, leaving only Wisconsin and Pennsylvania undecided, Biden is again favored.

So there’s a chance next Tuesday won’t be an ordeal. Or maybe it will.

Feel better yet? Yeah, I know.

The Hidden Threat of a Conservative Supreme Court (and what Biden should say about it)

Three weeks ago, in “The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court“, I focused on the Court as both the product and the enabler of minority rule: Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, and yet the rural small-state bias built into the Electoral College has given us eight additional years of Republican presidencies. Combined with Mitch McConnell’s maneuvers and the luck of who dies when, Republican presidents have replaced four of the eight justices who left the Court during that time, with Amy Coney Barrett nominated to be the fifth, joining Clarence Thomas (appointed by the first President Bush, who did win the popular vote) to make a 6-3 conservative majority.

The Senate has an even larger rural small-state bias, which allowed McConnell’s minority-supported Senate majority to refuse to consider President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, stealing the seat for Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by popular-vote-loser Donald Trump.

In short, the 6-3 majority Barrett’s confirmation would produce flies in the face of the will of the American people, who are considerably more liberal than a 6-3 Court would be. Worse, the 5-4 conservative majority has already shown a partisan Republican bias that makes rule by the Republican minority even more likely: unleashing a torrent of corporate money in Citizens United, gutting the Voting Rights Act, and refusing to recognize partisan gerrymandering as a violation of the right to vote. (The last two opinions were written by Chief Justice Roberts. In Rucho v Common Cause, he wrote that even the most extreme gerrymandering is “beyond the reach of the federal courts” and should be corrected “through legislation” that would need to pass precisely the legislatures where a minority party has been gerrymandered into power.) In its next term, the Court will hear a case that could undo the rest of the Voting Rights Act.

Why should you care? “But so what?” a voter might ask, particularly an independent voter who holds no particular sympathy for Democratic politicians kept out of power by Republicans who represent fewer people. The public associates certain high-profile issues with the Court — abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and affirmative action pop to mind — but what if those aren’t your issues? If you’re white, straight, unlikely to get pregnant, and not worried about mass shootings, why should a Court with an outside-the-mainstream conservative bias matter to you?

Even if you belong to some vulnerable group, you can fix most of the problems in your personal situation just by moving to a blue state. If you’re sick of being dominated by the Republican minority in Wisconsin, move to Minnesota or Illinois, where the majority still rules. And if you worry that federal courts will no longer protect you from the authentic conservative majority in Mississippi, go to Vermont or Oregon. Your abortion rights will be safe, no one will threaten your marriage, and white supremacy will be much less onerous.

So what do you need the Supreme Court for?

A recent state-court decision in Michigan, highlighted in an article in The Atlantic, points to a different kind of danger: Conservative courts can reinterpret the fundamental rules of our system of government in such a way that many important issues are placed beyond the reach of government entirely.

That’s worth caring about.

The Lochner Era. We’ve seen this before in American history, though it is passing out of living memory. Beginning in the late 1800s, the original Progressive movement tried to rein in the robber barons of the Gilded Age. People who felt crushed by a system that favored employers over employees elected representatives who passed laws to make that dominance less oppressive: child-labor laws, limits on the work-week, worker safety laws, minimum wage laws, and so on.

And the courts threw those laws out.

The case that gave the era its name in the legal history books is 1905’s Lochner v. New York. Joseph Lochner owned a bakery in Utica and liked to overwork people. But New York had passed the Bakeshop Act, a workplace-safety measure that limited bakers to working 60 hours a week or 10 hours a day. (Not only is it a bad idea for exhausted people to tend fires, but constant exposure to flour dust can cause respiratory problems.) Lochner appealed his fine to the Supreme Court, which overturned the Bakeshop Act as an “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract”.

In practice, the “right to contract” meant this: If the only job available to you requires you to work yourself to death, and if your alternative is to watch your children starve, you have the “freedom” to accept that arrangement. The state can’t interfere.

In essence, Lochner put workplace issues beyond the reach of government. No matter what the voters thought, employers could use the scarcity of jobs and the surplus of workers to enforce their will. If workers lacked the market power to say no, government couldn’t say no for them.

The swan song of the Lochner Court came when it declared FDR’s National Recovery Administration unconstitutional in 1935. The threat to block the entirety of the New Deal motivated Roosevelt’s court-packing plan, the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. And while that bill did not pass, the Court seemed to take it as a shot across the bow. It started to back off, the New Deal was allowed to proceed, and FDR eventually stayed in office long enough to replace eight of the nine justices he inherited.

Non-delegation. The Michigan case examined in The Atlantic’s article concerns a law the Michigan legislature passed in 1945 titled “Emergency Powers of Governor“. It’s a short but sweeping bill whose stated intent is

to invest the governor with sufficiently broad power of action in the exercise of the police power of the state to provide adequate control over persons and conditions during such periods of impending or actual public crisis or disaster. The provisions of this act shall be broadly construed to effectuate this purpose.

In March, Governor Gretchen Whitmer invoked these emergency powers to fight the coronavirus pandemic. On October 2, on a party-line 4-3 vote, the Michigan Supreme Court not only invalidated Whitmer’s orders, but closed the door on future emergency orders by ruling that

the [EPG] Act unlawfully delegates legislative power to the executive branch in violation of the Michigan Constitution.

The portion of the Michigan Constitution in question is rather general and open to interpretation:

The powers of government are divided into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. No person exercising powers of one branch shall exercise powers properly belonging to another branch except as expressly provided in this constitution.

The whole point of a state-of-emergency laws is that legislation is a slow process that events can outrun. So the 1945 legislature, recognizing its limited speed, pre-loaded some powers into the governorship.

But that is now unconstitutional in Michigan.

Minority rule in Michigan. It’s worth noting that Michigan is currently a minority-rule state. A majority of the voters have repeatedly tried to elect Democrats to the legislature, but have failed to take control away from Republicans, who have gerrymandered themselves into power. In 2018, Michigan voters tried to deal with this by passing a ballot proposition to create an independent commission to draw legislative-district boundaries. Republicans sued in federal court to invalidate that law, but so far have failed. Even if the independent commission succeeds, though, the new districts won’t be in force until the 2022 election.

Governor Whitmer, meanwhile, won election in 2018 by a wide majority, 53%-44%. Despite armed protests against her emergency orders, culminating in a plot to kidnap (and possibly kill) her that was foiled this week, Whitmer remains popular, with 51/41 favorable/unfavorable rating.

She is popular for good reason: After being hit hard by coronavirus early on, Michigan has fared better than neighboring states. Currently the daily average new Covid cases per hundred thousand residents is 12 in Michigan, 21 in Indiana, and 45 in Wisconsin. (Wisconsin is another state where a minority-rule Republican majority in the legislature has blocked the efforts of a Democratic governor to fight the virus, with assistance from the state supreme court.)

In short, Governor Whitmer represents the voters of Michigan; the Republican leadership of the gerrymandered legislature does not. Moreover, even though critics of majority rule sometimes smear it as “mob rule”, in this case it is the minority-rule Republicans who are supported by a violent mob.

Neil Gorsuch. The Michigan Court’s invocation of “non-delegation” explicitly references a dissenting opinion by US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in which he calls for reviving the non-delegation doctrine of the Lochner Court.

Before the 1930s, federal statutes granting authority to the executive were comparatively modest and usually easily upheld. But then the federal government began to grow explosively. And with the proliferation of new executive programs came new questions about the scope of congressional delegations. Twice the Court responded by striking down statutes for violating the separation of powers.

The two cases Gorsuch cites so approvingly are the Court’s 1935 Schecter Poultry and Panama Refining decisions — precisely the ones that threatened the New Deal.

Gorsuch’s target is what conservatives pejoratively call “the administrative state”, which is embodied in agencies like the SEC, FDA, EPA, FCC, IRS, and many others that keep powerful economic interests in line.

In the same way that emergencies can develop too quickly for a legislative response, corporate interests can repackage and reinvent themselves much faster than Congress or a state legislature can counter. Congress has responded by laying out broad principles and delegating their enforcement to administrative agencies.

For example, the Clean Air Act did not list every pollutant, or lay out precise standards for controlling each one. Instead, it empowered the EPA (according to Wikipedia)

to construct a list of Hazardous Air Pollutants as well as health-based standards for each one. There were 187 air pollutants listed and the source from which they came. The EPA was given ten years to generate technology-based emission standards.

This kind of thing happens across the government. The FDA might ban some food additive, and then respond immediately with a new ban if food companies just tweak the formula in some trivial way.

Under non-delegation, though, every such decision could be challenged in court, and ultimately be decided by the corporate-favoring regulation-hating 6-3 majority. The Atlantic’s Nicholas Bagley (a University of Michigan law professor) draws the conclusion:

The nondelegation doctrine isn’t about democracy. It’s about the power to restrain government. And it will be wielded as opportunistically against a President Biden as it has been wielded against Whitmer.

What Biden should say about expanding the Court. When FDR threatened to “pack the Court” by increasing its size so that he could appoint new justices, there was good reason to do so. The Court was enforcing a theory of economics and of the government’s relationship to the economy that the American people no longer believed in. The country wanted to change, and the Supreme Court would not let it. Only by relenting did the Court make Roosevelt’s power move unnecessary.

We are not quite in that situation yet, but we could be soon. Accordingly, new court-expansion proposals are being kicked around in Democratic circles. So far, Joe Biden has been dodging the question of whether or not he supports them.

And if all you are allowed is a short answer, that’s the right response, because “yes” and “no” are both premature. I’d like to hear Biden answer the question like this:

Pack the Court? I hope it doesn’t come to that. I can promise you this: I will not come into office on Day 1 saying, “We need to change the Supreme Court.”

But as everyone can see, there are several conservative biases in our system, and those biases are combining to produce a Supreme Court that radically diverges from the American people.

Twice in the last seven elections, a Republican has become president even though another candidate got more votes. Similarly, Republicans currently have a majority in the Senate, even though their senators represent fewer voters. That situation has not been uncommon in recent years. And since the President and the Senate choose the Supreme Court, over time the Court has become far more conservative than the American people.

Now, that doesn’t have to be a problem. When John Roberts was being confirmed as chief justice, he said his political opinions didn’t matter, because a justice is just an umpire, calling balls and strikes according to a strike zone defined by the laws and the Constitution. If he, and the rest of the Court, can hold to that discipline, then they won’t get any trouble from me.

But I can’t help noticing that several times in the last two decades, the Court hasn’t called balls and strikes, but has put its thumb on the scale of politics, nearly always on the Republican side. The Court wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it opened the spigots of corporate money in Citizens United. It wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it undid the Voting Rights Act, which had been renewed by Congress in a near-unanimous vote. It wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it shrugged off partisan gerrymandering. In those cases, it was taking a political position and favoring a political party.

If it continues down that road, then we will have a problem.

Right now, the Court is considering whether to undo the biggest achievement of progressive politics in the last few decades, the Affordable Care Act — ObamaCare. If they do, they will take health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans, and remove protections from the additional tens of millions who have preexisting conditions — including everyone who has survived Covid-19. The argument for striking down that law is based on a novel legal theory that no one who voted either for or against the ACA ever considered at the time. It’s bogus, and they know it.

The ACA passed because the American people were worried about their healthcare and wanted change. They still want change; they want more change than we were able to give them then. And healthcare is just one area where the American people are crying out for change.

Early in the 20th century, the American people were also crying out for change. And so they elected state and federal representatives who legislated for a minimum wage, a limited work week, a safe workplace, and the right to organize a union. But the Supreme Court of that era said no, and invalidated law after law — hundreds of them. What that Court said to the American people was: “I don’t care what you want, you can’t have change.”

And so the change that the American people had wanted since the turn of the century was delayed until the New Deal in the 1930s.

Now if that’s what this Court has in mind, to thwart the will of the voters for decades, for as long it can, in service to an ideology that the American people don’t share, then I think the elected branches of our government will have to respond.

What will that response look like? I don’t know yet, because I haven’t seen what the Court will do. If it behaves itself, if it lets the elected branches of government do the things that the American people elect us to do, then there will be no response, because there will be no problem.

But if I’m not going to begin my administration with a plan to change the Court, I’m also not going to begin my administration by writing this Court a blank check, by saying, “Abuse your power any way you like, and I’ll just sit on my hands.”

If I’m elected, then I will have a responsibility to the voters who elected me. And if I find that the will of those voters is consistently being blocked and subverted by judges who not only are unelected, but who were appointed by people who lost the popular vote themselves, then I will have to consider the options that our constitutional system provides.

