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Speaking in Code: Two phrases that no longer mean what they used to

To liberals, a lot of what conservatives say and do looks like hypocrisy. And some of it really is, like the pro-life congressman who urged his mistress to get an abortion, or the long list of people who denounced Bill Clinton’s illicit affairs while they were carrying on some of their own. That’s hypocrisy: piously announcing strict rules for other people while living by a looser set yourself.

But some things that look like hypocrisy to liberals are actually something else: Conservatives have repurposed phrases that used to mean one thing to express some other idea entirely. Both the speaker and his target audience know exactly what he means, and there’s no inconsistency between that meaning and his actions. It’s just that liberals never got the memo.

So let me catch you up on what two phrases you’ve known and loved in the past mean now when conservatives say them.

Religious liberty or religious freedom means special rights for Christians. Thursday, the Republican National Committee asked everyone on Twitter to thank Donald Trump “for his commitment to religious freedom”. One commenter expressed skepticism about Trump’s commitment to religious freedom by adding “unless you happen to be Muslim”.

I’m sure many people thought that commenter had launched a devastating barb, exposing a blatant example of Republican hypocrisy. Because we all know what religious freedom used to mean: Even if your religious community is small and powerless, no one can stop you from meeting. The government can’t tax you to support the views of other sects, or use the public schools to indoctrinate your children in the majority faith. In any legal proceeding, your religion does not count against you.

In the old sense, there is no more powerful opponent of religious freedom in America than Donald Trump, who ran on the promise to keep Muslims out of the United States, and who has signed numerous executive orders trying to work around the clear unconstitutionality of that idea.

But in conservative circles, that’s not what religious freedom means any more. Here’s what it means now: People who root their misbehavior in the teachings (or even just the common prejudices) of popular Christian sects can get away with things that no one else can.

Today, religious freedom means that you can violate anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT people, if you claim that your bias against them is the historical bias of your popular Christian sect. (You can’t exempt yourself from racial discrimination laws, though, because Christian sects that believe in racial discrimination aren’t popular any more.) You can refuse to do your job as a pharmacist, if the drugs your customer wants are implicated in behaviors your popular Christian sect disapproves of. You can limit the healthcare choices of your employees, if those choices would be sins according to your popular Christian beliefs.

None of these rights can be claimed by non-Christians, or even by members of unpopular Christian sects, except by happy accident. (Zoroastrians might be able to claim special rights in situations where their teachings happen to agree with Baptists or Catholics.) Imagine, if you can, pacifist Quakers trying to claim the same distance from war that Baptists want from abortion — not simply that they not have to do the killing themselves, but that they be kept clear from any connection to it. Imagine Hindus insisting that the FDA not inspect beef, because their tax dollars should not contribute to the killing of cattle. Such “rights” are ridiculous; they would be laughed at if anyone dared to claim them.

Special rights properly belong only to members of popular Christian sects. Everyone knows this. Some are even open about it, like Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who offers this interpretation of the First Amendment:

By “religion,” the founders were thinking of Christianity. So the purpose was to protect the free exercise of the Christian faith. It wasn’t about protecting anything else.

The rule of law means getting undocumented Hispanics out of the country by any means necessary. Tuesday, Vice President Pence was the headliner for a rally in Tempe, Arizona organized by the pro-Trump group America First Policies. As headliners often do at political events, he gave a shout-out to some of the local politicians in the audience, including former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio probably would be in jail now if Trump hadn’t pardoned him, but instead he is running for the Senate.

A great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law — Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I’m honored to have you here.

For centuries, the rule of law meant that laws applied equally to everyone, and were not subject to the whims of whoever happened to be in power. It was related to the longer phrase a government of laws and not of men.

Arpaio’s career as sheriff is the paradigm for out-of-control law enforcement that is the exact opposite of the rule of law in its traditional sense. His legitimate job as county sheriff had nothing to do with border enforcement, but he squandered his office’s resources on that issue, harassing countless law-abiding Hispanic-American citizens (as well as Arpaio’s political enemies) along the way, and compiling a dismal record dealing with the crimes that were actually within his jurisdiction. His shoddy care for and outright cruelty towards his prisoners showed a similar lack of respect for his duties under the law, and resulted in the county paying tens of millions of dollars in settlements to mistreated prisoners (or their surviving family members). For details, see “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio” and several other articles I collected after Trump pardoned Arpaio.

Arpaio is a “champion of the rule of law” only in one sense: He wants undocumented Hispanics out of the country.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a defender of the rule of law in a similar sense: His attempts to punish sanctuary cities may themselves be illegal, but they serve the goal of pushing undocumented Hispanics out of the country. Much of what ICE is doing now is also of questionable legality, but its actions are directed against undocumented Hispanics, so it is defending the rule of law.

The Newspeak problem. The problem with assigning new meanings to words and phrases is that the old meanings might still be important. (I’d hate to be a high school history teacher trying to cover “The Gay 90s“.) If the neologism takes, it may drive out the original meaning, making the issues related to that concept difficult or even impossible to discuss.

To a large extent, that is the point of Newspeak: to win arguments by making the opposing position inexpressible, or to avoid dissent entirely by keeping possible objections out of mind.

The rule of law is still being fought over, and rightfully so. In this era, when Trump is trying to claim the Justice Department as his own rather than the country’s, and is pressuring law enforcement officials to stop investigating him and start investigating his political enemies (or investigate again if they didn’t find anything the first time), it’s very important to have a term that captures the original meaning of the rule of law. We desperately need judges and prosecutors and law-enforcement officers who are loyal to the laws of the United States rather than to the President. Anything that makes that issue harder to talk about is a threat to American democracy.

But sadly, the old meaning of religious freedom and religious liberty is all but lost in popular discourse. There is still some small overlap, when Christians are genuinely persecuted in other countries, but many Americans, particularly conservatives, are just confused when atheists don’t want their children pressured to pray in public settings, or Muslims are denied the right to build a mosque somewhere. They don’t see how religious freedom can even apply to someone who isn’t Christian. To them, a religious freedom issue is whether the Christian clerk who refuses to process same-sex marriage licenses gets to keep her job, not whether a Muslim woman can wear her hijab to the airport without fear of being profiled as a terrorist.

To fight back, I think we must constantly retranslate the new usages back into older terms, and refuse to recognize them as legitimate. The Masterpiece Cakeshop case, for example, has nothing whatsoever to do with religious freedom; it’s about Christians claiming the special right to break discrimination laws. Denying federal funds to sanctuary cities does not defend the rule of law, it tears down the rule of law.

You know what would have defended the rule of law? Letting Joe Arpaio go to jail for his crimes rather than pardoning him.

Change Can Happen Faster Than You Think

Uprising can be a craft.


Two weeks ago, I drew your attention to a fairly depressing book, How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. This week I want to balance that with a more hopeful book, This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler.

From the title you might think it’s a manifesto, but actually it’s a study of how nonviolent action works, and how the thinking of nonviolent activists has developed over the last century or so. Along the way, it makes a convincing parallel argument: Nonviolence does work; sometimes it works on a scale and at a speed that its practitioners never envisioned; and it could work even better if more people understood the mechanics of it.

By the time you finish the book, you’ll probably know a lot more than you did about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the resistance to Milosevic in Serbia, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for same-sex marriage, how ACT UP provoked action on the AIDS epidemic, and several other movements. You’ll see them warts and all: the doubts and uncertainties of the leaders, the key strategic decisions, the strokes of good and bad luck, and the disappointments as well as the achievements.

Nonviolence is an effective strategy, not just a bid for moral superiority. Each chapter makes a point and illustrates it with the story of a character or a movement. The introduction (Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign) and first chapter (Gene Sharp, the man who made nonviolent studies academically respectable), focus on a very basic precondition for understanding nonviolence: You have to grasp that it is a strategic choice, and that, like war, it has tactics that can be learned.

That may seem obvious once you say it out loud, but a lot of pre-Sharp discussion of nonviolent action implicitly assumed otherwise: Nonviolence was often equated with pacifism and framed as a fundamentally moral choice, a sacrifice of practicality to idealism. Its effectiveness was left to God, who presumably would eventually help causes that were deserving enough. Successful nonviolent movements were (and often still are) described as “spontaneous” and regarded as inexplicable, as God’s actions often are. (The Englers don’t use this example, but pre-Civil-War abolitionism was caught in this dilemma, seeing few options other than the violence of John Brown or high-minded attempts to change the hearts of individual slaveowners.)

Sharp documented how unarmed uprisings could produce remarkable and sometimes counterintuitive results. Whereas violent rebellions play to the strengths of dictatorships — which are deft at suppressing armed attacks and using security challenges to justify the creation of a police state — nonviolent action often catches these regimes off guard. Through what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu,” social movements can turn repression into a weakness for those in power. Violent crackdowns against unarmed protests end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, creating wider public unwillingness to cooperate with its mandates.

King’s success in Birmingham did not just happen. It was a well-thought-out campaign that created an ever-escalating public crisis. The city’s lack of any answer other than violent repression, and the demonstrators’ willingness to suffer that violence, created a national narrative that led not just to (fairly small) concessions from Birmingham’s business community, but to a sea change in the nation’s willingness to accept Jim Crow. Congress soon passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Structure and Movement. The second chapter discusses two competing views of how nonviolent action can create positive change. One school (associated with Saul Alinsky) focuses on long-term community organizing that builds power step-by-step. (A typical Alinsky slogan is “Organized people can beat organized money.”) The canonical example is the neighborhood group that comes together to demand a stop sign at a dangerous corner, and then (having achieved that victory), looks for the next improvement it can win for its members. A labor union is another classically Alinskyite organization.

The second school (the Englers use Frances Fox Piven as a key theorist) focuses on mass movements: big demonstrations made up of people who may or may not have a deep understanding of the issues they are protesting, and who may or may not be committed for the long term. The important thing is that a lot of people show up, not that they have a long-term plan.

The book was published in 2016, so it could not use the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration as an example, but it would have fit. People marched for a lot of different reasons, and shared more vaguely defined hopes and fears rather than a specific set of demands. But they showed up by the millions.