People, not politicians. That position represents a subtle shift in framing from what many other Democrats are saying. Yes, the problem has been caused by shenanigans in the Senate, capped off by the plan to rush Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination through before the voters can do anything about it. But framing this as tit-for-tat shenanigans — we’ll pack the Court if you jam Barret through — is bad politics. That’s a threat to make behind closed doors, not to broadcast to the public.

Biden should hinge his position not on how the Senate behaves, but on how the Court behaves. Striking back because Mitch McConnell stole Merrick Garland’s seat is a he-hit-me-first argument that just increases a lot of Americans’ disgust with politics, because it’s about politicians, not about them. But framing the argument as “The Supreme Court is taking away your health insurance” or “The Supreme Court won’t let us protect your drinking water” or “The Supreme Court won’t let us stop mass shootings” is a different story.

You want change, but the Supreme Court won’t let it happen. Help us fix the Supreme Court. That’s the right argument to have.

Staying Sane in Anxious Times (without being useless)

Everything dies. But not today.

On this blog, I usually report news, analyze trends behind the news, and save pastoral counseling for my occasional talks at churches. But this week I’ve been sensing an unusual level of anxiety and depression in the people I interact with, and I imagine that Sift readers are sharing a lot of those feelings. So let’s address that.

If the election were tomorrow rather than five weeks from tomorrow, I think I’d tell you all just to suck it up and think about your own issues later. But five weeks is a long time to stay in the states of mind I’m seeing, and carries risks of longer-term psychological and psychosomatic damage. So I think it makes sense to take a little time to get our heads together before the home stretch.

The depression, I think, has been building for some while, as the virus takes away more and more of what we look forward to in life. (I’m currently wondering if my usual Christmas plans can work out this year. Will I ever get to travel again?) But the anxiety is largely election-related, and increased suddenly this week in response to Barton Gellman’s article in The Atlantic, “The Election that Could Break America“.

Worst cases. I’ll have more to say about the content of that article in this week’s summary post, which should be out a few hours after this one. For now, I’ll just sum up the gist: There are scenarios in which Trump hangs onto power despite the voters’ desire to be rid of him, and he seems to be angling to push the country into those scenarios.

The worries raised by Gellman’s article (and others with similar themes) go well beyond the usual election anxieties: that some last-minute surge of support could carry Trump to an ordinary victory, or even that he might repeat 2016’s dubious achievement of winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. Those outcomes would be disappointing, and would have a number of horrible consequences. But at the same time, they would be part of the normal ebb and flow of American politics. If the American people show the bad judgment to re-elect Trump, we’ll just have to work harder to convince them to turn the country in a new direction in future elections.

But if Trump can totally circumvent the will of the people, then something fundamental has changed. In that case, it’s hard to say what we would need to do next time, because this time we already did what we thought we needed to do, and failed anyway. And if the ordinary limits on political power-seeking can be ignored without consequence, then who can have confidence that we will have a chance to do anything at all next time? By 2024, the United States might be the kind of country where the ruling party counts the votes itself, and proclaims that it has been re-elected (for a third term, and then a fourth) by a margin that no one really believes.

In short, if the worst outcomes Gellman pictures come to pass, the American experiment with democracy might be over.

Personally, I don’t believe the worst scenarios will play out. I think the margin Biden has in the polls is real, and that it will hold up as the election approaches. (It’s worth pointing out that we all had the same doubts about the polls going into the Blue Wave of 2018, which played out exactly as the polls predicted.) In 538’s analysis, the current tipping-point state is Pennsylvania, where Republicans have gerrymandered their way into a majority in the legislature. But it’s worth noting that Biden is currently favored in four states beyond that — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio — any of which might put him over the top. (Arizona would leave Biden 1 vote short, which could come from either Nebraska’s or Maine’s second congressional district.) It’s one thing to imagine one cabal of local Republicans venturing into near-treasonous territory to give Trump another term, but overthrowing democracy in five states simultaneously would be much harder to pull off.

In short, Trump’s anti-democratic tactics may nudge the dial a little, or even more than a little, but still not enough to overcome a decisive message from the electorate. As Michelle Goldberg has pointed out, his strongman talk is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote.

And as many people have observed: You don’t question the legitimacy of an election you expect to win. Further: “I’m going to stay in power no matter what you think” is hardly a closing message designed to convince undecided voters.

But having said that, I don’t deny the possibilities Gellman lays out, and I don’t recommend you simply put them out of your mind. There is a chance — not a likelihood, in my opinion, but a chance — that we are living in the last days of American democracy.

It’s no wonder that people are telling me they lose sleep about that. That loss of sleep is the problem I want to address.

Anxiety and denial. It’s not that you have nothing to worry about, but being low-level anxious all the time — or occasionally going into high-level anxiety and melting into a puddle — is not a useful response. No one is better off because you’re not sleeping.

So what’s a better response? Let’s start by thinking about what anxiety is and what it’s for. People in the middle of emergencies typically don’t get anxious. If your child starts to run in front of a car, you don’t get anxious, you reach out and snatch her back from the path of the car — and maybe shake for a while afterwards about what might have happened. When the wolves are chasing you, you just run, and your mind is filled with nothing but running.

In short, when you really can fight or flee, you fight or flee. Anxiety happens when you get a fight-or-flight reaction that you can’t immediately act on. You hear that a lay-off is coming at work, but who can you fight and where can you run? You just have to wait and see what happens.

Anxiety is fight-or-flight on hold. It keeps you keyed up in case you have to fight or flee soon.

And that was a fine reaction when our primitive ancestors saw a motion in the grass and had to wait a bit for more information about what it was. But it’s poorly adapted to civilized times, when problems play out over months or years. Staying keyed up for months or years will kill you just as surely as whatever might be hiding in the grass.

That’s why denial is such a popular alternative. As the 19th century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce put it: “When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course.”

The downside of denial is that it makes you useless, both to yourself and to others. That’s been the problem with the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus. From the top on down, they have assured us that it isn’t that bad and will go away soon, so nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do. And everybody is doing a great job, so there’s no need for recriminations and nothing to stress over. In the short term, their it’s-all-fine denial may be more pleasant than acknowledging the reality of the danger, but it has been a big factor in the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans.

The reason anxiety is unpleasant is that it’s a promissory note: We owe the future some action, and we’re keyed up so that we don’t forget.

Perhaps the most dysfunctional role for anxiety, though, is that it can become an end in itself: We’re not keyed up to do something, we’re keyed up to punish ourselves for not doing something. We hang the promissory note on the wall, not because we’re going to pay it, but so that we can feel guilty about not paying it.

That kind of self-punishment serves no one. You might as well be in denial. You’d be happier and the rest of the world would be no different.

So what should we do? The best response to chronic anxiety, in my opinion, is to kluge together a combination of action and denial.

Years ago, when I was first starting to make money I could invest towards retirement — thank you, younger self — I found myself worrying about my fledgling portfolio nearly every day. Not just checking stock prices, but wondering if my whole approach was right. Eventually I realized that daily reconsideration of my strategy was an extremely inefficient use of my attention. Rather than worry for a few minutes here or there every day, what I really needed to do was set aside some serious thinking time about once a quarter.

So I set a date to think things through in depth, and I kept that appointment. I did that every three months. In between, I might watch the market in a casual way, but I cut myself off every time I started to fret. “I have set aside a time to think that through properly, and that approach is going to work  better than anything I could figure out while I’m standing here waiting for the tea kettle to boil.”

I recommend something similar now. Using the stray moments of your attention to think about the looming end of American democracy is not going to serve either you or the nation. Instead, block out a time on your calendar (within the next few days, I suggest) to think seriously about the question: “What am I willing to do to keep Trump from hanging onto power?” Are you willing to send money to the Biden campaign or some other political group? Volunteer? Call your friends and encourage them to vote? Write or call your representatives in Congress? Write letters to the editor? Post on social media? Demonstrate against anti-democratic actions, either at your state capitol or in Washington?

Maybe all you’re willing to do is vote. OK, admit that and figure out how you’re going to do it. Are you registered? Where is your polling place? How does early voting or voting-by-mail work in your state? Don’t let your inability to take some grand action get in the way of the little you can actually do.

Once you have your list of actions, start doing them, and set aside another block of time in a week or two to think about how it’s going. Is it enough? Is it already more than I can handle? Should I correct my approach somehow?

But once you’ve decided what you’re doing and are in the process of doing it, tell your anxiety to go away. You’ve set aside a time to think about it, but that time is not now. So STFU, monkey mind. I’m working on it; it’s all going to be fine.

Plan. Do. Then do your best to put it out of your mind until it’s time to replan. Are you feeling guilty that you’re not doing enough? Make a note of that, so you can think about it during your next planning session. But don’t think about it now. You’ve already dealt with it.

When it’s time for me to be the fox, I’m the fox. But when it’s not, I’m the ostrich, and I take the happier course.

Accepting limitation. You may already be raising this objection: The problem with telling yourself “I’ve already dealt with that” is that you really haven’t. Write your check, make your phone calls, plan your march on Washington — and Donald Trump is still out there, still in power, and still plotting to hang onto power no matter what the voters want.

When you realize that, you may find yourself thinking: “As long as Trump’s coup is still possible, I haven’t done enough.”

That way lies madness. Because you are an individual, and the problems of the world are out of your scale. You’re not going to stop Trump by yourself, just like you’re not going to stop global warming or end racism. You can play a part in those stories and I hope you do. I hope you never stop looking for some way to play a bigger part (at sensible intervals, and not for a few minutes several times every day). But you are not the solution. At some point, you have to do what you’re going to do and let it go, trusting the rest of us to play our parts, and trusting God or the Universe or whatever powers work on higher scales to make things come out right.

Because you can’t guarantee a happy ending. The World is not Your Story.

So figure out what you’re going to do, do it, and then let it go.

Accepting fate. It may not shock you to learn that my midlife crisis was more philosophical than most. It wasn’t just that I had a growing bald spot or was losing my vertical leap, although those things were certainly happening. And it wasn’t even the realization that I was going to decline and die, which we all understand at some level, but don’t fully grok until the downhill path starts to open up in front of us.

My midlife crisis centered on the larger realization that none of the substitutes for personal immortality work either: All the people whose lives you change will die too. The organizations and institutions you serve may outlive you for some while, but not forever; in time, they also will collapse. Someday, the last of your descendants will die. Ultimately, civilization will fall, humanity will go extinct, the Sun will swallow up the Earth, and the Universe itself will go cold.

It’s the Ozymandias problem: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Why am I mentioning this now? Because the possibility of a Trump coup is causing a lot of Americans to see for the first time that our democracy is mortal. And that vision can raise a primitive terror even bigger than the prospect of living under some tinhorn dictator, as people around the world have been doing since the beginning of Time.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ever. Not to us.

But it might.

My midlife crisis and its resolution were bracketed not by insights from deep philosophers, but by two quotes from TV shows. At some point in The X-Files, an otherworldly character makes a matter-of-fact statement to the series’ main character: “Everything dies, Mr. Mulder.”

And in Game of Thrones, young Arya Stark mentions to her swordmaster that she has been praying to the gods. “For us,” says the master, “there is only one god. His name is Death, and we have only one thing to say to him: Not today.”

These days, I always hold those two quotes in mind. The thought that we might be living in the last days of American democracy is indeed horrible. But it shouldn’t be unthinkable, because it’s going to happen someday. Everything dies, and that includes the Constitution.

But the inevitability of Death doesn’t undo the lives we are living. We can’t save anything forever, but we can say “Not today.” And we can struggle to make good on that vow.

American democracy will die someday, because everything does. But not today. Not on November 3. Not on January 20.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

So figure out what you’re going to do, and go do it. But then let it go and live, because you’re not dying today either.

The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court

A minority-elected President and a minority-elected Senate “majority” might cement an unpopular Supreme Court majority for decades to come — and such a Court might bless the tricks that will allow the further expansion of minority rule.

The death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the likelihood that President Trump and the Republican Senate will replace her with an extreme conservative, creating a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court, raises a number of immediate questions: Can Democrats slow the process down somehow, so that Ginsburg will be replaced by a new president and a new Senate in January? Can Republicans be shamed by the hypocrisy of confirming Trump’s nominee so close to the election (after denying President Obama a Supreme Court appointment much further from the election) that they will forego a confirmation vote? If not, as is almost certain, can four Republican senators be peeled off to prevent Trump’s nominee from being confirmed? And so on.

Speculation. This kind of speculation is addictive, but of limited use. News channels love it, because the production cost of speculation is near zero — just bring your usual talking heads together and turn them loose. Viewers easily get obsessed with it, because speculation appeals to both our hopes and our fears. (Maybe something awful will happen. Or maybe we’ll be saved.) Pundits get to demonstrate their superior savvy by crafting complex House-of-Cards-style scenarios based on loopholes in the rules that lesser pundits haven’t noticed.

And in the end, what does it matter whether or not we divine the future? The useful actions we might take — expressing our desires both publicly and privately, putting pressure on our elected representatives, giving time or money to campaigns, or convincing our neighbors to share our opinions — don’t depend on knowing the future. We could just do them without knowing how they’ll come out.

Living with uncertainty is uncomfortable, but it is honest, because we don’t actually know what’s going to happen. We almost never need to know. We would all be more effective forces for justice and democracy if we spent less time speculating about events beyond our control and more time planning our actions.

Bearing in mind the pointlessness of being an armchair tactician, I want to back up and look at the larger picture: Why is the current situation a problem? Supreme Court justices, like all the leading voices in our Republic, are supposed to come and go. The Constitution defines a process by which our elected representatives replace them.

That process has gone wrong. In the long term, that’s the real problem.

Recent trends have emphasized the anti-democratic nature of our constitutional system, and the worst aspects of those trends have coalesced around the Supreme Court, creating a Court that is far more conservative than the American people. As that conservative Court increasingly excuses minority-rule tactics of gerrymandering and voter suppression, a vicious cycle has developed that threatens the legitimacy of both the Court and the government as a whole.

Democracy and the Founders. When the Constitution was written, large-scale democracy was still an untried notion. England, for example, had a Parliament, but it shared power with the King, and its electorate was still fairly small. (Universal suffrage even for men wasn’t achieved until 1918.) The Founders themselves were of two minds: The sovereignty of the People was good, but “mob rule” was bad.

The Constitution was an attempt to thread that needle. All power did eventually come from the People (minus women and non-white people), and if the (white male) People held an opinion consistently over time, they would eventually get their way. But in practice a number of institutional dams were built to control the floods of public opinion:

  • The President was chosen by an electoral college, and not by popular vote. Popular vote was not even tabulated until John Quincy Adams’ election in 1824 — and he lost that popular vote by a considerable margin to Andrew Jackson.
  • Senators were not only allocated equally to all states regardless of size, but were chosen by the state legislatures rather than direct election. Popular election of senators was established by the 17th Amendment, which wasn’t ratified until 1913.
  • Supreme Court justices were appointed for life, and became completely insulated from the electorate once they were seated. They were nominated by presidents and approved by the Senate, and so were already fairly distant from the people.

In short, not only could you not vote on Supreme Court justices, you couldn’t even vote directly for anybody involved in choosing Supreme Court justices.

The era when it didn’t matter. Over time, the entire Western world got more comfortable with democracy. Suffrage gradually expanded, as religious tests and property tests were eliminated, and finally women and racial minorities were allowed to vote. Monarchies were either overthrown or turned into showpieces. Anti-democratic institutions like the House of Lords gradually lost their power.

In the US, voters got the right to elect senators, but the rest of the anti-democratic structure remained intact. It wasn’t eliminated largely because it didn’t matter: Presidential candidates who won the popular vote won the Electoral College as well, and parties that won the House typically won the Senate also.

Oversimplifying just a bit, the anti-democratic features of our system didn’t matter because the major conflicts were regional: the North against the South, or the East against the West. To the extent that they weren’t regional, the same sorts of issues played out in large and small states alike. As recently as the 1970s, South Dakota and Idaho produced liberal icons like George McGovern and Frank Church, while New York could elect a conservative like James Buckley.

A final factor: Until the 90s, California was a swing state. The same factors that turned an election in California were likely playing out all over the country.

Why it matters now. The big divide in the country today is urban vs. rural. Even in a red state like Texas, which Trump won by 9% in 2016, the big cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio — voted Democratic. Other red-state cities, like Louisville, Nashville, and Atlanta, went Democratic as well.

Largely this split reflects another split: white vs. non-white. Rural populations are overwhelmingly white, urban populations overwhelmingly non-white.

Small states are small precisely because they don’t have big cities. (Rhode Island, where the Providence metro area has more people than the state itself, is the exception.) So a system that favors small states favors rural interests. In the current environment, small-state privilege means white privilege and Republican advantage.

Meanwhile, the biggest state, California, has shifted far to the left of the rest of the country. Hillary Clinton won California in 2016 by 4.3 million votes. In the rest of the US, Trump had a 1.5 million vote advantage.

The result is that the Electoral College has overruled the voters twice in the last five elections, after not causing any problems since 1876. Both times it gave us Republican presidents who led the country into major disasters: George W. Bush (the Iraq War and the Great Recession) and Donald Trump (Covid-19).

The Senate has become increasingly difficult for Democrats to win, even when the majority of voters back them. Nate Silver has done the numbers on this.

At FiveThirtyEight, our favorite way to distinguish between urban and rural areas is based on using census tracts to estimate how many people live within a 5-mile radius of you. Based on this, we can break every person in the country down into four buckets:

  • Rural: Less than 25,000 people live within a 5-mile radius of you;
  • Exurban or small town: Between 25,000 and 100,000 people within a 5-mile radius;
  • Suburban or small city: Between 100,000 and 250,000 people within a 5-mile radius;
  • Urban core or large city: More than 250,000 people within a 5-mile radius.

As it happens, the overall U.S. population (including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico) is split almost exactly evenly between these buckets: 25 percent rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

But when Silver constructs, the “average state” — weighing small states the same as big states — he gets very different numbers: 35% rural, 14% urban core.

In the U.S. as a whole, 60 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white and 40 percent of the population is nonwhite. But in the average state, 68 percent of people are white and 32 percent are nonwhite.

Another way to get at the same issue is to look at how many Americans the current Republican Senate majority actually represents. (I did this same calculation on my own before realizing that Silver had already done it.)

[D]espite their current 47-53 deficit in the Senate, Democratic senators actually represent slightly more people than Republicans. If you divide the U.S. population by which party represents it in the Senate — splitting credit 50-50 in the case of states such as Ohio that have one senator from each party — you wind up with 167 million Americans represented by Democratic senators and 160 million by Republicans.

In other words, a truly representative Senate would have a 51-49 Democratic majority, not a 53-47 Republican majority. After looking at various other sorts of data, he concludes:

the Senate is effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole, which means that Democrats are likely to win it only in the event of a near-landslide in their favor nationally.

What this means for the Supreme Court. Democrats have won the presidential popular vote in six of the last seven elections, but have only gotten to take office four times. This year, Trump’s hopes for re-election hinge on repeating his 2016 path: squeaking out an Electoral College majority from a voting minority. Silver estimates that Biden has to win the popular vote by 3-4% to be confident of taking office.

Similarly, to win the Senate, Democrats will have to win at least two seats in traditionally red states like Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, or Montana.

In other words, the Constitutional mechanisms that were supposed to insulate the Court from mercurial swings in public opinion now serve to insulate them from the People’s sovereignty entirely. If the People split 50/50, the Court will be conservative.

The current travesty. A minority-elected President and a minority-elected Senate “majority” are now in position to appoint their third Supreme Court justice, and establish a 6-3 conservative tilt. The current conservative justices are Clarence Thomas (age 72), Samuel Alito (70), John Roberts (65), Brett Kavanaugh (55), and Neil Gorsuch (53). Add another young justice, like Amy Coney Barrett (48), and it is not hard to imagine another 15 years going by before a liberal or even moderate Court majority is possible — no matter what the voters want.

Worse, the Court has become part of a vicious cycle: Because of its partisan Republican leanings, the Court is already unwilling to defend voting rights. Chief Justice Roberts eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and the Court has given a green light to partisan gerrymandering. We already see the result of this at the state level: In states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, control of the legislature is out of the reach of Democratic voters, even when they form a clear majority. Republicans regularly win 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in the House of Representatives, despite getting fewer total votes.

The United States caught in a downward spiral: Republicans empowered by a rigged system rig the system further.

Extreme action is justified. If Joe Biden wins the presidency and Democrats take the Senate, they should take action to reverse the structural rigging. Republicans and their captive media will paint these actions as extreme, but they are both justified and necessary:

  • Eliminate the Senate filibuster. With luck Democrats will have 51 votes. If it takes 60 to get anything done, nothing will get done.
  • Make states out of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In addition to just being the right thing to do — taxation without representation is tyranny — this would help reverse the conservative rigging of the Senate and the Electoral College.
  • Pass voting rights laws. Gerrymandering and voter suppression can be outlawed by statute, even if the Court believes they are constitutional.
  • Add seats to the Supreme Court. The size of the Supreme Court is not in the Constitution and does not take a constitutional amendment to change. This will open a huge can of worms, but not doing it is the worse alternative.

Trump Despises His Supporters Too

By privately insulting veterans and servicemen killed in the line of duty, Trump has raised a suspicion many of his supporters try not to think about: What does he say about them behind their backs?

He says what he thinks. When his supporters try to explain what is so appealing about Donald Trump, one point that almost always comes up is: “He says what he thinks.”

If you don’t like Trump, that line has probably never made sense to you, because a lot of what he says seems so nonsensical that he can’t possibly believe it. Surely he doesn’t really think he’s been treated “worse than Lincoln“, when Lincoln was assassinated in office, or that he has “done more for Black Americans than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln — nobody has even been close”. He was already an adult when President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, laws that made it possible for millions of Black Americans to vote and to begin living something that at least resembled a normal American life. Surely he doesn’t imagine that a few months of low Black unemployment compares to that, does he? Or that it balances his decades-long history of racism.

He doesn’t say those things because he believes them. He says them because he wants us to believe them.

But “He says what he thinks” is actually code for something else: “He says what I think.” People in Trump’s base, particularly older conservative Christian white men, have lived for decades under constant social disapproval for the little things they habitually do and the words that come out of their mouths. Put yourself in their shoes: Maybe you grew up saying the N-word — you didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just what Black people were called in your neighborhood. (I missed out on the N-word: I grew up in a time and place where good little children weren’t supposed to say it, and by the time I was an adult, no one was.) Maybe you said “fag” instead of “gay”, or referred to women in the workplace as “girls”.

Comments or pats on the butt that would once have been accepted as compliments suddenly because “harassment”. Overnight, jokes that everyone used to laugh at became offensive — racist or sexist or some other ist-word you’d never heard before. Affirmations of good Christian values became “homophobia”, and who knows what the heck “intersectionality” means? Every day there was a new set of toes you supposedly had been tromping on for years — so you’d better watch your step from now on. And it never stops: You can’t even make fun of transsexuals these days. Who knows what it will be next? You’ll never be free to just speak your mind.

And there was Trump, ignoring all those rules and not censoring himself. Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals and drug smugglers. America accepts too many people from “shithole countries” like Haiti or those places in Africa that were better off when the British or French ran things. When you thought stuff like that, you didn’t dare say so — but he did. That crippled reporter wrote bad things about him, so Trump just mocked him and his disability right out in front of everybody, with the TV cameras running. The Disability Police came after him with guns blazing, but did he apologize? No way. Women came out of the woodwork to say he harassed, abused, or even raped them. Did he let that intimidate him? Not on your life. He insulted them right back, said they were too ugly to be worth it. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice. That I can tell you.”

What’s more, you would also love to deny that you ever make mistakes, to blame everything that goes wrong on somebody else, and to claim that everything you do or say or own is the biggest and best and most wonderful thing ever. But you don’t, because people would laugh at you. Well, Trump does that, and people do laugh at him, but he just doesn’t care. How can you not love that?

The liberal media and all the people who have been pushing the new standards, they keep trying to bring him down. But they can’t. They try to make him a villain, but he beats them.

And that’s why he’s a hero.

Mean girls. One stereotypic character of high school dramas is the Mean Girl: From her perch at the top of the social pyramid, she can say whatever she wants about anybody — and what she wants to say is nasty. The more cruel or unjust it is, the more it proves her power. She can say anything, and everybody else has to accept it, because if you object, she’ll turn her fire on you. And if you want to be popular like she is, you can’t just silently go along, you have to praise her cleverness and insight. If you want to stay in the Queen’s court, you have to repeat her insults and push the party line. She tells you who’s in and who’s out, and then sends you off to work her will.

Being close to the Mean Girl can be exhilarating. All your life you’ve had to repress your own cruelty, and now it’s an asset — as long as she approves. If you come up with a particularly biting nickname for some rival queen-wannabee or for some kid who thinks he or she can get along outside the social structure, maybe the Mean Girl will start using it too. You’ll never get credit for it directly, but maybe you’ll rise in her esteem, until you’re almost a Mean Girl yourself.

But no matter how close you get to the throne, you never stop wondering: What does that cruel tongue say about you when you’re not there to hear?