The two styles of action appeal to different kinds of activists, and at times can seem like competitors or even enemies. Community organizers sometimes resent the big movement activists who come to town, get a lot of attention, and then leave, taking the TV cameras with them even though the underlying problems remain. Mass-movement people, conversely, can see the community organizers — with their stop signs and other incremental demands — as lacking vision. They are so concerned about preserving the marginal gains of their organizations that they aren’t willing to reach for revolutionary change.

Working together. But what if the two types of activists saw each other as complements rather than competitors? This notion is exemplified (in the third chapter) by the Otpor — Serbian for “resistance” — movement that ousted Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Otpor actually represented a third wave of mass protests: The first had failed in 1991-1992, and the second in 1996.

“The school of organizing I came from was the student protests,” says [Otpor organizer Ivan] Marovic. “This organizing school was totally impulsive. It put no emphasis on establishing connections between people. It was about getting the greatest number of people and bringing them out on the street.

“We could draw out 10,000, sometimes 20,000 people, just from the university,” he explains. “The problem with this way of organizing is that it couldn’t last long, and we couldn’t take it outside our familiar terrain” — namely the prominent college towns.

Conversely, the opposition political parties had long-term members and enduring structure, but “couldn’t reach people who weren’t already connected to their networks. They couldn’t bring in people from the outside like we could with our protests.”

Otpor’s answer was to create not a hierarchical structure, but an organizational culture that made it “well organized but decentralized”. (Compare to Wikipedia. The strength of Wikipedia is in its easily grasped goals and methods, which allow tens of thousands of volunteers to contribute without an extensive management structure.)

The founders had intentionally created a sort of DNA that was replicated as Otpor chapters spread. … They had a clear strategy, a brand, and a vision of what they wanted to accomplish. They had a distinct set of tactics that people could pick up and use, as well as well-defined boundaries within which local teams expressed their independence.

Through humorous stunts, Otpor drew attention to just how widespread discontent was. Then came big demonstrations scattered around the country. Otpor graffiti was so simple that Milosevic didn’t even have to be named. (“It’s spreading.” “It’s time.” “He’s finished.”) Its leaders did not propose to take over the country themselves, and the movement did not stand for a governing philosophy. The purpose was simply to oust Milosevic. The plan was simple:

In short, activists would compel the regime to call elections; they would create massive turnout around a united opposition candidate; they would join other nongovernmental organizations in carefully monitoring election results so they could document their victory; and they would use mass noncompliance — leading up to a general strike — if and when Milosevic refused to step down.

It couldn’t have worked without both mass demonstrations and organized opposition parties. But the mass movement was already going by the time the parties needed to play their part. Under mass pressure and against their usual patterns, they got in line by compromising on a single challenger, and events played out as intended.

Change inside democracies. Bringing down an already unpopular dictator is one thing, but changing the direction of a democracy is something else entirely. That’s why the fourth chapter centers on the United States’ amazingly fast turnaround on gay rights, and particularly on same-sex marriage. From 1996, when the Senate passed the Defense of Marriage Act 85-14, to 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide with the support of a large (and growing) majority of the public, was not even 20 years. (In 2012 I thought I was being bold predicting that “Everybody will support same-sex marriage by 2030”. I now think that was pessimistic.)

How did that happen? Not the way we were taught in Civics class.

Rather than being based on calculating realism — a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate — the drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision. It was grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately fall in line.

Changing public opinion would seem to suggest changing minds one-by-one. But that’s not exactly what happened either. And that’s the lesson of the fourth chapter: Society is neither a monolith nor a cloud of disconnected individuals. Using an architectural metaphor, the Englers say that the social order is held up by institutional pillars. Likewise, individual identities are shaped by the institutions those individuals identify with.

The battle for marriage equality was not fought mind-by-mind so much as institution-by-institution: In the media, first gay characters became accepted, and then it became safe for gay celebrities to come out. In religion, no church wanted to hold down the liberal flank of the anti-gay coalition. Unitarians accepted same-sex unions and gay clergy, then Episcopalians and Congregationalists, then Presbyterians and Lutherans. The battle was fought in associations of psychologists and therapists, professional organizations of doctors and lawyers, among educators and adoption professionals, within the military, and in many similar venues. Eventually, young people growing up in an era of increasing openness could barely grasp what the big deal had been.

In the same way that a dictator like Milosevic depended on a collective belief that nothing could be done about him, the second-class status of gays depended on each person feeling like there was no point in taking gay rights seriously, because it would never happen anyway. Instead, by focusing on these smaller venues, one group of people after another were put in the position that they personally were holding back the tide. Each institution that flipped pushed the onus onto the next.

Part of the process of transformational change is that once an issue has won, its righteousness becomes common sense. After this happens, people will commonly deny that the change was ever a big deal to begin with. They will contend that the shift was an inevitable by-product of historical forces, that it would have happened even without a struggle, and that the lessons that one can draw from it are therefore limited.

Momentum. In pragmatic political action, what counts is the concessions that authorities are eventually forced to yield. Whether the action succeeded or failed is judged by whether the pipeline gets built or the workers get a raise.

But transformational movements are always playing to a larger audience. If an action draws attention to a larger issue and can be spun as a momentum-building win, even comparatively meager concessions can amount to a major victory. Gandhi’s Salt March was resolved fairly cheaply by the local powers-that-be, but was a key step in the larger campaign for India’s independence.

The salt tax was hardly the heart of British power in India, and the modest agreement Gandhi eventually made did not eliminate it. But it was an issue whose symbolism everyone could grasp: The British had claimed control of the basic stuff of life, and British laws prevented Indians from providing for themselves. And whatever deal came out of the negotiations, the symbolism of Gandhi (in Winston Churchill’s account) “striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace” to negotiate as an equal with a British Lord was a victory in itself. Biographer Geoffrey Ashe wrote:

In the people’s eyes, the plain fact that the Englishman had been brought to negotiate instead of giving orders outweighed any number of details.

King’s Birmingham campaign had a similar outcome: modest concessions from the Birmingham business community, but a huge national boost in momentum for the Civil Rights movement.

The Englers point to the importance of framing the result: Ideally, the movement sets goals that it can judge for itself, rather than objective goals that outside news media can declare unmet. Otpor referred to this practice as “Declare victory and run.”

Disruption, sacrifice, escalation. After the financial collapse of 2008, many well-established and well-funded organizations tried to get the public interested in economic inequality. Labors unions tried, national pundits tried, and the issue largely didn’t take off — until Occupy Wall Street.

It’s easy to look back and proclaim OWS a failure: It elected no candidates and passed no laws. The occupations are gone now and the system is largely unchanged. The Trump administration is busily rolling back what few post-2008 regulations did get passed. But OWS shifted the national conversation; its message of the 99% and the 1% has stuck, and we have not heard the last of it. David Graeber, who talked about his OWS experiences in The Democracy Project, stated a different way of judging success: “transformations of political common sense”.

OWS succeeded in getting the inequality issue on the table because — unlike the well-crafted arguments of pundits or the ad campaigns of established political organizations — they were disruptive and dramatic. In cities all over the country, people had to walk around the encampments and governments had to decide how long they would let them continue.

Disruption gets attention, but by itself it can be counterproductive: The public might just get mad at the disruptors and continue to ignore the issue they’re trying to raise. What counters that in a well-designed protest is that the protesters lives are disrupted more than anyone’s. By enduring hardship and the possibility of arrest or violence, protesters demonstrate their commitment and earn the public’s sympathy.

This kind of sacrifice is often described as an attempt to reach the heart of the enemy, but actually it works to raise the energy of friends.

When people decide to risk their safety or to face arrest, their decisions have the effect of mobilizing the communities closest to them. … Disruption is a crucial means for making sure that demonstrations are not overlooked. Sacrifice, meanwhile, makes it more likely that observers will side with the movement participants rather than those who move against them.

Established organizations, like unions or political parties, have too much to lose to engage in significant disruptions; they can be sued for their assets or their hard-won access and privileges can be taken away.

Finally, a successful mass protest needs a path of escalation. Occupy began as a few people camping in a park near Wall Street, but it quickly morphed into “Occupy Everywhere”.

Whirlwind. The goal of mass protest is to arrive at a state the Englers call “the whirlwind” — moments when previously “impossible” things are happening on a regular basis, the old political common sense is useless in predicting the future, and new possibilities open up. In 1989, for example, it seemed impossible that the East German government could fall, the Berlin Wall could be torn down, and Germany could reunify. In 1989, it happened.

Political scientist Aristide Zolbert describes them as “moments of madness” — periods of political exuberance when “Human beings living in modern societies believe that “all is possible”.

Whirlwind moments are usually triggered by some unpredictable event, like the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire and sparked the Arab Spring, or the shooting of Michael Brown that ignited the Ferguson protests. That unpredictability is a large part of what makes the whirlwinds themselves seem spontaneous and unplanned. But the Englers argue that “potential trigger events happen all the time”. What’s rare is a community ready to exploit one.

For example, Rosa Parks was far from the first African-American to refuse to give up her seat on a bus. But she did it at a moment when the Montgomery black community and the Civil Rights movement were ready.

Chance offers up possibilities for revolt; movements make whirlwinds.

Particularly inspired leaders sometimes come up with ways to make their own sparks, as Gandhi did in the Salt March. Other times the trigger events actually are foreseeable: Otpor foresaw that Milosevic would steal the election they had pushed him to hold.

Whirlwinds, however, do not last, and the visions they inspire at their peak are often not realized. That’s why afterwards it can be hard for activists to give themselves credit for what actually was accomplished. (In his model of the process, Bill Moyer — not to be confused with Bill Moyers the journalist — included “perception of failure” as a predictable stage.) But they should not lose heart.

A movement that is building popular support need not worry if its initial moment in the spotlight passes and the fickle news media turns its attention elsewhere. Instead, its active supporters can ready themselves to ignite fresh waves of protest when the opportunities arise.