In their heart-of-hearts, even Trump’s biggest fans must recognize how much Mean Girl he has in him. That champion-of-the-common-man mantle has always fit badly on someone who lives in a gilded penthouse. Do you think anyone who isn’t rich or famous has ever set foot in his Trump Tower residence except as a servant, a workman, or for sex?

He didn’t make that money by working his way up from the bottom; he inherited hundreds of millions from his father. He’s always been rich, he’s always been on top, and he’s always been a bully. Those famous Twitter insults — Pocahontas, pencil-neck Adam Schiff, Crooked Hillary — that’s not the language of presidents. It’s the language of the Mean Girl.

So even if you’re the most rabid MAGA-hatter in the world, deep down you have to wonder: When he’s with his real buddies — the billionaires or reality TV stars or whoever he likes to hang with — what does he say about you? Does he make fun of how gullible you are, that you think he cares about you and you believe all the crap he tells you?

No matter how much you may try to deny that possibility, silently in your own mind you know he does.

Trump U. Before Donald Trump ever ran for president, he was the founder of Trump University. The target market for Trump U was all the people who admired the great businessman they saw on The Apprentice, people who bought The Art of the Deal and wanted to be like the guy it described. And they didn’t just admire Trump, they trusted him. If he was ready to tell people how to get rich the way he did — which wasn’t to inherit a real estate empire from your Dad — they were ready to pay money to hear it.

They weren’t the Enemy. They weren’t what’s wrong with America. They were his biggest fans.

And he scammed them.

Trump U wasn’t a good idea that got out of hand. It wasn’t a generous impulse that turned bad after he handed it off to a corrupt subordinate. Trump U was a scam from Day 1.

One of the company’s ads said of Trump, “He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.” The ad said that Trump had “hand-picked” Trump University’s instructors, and it ended with a quote from him: “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you.”

In fact, Trump hadn’t handpicked the instructors, and he didn’t attend the three-day seminars. Moreover, the complaint said, “no specific Donald Trump techniques or strategies were taught during the seminars, Donald Trump ‘never’ reviewed any of Trump University’s curricula or programming materials, nor did he review any of the content for the free seminars or the three day seminars.” So what were the attendees taught? According to the complaint, “the contents and material presented by Trump University were developed in large part by a third-party company that creates and develops materials for an array of motivational speakers and Seminar and timeshare rental companies.” The closest that the attendees at the seminars got to Trump was when they were encouraged to have their picture taken with a life-size photo of him.

Trump U’s business plan was to constantly up-sell its marks. Drawn in by a free presentation, they’d be given a glowing description of everything they’d learn if they ponied up $1,500 for the three-day seminar. At the three-day seminar, they’d hear about the even more expensive “mentorship” program where they’d learn Trump’s real secrets.

There never were any Trump secrets in the program. He couldn’t tell them how to be born rich, he wasn’t going to tell them how to launder money for Russian oligarchs, and nobody wants to know how to go bankrupt running Atlantic City casinos — so there was really nothing to teach. Trump admirers paid upwards of $30,000 for that lesson, and Trump eventually had to give back $25 million to settle their fraud lawsuit.

Most of the victims of Trump U were people who couldn’t afford to lose that amount of money. But there was a hole in their lives that they thought they could fill by becoming real estate moguls like their hero Donald Trump. In other words, they were losers. And Trump was able to take advantage of their loser-ness (and their admiration of him) to turn them into suckers.

And if you think he’s only done that once, you’re wrong.

The Atlantic article. Thursday, The Atlantic published an article by its editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’“. The article made a number of startling accusations:

  • In 2018, while he was in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, he cancelled a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, the grave site of 1,800 American Marines who died at Belleau Wood, because “It’s filled with losers.” He also described the Marines as “suckers” for getting killed.
  • When tortured Vietnam POW John McCain had died a few months earlier, he said, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.”
  • When he accompanied his Chief of Staff John Kelly on a visit to the grave of Kelly’s son, a Marine who died in 2010 in Afghanistan, he said to Kelly “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” A retired four-star general who is a friend of Kelly later told Goldberg, “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.”
  • After hearing Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford give a briefing, Trump said, “That guy is smart. Why did he join the military?”
  • When planning a military parade, Trump told his aides not to include amputees. “Nobody wants to see that,” he said.

Immediately, the White House tried its standard defense: Fake news, put out by a failing magazine. The story is “totally false”, and the anonymous sources Goldberg quotes are made up.

That explanation broke down almost immediately when other news organizations — AP , The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, and The Washington Post — had little trouble finding their own sources, who may or may not have been the same ones Goldberg found. If someone is making these stories up, it’s not Jeffrey Goldberg.

Worse, there was one obvious person who could have blown the whole thing up: John Kelly. If his son’s memory is being used to smear his former boss, you’d think he might try to put a stop to it. He hasn’t said a word. Trump knows what that means. So he attacked Kelly Friday at the White House:

I know John Kelly. He was with me, didn’t do a good job, had no temperament, and ultimately he was petered out. He got — he was exhausted. This man was totally exhausted.

He wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months. He was not able to function. He was sort of a tough guy. By the time he got eaten up in this world, it’s a different world than he was used to, he was unable to function. And I told him, John, you’re going to have to go. Please give me a letter of resignation. And we did that, and now he goes out and badmouths.

He has also lashed out at Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin, who corroborated some of Goldberg’s accounts via her own sources, and added this anecdote:

According to one former senior Trump administration official: “When the President spoke about the Vietnam War, he said, ‘It was a stupid war. Anyone who went was a sucker’.”

Griffin, Trump tweeted, “should be fired for this kind of reporting” and added “FoxNews is gone.”

Other pundits and talking heads have pointed out the obvious: The quotes in the Atlantic article may be new and more extreme, but they sound like Trump quotes we already know. Early in his term, he called the military brass “a bunch of dopes and babies“. One of Candidate Trump’s first political flaps came when he bad-mouthed John McCain’s service: “I like people who weren’t captured.” He publicly contradicted the widow of a soldier killed in Niger.  He attacked the Gold Star parents of slain Captain Humayun Khan. He dodged the Vietnam draft by claiming bone spurs, a diagnosis provided by a doctor who owed his father a favor. Michael Cohen quotes Trump saying, “You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam.” The only person in Trump’a family who did any military service was his black-sheep brother Fred Jr., who was in the Air National Guard. As President, Trump won’t even challenge Vladimir Putin for paying bounties to kill American soldiers. Putin counts; soldiers don’t.

So yes, it fits perfectly: He said these things. Trump and his flunkies can deny as vehemently as they want, but they’re not fooling anybody.

Why this story hit a nerve. Ever since he came down the escalator in 2015 talking about Mexican rapists, barely a week has gone by without some Trump-said-a-bad-thing story. They arise, people who never liked Trump anyway get upset about them, and they fade away in a day or two. Some political observers believe Trump uses or even engineers this process in order to distract the public from more damaging stories. For example, 1080 Americans died of coronavirus on the day the Atlantic article came out. What’s more important: a few quotes from 2018 or the equivalent of three simultaneous jumbo-jet crashes?

And yet, this time the story doesn’t seem to be going away. I think I know why.

Trump’s usual escape from he-said-a-bad-thing stories is to invoke tribalism. Both the people he insulted and the media that reported the insult are from the Other Side. Who are you going to believe: Trump or the New York Times? Whose side are you one: Trump’s or the Squad? Trump or some Muslim?

But the people he has insulted this time are in his own tribe, and even Fox News is reporting it. John Kelly was a good guy not that long ago, and he went away without making a fuss.

A key part of the Trump base are veterans, especially white veterans from the South or rural areas whose families have a tradition of military service. The kind of guy who goes to the cemetery on Memorial Day to put flowers on the grave of a father who died on D-Day or a grandfather who barely escaped from Belleau Wood — lots and lots of them are Trump voters. And he thinks they’re losers and suckers, just like the people he scammed at Trump U. Then he got his marks’ money, now he gets their votes. But does he respect them? Not at all.

And even if you’re not a veteran, or a veteran’s spouse or son or daughter, you have to know that your position in the Trump base is no more secure than theirs. If he talks that way about them, you know he’s talking that way about you too.

He’s not the hero you want to believe he is. He’s the Mean Girl who finds you useful as long as you do what she wants. He bears you no affection or loyalty, and the more you do for him, the more you convince him that you’re a sucker too.

The Four Big Lies of the Republican Convention

Creationism defender Duane Gish became famous for a debating technique now known as the Gish Gallop: tossing out so many lies, exaggerations, mischaracterizations, and other deceptions so quickly that your opponent simply can’t respond to them all. Debaters who try will just exhaust their own time (and the audience’s patience) on factual details without ever getting around to addressing the galloper’s main points, much less making their own case.

The trap of fact-checking. This week’s Republican Convention was essentially a four-day Gish gallop. Speaker after speaker gave fact-checkers a workout. CNN’s Daniel Dale listed 20 “false or misleading claims” in Trump’s speech from the White House lawn. “didn’t find anything to fact-check from Sen. Kamala Harris’ speech accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president”, but made six corrections to Mike Pence’s speech. For example, he blamed Joe Biden for not denouncing “the riots in Oakland” that killed a federal officer.

But he didn’t explain that the death was unrelated to demonstrators protesting in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Federal prosecutors have charged a right-wing extremist with the killing.

Both Pence and Trump claimed Biden wants to “defund the police”, a position Biden has explicitly denied. The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump assessed that “Nearly every claim Trump made about Biden’s positions was false“.

The non-headline speakers were just as dishonest. Rudy Giuliani blamed the violence that coincided with some George Floyd protests on Antifa, a claim unsupported by evidence.

According to multiple reports, including a Washington Post fact check, there were no signs that that antifa was behind violence at these protests. As of earlier this month, federal prosecutors had not been able to link dozens of people arrested in protests in Portland, Ore., to antifa.

Nikki Haley falsely said that Biden wanted to “ban fracking”, while Eric Trump falsely claimed that “Biden has pledged to … take away your cherished Second Amendment.” In addition to dishonesty, speakers displayed appalling ignorance and sloppiness. Lara Trump used a fake Lincoln quote. And Trump Jr.’s girl friend Kimberley Guilfoyle said:

As a first-generation American, I know how dangerous their Socialist agenda is. My mother, Mercedes, was a special education teacher from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. My father, also an immigrant, came to this nation in pursuit of the American Dream.

Guilfoyle, who introduced herself as a “proud Latina”, ought to know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. So she’s not “a first-generation American” and her mother was not “an immigrant”.

So you can imagine how easy it would be to take the Gish-gallop bait: I could go on for screens and screens listing specific errors of fact and logic. And if you dislike the Republican Party anyway, you might read that list with a certain I-was-right-all-along satisfaction. [1]

The four big lies. However, that’s not the case that needs to be made right now. The RNC wasn’t like a Liar’s Convention or a Festival of Tall Tales. The week’s disinformation wasn’t a random scattering of fanciful notions. The point of the lesser lies was to support bigger lies, which often stayed in the background. So even if an undecided voter who watched the convention also read all the fact-checks, and came to understand that Puerto Ricans are citizens and Biden isn’t planning to defund the police, he or she might still come away believing one or more of these four falsehoods:

  1. Trump had an extraordinary economic record before the coronavirus hit.
  2. Trump is not responsible for consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic. The 200,000 excess deaths this year are not his fault, since he did everything that could have been done to control the epidemic. And since the epidemic is not his fault, he should get a mulligan for it. He should be judged by February’s economy rather than today’s, as if the last six months never happened.
  3. The unrest in America’s cities this summer is not a response to excessive police violence and a long history of racial injustice, but is due to a dark conspiracy of liberal anarchists. The way to control violence in our cities is with an overwhelming show of force, which Trump is willing to order and Biden is not.
  4. If Covid-19 was ever a serious threat, it no longer is. America should get back to normal as fast as possible; any additional sickness or death this causes is a price worth paying.

None of this is true. The convention’s little lies about who-did-what-when pale in comparison; they’re only relevant to the extent that they prop up these four big lies.

Correcting the first big lie: Even pre-Covid, Trump’s economic performance was nothing special. In 2016, Trump supporters argued that his amazing business acumen would translate from the private sector to government: Rather than creating wealth for himself, Trump as president would create wealth for all of us.

We now understand that the myth of Trump’s financial genius was false from the beginning. Far from the self-made man he purported to be, Trump became wealthy through inheritance from his father and tax fraud (including allegedly defrauding some of his relatives). After losing the money his father left him, he became rich again via money laundering for Russians and other former Soviet nationals, as well as profiting from schemes that created losses for people who trusted him.