Division, violence, and discipline. A movement need not become popular to achieve its purpose. ACT UP, for example, used divisive and aggravating tactics to force a reluctant nation to recognize the AIDS epidemic. Often the group raised more hostility than support, but what it really garnered was attention for an issue the mainstream would rather have ignored.

Asked in 2005 if he thought ACT UP’s tactics had been alienating, [activist Larry] Kramer responded with characteristic indignation. “Who gives a shit? I’m so sick of that. You do not get more with honey than you do with vinegar. You just do not.”

Protest is nearly always polarizing to some extent, because often the purpose of a protest is to dramatize injustices previously swept under the rug. Martin Luther King, for example, was often criticized as a troublemaker who disrupted previously peaceful cities.

Yet there is a danger here. For polarization to work to the advantage of a social movement, advocates cannot delude themselves into thinking that public reaction does not matter or that “anything goes” is a viable strategy. Activists can take the risk of being called rude and rash as a result of pursuing confrontation. But if a movement is to remain effective, it must be another thing as well: disciplined.

The cautionary example here is Earth First!, whose tree-spiking tactic sometimes resulted in injury for sawmill workers. (Logging companies could have avoided this by not logging areas that had been spiked, but they typically were not the ones blamed.)

If a movement’s tactics are so divisive and widely condemned that they overshadow the issue at hand and foster sympathy for the opposition, polarization works against it. Judi Bari, who turned Earth First away from spiking, never became a pacifist. But she recognized

People who put their bodies in front of the bulldozer are depending on prevailing moral standards and the threat of public outrage to protect them from attack. Unfortunately, prevailing public opinion in the country, at least in the timber region, is that if sabotage is involved, they have a license to kill. Until that changes, mixing civil disobedience and monkey-wrenching is suicidal.

It may at times be tempting to answer government violence with violence. But Gene Sharp cautioned:

It is important for the actionists to maintain nonviolent discipline even in the face of brutal repression. If the nonviolent group switches to violence, it has, in effect, consented to fight on the opponents own terms and with weapons where most of the advantages lie with him.

Ecology of radical organization. The book closes with a chapter explaining that many different types of groups are necessary to achieve lasting change.

Not all efforts to create change prevail over the long term. But those that do tend to see themselves as part of an ecology that is made healthier when different traditions each contribute: mass mobilizations alter the terms of public debate and create new possibilities for progress; structure-based organizing helps take advantage of this potential and protects against efforts to roll back advances; and counter-cultural communities preserve progressive values, nurturing dissidents who go on to initiate the next waves of revolt. …

The point of momentum-driven organizing is not to deny the contributions of other approaches. But it is to suggest a simple and urgent idea: that uprising can be a craft, and that this craft can change our world.

Flipping the Script on Fossil Fuels

Middle-class climate deniers may think they’re running with the predators. But they’re really prey.


Last Monday, Paul Krugman’s column “Earth, Wind, and Liars” took an interesting tack in talking about climate change and fossil fuels. Up until recently, a typical anti-fossil-fuels argument has been moral: We should stop burning coal and oil because the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere is wrecking the climate for future generations.

To the extent environmental defenders have made an economic argument, it usually has been based on comparing long-term interests to short-term interests: We should ignore the artificial cheapness of, say, burning coal in power plants, because the future damage done will have long-term costs that the current price doesn’t account for. People who make this argument talk about externalities (real costs of a transaction that get pushed off on someone other than the buyer or seller), and advocate policies like a carbon tax to re-insert those externalized costs back into the market. Again, though, the argument is fundamentally moral: Shoving the costs of your present-day consumption off onto future refugees and hurricane victims is a nasty thing to do.

The pro-fossil-fuels interests, though, are well defended against moral arguments. They’ve done their best to undermine public confidence that we can predict the future at all — science being part of the global socialist conspiracy, after all — so all those suffering people in the future (or in distant countries or in social classes the media ignores) can be dismissed as imaginary. And even if their reality is admitted, today’s conservatism has a bad-boy aesthetic that glories in its own hard-heartedness: We live in a dog-eat-dog world where you’re either the predator or the prey. Bleeding-heart liberals are weak, and would let Those People (foreign, non-white, non-Christian) take advantage of People Like Us.

But Krugman’s column makes a different argument. He’s far from the first one to do so, but his point has not yet broken through to the general public.

Not that long ago, calls for a move to wind and solar power were widely perceived as impractical if not hippie-dippy silly. Some of that contempt lingers; my sense is that many politicians and some businesspeople still think of renewable energy as marginal, still imagine that real men burn stuff and serious people focus on good old-fashioned fossil fuels.

But the truth is nearly the opposite, certainly when it comes to electricity generation. Believers in the primacy of fossil fuels, coal in particular, are now technological dead-enders; they, not foolish leftists, are our modern Luddites. … [T]here is no longer any reason to believe that it would be hard to drastically “decarbonize” the economy. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that doing so would impose any significant economic cost.

… The fossil fuel sector may represent a technological dead end, but it still has a lot of money and power. Lately it has been putting almost all of that money and power behind Republicans. … What the industry got in return for that money wasn’t just a president who talks nonsense about bringing back coal jobs and an administration that rejects the science of climate change. It got an Environmental Protection Agency head who’s trying to suppress evidence on the damage pollution causes, and a secretary of energy who tried, unsuccessfully so far, to force natural gas and renewables to subsidize coal and nuclear plants.

In the long run, these tactics probably won’t stop the transition to renewable energy, and even the villains of this story probably realize that. Their goal is, instead, to slow things down, so they can extract as much profit as possible from their existing investments.

In other words, non-plutocrat Republicans (the vast majority, in other words) are kidding themselves when they imagine they’re running with the predators. They’re the prey. The predators are the coal and oil barons who have bought their party and who fund the propaganda they listen to. The prey will be stuck not just with the damage from hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires (that they can argue might have happened anyway), and not just with diminished prospects for their children and grandchildren (which — with ever increasing difficulty — they can still deny for a few more years), but with higher bills and an antiquated electrical system. That’s going to happen not decades hence, and not just according to some computer model built by those nefarious scientists, but in the fairly near future.

My taxes are half what I’d pay if I just made wages

OK Donald, I’m not going to publish my tax returns either, but I do want to reveal enough information about them to make a point.

Over the last few years, my wife and I have eased towards retirement, which means that an ever-higher percentage of our income comes from investments (interest, dividends, and capital gains) rather than wages. And I’ve watched our taxes go down accordingly, because the tax code is stacked against people who get their money by working. (I’ve been complaining about this at least since 2005. I made a related complaint about estate taxes after I settled my father’s estate in 2015. As a worker I paid one rate; as an investor I have paid a much lower rate, and as an heir I paid essentially nothing.)

I think 2017 was the first year (or maybe the first since that lucky investing year of 2004 that made my tax return look so shocking to me in 2005) that wages have been less than half of our income. And that made me wonder: If I refigured our federal income tax with the assumption that we had the same income, but it was all wages, what would that do to the tax we pay?

Answer: More than double it. A couple who had our same income, same deductions, and so on, but got all their income by working, would pay twice as much tax as we paid, and then a little more. (If you had a lot of wages and want to do my experiment in reverse, go to page 44 of the 1040 Instructions and fill out the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gains Tax Worksheet under the assumption that your whole income consists of capital gains. If you’re willing to share, you can post in the comments the percentage decrease you see.)

You might wonder how that is possible, since capital gains are supposedly taxed at 15%: low, but more than half the rate most wage-earners pay. The answer is that your first chunk of capital gains isn’t taxed at all.

Taxpayers in the 10 and 15 percent tax brackets pay no tax on long-term gains on most assets; taxpayers in the 25-, 28-, 33-, or 35- percent income tax brackets face a 15 percent rate on long-term capital gains. For those in the top 39.6 percent bracket for ordinary income, the rate is 20 percent.

If you don’t have a lot of wages, you only start paying those 15-20% rates after you’ve maxxed out the untaxed chunk.

A response you’ll sometimes hear from conservatives is: “Well, if that bothers you, you should make a voluntary contribution to the Treasury.” And that entirely misses the point. If the problem were my personal sense of guilt over being allowed to pull less than my weight, a contribution to the Treasury would deal with part of it. (I still would have the privilege of deciding for myself what my fair share is, though. That still would put me in a different class from people who have to either pay what they owe or go to jail.)

But my complaint isn’t that I lack some proper method to flagellate myself for having income. The guilt shouldn’t reside with those of us who fill out our tax returns honestly and arrive at the ridiculously low number the law intends us to pay. It’s with the politicians who write these rules, and (even moreso) with the people who use the outsized influence their wealth gives them to induce politicians to write such unfair rules in the first place.

Our tax system is unjust, and every person who earns wages should feel insulted and abused by it. Me sending an extra check to the Treasury would do absolutely nothing to change that.

The problem is structural, so the solution needs to be structural: All forms of income — wages, interest, dividends, capital gains — should be taxed the same. (That’s not a flat tax. Once you total up your income, the tax tables could still be progressive, with rich people paying a higher rate than poor people.) Not only would that change make our tax system fairer and more just, it would achieve goals conservatives are always claiming they support: Figuring out what you owe would be simpler, and the tax code would distort our economy less, since there would be no need for the shenanigans wealthy people pull to make their wages look like capital gains.

Can I Stop Writing About Paul Ryan Now?

I was going to quote a bunch of long-time Ryan-watchers. But then I realized I am one.


In case you’ve been living in a cave this week: House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will not run for re-election this fall, and will leave Congress when his term runs out in January.

Looking through this blog’s archives, I see I’ve actually written quite a bit about Ryan. In 2012 when he was Mitt Romney’s VP candidate, I did a Ryan triology:

A few months prior, I had examined a critique of Ryan’s budget proposals from bishops and theologians out of his own Catholic tradition in “Jesus Shrugged: Why Christianity and Ayn Rand Don’t Mix“.

Later, I covered some of the reports he issued as chair of the House Budget Committee: In 2014, his proposals to replace the Great Society anti-poverty programs led to “Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?” and “Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?” (In both cases, my answer was no. Ryan’s approach to poverty is doomed by his ideological blinders: Capitalism is perfect, the market is fair, and the rich deserve everything they have, so the only causes of poverty he can recognize are the moral failings of poor people and the disincentives created by government anti-poverty programs.)

By now, justifiably or not, I sort of feel like I get Paul Ryan. Based on that, and on no inside information whatsoever, here’s my take on why he’s leaving Congress: First off, the explanation he gave — that with the passage of the Tax Reform Bill “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do” — is nonsense. Ryan’s main focus has always been on the spending side of the equation, not the taxing side. What he “came here to do” was to reform entitlements and reduce government spending’s slice of the economy. He didn’t come to Washington to do what he has, in fact, done: increase defense spending, leave entitlements largely untouched, and create a huge deficit by cutting taxes.

So what is the reason? Ryan looks ahead and sees that leading the House Republican caucus for the next few years, either as Speaker or as Minority Leader, would be the end of his career. He would have to marshal Republican support behind budgets with trillion-dollar deficits, and decide how far he’s willing to go to protect his party’s president as the investigators circle in and Trump’s behavior becomes increasingly indefensible. Either choice — going down with the ship, or trying to pick exactly the right moment to turn on Trump — would be political suicide. Whatever he did, half the Party would think he’s a toady, and the other half would regard him as a back-stabber.

A related issue is that there is no Republican legislative agenda right now. After Trump was elected, repealing ObamaCare was the central focus. When they finally gave up on a full repeal, the focus shifted to tax cuts. The tax cut bill was signed right before Christmas, and what has Congress been working on since? There was an omnibus spending bill that nobody liked, with a big deficit, no clear focus, and no resolution to a lot of controversial issues like DACA or the Great Wall. And what’s next on the do-big-things agenda: Immigration? Infrastructure? Entitlement reform? Even within the Republican caucus, there’s no consensus on any of those issues. So there will be no legislation.

Now picture being a Republican running for Congress this fall. What’s your message? Keep us in power so that we can do … what exactly? That’s why they’ve shifted to a negative focus: We’ll stop the Democrats from impeaching Trump.

Is that a legacy that will hold up going forward? Ryan is still only 48, and he’s undoubtedly looking forward to 2024 or 2028, by which time he hopes the dust will have settled from whatever happens to Trump. Being remembered as the shield that kept Trump in office as long as possible is not going to play well by then.

On the other side, a few Trump critics speculate that Ryan wants to be in a position to challenge Trump in 2020. But that’s wishful thinking. Fighting a civil war to take the Party back is a fool’s mission; even if he succeeded, the defeated Trumpists would never forgive him. Also, it’s very un-Ryanlike; he’s not the kind of guy who puts down a big bet and rolls the dice. No, Ryan’s time will come after the Party of Trump has crashed and burned on its own. Then, he imagines, he can step forward as the savior who will lead the GOP back to sanity. Better yet, the Party will come to him and beg him to become it’s savior, the way it begged him to become Speaker.

For the next few years, the right place for an ambitious Republican to be is off stage, so that’s where Ryan is going. The only thing I think he might regret is that he may already have waited too long. Leaving in January may not be soon enough to avoid the stain of either sticking by Trump or turning on him.


The other thing I noticed while looking back is that one person has consistently been even harder on Ryan than me: Paul Krugman. And he’s not stopping now. In Friday’s column, he reprised the greatest hits of his Ryan criticism: Ryan was never the “serious policy wonk and fiscal hawk” he played on television. In fact, “the single animating principle of everything Ryan did and proposed was to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted”. His long-term budget proposals always relied on the “magic asterisks” of unspecified future spending cuts, plus added revenue from closing unspecified future tax loopholes. So the deficit reductions he touted were always “frauds”.

His reputation was based on the “motivated gullibility” and “ideological affirmative action” of pundits who needed to make a show of being even-handed.

Yet the reality of 21st-century U.S. politics is one of asymmetric polarization in many dimensions. One of these dimensions is intellectual: While there are some serious, honest conservative thinkers, they have no influence on the modern Republican Party. What’s a centrist to do? … The narrative required that the character Ryan played exist, so everyone pretended that he was the genuine article.

Ryan hasn’t criticized Trump’s excesses because … why would he? “Principled conservative” was just another mask he wore.

[I]f you ask why Ryan never took a stand against Trumpian corruption, why he never showed any concern about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, what ever made you think he would take such a stand? Again, if you look at Ryan’s actions, not the character he played to gullible audiences, he has never shown himself willing to sacrifice anything he wants — not one dime — on behalf of his professed principles. Why on earth would you expect him to stick his neck out to defend the rule of law?

Trump’s long-term effect on American democracy: How worried should we be?

If you have been paying attention to the current administration with any sense of skepticism at all, you probably worry about whether President Trump is a threat to American democracy as we have known it. Briefly:

In January, as he marked the first complete year of the Trump administration, Benjamin Wittes characterized this as “banana-republic-type stuff” and commented

His aspirations are as profoundly undemocratic and hostile to the institutions of democratic governance as they have ever been. He announces as much in interview after interview, in tweet after tweet.

And yet, Wittes judged that during Trump’s first year, the response of the rest of the government was “ultimately encouraging”.

Trump simply cannot look back on the last year and be satisfied with the success of his war on the Deep State. His battle to remake it in his image has been largely unavailing—and has come at far greater cost to his presidency than to the institutions he is trying to undermine.

And that is very good news.

So how bad is it really? In other words, the rest of the government has largely remained true to American ideals, and has blocked Trump’s most authoritarian efforts. The courts remain independent, and have struck down several of his most egregious orders. The media has refused to be intimidated, and continues to hold him accountable. Law enforcement has largely — but not entirely — held steadfast against his encroachments on its integrity; so the Mueller investigation continues, and there have been no show trials of high-profile Trump enemies. The military has pushed back against his improper orders, and the intelligence services refuse to simply tell him what he wants to hear, help him subvert the justice system, or propagandize the American people. Even the Republican Congress, while often a lapdog, has occasionally growled: High-profile Republicans have protected Jeff Sessions, and threatened unspecified consequences if Robert Mueller is fired.

So how disturbed should we be? Is Trump simply a bad cold that American democracy will eventually throw off and return to good health? Or is his administration a cancer that our country might fight for a while, but will eventually succumb to? How do we even think rationally about such questions, rather than alternately give in to rosy denial or black despair as the mood strikes us?

Comparable challenges. If we were going to try to think about this like reasonable people, the first question to ask is: When have democracies faced challenges like this before? How did that go? How does our situation compare to theirs?

Trump, after all, is not the first demagogue with authoritarian tendencies to gain popularity in a democratic nation. Sometimes the fever passes, sometimes the nation falls into tyranny (Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey), and some cases look bad but might still be salvageable (Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland).

He’s not even the first American president to stress our democracy, or to be feared by the opposition as a rising dictator. Just about all our major wartime presidents fit that description: Much of what Lincoln did, including the Emancipation Proclamation, was constitutionally suspect, relying on implicit “war powers” that had never been precisely spelled out before. Wilson jailed Eugene Debs during the World War I, and approved the Palmer Raids against leftists in the postwar red scare. FDR broke the two-term tradition, tried to pack the Supreme Court with allies, and approved the Japanese internment.

We don’t usually think of those presidents as potential autocrats, because in each case subsequent administrations (sometimes under pressure from Congress) pulled back from autocracy, returning to what Wilson’s successor Harding called “normalcy“. Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt all left American government changed, but in each case the expansion of executive power was eventually controlled, sometimes by codifying it in law and sometimes by setting new limits to keep it from happening again.

Nixon was another president who stretched and abused executive power. But he was forced to resign and voters gave the opposition party an overwhelming majority in Congress. Congress then passed the War Powers Act, wrote new campaign finance laws, and increased its oversight of the intelligence services. His presidency became a warning sign rather than a precedent; no subsequent president has justified his actions by claiming Nixon as his example.

So how does that all work? When does a democracy slide into dictatorship and when does it pull itself back from the brink? If that sounds like a major research project, you don’t have to take it on yourself: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt already did in the recent book How Democracies Die. (If Ziblatt’s name is familiar, that might be because in December I tried to infer the lessons How Democracies Die makes explicit from his previous book, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy.)

The importance of norms. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s first point is that the U. S. Constitution contains no magic formula that prevents democracy from failing here. Whatever “American exceptionalism” might mean, it doesn’t give us some kind of immunity from the diseases other democracies are prone to. Numerous countries have modeled their constitutions on ours, and seen democracy fail anyway.

Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be.

(Longtime Sift readers will recognize this as a theme I’ve been harping on for years in posts like “Countdown to Augustus” and “Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues“.)

Much of our problem today predates the Trump administration, and stems from the fact that our norms have been sliding for decades. The Senate’s refusal to recognize President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, or to respond to it with hearings and a vote, for example, was not explicitly unconstitutional, but was unheard of in all previous American history. Ditto for brinksmanship with the debt ceiling, or the decades-long evolution of the filibuster from a rarely used break-glass-in-case-of-emergency practice to an automatic tactic of minority obstruction. The other branches of government have changed their own norms to deal with Congress’ dysfunction: Presidents issue more sweeping executive orders (like Obama’s DACA), and the Supreme Court reinterprets mis-stated laws (like the Affordable Care Act) that it would once have sent back to Congress for correction.

If you go back to the bulleted list at the top of this post, you’ll notice that hardly any of my complaints about Trump are explicitly constitutional. The Constitution never says that the President can’t order the FBI to investigate the candidate he just defeated, that he can’t tell big whopping lies on a regular basis, or that he has to give the public enough information to judge whether or not he is corrupt. Those aren’t rules, they’re just good practices. That’s how we do things here in America.

Or how we used to do them.

The root norms. It would be easy to fill pages with the norms that Trump is breaking. Our system, for example, has a tradition of decorum. (“Will the distinguished gentleman from Oklahoma yield the floor for a question?”) No previous president has publicly talked about political rivals in such consistently belittling terms as Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary, or Pocahontas.