But one thing has carried over: The same myth-making genius that created the image of Trump the Great Businessman has created a new myth of the Great Trump Economy. At the Convention, Larry Kudlow told this tall tale:

Donald Trump’s economic plan … was a roaring success. Inheriting a stagnant economy on the front end of recession, the program of tax cuts, historic rollback of onerous regulations that crippled small business, unleashing energy to become the world’s number one producer, and free, fair and reciprocal trade deals to bolster manufacturing, agriculture, technology, and other sectors. The economy was rebuilt in three years.

This is its own little Gish gallop that could be debunked phrase by phrase — for example, the US became the world’s top oil producer in 2013 under Obama — but it’s more important to look at the big picture: A graph of US GDP growth by year shows that from 2010 to the beginning of the Covid pandemic, growth was slow but steady, bouncing in a range between 1.6% and 3.1%. (Compare to 1966 or 1955, when GDP grew 6.6% and 7.1%.)The peak growth rate of that period came in 2015 under Obama. There was never a Trump boom, just the same kind of economic growth we had under Obama.

If the pre-Covid Trump economy felt different from Obama’s, that was because periods near the end of economic expansions have strikingly low unemployment rates. So in the Trump years the unemployment rate got very low, reaching 3.6% by November of 2018 and staying at about that level for more than a year. In February, it was 3.5%. [2]

However, if you look at a graph of the unemployment rate, you’ll see the same pattern as GDP: Trump inherited positive trends from Obama. The slow-but-steady growth that started in 2010 gradually knocked down the unemployment rate. That positive trend continued — without any acceleration at all after Trump became president — until the epidemic disrupted it. [3]

In some ways it’s surprising that growth didn’t improve under Trump, because Mitch McConnell loosened the purse strings once he had a Republican president. Even though it was late in the economic cycle — a time when conventional economic theory calls for government to run surpluses — Congress allowed Trump to stimulate the economy with deficits far larger than it had allowed Obama after his first term. [4]

So the gist of the pre-Covid Trump economic record is this: Until Covid, Trump managed to maintain the positive trends Obama had set in motion. And even this steady-as-she-goes result did not come about through an ingenious trade policy or business-friendly tax policy or cuts in regulation; he simply got to spend more money than Obama did.

Correcting the second big lie: Trump didn’t start the Covid-19 epidemic, but the length and depth of it is his fault. It is fairly typical for presidents to face unexpected and undeserved challenges during a four-year term. Obama didn’t create the Great Recession, but it dominated his first term and got in the way of all his plans. George W. Bush didn’t blow up the Twin Towers on 9-11. His father didn’t force Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait. Jimmy Carter didn’t invite the Iranians to hold our embassy staff hostage. JFK didn’t ship Russian nuclear missiles to Cuba. FDR didn’t attack Pearl Harbor. And so on. Unexpected things happen in the course of four years, and presidents are judged by how they respond to those challenges. We don’t give them mulligans for bad luck.

Covid-19 is the defining crisis of Trump’s term, and by any measure he has handled it very badly. The most obvious evidence for that is in this chart of Covid-19 cases per million people. (Enlarged version here.)

Not only does the US curve outrun all the others by a wide margin, it also has a different shape: The initial outbreak here was only slightly worse than in the European Union and Canada, which were also hard-hit. But only the US goes on to have a second hump bigger than the first. There are two simple reasons for that:

  • The Trump administration wasted the time bought by the March-May shutdown. While other countries developed national test/quarantine/contact-trace strategies, the Trump administration still has no plan other than to wait for a “miracle” vaccine. [5]
  • Trump himself pushed the states to reopen too soon, and undercut governors who tried to implement a more cautious policy based on science and standards. That second hump in our graph is a direct result of that too-soon reopening, and the June/July outbreak was centered in states like Florida and Texas, where Trumpist governors ignored the medical experts and re-opened too soon.

It is probably unfair to have expected the United States’ Covid-19 response to lead the world: Small island nations like New Zealand and Iceland are easier to protect and mobilize than a sprawling place like the US or the EU. So Trump should not get all the blame for the fact that our 565 (and counting) deaths per million is shamed by New Zealand’s 4 or South Korea’s 6 or even Japan’s 10.

But we still had less than 100,000 deaths on June 1, when it was first becoming clear that our curve was not collapsing the way that other nation’s curves were. It may be unreasonable to hold Trump responsible for all our Covid-19 deaths, which are now up to a world-leading 187,000. But certainly tens of thousands of those deaths are his fault, and I personally blame him for every death over 100,000.

Correcting the third big lie: The violence in our cities is happening because Trump has sharpened racial divisions and encouraged police brutality. It will only get worse if he is given a second term. After the racial violence that followed Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the Obama Justice Department issued two reports: One examined the details of the shooting and determined that police officer Darren Wilson should not have been charged with murder. To that extent, it affirmed that justice had been done.

The other report, however, painted a very dark picture of policing in Ferguson: The city budget depended on squeezing fines out of poor Blacks, and the police department was tasked with making that happen. Ferguson police did not “serve and protect” its Black citizens. Instead, police and the Black community had a predator/prey relationship in which police were constantly on the lookout for violations to cite in order to raise revenue. The report also revealed widespread and blatant racism among Ferguson officers, who routinely mistreated Blacks they came into contact with.

In short, the Fox News portrait of Ferguson was wrong: The problem wasn’t the Black community’s short-term emotional reaction to its misperception of Brown’s death. Instead, the long-term racial injustice in Ferguson, and citizens’ inability to address that injustice through the system, created a situation in which some kind of violent outbreak was inevitable. Michael Brown was the spark, not the cause.

In combination, the two reports provided a ray of hope and a path forward: Incidents like Michael Brown’s death need not lead either to individual policemen being railroaded or to purely local investigations that sweep police violence under the rug. But at the same time, the long-term injustice at the heart of the problem can be addressed. The Justice Department soon worked out a consent decree with Ferguson and its police department to reform local practices. Similar decrees were negotiated in other sites of racial violence, such as Baltimore.

But when Jeff Sessions became Trump’s first attorney general, he quickly got to work closing off that path forward. And one of his final acts before leaving was to undercut the whole process.

Sessions’ memo will make it challenging to negotiate any effective police reform agreement going forward. It also makes it more difficult for the Justice Department’s civil rights lawyers to enforce agreements already in place.

Today, Black people oppressed by abusive police departments know that the Justice Department is not their ally. No one is coming to help them.

Police, on the other hand, know that no matter how they misbehave, Trump has their backs. He has famously encouraged police officers not to be “too nice” when they apprehend suspects. He told border patrol officers to break the law, and promised their chief a pardon if he were prosecuted. When Buffalo police assaulted an elderly protester in Buffalo, Trump falsely attacked the protester as an “ANTIFA provocateur”.

Meanwhile, Trump has been encouraging white supremacists. He defended the Nazi rally in Charlottesville. He stands up to support the Confederate flag and Confederate statues.

And now, Trump is openly encouraging right-wing violence. The Kenosha vigilante was in the front row of a Trump rally in January. Yesterday, Trump tweeted “GREAT PATRIOTS” about a caravan of trucks that pepper-sprayed demonstrators in Portland.

What in all of this is going to get better if Trump is re-elected? Has Trump ever been a peace-maker? Will he improve race relations? Will police stop murdering Black men and women, or stop shooting them in the back? Will Blacks trust that they can get justice through the system, without taking to the streets?

Obviously not. If Trump is re-elected, everything that has caused this summer’s violence will only get worse.

Correcting the fourth big lie: The Covid epidemic is still raging and is still killing Americans in large numbers. But Trump has learned nothing from his blunders in May. If he gets the responses he wants, we’ll see a third big hump in the case graph. During the Republican Convention, speakers often talked about the coronavirus in the past tense. “It was awful,” Larry Kudlow recalled. “Health and economic impacts were tragic. Hardship and heartbreak were everywhere.”

But in the real world, more Americans died of Covid-19 during the Convention’s four days than died in the 9-11 attacks. We are nowhere near herd immunity, and a vaccine probably won’t be widely available until spring — unless Trump once again follows Putin’s lead and ignores the usual safety rules to release a vaccine that hasn’t been properly tested.

Meanwhile, Trump is once again pushing states and cities to ignore medical guidelines and take big risks. In the same way that he applauded as states catastrophically opened bars and restaurants in May, he’s pushing for schools to open now, and threatening communities that want to be more careful. He has repeatedly promoted the myth that kids don’t get the virus or can’t spread it.

But now we are seeing virus outbreaks on college campuses, causing some schools to reverse their plans (including my alma mater, Michigan State). More than 1,000 University of Alabama students tested positive in the first two weeks of classes.

Trump’s speech Thursday night was not just an illegal use of the White House lawn, it was a public health hazard, as 1,500 or more people packed into a small area and mostly did not wear masks.

He encourages a return of large-crowd gatherings of all sorts: churches, movie theaters, and even football games, which he would like to see played in front of full stadiums. (“We want big big stadiums loaded with people. We don’t want to have 15,000 people watching Alabama-LSU.”) Inside the White House, masks are seldom worn, even when people work in close quarters.

We saw this movie in May, and we know how it ends: If the nation’s children return to in-person classes (which Barron Trump is not doing), if college campuses reopen, and if crowds return to major sporting events, we’ll have a third wave of Covid outbreaks — and more tens of thousands of deaths that will be Trump’s fault.

[1] I might also list all the RNC activities that were illegal, unethical, or based on trickery. That too would be satisfying. And while such examples should not go by without notice or objection, what really deserves notice is that Republicans in Congress are unwilling to condemn blatant law-breaking.

At the beginning of his term, when Trump saw no Republican pushback for ignoring the norms of our democracy (like refusing to divest his business holdings or take any action to avoid the resulting conflicts of interest), many imagined that there was a line beyond which Trump would lose his party’s support. We still haven’t found it. So it’s still an open question whether Susan Collins, Mitch McConnell, Joni Ernst, Thom Tillis, or any of the other Republican senators would lift a finger to stop a straight-out military coup to keep Trump in power.

[2] But even focusing only on unemployment, Trump did not oversee “the greatest economy in the history of our country“, as he often claims. Unemployment was 2.5% in 1953.

[3] This unemployment graph is not current — I couldn’t find one that was. There has been some recovery since. By the end of July, the 14.7% unemployment rate had come down to 10.2%, which is still alarmingly high.

[4] The 2020 deficit looks likely to top $3 trillion, and is already well past the $1.4 trillion record set by Bush and Obama in fiscal 2009.

[5] For a more complete play-by-play explanation of how Trump bungled even the initial reaction to the virus, see James Fallows’ article “The 3 Weeks that Changed Everything“. Just to give you a taste: Obama had an agreement with China that allowed us to have observers in Wuhan, where the virus first appeared. But Trump never bothered to appoint anybody to fill those roles.

The Underlying Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives

It’s policy, but it’s more than that.

Everyone knows that liberals and conservatives differ on policy: Liberals support abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control, while conservatives oppose all three. Conservatives want to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall to keep more from coming, while liberals want to provide a path to citizenship for people who have been living and working here for years without incident. Liberals believe climate change is a real problem that requires serious action, while conservatives don’t. And so on.

But underneath all that are much broader and vaguer differences.

Conventions are designed to be popular TV, so they don’t go that deeply into policy. Instead, they focus on identity and present values rather than five-point plans. Consequently, watching the two conventions back-to-back is a good way to get a handle on the underlying differences. The following questions are intended to help focus your thinking as you watch.

1. Is your ideal America in the past or the future? One of President Trump’s major complaints against the Democratic Convention was that its speakers ran America down.

“Over the last week, the Democrats held the darkest and angriest and gloomiest convention in American history,” President Trump said in remarks to members of a conservative group in Arlington, Va. He accused Democrats of “attacking America as racist and a horrible country that must be redeemed.”

If you’re a liberal (as I am), you probably don’t remember the convention that way. What sticks in my mind are all the expressions of hope: We are a great people. We have it in us to overcome the current challenges and “build back better”. I saw a celebration of decency, of families that stick together through tough times, and of people’s simple desire to help each other.

This perception gap arises largely because of one of the major liberal/conservative splits: Conservatives see their ideal America in the past, while liberals see it in the future.“Make America Great Again” only makes sense if you believe that at some point in the past America was greater than it is now. Trump has always been vague about what era his “again” points to, but different segments of the MAGA community have their own favorites:

  • The Founding. Many Evangelicals (and Mormons) go so far as to claim that the Constitution is divinely inspired, putting the Founding Fathers on a level very near the Biblical prophets.
  • The Confederacy. Republicans tend to minimize the role that white supremacy plays for their base, but all those Confederate flags and rallies around statues of Robert E. Lee point to something else: nostalgia for the noble Lost Cause of the slave empire.
  • The Wild West. There was a magic moment just after the Native Americans had been driven away, but before civilization arrived. The land was too vast and empty for anything you did to pollute it. And you could shoot all the buffalo you wanted, because there was nobody to tell you not to.
  • The Gilded Age. Libertarians and Ayn Rand followers idealize the late 1800s, before antitrust laws and other progressive reforms involved government so deeply in the economy.
  • The Greatest Generation. According to the myth, we single-handedly saved the World from fascism and never got the gratitude we deserved.
  • The Happy Days. The idealized 1950s, when a white man could support his family on a single income, women knew their place was in the home, gay sex was a crime, and Negroes were invisible.

Democrats, on the other hand, have an annoying habit of throwing dirt on these beautiful images by talking about slavery, Jim Crow, the Native American genocide, or the indiscriminate massacre of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When we honor the Founders, it’s not because their era was so great, but because they left us a vision of a government where authority bubbles up from the People rather than streams down from Heaven, and of a world where “all men are created equal”. They never achieved that vision, but they wrote a Constitution flexible enough that we could evolve towards it, and a Declaration we could edit to say “all people are created equal”. Yes, they were hypocrites to wax eloquent about their own freedom while enslaving others. But in the long run, their visionary hypocrisy has served us better than realistic cynicism would have.

Liberal patriotism revolves around the Future America, the one we could build that will finally live up to that never-achieved vision. That’s why Kamala Harris talked “the beloved community … a country where we look out for one another, where we rise and fall as one, where we face our challenges, and celebrate our triumphs—together.” But then she admitted: “Today, that country feels distant.”

Trumpists hear negativity and gloom there, while liberals find it inspiring: Even in moments as dark as this one, the American ideal is still out there, still beckoning for us to achieve it.

In contrast, the theme President Trump has chosen for the Republican Convention is “Honoring the Great American Story“. Taking a wild guess, I suspect we’ll hear a lot about “left-wing mobs” who have been tearing down or defacing statues that honor major players in that great story: mostly Confederate leaders, but occasionally non-Confederates like Columbus or even George Washington. We might also hear denunciations of the 1619 Project, an American history curriculum that emphasizes the central role slavery played the Great American Story. (Senator Cotton wants to deny federal funds to schools that teach this curriculum. Remember when conservatives opposed federal control of education?)

This next week, expect to hear a lot of reverence for the America of days gone by. But the only vision you’ll hear for our future is to return to that past greatness.

2. Do you think mainly about We or I? There’s a reason masks have proven to be such a divisive left/right issue, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they are great tools for controlling the Covid epidemic: Masks are a we-solution, not an I-solution.

Does wearing a mask guarantee that you won’t catch the virus? No. If you walk into a crowded room and you’re the only person wearing a mask, it’s going to improve your odds of escaping infection a little, but not really that much.

So if your demand is “Give me something I can do that will keep me safe”, telling you to wear a mask is not a great answer. But if you revise that to “Give me something my community can do that will help us get the virus under control faster”, masks are a great answer. If everyone starts wearing masks when they leave the house, instead of each infected person passing the virus on to three other people, you might have three infected people passing it on to just one new person. Instead of exponential growth, you’ll have exponential decay. And in a struggle like this, that’s what victory looks like.

But conservatives hate we-solutions. They would much rather hear about snake-oil cures like hydroxychloroquine or oleandrin, because those are I-solutions: If I get sick, I take oleandrin, and I get better — if it works.

This shows up across the board. Why should I give up my AR-15, when I was never going to do anything illegal with it anyway? Well, because if we all give up our AR-15s, the next mass shooting might not have quite so much “mass” to it. If you think taxes are too low, why don’t you just make a voluntary contribution to the Treasury? Because changing my tax rate doesn’t solve any national problem, while changing the rate we all pay does. And so on.

3. Are problems solved best by punishing individuals or reforming systems? Related to the focus on I rather than We is the conservative belief that problems are caused by individuals: The crime problem is caused by the individuals who commit crimes. The drug problem is caused by smugglers and pushers. Terrorism is caused by terrorists. And so on. This leads to a belief that the way to solve a problem is to figure out who is causing it and punish them until they stop doing whatever it is they’re doing.

That’s why the conservative reaction to immigrants and asylum seekers is so harsh: Border-crossers cause our immigration problem by coming to our country, and so they need to be punished until they stop. Herd them into detention centers and let people debate whether those centers qualify as “concentration camps”. Take their kids away and lose them in your system. Just make them stop coming.

Liberals are more apt to ask why they are coming and if there’s some way to unplug whatever process is pushing them here. Maybe we could promote reform in the hellish places they come from, or reform the trade practices that make those countries so poor. Maybe we could fund programs there that give them reasons to stay. But no, conservatives say, that would be rewarding the behavior we want to stop. And it wouldn’t work anyway, because … well, it just wouldn’t. If you’re not punishing anybody, you’re not solving anything.

Ditto for the violence that has sometimes accompanied the protests against police brutality after George Floyd’s murder. People are making trouble, so they need to be punished. So fire the tear gas, pepper-spray the peaceful and violent protesters indiscriminately, and send police into crowds swinging their nightsticks. Systemically, it makes no sense to answer a protest against police brutality with more police brutality. But those individuals are wrong and they need to be punished.

The flip side of this way of thinking is that whenever liberal tinkering with a dysfunctional system inconveniences conservatives, they interpret it as punishment. Raising taxes on the wealthy isn’t a sound fiscal plan to raise revenue, it’s punishing success. Affirmative action isn’t a way to compensate for the old-boy networks disadvantaged groups lack, it’s punishing white men. Green taxes punish coal miners and people who drive a lot. Laws preventing discrimination against gays punish Evangelical Christians. And so on.

From a liberal perspective, the weirdest thing in this mindset is the joy they imagine we feel as we punish them. Spend much time inside the conservative bubble, and you will hear a lot about how much we liberals hate the rich, and the coal miners, and the Evangelicals, and anybody else who will be disadvantaged by a liberal policy. We’re just rubbing our hands in sadistic glee whenever Harvard turns down some deserving white male.

My only explanation is projection. They know how they feel when a policeman clubs a BLM protester, so they imagine we must feel the same way.

4. When do you trust systems, and when do you trust people? Dr. Anthony Fauci had such a long and distinguished career before Covid-19 that I must have seen him somewhere — maybe during the Ebola scare or during the height of the AIDS epidemic. But I didn’t remember him. Certainly I had no reason to either trust or distrust him as a person. However, when Covid-19 started spreading, I recognized him as the spokesman for a system of medical science that I do trust. I don’t trust it absolutely or blindly, but when there’s a new disease and I have to make decisions about how to avoid it or seek treatment for it, that’s where I look for answers.

I trust a lot of other systems within certain bounds. I trust academic climate scientists to tell me how we’re doing on climate change. (And I don’t trust scientists employed by energy companies.) Their models may or may not make perfect predictions, but like the weather service’s forecasts, they’re the best we have. I trust geologists and astrophysicists to tell me the age of the Earth, and biologists to tell me how long ago various animals evolved. I trust the Bureau of Labor Statistics to tell me the unemployment rate and the Treasury to report the deficit. I read major newspapers with a mix of trust and distrust: They don’t always characterize events properly, and they sometimes misjudge which stories are or aren’t important, but if they put quotation marks around something, I’m pretty sure somebody really said it. If there’s a publicly checkable fact, I trust that somebody has checked it. The New York Times may not be perfect, and I may or may not agree with its opinion columnists, but it is not fake news.

Those attitudes don’t have anything to do with the issues we normally think of as defining liberalism or conservatism. That last paragraph didn’t state any position on abortion or gun control or tax rates or immigration. But all the same, it marks me as a liberal. There are systems for gathering knowledge, and I believe that (with occasional but fairly rare exceptions) they work.

Conservatives, by and large, don’t share my faith in systems, and would rather trust people. Many of them (God help them) trust Trump. Some trust their religious leaders, even on topics that have little to do with religion. Some trust media personalities like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. Some trust people who share their religion or their economic class or their DNA. Or they look at a TV talking head and make their own judgment: That guy wouldn’t lie to me.

So they look at Dr. Fauci and don’t see the mouthpiece of medical science. They see a guy like any other guy — and what did he ever do for them? But that My Pillow guy, he speaks the same religious language they do, and his pillow was pretty good, and Trump likes him, so maybe he knows what he’s talking about. Maybe he’s right and Dr. Fauci is wrong.

5. Is the United States a member of the world community that leads by example? Or are we “exceptional”? Trump appears not to recognize the existence of a “world community” at all. He has been relentless about blowing up agreements that involve the US submitting to rules that bind large groups of nations. He pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord and the multi-nation agreement to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He supported Brexit, and chafes at the idea that he can’t have one-on-one trade agreements with the EU countries. He keeps making noises about undercutting NATO, even at one point questioning whether we would really defend some small NATO country like Montenegro.

At this point, the Republican view seems to be that the US is entirely exceptional: No rules should apply to us at all. We should be able to torture people if we want to, we can violate other nation’s sovereignty with impunity, and above all we should not get out in front of other countries to set an example. If somebody needs to be virtuous, let some other nation go first.

Liberals want our vision of the Future America to eventually spread to the Future World. Not that we will conquer the world, but that our ideals of equality and human rights will take hold everywhere once people see how they work here. In his convention speech, President Obama put it this way:

Joe knows the world, and the world knows him. He knows that our true strength comes from setting an example the world wants to follow. A nation that stands with democracy, not dictators. A nation that can inspire and mobilize others to overcome threats like climate change, terrorism, poverty, and disease.

6. Are some Americans more “real” than others? I don’t think Sarah Palin invented the phrase “real Americans”, but her 2008 vice-presidential campaign popularized it. “Real America”, she explained, is in the rural areas and small towns that just happened to support the McCain-Palin ticket rather than Obama-Biden. Since then, Republicans haven’t liked to define the term precisely, but the usage of “real Americans” favors white, native-born, English-speaking conservative Christians.

You can see the current emphasis on “real” Americans in the revived Birtherism that questions Kamala Harris’ eligibility for the vice presidency. Her parents were not citizens at the time of her birth; her mother was an immigrant from India, her father from Jamaica. But she was born in Oakland, and the 14th Amendment declares that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” So she is a citizen by birth rather than by naturalization, making her a “natural born Citizen” as demanded by the Constitution’s Article II.

While any challenge to Kamala’s 14th Amendment rights would be doomed in court — at least until Trump gets to appoint another Supreme Court justice or two — conservatives don’t like the birthright citizenship the 14th guarantees, or the “anchor babies” it makes citizens. Trump has described birthright citizenship as “frankly ridiculous” and has suggested that he might do away with it in some unspecified way. Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation then tried to put meat on those bones by finding a loophole in “subject to the jurisdiction thereof”.

Consistent with the liberal notion that the ideal America is in the future, liberals view America as a project that anyone can join, while conservatives have a more blood-and-soil definition. They see an important difference between people who are citizens due to some legal technicality and “real” Americans.

So those are the things I recommend you listen for this week, if you decide to watch the Republican Convention: real Americans, American exceptionalism, suspicion of systems contrasted with trust in particular people, the importance of punishment, We vs. I, and whether we should be trying to move back towards an idealized past or forward to an idealized future.

What Makes Trump an Autocrat?

The most dangerous thing about Trump is that he doesn’t see his power as belonging to the Office of the Presidency. It belongs to Donald J. Trump.

When used sloppily, the word autocrat is little more than an insult. An “autocrat” may simply be an executive who makes decisions you don’t like, one who acts on his own judgment rather than factoring in your point of view. The baseball GM who trades your team’s best pitcher is an autocrat. The boss who rejects all your suggestions is an autocrat.

But the sloppiness isn’t in the word itself; autocrat and autocracy really do have meanings that can be applied precisely. Calling a government an autocracy distinguishes it from a republic under the rule of law. Under the rule of law, powers belong to offices rather than individuals. The people who occupy those offices hold those powers in trust for the republic, and are constrained to use them to fulfill the missions the law assigns.

But in an autocracy, the distinction between person and office vanishes. The powers of an office belong to the person holding it, to use as that individual sees fit, including for financial or political benefit. Lower officials may or may not be disciplined by higher officials, but the law itself does not constrain them, and the highest official is accountable to no one.

Applying that word to the current administration has seemed like a stretch for most of the last 3 1/2 years. Sure, Trump has been cutting corners, subverting democratic norms, and fairly often even breaking laws, but life in the US just hasn’t felt like North Korea or Russia or Saudi Arabia. For the most part, it still doesn’t.

However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the non-autocratic feel of the United States has been due to Trump not getting everything he wants. He is, at heart, an autocrat. Those are the leaders he admires and the club he wants to join.