But rather than list hundreds of specific norms, Levitsky and Ziblatt boil democracy’s essential norms down to two:

  • mutual toleration, “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals”
  • forbearance, “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives”

All the others stem from these. American government works well when the parties regard each other as rivals rather than enemies, and exercise their powers according to the Constitution’s underlying spirit, rather than wringing every conceivable advantage out of its words. Democracy is in trouble whenever one party regards the other as fundamentally treasonous, and then uses that opinion to justify pushing the powers of whatever offices it holds to their constitutional limits.

Much of what I’ve been doing in my “Augustus” series is chronicling the tit-for-tat loss of restraint between the parties. Most Americans have no appreciation of how far this could go, so I’ll provide an example: The 12th Amendment specifies that the sealed votes of the Electoral College are sent to the President of the Senate, who counts them “in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives.” What if the President of the Senate, with the connivance of majorities in both houses, simply miscounted the votes and proclaimed someone else to be president?

There’s no provision for dealing with that scenario — and with innumerable similar situations — because the Founders never anticipated that our political leaders would go that far. And they wouldn’t. Or would they?

The 21st century road to dictatorship. The old model of democratic breakdown was the coup: Caesar illegally taking his army across the Rubicon, seizing Rome, and proclaiming himself Dictator for Life. That was the path of many 20th century dictators like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But 21st century autocrats have realized the usefulness of maintaining the trappings of democracy.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example, still has elections, rival political parties, and dissident newspapers. Popular opposition leaders, however, have a way of finding themselves in prison or in exile or dead. Ditto for troublesome journalists. When the media empire of oligarch Boris Berezovsky became unreliable, he was forced to leave it behind him and flee the country. After a few years in exile, he was found hanged. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, began financing dissident politicians, he went to prison.

It was all legal, of course. (Well, not the assassinations, but no investigator would dare trace them back to Putin.) The men who went to jail were convicted of real crimes (and maybe even committed some of them; it’s hard to reach the top of a corrupt system without breaking a law sometime). Similar stories could be told about Turkey or Hungary or Venezuela. The system resembles the quip variously attributed to either Mark Twain or Emma Goldman: “If voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt use a soccer analogy to map out the steps by which an elected president becomes an autocrat:

  • Capture the referees. In other words, get your people in charge of the judiciary, law enforcement, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Anyone who used to be a neutral arbiter must become your partisan. You can do this in the judiciary, for example, by expanding the size of the Supreme Court and appointing your people to the new positions (as Roosevelt tried to do), or by impeaching judges who rule against you (as the Republican-controlled legislature is trying to do in Pennsylvania). (In North Carolina, the gerrymandered Republican majority in the legislature has done court-packing in reverse: It shrunk the size of the State Court of Appeals to prevent the new Democratic governor from filling the open seats.)
  • Sideline star players on the other side. “Opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and … religious or other cultural figures” are “sidelined, hobbled, or bribed into throwing the game.” With the referees already in your pocket, the carrots of government contracts and positions, or the sticks of ruinous regulations, taxes, and prosecutions can hollow out the institutions that otherwise might channel public opinion against you.
  • Rewrite the rules in your favor. We were already seeing a lot of rule-rewriting on the state level prior to Trump: Gerrymandering and voter suppression have locked in large Republican majorities in states (like North Carolina) where the voters are more-or-less evenly split between the parties. In last November’s election in Virginia, Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates won the popular vote 53%-44%, but Republicans maintained a 51-49 majority. Combining a biased legal system with a lifetime ban on felon voting (as in Florida, where the Sentencing Project estimates that 20% of adult blacks can’t vote) can sideline a large chunk of the opposition electorate. In countries like Russia, field-tilting rules make it difficult for new parties to form, for genuine opposition candidates to get on the ballot, or for opposition voices to get their message out.

Once the right measures are in place, an aspiring autocrat doesn’t need the traditional trappings of tyranny — gulags, thought crimes, children informing on their parents, secret police breaking down doors in the middle of the night — to act with impunity and stay secure in his job.

Resistance. Unlike a coup, though, the subversion of a once-democratic system takes time. While you are corrupting some of the referees, suborning some opposition leaders, and rewriting some rules, the still-intact parts of the system can rise against you — if enough people recognize what is going on and transcend their previous differences. Putin, you may remember, did not become a dictator overnight.

Also, if a country is lucky — and I think the U.S. might have gotten “lucky” in this way with Trump — the would-be autocrat may not be particularly adept. Margaret Drabble’s metaphor of babies eating their mothers’ manuscripts might apply: “The damage was not, in fact, as great as it appeared at first sight to be, for babies, though persistent, are not thorough.” Trump may be persistent in his aggressions against democracy, but he lacks the discipline to be as effective as he otherwise might.

The rosy path. It’s easy to imagine that someday Trump will leave office peacefully — by choice or otherwise — and afterwards there will be a bipartisan effort to shore up the norms he violated.

Such a thing has happened before. For example, after FDR violated the unwritten rule that presidents should retire after two terms, Congress codified that limit in the 22nd Amendment. As a result, FDR’s four terms didn’t lead to a series of presidents-for-life. As I mentioned before, Nixon’s excesses led to a large Democratic majority in Congress that passed a number of executive-restraining laws.

Something similar could happen after Trump: Congress could mandate good practices that previously were taken for granted, forcing presidents to release their tax returns or hold their assets in blind trusts. Laws could spell out in detail which payments are constitutionally-banned “emoluments”. The wall separating the presidency from the investigative branches of the Justice Department could be strengthened.

Other changes wouldn’t require new laws: Voters could begin insisting again on virtues that Trump lacks, like experience, expertise, and honesty. They could once again value respectful and respectable behavior. Congress could begin taking its oversight role more seriously, rather than abusing or neglecting it depending on whether or not the presidency and Congress are controlled by the same party.

If that’s what happens, then the Trump administration will be like that time you drove home after a few drinks and arrived safely without incident. Yeah, it wasn’t a good idea and you shouldn’t make a habit of it, but ultimately no harm was done.

The dystopian possibility. So far, democracy has been protected by two main forces: The so-called “Deep State” (i.e., career government officials who are more committed to the missions of their organizations than to the orders they receive from the White House) and Trump’s overall unpopularity.

So, for example, career prosecutors — even if they are Republicans — have not been willing to sacrifice their integrity by manufacturing a case against Hillary Clinton, or ignoring evidence against Trump himself, just because he tweets that they should. Career EPA officials are refusing to become pawns of the fossil fuel industry no matter how much Scott Pruitt wants them to. Career economists at the Treasury didn’t concoct a bogus tax-cuts-pay-themselves analysis just because Steve Mnunchin promised they would.

That’s the Deep State in action: It’s not a conspiracy masterminded by some shadowy cabal. It’s the professional integrity of people who believe that their jobs mean more than just a paycheck or their bosses’ approval. (That’s true even in some cases where I disagree with them. I think a lot of CIA and Pentagon people really believe in America’s imperial mission, and in the disasters that will happen if they let down their guard. In their own minds, they are patriots.)

That’s both its strength and its weakness. You can’t kill the Deep State just by finding its leader and bribing, threatening, or imprisoning him or her. But conversely, it has no sense of strategy. It is made up of individuals, and individuals can be worn down. The Deep State has held its own for a little over a year, but can it hold for four years or eight?

If, God forbid, Trump got to replace one or two of the liberals on the Supreme Court, the courts might suddenly become pliable.

Trump’s unpopularity has shored up many institutions of democracy. The media has remained critical, rather than giving in the way it did to George W. Bush after 9-11. Republicans in Congress haven’t expressed much criticism, but they also haven’t cooperated with Trump’s desire to rewrite the rules. (The Senate keeps ignoring his plea to abolish the filibuster, and the idea of changing civil service laws to enable an executive-branch purge, or libel laws to muzzle the press, are non-starters.) Congressional Democrats have stayed unified rather than finding excuses to strike individual compromises. Federal judges have not been afraid to stick their necks out.

All that might change if Trump’s approval rating hovered around 60% rather than 40%, or if it were Democrats who were worrying about losing their jobs this fall rather than Republicans.

Levitsky and Ziblatt review cases where democracy held for a while, and then started to crumble, like Fujimori‘s Peru. It’s not hard to imagine how that could happen here: The predicted Democratic wave fails to materialize in the fall. The economy stays strong, the country avoids any new shooting wars or trade wars, and Trump’s victims — immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, etc. — remain isolated. Much of the country then starts to say, “What was all that alarmism about?” When Jim Comey or Andrew McCabe winds up in jail, it seems like a one-off case rather than an assault on law enforcement.

Conversely, suppose Democrats overcome gerrymandering and regain control of the House. (It will take at least an 8% margin in the popular vote to do so.) Then laws will not change in Trump’s favor, Congress will investigate and expose excesses, and if Bob Mueller turns up evidence of impeachable offenses, the impeachment process will begin. We’ll be on our way to getting rid of Trump in 2020 (if not sooner), and starting to rebuild what has been torn down.

The crucial year, and the long-term challenge. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t end with specific predictions, but my impression after reading their book is that 2018 is crucial. Neither complacency about American democracy’s resilience nor hopelessness about turning things around is warranted. The outcome is still undetermined.

In each party, there is a question: Will Democrats put aside their differences in the face of the larger threat, or will they let their factions be played off against each other? In the recent successful campaigns (Lamb in Pennsylvania, Jones in Alabama), they stayed united and won, but the divisions of 2016 are still not healed.

For Republicans, the question is whether their various factions will continue to let themselves be bought off — evangelicals by court appointments, business leaders by tax cuts and deregulation, and so on — or will enough of them come to understand what is really at stake? If they will not join the resistance, will they at least stay on the sidelines?

Long term, both parties need to figure out how to strengthen the norms of forbearance and tolerance, which were in trouble long before Trump arrived on the scene. Unless we can re-establish them, getting past Trump will not solve our problems. His failure, if it happens, might simply be a training example for new and better demagogues.

Why does the Right hate victims?

Attack the Parkland kids? Of course they do.