I am the State. In his heart, Trump has been an autocrat from the beginning. He has never understood or recognized the difference between his office and his person. That has been clear, for example, in the way he speaks and tweets. To him, speaking as President is no different than speaking as Donald Trump. His monologues flow easily from announcements of policy to expressions of petty resentments to grade-school insults against those who challenge him. While often hidden in the beginning, this attitude also has shown up in his behavior: Recently the public discovered that early in 2018, he tasked the Ambassador to the United Kingdom with bringing the British Open to the Trump Turnberry golf course. After all, why shouldn’t his ambassador drum up business for his golf course? He often has used his power as president to draw business to his hotels or his resorts.

His rhetoric equates threats to his personal future in politics with threats to the United States, in an I-am-the-State fashion. He has often described the Russia investigation — the attempt to discover just how involved the Trump campaign was in Russia’s effort to get him elected — as “treason” or a “coup“. His well-deserved impeachment, which flawlessly followed a process laid out in the Constitution, was likewise “treason” and a “coup“. The whistleblower who made Congress aware of his illegal attempt to extort political favors from Ukraine is “a spy”, and Trump strongly implied that he should be executed: “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.” Removing Trump from office, no matter how lawfully or justifiably, is equivalent to overthrowing the government of the United States.

In his book, James Comey tells the story of President Obama inviting him to have a conversation before nominating him to be FBI director. After the nomination, Obama tells him, they won’t be able to do this any more, because the President and the FBI director conversing outside of official channels would be improper. But Trump recognizes no such propriety. He regularly tweets out instructions for the Justice Department to investigate or lay off of people he either likes or doesn’t like. He has opinions as an individual, so why shouldn’t he express them as President?

The presidential power to pardon, more than any other power of the presidency, has been treated as a personal power to be used according to Trump’s whims and interests. All other recent administrations have made the pardoning power into a process centered on the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, usually with a few additional special cases (some of which were regrettable). But Trump has abandoned that process entirely; his pardons and commutations are pure expressions of personal favor granted to political allies, co-conspirators who might otherwise rat him out, criminals popular with his base, former contestants on his TV show, and friends of celebrities he wants to impress.

The original purpose of the pardoning power in a lawful republic, according to Alexander Hamilton, was to temper the justice system with mercy, so that it would not “wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel”. (Obama used his power this way, for example, when he commuted the excessively harsh sentences in hundreds of nonviolent drug cases.) But under Trump, the pardon has reverted to its royal roots: It is an expression of the sovereign’s personal beneficence, and puts the recipient in his debt, as Dinesh D’Souza clearly understands, as does Rod Blogojevich.

Adults in the room. The primary reason America hasn’t felt like an autocracy these last few years is that Trump’s efforts have not gone unopposed. The fundamental drama of the last 3 1/2 years has been the battle between Trump’s autocratic impulses and the republican values embedded in the United States government. (From the point of view of his supporters, who are rooting for the autocrat, this has been cast as a struggle against the “Deep State”.) Trump’s initial set of appointees had reputations and careers before they entered his administration, and many of them imagined that they were taking positions in a merely eccentric version of a typical Republican government. As a result, they frequently frustrated their boss’s desires.

  • Jeff Sessions may have been a racist and a xenophobe, but he also believed he was Attorney General of the United States. Power over the Justice Department belonged to Sessions’ office, not to him personally. And although the President had appointed him, his power did not derive from the person of Donald Trump. Sessions infuriated Trump by following Justice Department rules and recusing himself from the Russia investigation. He also ignored Trump’s repeated demands to launch investigations into “the other side”, i.e, Trump’s political opponents.
  • John Kelly and his deputy (and eventual replacement) Kirstjen Nielsen were anti-immigrant and went along with the cruel policy of family separations, but both saw the Department of Homeland Security as being defined by law. Nielsen was forced out after she refused to do “things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum”.
  • Rex Tillerson shared Trump’s pro-Russia views, had a basic hostility to the institutional culture of the State Department, and signed off on the second and third Muslim bans. But he believed he represented the United States rather than Trump, whom he regarded as a “moron“. Trump, Tillerson said later, hated to be reminded that his foreign policy was bound by laws and treaties. He “grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him, ‘You can’t do that, and let’s talk about what we can do’.”
  • Jim Mattis and H. R. McMaster enjoyed the large budgets Trump gave the Pentagon, but held traditional conservative views about America’s special role in global security. Their primary loyalty was to the longstanding mission of the Defense Department, not to Donald Trump. Consequently, they supported NATO and resisted abandoning allies like the Kurds.
  • Don McGahn was the primary lawyer for Trump’s 2016 campaign. But as White House Counsel, he repeatedly ignored Trump’s orders to obstruct justice.
  • Dan Coats was an early opponent of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and shared a number of Trump’s other views. But as Director of National Intelligence he believed in the mission of the intelligence services: to figure out what is going on in the world and report it as accurately as possible. After Trump sided with Putin against the intelligence services in Helsinki, Coats was not cowed: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

I’m not sure who started using this phrase, but early on these people (plus a few others) came to be known (behind Trump’s back) as “the adults in the room“. Any kind of crazy idea might pass through Trump’s head, but the “adults” would keep him from doing too much harm. Republican Senator Bob Corker even tweeted about it: “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

It’s not my intention to idealize the “adults”, because (as I indicated above) a lot of nasty stuff happened on their watch. I also don’t want to paper over the widespread corruption in the early Trump years. In addition to the “adults”, Trump’s Class of 2017 included Scott Pruitt, Michael Flynn, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, and many others who left in well-deserved disgrace. Wilbur Ross belongs in that group as well, but is somehow still running the Commerce Department.

In spite of their flaws, though, each “adult” in his or her own way believed in the United States as a republic under the rule of law. They believed that there were things Trump could not do, and could not order them to do.

They’re all gone now. Jeff Sessions was replaced by Bill Barr, who has no trouble using the Justice Department to protect Trump’s friends and attack his enemies. The roles Kelly and Nielsen had at DHS are now filled (illegally, it seems) by Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, who created and managed the masked federal police who invaded Portland against the will of all local officials. Dan Coats’ job is now held by Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe, who has shown little interest in telling Trump anything he doesn’t want to hear, or keeping the public informed about Russia’s continuing efforts to aid Trump’s re-election. In place of Jim Mattis, we have Mark Esper, who was slow to oppose Trump’s impulse to use active-duty troops to put down peaceful protesters, but still not docile enough to make his job secure. McGahn’s replacement Pat Cipollone was in the room when Trump discussed pressuring Ukraine for dirt on Democrats, and said nothing.

Autocratic achievement unlocked. At this point, Trump’s conquest of the executive branch of government is virtually complete. The Pentagon is still holding out, but most of the rest has become his personal instrument, to do with as he will. Two recent examples stand out: the abuse of the Justice Department to suppress Michael Cohen’s book, and the sabotage of the Postal Service to undermine voting by mail.

Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen is serving a prison sentence, part of which results from him following Trump’s instructions to break the law. Like many non-violent criminals (Paul Manafort was another), Cohen was furloughed from prison to reduce crowding during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the Justice Department tried to use that situation as leverage to eliminate a problem for Trump’s reelection campaign:

But to remain at home, he was asked to sign a document that would have barred him from publishing a book during the rest of his sentence. Mr. Cohen balked because he was, in fact, writing a book — a tell-all memoir about his former boss, the president. The officers sent him back to prison. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that the decision to return Mr. Cohen to custody amounted to retaliation by the government and ordered him to be released again into home confinement.

In America as we have known it, no one connected with overseeing a federal convict should know or care how that person’s writings will affect the presidential race. But in Trump’s autocracy, things are different. If you work for the Justice Department, you work for Trump.

Trump’s continuing failure to mobilize the country against Covid-19, a failure unparalleled in any other first-world nation, has made the prospect of voting in person in November risky. (It is still unclear how many infections resulted in Wisconsin after the Republican legislature forced voters to wait in long lines to vote in the state’s primary.) Certainly the prospect of voting in person has become less attractive, particularly to citizens with prior conditions that make them especially vulnerable.

Voting by mail, which states like Washington have been doing for years anyway, is the obvious solution. But that’s only if you want people to vote and to have their votes counted. If you’re trailing badly in the polls, as Trump is, and might be looking for an excuse to influence or challenge or ignore the election results, raising uncertainty about voting by mail is one possible strategy. And the best way to cast doubt on the viability of voting by mail is to cast doubt on the Post Office’s ability to deliver ballots in a timely way, particularly if those ballots are mailed from zip codes known to include many Democrats.

“If carriers are being told that, at the end of your shift, you need to be back at the office even if you haven’t collected all the mail that day, there could be ballots in those mailboxes,” says Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund Voice and a former Obama appointee to the Commission on Election Administration, a panel created in 2013 to identify best practices in running elections. “If the truck drivers are being told, ‘You leave the post office to take that day’s mail to the processing plant at your scheduled time to leave, even if all the carriers aren’t back in yet with that day’s mail,’ that can have an impact.”

And so the Trump donor newly installed as Postmaster General is intentionally slowing down the mail: eliminating overtime, getting rid of sorting machines, and in general gumming up the works. Trump has been quite open about what he’s doing. Commenting on negotiations on a new Covid-response package, Trump told Fox News:

If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money [for the Post Office]. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it.

In any past election, it would be inconceivable that the President would be manipulating the Post Office in an effort to stay in power. But something has changed during the Trump administration: It’s not your Post Office any more, it’s his Post Office.

That’s how autocracy works.

Those Executive Orders

Like everything Trump does, they don’t match what he’s says he’s doing.

Remember the government shutdown that lasted from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019? Congress was refusing to fund Trump’s border wall, so he pulled out of a previously settled deal to fund the government. When public opinion didn’t rally behind his position, he relented on funding the government, but declared a state of emergency and used it to seize money Congress had appropriated for other purposes and redirect it to his wall. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the legality of this move, which seems to usurp Congress’ constitutional power of the purse, but it has allowed construction to continue so long that the case may become moot because the money is already spent.

Cases like these are never one-offs. Having gotten away with something once, Trump is bound to try it again.

So here we are: The CARES Act was passed in March as an emergency appropriation intended to see the country through the economic impact of the Covid-19 epidemic. At the time, no one imagined that the US would botch its response to the epidemic so badly that a thousand people a day would still be dying in August, so most of the CARES provisions ran out on July 31, including a moratorium on evictions and the $600-per-week enhanced unemployment payments.

Nancy Pelosi’s House had the foresight to pass a follow-up, the HEROES Act in May. But Mitch McConnell refused to bring it to the floor of the Senate, and did not start negotiating any CARES extensions at all until late July. With much of the Republican Senate caucus already plotting their resistance to the Biden administration, McConnell doesn’t have the votes to pass any CARES-extension bill without Democratic buy-in. So he left the negotiations to the White House team of Steve Mnuchin and Mark Meadows.

The White House refused to budge from its plan, which is about 1/3 the size of the HEROES plan, and contains no money to fill the budget gaps of state and local governments. Politically, Trump looks like the one with the most to lose if nothing gets done and the economy crashes, so Pelosi is not inclined to cave in to his demands without getting some concessions in return. So no deal has gotten done. (Has anybody noticed that our Art-of-the-Deal President never seems to get to Yes on a deal?)

So we’re back to the emergency-executive-powers trick. Or something. Maybe.

Saturday Trump signed three memos and an executive order which, in typical Trumpian fashion, don’t actually do what he claims. Here’s what is kinda/sorta in them.

  • A $400 unemployment enhancement to replace the CARES $600 replacement. Except that $100 has to come from the states, which may not have any money to cover it. The $300 federal contribution comes from a $44 billion pot of money that FEMA has, and of course won’t need during this record-threatening hurricane season. (This is literally an idea out of House of Cards, which FEMA officials rejected as unrealistic at the time.) Since we’re talking about 30 million unemployed people, the money will run out in about five weeks, assuming that they actually receive it and that it’s legal for Trump to spend it this way at all.
  • Eviction protection. Except, not really. The executive order asks relevant government officers to “consider” doing something to stop evictions, and to “identify” existing federal appropriations that might help stressed renters and homeowners, assuming that there are any such appropriations. If your landlord has a court date for your eviction, nothing in this order interferes with that proceeding.
  • Cuts in payroll tax deductions. The order doesn’t actually cut what you or your employer owe in Social Security and Medicare taxes. It just stops collecting those taxes for a while. So temporarily you might see more money in your paycheck, assuming you’re still getting one from somewhere, but your arrears will be building up, and will come due after the election. If he’s re-elected, Trump wants to cancel that debt too, but that just raises a new question: How do Social Security and Medicare get funded?