We’ve seen this script play out before: One or maybe a small group of people suffer a tragedy in their lives, and it motivates them to speak out. They speak for themselves. They speak for those who didn’t survive. They speak for countless people like them who have suffered similar losses. Their voices ring with authenticity, and the public begins to listen.

And then conservatives try to rip the hell out of them.

That’s the story of Ann Coulter and the 9-11 widows. “I’ve never seen people enjoy their husbands’ deaths so much,” she wrote in her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism. “These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV … reveling in their status as celebrities. These self-obsessed women seem genuinely unaware that 9/11 was an attack on our nation and acted as if the terrorist attacks happened only to them.”

It’s the story of Donald Trump, his supporters, and the Khan family. Captain Humayun Khan had rushed at a explosive-laden taxi in Iraq. The driver then detonated prematurely, killing himself and Khan, but sparing the hundreds of soldiers in the mess hall the bomb had been intended for. Khizr and Ghazala Khan appeared at the Democratic Convention to tell Trump that Muslim families like theirs are also Americans, that many of them have paid a high price to be good Americans, and that they do not deserve his bigotry. Trump responded by demeaning their religion and their marriage, saying that Mr. Khan alone spoke to the Convention because “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” His supporters (like Roger Stone) went further, claiming that the Khizr Khan was a “Muslim Brotherhood agent”. The honorary Trump campaign co-chair for New York argued to Fox News’ Alan Colmes that Khan was a “terrorist sympathizer“.

It’s the story of Trump and all the women he has molested. They’re liars paid by the Democrats, and besides, they’re too ugly to be assault bait.

After Cleveland police gunned down Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in his own neighborhood — and did it within seconds of arriving on the scene — a story about his father’s “history of domestic violence” got shared on Facebook over eight thousand times. The Rices aren’t victims, you see, they had it coming.

And Trayvon Martin wasn’t just an innocent teen-ager shot down by an over-zealous neighborhood watch guy, whose death the police didn’t think was worth investigating until the community protested. He wasn’t just a victim of Florida’s ridiculous stand-your-ground law that promotes gun violence. He was a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe“. Even his last purchase — Skittles and a soft drink from a convenience store — became evidence of a drug habit.

No victimization is too trivial to let stand. Remember Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old “Clock Boy” who tried to impress his teacher by showing her the electronic clock he had made, and wound up arrested on suspicion of building a bomb, or maybe a “hoax bomb”, or something? His experience drew attention to the excessive suspicion American Muslims live with every day, so he had to be taken down. The whole event was staged, the conspiracy theorists said. Ahmed intended to get arrested, you see. It was all a plot by his terrorist-supporting father to make their town (Irving, Texas) look bad, because its mayor had been outspoken against the Muslim threat. “For some reason Irving is important to the Islamists,” Glenn Beck speculated to the mayor, who did not dispute the point, replying only that “I would hate to think that’s true.”

If I included attacks on public figures, I could go on forever: John Kerry’s wounds in Vietnam were only “superficial”; that’s why delegates to the Republican Convention wore band-aids with purple hearts on them. Ann Coulter claimed Max Cleland was “lucky” that the accident that cost him three limbs happened in Vietnam, where it would make a better story for a political campaign. Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, doesn’t “stand up” for veterans; when she argues, she “doesn’t have a leg to stand on“. On and on and on.

Sandy Hook. The most direct parallel to the Parkland kids are the Sandy Hook parents. They also were “crisis actors” participating in a “hoax” designed to take away Americans’ guns and pave the way to dictatorship.

Four years on, the genuinely crackpot notion that the attack was a staged hoax — that no one died — has persisted, and the harassment of victims and their families in the name of investigating the idea shows little sign of abating.

A recent Vice News report followed the administrator of the Sandy Hook Hoax Facebook page, as he toured Parkland and tried to project the same theories onto that shooting.

Did people die? I don’t know. But I don’t think what happened here is a genuine calamity. There was something perpetrated here that defies logic, that I think was something done deceitfully to bring about political change. It’s Sandy Hook all over again, if you ask me.

And Sandy Hook parent Lenny Pozner agrees: It’s Sandy Hook all over again.

There’s almost nothing different in the conspiracy theories relating to the Parkland shooting. The hoaxer playbook is immediately finding any inconsistency in any footage that’s being shown online, and then freeze-framing it, and drawing circles and lines and arrows on it, and claiming that this is faked, that’s staged, this person is practicing their lines.

The Parkland kids. So why should anyone be surprised to see them come after the survivors of the Parkland shooting?

Did you see the picture of Emma Gonzalez ripping the Constitution? Or David Hogg giving a Nazi salute? Did you know that Hogg wasn’t really at school during the shooting and made up everything he said about it? Did you see the videos where Gonzales is compared to the Hitler Youth and Hitler’s voice is dubbed over Hogg’s speech at the March for Our Lives?

On top of the fabrications were the insults. Gonzalez is a “skinhead lesbian“. Congressman Steven King went after Gonzalez for wearing a Cuban flag patch on her jacket:

This is how you look when you claim a Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense. [1]

An aide to a Tampa state representative emailed the Tampa Bay Times that Gonzalez and Hogg “are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.” They’re “poor, mushy-brained children” who are “liars” and “soulless”.

These kids have skills. To a surprising extent, though, the teens have been able to hold their own. Leslie Gibson, the Maine state legislature candidate who made the “skinhead lesbian” comment, also called Hogg “a bald-faced liar. Hogg struck back like this:

Who wants to run against this hate loving politician he’s is running UNOPPOSED RUN AGAINST HIM I don’t care what party JUST DO IT.

Maybe rivals just sensed his vulnerability rather than took orders from Hogg, but Gibson fairly quickly picked up both Republican and Democratic opposition, and then dropped out.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham also went after Hogg, needling him for getting rejected by four colleges (like that’s anybody’s business) and accusing him of “whining” about it. Hogg responded by tweeting a list of Ingraham’s largest advertisers. Advertisers started leaving Ingraham’s show, and then she gave a half-hearted apology. When that didn’t work, she took a vacation.

Probably the best response happened when The American Spectator blamed the Parkland kids for bullying the shooter, Nicholas Cruz. (See, they really did have it coming.) Isabelle Robinson wrote an op-ed in the NYT: “I tried to befriend Nicholas Cruz. He still killed my friends.

That kind of skill has just been making the attackers more unhinged. Paul Waldman quotes National Review editor Rich Lowry whining about “The Teenage Demagogues” and how sympathetic they are.

“It is practically forbidden in much of the media to dissent from anything they say,” Lowry says, claiming for the right the status of noble victims, brutally silenced by a system that forbids them to speak their opinions out loud.

But is that true? Tell me: What opinion on the subject of guns has been declared verboten in the current American debate, never to pass the lips of a conservative lest he be banished from the media forever?

… Despite what conservatives say, no one is going to criticize them when they disagree with the Parkland students on any substantive matter. If Rich Lowry argues that the students are wrong and goes on to explain why the minimum age to buy a rifle should remain at 18, no one will respond, “How dare you disagree with those lovely teenagers?”

No, what conservatives are really mad about is that the tactic of demonizing those they disagree with … has, in this case, been taken away from them.

Just politics. It’s tempting to say that this kind of thing is “just politics”. Politics, after all, “ain’t beanbag“. As soon as you step into the arena, you’re fair game.

But revictimizing victims is a strangely one-sided kind of politics. Did the 2008 Democratic Convention make fun of John McCain’s years as a POW? In fact, nobody did that until Trump.

Kate Steinle’s death and the murder trial of her shooter became a focus for anti-immigrant anger. A bill to deny federal grants to sanctuary cities became known as “Kate’s Law“. And yet, I can’t recall a single conspiracy theory about her. No one Trayvoned her, or went after her family for wanting her death to lead to political change. Not trusting my memory, I just googled “Kate Steinle smear” and “Kate Steinle conspiracy theory”. I found nothing. The Wikipedia section on the reactions to her shooting is all about policy, not about bizarre attempts to claim she had it coming, or is still alive somewhere, or maybe never existed in the first place.

Victims-of-immigrant-crime is in fact a whole genre in conservative media. I’ve never heard anyone argue that those victims (or their families) are crisis actors. We argue the statistics of immigrant crime, and question the appropriateness of the remedies conservatives propose. But we leave the victims alone.

So what’s the difference? Why is attacking victims such an important part of conservative rhetoric that when it’s taken away (by victims who are simultaneously too sympathetic and too skilled), they feel that they’re being silenced?

It’s simple: At its root, conservative policy is about giving the powerful even more power. So, by its nature, conservatism is constantly producing victims: When guns are everywhere, people get shot. When you take away health insurance, people die. When you rev up deportations, families get ripped apart. When you restrict food stamps, people go hungry. When you defund food inspectors, people get food poisoning. When you stop policing polluters, people get cancer.

Real people. Innocent people who are just trying to live their lives. People you would sympathize with if you met them.

To be a conservative at all, you have to live in denial of all this: There are no victims. Cuts in government spending don’t impact real people, they just prevent more money from swirling down a drain somewhere. There are no transgender soldiers who just want to serve their country. There are no committed same-sex couples who just want to get married like everybody else. There are no young black men getting shot by police for no reason.

When you deny something, and then somebody tries to make you see it, you get angry. That’s how people are: I was happy in my denial, and then these victims came along and screwed everything up for me. How dare they!

When people get angry, they want to strike back. They want to make the victims go away, or at least to make them stop showing up on TV where they’re hard to ignore.

The basic pattern — denial leads to anger leads to striking back at victims — is human. You can find examples of it across the political spectrum. But denial is much more central to conservatism than to liberalism. So victim-bashing has to be at the center of nearly every issue. When that rhetorical tool is taken away, or made counterproductive, they feel disarmed.


[1] This is bogus in numerous ways. First, Cuba’s gun control isn’t particularly oppressive. There are about 4.8 privately owned guns in Cuba for every 100 residents — not as many as in “free” countries like the U.S. (101) or Yemen (54.8), but more than in such despotic nations as Ireland (4.3) and the Netherlands (3.9). Second, the Cuban flag predates Castro, and is flown or worn by many Cuban Americans. And finally, King is making up special rules for Hispanics that no one applies to Europeans. When I raise a stein for Oktoberfest, nobody shames me for not speaking German.