So basically what we have is flim-flam put together with a constitutionally questionable claim on FEMA money. In the context of the border-wall emergency, Trump is pushing us closer and closer to a model where the President can take any money Congress appropriates and spend it however he wants. It should go without saying that this is very, very far from the process the Founders thought they were establishing.

James Fallows raises the question we should all be asking:

I am not aware of any of the “strict constructionists” who blasted Obama for executive-order overreach, who have weighed in about Trump’s l’etat-c’est-moi wave of appropriation-by-exec-order. Are there any?

To be fair, a handful of Republican lawmakers have said something that expressed concern of some sort. But most of the hand-wringing was of the “Now look what the Democrats made him do” variety. If you’re looking for a flat-out “This is unconstitutional”, you won’t find it. Apparently respect for the Constitution is like fiscal responsibility or free trade or freedom or any of the other high-minded principles Republicans have put forward over the years. All such principled expressions are made in bad faith, and go out the window as soon as they become inconvenient.

The NRA and the Long Con

The New York and D.C. attorneys general have uncovered self-dealing, lavish spending on executive luxuries, and outright fraud at the National Rifle Association. Why is the conservative movement such fertile ground for this kind of thing?

Alarm bells. In 1973 I was a junior in high school, and a friend who had recently discovered the John Birch Society gave me a copy of their 1971 best-seller None Dare Call It Conspiracy. Thus was I introduced to the conspiracy theory of history: Forget all this talk of deep social forces evolving in unpredictable ways; in reality a cabal of powerful people has (for decades, or maybe centuries) been steering the planet towards a one-world dictatorship.

I was open to stuff like that in those days. Being 16, I wasn’t exactly invested in any other theory of history, or in established worldviews of any sort. In addition to conspiracies, I also had an open mind about ancient astronauts, lost continents, and the Velikovsky theory of the solar system. I had recently broken away from the literal-truth-of-the-Bible religion I had learned in a Christian elementary school, so the idea that authority figures of all sorts had been telling me tall tales seemed pretty credible. Why shouldn’t the world be explained by a sweeping hidden truth that the Powers That Be didn’t want me to know?

So I was undecided about NDCiC until I got to the last chapter, the one explaining what You the Reader could do to save America and the World from these sinister forces: Buy a lot of copies of None Dare Call It Conspiracy and pass them out to people in your neighborhood.

To summarize: You do not necessarily have to be an articulate salesman to make this “end run” [around what we now call “the mainstream media”]. You do not necessarily have to know all the in’s and out’s of the total conspiracy – the book is intended to do this for you. All you have to do is find the wherewithal to purchase the books and one way or another see that you blanket your precinct with them.

If 30 million copies got bought and distributed before the 1972 election, the conspiracy would be exposed beyond the conspirators ability to cover it back up again. (Apparently they fell short, because the cover of the 2014 edition claimed only 5 million copies sold. And so the Great Conspiracy rolls on.)

In short, an author was telling me that in order to save the world, I needed to “find the wherewithal” to “one way or another” make him rich. That set off alarm bells in my head, and caused me to re-evaluate the book’s whole argument.

Looking back, I now think those alarm bells are why I eventually became a liberal. Conservatives might have their internal alarm bells tuned to a variety of other threats — and perhaps are often appalled that mine stay silent when theirs start clanging — but apparently not to scams.

Grifters and their marks. As many writers have observed, entering the conservative information bubble puts you in a high-grift zone. Amanda Marcotte put it like this:

Look at the ads in conservative publications or on right-wing sites: It’s a chaotic dogpile of snake oil pitches, predatory gold-bug scams, and “survivalist” supplies that are drastically overpriced or worthless. Most of the familiar characters in the Fox News pundit universe — as well as Donald Trump’s Cabinet — have their own email newsletters, and subscribing to one means a nonstop onslaught of email pitches for “miracle” cures and get-rich-quick scams. There are countless shady conservative political action committees that promise to help elect Republican candidates, but whose real purpose is to enrich the folks who run them. Onetime GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin ran one such PAC that drew lots of incoming donations and spent very little of it on real-world political campaigns. To a significant degree, the conservative movement exists as a way to compile lists of gullible marks used by scammers and con artists.

Liberal media personalities like Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes may occasionally also have a book to sell you, but Sean Hannity endorses the Homearly Real Estate Group, which claims to donate $500 to the Wounded Warrior Project every time it sells a home. In daisy-chain fashion, Wounded Warrior has at times been a scam itself; its top executives were fired in 2016 after CBS News discovered that the “charity” was spending tens of millions of dollars a year on lavish parties at five-star resorts.

This kind of thing has been going on a long time. In his 2012 article “The Long Con“, Rick Perlstein traced it back as far as the 1970s (my high school days), and gave 2012 examples like Ann Coulter’s endorsement of a skeezy investment newsletter. (For contrast, I admire Nobel-prize winning liberal economist Paul Krugman, but it never occurs to me to wonder where he gets investment advice.)

Liberal and conservative pundits, it seems, are doing something subtly different. Liberals are telling you what is happening; conservatives are telling you who to trust. Liberals divide the world into True and False; conservatives into Good People and Bad People. Good People can introduce you to other Good People, and those introductions are worth serious money.

Foundational myths. If you wonder why conservatives are such easy prey for con-men, the answer is pretty simple. The conservative movement’s whole ideology is based on a series of easily disprovable myths: tax cuts pay for themselves, the American healthcare system is the best in the world, racism ended with Jim Crow in the 1960s, more guns make us all safer, and so on. The movement’s movers and shakers expected Obama’s decreasing deficits to enrage their people to the point of violence, but Trump’s increasing deficits to pass without comment. Obama’s executive orders (like DACA) were outrageous steps towards dictatorship, but Trump’s far more sweeping decrees (like this week’s unilateral extension of unemployment benefits without the consent of Congress) are legitimate expressions of Article II power. And so on.

The people Rush Limbaugh refers to as “dittoheads” don’t just mouth these absurdities, they actually believe them. They are, in short, easy marks. If you can collect a lot of them in one room, or on one mailing list, you have created an ideal fishing pond for hucksters.

In “The Long Con” Perlstein began with the pervasive mendacity of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. (I believe Romney was the first major-party nominee to continue repeating a lie after the media had fact-checked him on it; that may seem like par for the course now, but as recently as 2012 it was flabbergasting.) Then he pulled back to examine the central role con-men and scams have played in the conservative movement.

The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

To adapt another bit of Perlstein imagery: Once the politicians have you worrying about an invisible river, the grifters will happily sell you an invisible bridge.

The NRA. Here’s what brings this topic to mind this week: Thursday, New York Attorney General Letitia James laid out in a lawsuit an explicit account of one of the conservative movement’s longest-running cons: the National Rifle Association. According to the NYAG’s press release:

four individual defendants [Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and three other top executives] failed to fulfill their fiduciary duty to the NRA and used millions upon millions from NRA reserves for personal use, including trips for them and their families to the Bahamas, private jets, expensive meals, and other private travel.

These actions contributed “to the loss of more than $64 million in just three years for the NRA”. The corruption is so pervasive that James is asking a New York court to dissolve the NRA, which it can do because the NRA has been incorporated there since 1871.

The same day, D. C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued the National Rifle Association Foundation, a charitable foundation incorporated in the District of Columbia. Donations to the NRA Foundation are tax-exempt, while donations to the NRA are not. Consequently, there are more restrictions on what the Foundation can do. (This arrangement may look suspicious, but in itself is not uncommon or necessarily corrupt. For example, the ACLU has an associated Foundation, which can pay legal fees for the ACLU’s clients, but can’t lobby for legislation. As long as the laws are followed, there shouldn’t be a problem.)

Just as James accuses executives like LaPierre of using the NRA as a “personal piggy-bank”, Racine charges that the officers of the NRA Foundation were allowing the NRA to abuse Foundation funds by making sweetheart loans to the NRA, letting the NRA overcharge it for management fees, and in general placing the interests of the NRA above the interests of the Foundation. In short, the Foundation was just a pass-through that allowed the NRA to use tax-exempt donations.

The D.C. lawsuit is not seeking to dissolve the NRA Foundation, but to force the NRA to repay the money it took from the Foundation, and to reorganize the Foundation to restore its integrity as a charitable institution.

Marcotte comments on how the con has worked:

The NRA’s grift has been almost comical in its bluntness. The group traffics in over-the-top rhetoric designed to play on some of the darkest and most irrational emotions of American conservatives, including racist fears over the nation’s changing demographics, overblown fears of crime and paranoid fantasies that liberals are trying to “take over” the country in illegitimate ways. So much of the hyperventilating conspiracy-theory discourse found on the right, especially the wild fever-dreams about progressive “violence,” starts with the NRA, which sought to convince conservatives that they needed to spend ungodly amounts of money on buying guns and on supporting the NRA itself, in order to protect themselves from the imaginary threat of gun-grabbing libtards and antifa terrorists.

Misdirected outrage. The two lawsuits led to howls of rage from conservatives pundits. You might think the howls would be directed at LaPierre and his crooked cronies, for ripping off the millions of NRA members and contributors, and for spending the conservative movement’s money on themselves. But no: The outrage is at the two attorneys general for catching them. Marcotte summarizes:

Far from thanking James for trying to shut down an organization that spreads shameless lies in order to separate conservatives from their money, Republican leaders and right-wing pundits are crying foul. Some of the defenses have been, uh, interesting.

“I prosecuted organizations or individuals who cheated their organizations, OK,” said Jeanine Pirro, the former New York prosecutor turned histrionic Fox News commentator on Friday morning. “It happens all the time. It’s no big deal, all right?”

The previous night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham warned that this was a sign of things to come and Democrats will soon “go after pro-life groups, conservative think tanks, conservative radio shows, cable networks, even churches.”

And well they might, if executives of “pro-life groups, conservative think tanks, conservative radio shows, cable networks, even churches” have been ripping off their organizations and spending the donors’ money on their own lavish perks. Ingraham seems to be taking for granted that they are. (I’m particularly amused by the “even churches” in that quote, because mega-church and televangelist ministries have been famous for spending money collected for “the Lord’s work” on the lavish lifestyles of their ministers. The worst offenders are preachers you have probably never heard of if you don’t watch Christian cable channels, but Jerry Falwell Jr., who finally lost his job this week for a fairly silly reason, had previously been accused in Politico of self-dealing with Liberty University’s money.)

And of course our Law & Order President is perfectly fine with thieves running the NRA. New York’s lawsuit is “a terrible thing”, Trump says, and he suggests that the organization dodge the law by moving the Texas. (He should know that wouldn’t work, because it wasn’t an option when New York dissolved the fraudulent Trump Foundation, or when he had to pay $25 million to settle the Trump University fraud.)

Marcotte sums up:

It’s not just that the NRA has been a major player in helping Republican politicians over the years, both in terms of funding and in keeping the right-wing base riled up over imaginary threats. It’s that grifting and con artistry are the backbone of the conservative movement.

If New York is actually successful in dissolving the NRA, it’s quite true that, as Ingraham suggested, similar efforts could follow against right-wing activist groups. But that won’t happen because of their ideology, but because so many of them rely on the same kinds of grifting and fraud the NRA has thrived on for years. The entire right-wing movement is awash in this kind of corruption.

Will they learn? It would be pleasant to imagine conservatives all over the country finally hearing the kinds of alarm bells I heard in 1973, and realizing that they need to be more careful about what ideas they accept and who they send their money to. But that’s almost certainly not going to happen.

When a series of televangelists had scandals in the 1980s, the effect on televangelism as a whole was small and short-lived. Believers disillusioned by one preacher mostly just changed channels and watched another. And when Jim Bakker got out of prison, he made a comeback. After all, why shouldn’t you send your money to a convicted fraudster, if he sounds good on television?

There is still considerable attraction in conservatism’s Manichean worldview, in which Good People struggle against Bad People, and you don’t need to do the work to figure out what’s true, you just need to know who to trust. It is in some perverse way comforting to believe that our problems do not arise from the fact that life is difficult, or that substantial effort is required to find solutions to hard problems. There is no need to spend your life looking for cures and treatments, like Dr. Fauci has; miracle cures like hydroxycholaquine are everywhere, and we just need to listen to the Good People like Donald Trump who tell us about them. There are simple secrets to getting rich, and we could all be rich if only we could put aside our doubts and trust the Good People who want to let us in on the ground floor. No one needs to work out the details of complex programs like Medicare for All, we just need a Good Leader with the courage to tell the healthcare system to work better.

And so, as the NRA faces a possibly fatal legal storm, Q-Anon is rising. They have a conspiracy theory that swallows all the others like the plot of Illuminatus! made real. And their founder can never be discredited, because we don’t know who it is.

And guess what? There’s plenty of merchandise you can buy.