The Return of the Chicken Hawks

When Donald Trump started staffing his administration, many of us worried about the number of generals he put in high positions: Michael Flynn, John Kelly, Jim Mattis. Chief Strategist Steve Bannon had never made it to general, but his seven years as an officer in the Navy was a key part of his self-image. So many of the other members of the administration were lightweights who had little-to-no knowledge or experience relevant to their jobs: Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, Jared Kushner, Ivanka, and Trump himself. It seemed obvious that in a crisis, everybody would be looking for the generals to tell them what to do.

In a country founded on civilian control of the military, pundits wondered, wasn’t that dangerous?

Subsequently, Flynn was fired and replaced by another general, H.R. McMaster. Bannon left. John Kelly moved up from Secretary of Homeland Security to Chief of Staff. When the press referred to “the grown-ups” in the Trump administration, they meant the generals, plus a few other people like Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn.

In the latest reshuffle, Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, another lightweight without any real credentials relevant to his job. (He played an economist on TV, but really isn’t one.) Tillerson is gone, replaced by Mike Pompeo. McMaster has been replaced by John Bolton. Kelly’s (always limited) ability to control Trump is fading, and his job either is or isn’t secure, depending on the hour and who you talk to.

In short, the Day of the General seems to be waning, and we are being reminded that there are people more dangerous than generals: chicken hawks.

What is a chicken hawk? A chicken hawk is somebody full of warlike rhetoric who somehow never gets around to experiencing war first-hand. [1] His (they’re not all men, but great majority are) lack of experience doesn’t make him cautious, it insulates his thinking against consequences. He sees the uses of war and dreams of being a Churchill who maneuvers forces on a global scale, but has never understood the real costs of war. He has never learned that a mistake that starts a war is the worst kind of mistake a statesman can make.

At The Week, Joel Mathis points out the danger of having a chicken-hawk president:

The problem with Trump’s pugnaciousness? He’s never had to face consequences for it. There have always been bone spurs, or security guys, or the fact that professional wrestling isn’t real. As far as we know, he’s never started a fight and gotten his nose bloodied for the trouble. Anybody who has experienced that lesson never forgets it. It’s best not learned on the international stage.

A general is a priest of War who has seen what can happen when he calls down the wrath of his god. A chicken hawk has heard glory-filled stories of that god, watched the priests with envy, and longs to unleash that kind of power.

Bush era chicken hawks. The George W. Bush administration was full of chicken hawks, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney, who engineered the Iraq War after artfully maneuvering to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era. (As he told a reporter, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”) Other notable Iraq War hawks — Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith — were also blissfully devoid of military experience. (As Colin Powell’s top assistant Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson put it: “None of these guys ever heard a bullet go by their ears in combat.“)

Some of the loudest Iraq War hawks outside the Bush administration were similarly uninterested in actual fighting, like Bill Kristol, and any number of gung-ho College Republicans who were of the right age to volunteer for the Iraq War, but chose to leave that honor to someone else. (It’s debatable whether Iraq-invasion-promoting columnist Thomas Friedman qualified as a chicken hawk. He never served in the military, but he probably did hear bullets whiz past his ear when he was reporting in Beirut.)

Bush himself avoided Vietnam by somehow getting a coveted spot in a National Guard unit that was never called up (and maybe, depending on who you believe, he just stopped showing up at some point). His military experience was zipping through the clear skies of Texas in a supersonic fighter jet, and he relived that excitement by landing on the USS Lincoln near San Diego so that he could give his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech declaring victory in Iraq.

By contrast, the top general in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, while consistently loyal to administration policy, was not so eager to invade. He was the one who coined what he called the Pottery Barn Rule: “If you break it, you own it.” He also was subsequently more open than most Bush officials about what went wrong and what might be learned from it. Colonel Wilkerson became a critic of the war.

The once and future chicken hawk. Like George W. Bush, John Bolton used the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, a war he supported. Wikipedia fleshes out his subsequent account of his decision:

He wrote in his Yale 25th reunion book “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” In an interview, Bolton discussed his comment in the reunion book, explaining that he decided to avoid service in Vietnam because “by the time I was about to graduate in 1970, it was clear to me that opponents of the Vietnam War had made it certain we could not prevail, and that I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from.”

But his turning away from personally serving in Vietnam was not part of a more general turning away from war. Bolton was not just part of the crew that maneuvered the country into the Iraq War, he also worked to expand that war.  In “The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War with Iran“, The American Conservative charges:

Bolton’s high-profile advocacy of war with Iran is well known. What is not at all well known is that, when he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security, he executed a complex and devious strategy aimed at creating the justification for a U.S. attack on Iran. Bolton sought to convict the Islamic Republic in the court of international public opinion of having a covert nuclear weapons program using a combination of diplomatic pressure, crude propaganda, and fabricated evidence.

Despite the fact that Bolton was technically under the supervision of Secretary of State Colin Powell, his actual boss in devising and carrying out that strategy was Vice President Dick Cheney.

Most of the other Iraq War chicken hawks are in history’s trash can by now. Whether they learned anything from that blunder or not, no one is listening to them any more. But Bolton has now returned to influence, emphatically has not learned a lesson, and does not even admit that invading Iraq was a mistake.

Preventive War. The Iraq War was premised not just on manufactured reports about Saddam’s weaponry, but also on a doctrine of preventive war: If we think a country is developing a threat to us, we should attack it before that threat materializes. [2] Bolton still believes that doctrine. Here’s what he wrote in the WSJ at the end of February:

It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.

In other words, North Korea is developing weapons that could strike us, so we should treat that as if it were a plan to strike us, and strike them first. Our strike could result in a retaliatory nuclear strike against Seoul or Tokyo, or just a devastating bombardment of Seoul (a city of 25 million) by conventional artillery. But hey, collateral damage. It’s better that cities of our Asian allies get destroyed than our own cities.

In 2015, he advocated a preventive strike against Iran, and scoffed at the possibility of resolving the nuclear issue peacefully.

The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.

When Obama got the deal Bolton said was impossible, Bolton denounced it, and has urged Trump to pull out of it. That, of course, takes us back to Square One with regard to Iran’s nuclear program: Either we accept the reality of Iran getting nuclear weapons (as President Bush did with North Korea) or we attack them.

In The Daily Beast, Mark Leon Goldberg characterizes Bolton’s tenure as UN Ambassador in 2005-2006:

The memoir he wrote of his experience at the UN was titled “Surrender is Not an Option.” But Bolton’s time at the UN suggests that, to him, the natural give and take of diplomacy is akin to “surrender” and must be avoided at all costs. Understanding how he performed his job at the UN gives us big clues as to how he might approach the job as National Security Advisor to which he has just been named.

At the United Nations, Bolton demonstrated a profoundly zero-sum view of international relations. Other countries’ gains — no matter how insignificant —  were ipso-facto America’s losses.

In other words, he will reinforce one of Trump’s greatest weaknesses: his inability to see the win/win nature of good diplomacy.

Leading the chorus for war with Iran. As National Security Advisor, Bolton will not have any planes or troops under his direct command. Nor will he have a staff capable of generating attack plans without cooperation from the Pentagon. He chairs the National Security Council; his job is to consolidate the advice of the military, foreign policy, and intelligence establishments and package it for the President. His power rests entirely in his ability to influence the President’s decisions.

That job is particularly important when the President has no expertise or experience of his own. (Dwight Eisenhower, who had already managed half of a global war before he became president, changed NSAs almost every year. It didn’t make a huge difference.) As a tough-talking chicken hawk himself, Trump needs to be surrounded by people who understand the reality of war. Initially, he was, but that is becoming less and less true.

With the possibility of a Trump/Kim summit meeting — I’m still not convinced that’s really going to happen — North Korea is the challenge most people are focused on right now. But another deadline on Iran is also looming: U.S. sanctions on Iran were not repealed after the 2015 agreement; instead (according to the Corker-Cardin law) the President must waive them every 90 days. The current waiver runs out on May 12. If the sanctions on Iran are resumed, the deal that stopped Iran’s march to nuclear weapons will start to unravel.

Trump didn’t want to issue the previous waivers, but he let Tillerson and McMaster push him into doing so. Back in January, he warned that he wanted major changes in the agreement, which during the campaign he had called “one of the most incompetently drawn deals I’ve ever seen“. So far, these demands have led to no additional concessions from the Iranians. [3]

This time around, Tillerson and McMaster are gone. Like Bolton, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an Iran hawk. So is UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. [4] Along with Trump’s own inclinations, this chorus virtually guarantees that the next waiver will not be granted, sanctions will be reimposed, and Iran stop complying with the nuclear deal.

The next question is: What then? During the campaign, Trump’s “America First” slogan seemed to point away from foreign adventurism. [5] He was almost unique among Republican presidential candidates in clearly declaring the Iraq War a mistake. [6] But with no brakes on Iran’s nuclear program, and with Bolton leading the chorus of Pompeo and Haley, war with Iran will be a constantly available option, waiting for the moment when Trump is in a war-making mood.


[1] It’s worth pointing out that I also have never served in the military, observed combat, or even been shot at in civilian life. But I am also cautious about committing someone else to fight on my behalf. When military people tell me that war is hell, and that the outcome is never as predictable as you think, I believe them.

[2] There’s an important distinction between preventive war and preemptive war. Both are examples of striking first, but a preemptive war is much less controversial than a preventive one, because it makes fewer assumptions about an enemy’s intentions. A preemptive strike disrupts a specific imminent attack, while a preventive strike intends to eliminate the possibility that an enemy might eventually attack at some indefinite time and place.

An example helps here: If the U.S. had struck the Japanese fleet just as it got within range of Pearl Harbor, that would have been preemptive: A specific attack was in the works, and our attack would have disrupted theirs. But the Japanese attack itself was preventive. At the time the U.S. had no specific plan to attack Japan. But the Japanese anticipated that the U.S. would eventually go to war to stop Japanese expansion, so they crippled the fleet that would spearhead that war.

When you start a preventive war, you turn your back on the possibility that the attack you claim to be preventing could have been averted in some peaceful way. A key example there is the Cold War: Various American military figures in the 1950s and 60s advocated for a preventive nuclear strike against the USSR. But we didn’t strike that preventive blow, and the nuclear war those men were anticipating never happened anyway.

[3] That’s typical. Trump dislikes all our international agreements and believes he can negotiate better ones, but so far he has not produced any significant new deals. (Wait: Something with South Korea was announced this morning.)

[4] Experts seem to agree that Iran is fulfilling its end of the agreement, so Haley has been moving the goalposts.

The question of Iranian compliance is not as straightforward as many people believe. It’s not just about the technical terms of the nuclear agreement. It requires a much more thorough look.

[5] In an address to Congress a little over a year ago, he implicitly criticized the expense of the Iraq War: “America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this six trillion dollars we could have rebuilt our country –- twice.”

[6] He considered it such a mistake that he had to rewrite history to portray himself as a war critic from the beginning.

Who are those guys?

a guide to the new faces in the Trump administration


Watching the White House and the major executive departments of government may be making you feel like Dorothy in a perverse version of Oz: “People come and go so quickly here!”

To a certain extent, it’s been that way from the beginning. On the way to the White House, Trump went through three campaign chairmen (Cory Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon). Chris Christie was supposed to organize the transition, but Mike Pence replaced him only a week after the election. Mike Flynn was already out as National Security Adviser after 23 days.

From that unsettled opening, things never really calmed down. Who can forget, for example, the 10-day reign of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director last July? Rivalries that seemed likely to define the entire Trump administration (Steve Bannon vs. Reince Preibus) are already ancient history.

Recently, though, the churn seems to have speeded up, for a variety of reasons: Rob Porter and David Sorensen left in the middle of domestic abuse scandals. John McEntee was escorted out of the building due to “serious financial crimes” that seem to involve gambling. Nobody has a really good explanation of why Hope Hicks quit, though it’s an interesting coincidence that she refused to answer questions before the House Intelligence Committee the day before her resignation was announced.

We know why Gary Cohn left as Director of the National Economic Council: He had already gotten the tax cut he wanted, and he couldn’t defend Trump’s tariffs. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired via Twitter, for a variety of reasons that probably boiled down to being insufficiently deferential to the Moron in Chief. (Just before he was fired, Tillerson criticized Russia for the poisoning of former double-agent Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. It would be ironic if that were a cause, because Tillerson had been criticized for being too sympathetic to Russia, and is even rumored to have gotten his job because the Russians didn’t want Mitt Romney to have it.)

Beyond that, rumors abound: McMaster is about to go, or practically everybody in the cabinet. But one of the things you learn in Fire and Fury is that from Day 1 Trump has constantly talked about firing people, many of whom are still in their jobs (like Jeff Sessions). So a reporter might have numerous well-placed sources saying Trump is talking about firing McMaster, and it might or might not mean anything.

So anyway, who are the new people? And why do I believe they’ll be even worse than the people they replace?

Larry Kudlow, Chief Economic Adviser. This job usually goes to somebody with a Ph.D. in economics and a resume full of articles in econ journals. Kudlow has none of that: He’s predominantly a media personality. His selection follows a pattern of Trump hiring people he’s seen on TV, whether they have any qualifications or not. (It would barely surprise me to hear that Hugh Laurie was going to be Surgeon General.)

Kudow got a BA in history and studied economics and politics at Princeton without finishing his masters. He worked in politics in the 1970s (for Democrats, oddly enough), then found the supply-side economics religion and worked for the Fed and OMB during the Reagan administration. Bear Stearns hired him to be its chief economist in 1987 (so they must have thought he knew something).

He shifted to media in 2001, and by 2001 he was on CNBC (NBC’s business network), co-hosting with Jim Cramer. Cramer split off to start a stock-picking show Mad Money, and Kudlow and Cramer eventually morphed into The Kudlow Report, where he continued to pontificate until Trump tapped him. Ezra Klein comments:

Larry Kudlow, in other words, is a reasonable answer to the question, “How can Trump get more favorable coverage for his economic agenda on cable news?” And to Trump, that may indeed be the central question.

As for his economic philosophy, there are two thing to know about him: He’s for tax cuts in any and all situations, and (like Gary Cohn and unlike Trump) he’s a free-trader who opposed Trump’s tariffs, at least before he took a job at the White House.

The other thing to know is more epistemological: He doesn’t belong to reality-based community. Anything good that happens in the economy is due to tax cuts and free trade (even those actions happened years ago and have been reversed since), and anything bad that happens is due to tax increases and trade restrictions. Those conclusions are pre-ordained and impervious to evidence.

Like many TV pundits, he has made a career out of being very consistently wrong, something you can’t usually get away with on Wall Street. It’s almost impossible to assemble such a consisten record of bad predictions by chance. To be so reliably wrong, you need to base your predictions on a theory that is not just irrelevant to reality, but actively opposed to it, like supply-side economics.

Jonathan Chait’s sums up in “Trump’s New Economic Adviser Lawrence Kudlow Has Been Wrong About Everything for Decades“. The true highlight is from a column Kudlow wrote for National Review in December, 2007: “The Bush Boom Continues“.

There is no recession. Despite all the doom and gloom from the economic pessimistas, the resilient U.S economy continues moving ahead, quarter after quarter, year after year, defying dire forecasts and delivering positive growth. … The Bush boom is alive and well. It’s finishing up its sixth consecutive year with more to come.

Mortgage refinancings were “soaring”, he reported, finding that to be “a very positive, very welcome development”. In fact, the housing bubble had already started to pop months before, and his old firm, Bear Stearns, was four months from bankruptcy. That September, the Lehmann Brothers bankruptcy cascaded through the banking system, triggering the biggest crisis since the Great Depression.

Kudlow is also implicated in the Brownback tax cuts in Kansas, which have devastated that state’s finances and resulted in major cutbacks in schools and roads.

Anyone who has watched Kudlow’s show knows that he talks down to people, and Trump can’t stand to be talked down to, no matter how ignorant he may be on a subject. So unless Kudlow has some one-on-one mode I haven’t seen on TV, I don’t expect him to last long.

Mike Pompeo, moving from CIA Director to Secretary of State. Pompeo isn’t really a new face, but he’s in a new role. He was a congressman from Kansas until Trump made him CIA Director. He served as an Army captain in the Gulf War before getting a law degree. He ran an aerospace company in Wichita, and was a business associate of the Koch brothers. He entered Congress as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave, again with major support from the Kochs.

His known positions relevant to foreign policy include being strongly anti-Muslim, opposing the Iran nuclear deal, supporting the prison at Guantanamo, and denying the scientific evidence on climate change. His position on Russia is a little harder to suss out, but it seems consistent with the House Intelligence Committee: Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, but he doesn’t connect that to Trump. The Russians have been trying to undermine our elections “for decades”, and don’t seem to stand out from other nations. He is concerned “about others’ efforts as well. We have many foes who want to undermine Western democracy.”

Given his ties to virulent Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney, Pompeo will help Trump connect to parts of his base that are too extreme for even Trump to reach out to directly. But I wonder how the Saudis will react to him.

Gina Haspel, CIA Director. Haspel is a career CIA insider, which can be read as either good or bad news. She may be implicated in past CIA sins, and may even be a war criminal. On the other hand, as part of the so-called “Deep State”, she is unlikely to give in to White House pressure to use the CIA politically.

The big issue with Haspel is torture, though part of the initial concern about that seems to be overblown. Pro Publica withdrew some of the most damning claims made about her.

The story said that Haspel, a career CIA officer who President Trump has nominated to be the next director of central intelligence, oversaw the clandestine base where [suspected Al Qaeda leader Abu] Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods that are widely seen as torture. The story also said she mocked the prisoner’s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them. It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.

Still at issue is whether Haspel played a role in the decision to destroy the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding, which was illegal. Pro Publica stands by that part of its story.

ProPublica reiterated that after she rose to a new position in the CIA, Haspel urged the agency to destroy 92 videotapes that had documented Zubaydah’s treatment, including dozens of waterboardings and other techniques widely viewed as torture. Those tapes were eventually shredded.

But NPR quotes James Mitchell, who worked with Haspel, saying:

“Gina did not pressure Jose Rodriguez to destroy those tapes.” Mitchell says Rodriguez made that decision on his own, as the CIA’s director of clandestine operations. By that time, Haspel had risen to become his chief of staff.

However, she may have been involved in another torture case. The New York Times reports:

Ms. Haspel arrived to run the prison in late October 2002, after the harsh interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah, a former senior C.I.A. official said. In mid-November, another Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri arrived. Mr. Nashiri, accused of bombing the U.S.S. Cole, was the man who was waterboarded three times.

The real problem in all these cases is that we just don’t know what she did. Pro Publica quotes CIA spokesman Dean Boyd:

“It is important to note that she has spent nearly her entire CIA career undercover,” Boyd said. “Much of what is in the public domain about her is inaccurate.”

Some of that uncertainty may be resolved in public hearings the Senate will hold before voting on her nomination, but some it undoubtedly will remain classified: Senators will vote on her nomination and claim that they have good reasons for the position they take, but the public won’t be able to judge.

The Conor Lamb Victory: lessons for Democrats

A recount is probably still coming, but it sure looks like Democrat Conor Lamb won a narrow victory in a Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump carried by 19% in 2016, and where Democrats had not even fielded a candidate in 2014 and 2016.

The victory kept alive the expectation of a Democratic wave in this fall’s nationwide elections. Cook Political Report says:

there are 118 Republican-held districts less friendly to the GOP than PA’s 18th CD (R+11), including 17 where the GOP incumbent isn’t running in the fall and an additional vacancy in Ohio’s 12th CD that will be settled by an August 7 special election that could become problematic for Republicans.

Democrats need to flip only 24 seats to gain control of the House. Cook says “of course not” to the theory that Dems could gain 118 seats. (As with Doug Jones in Alabama, part of the victory is due to Democrats just running a better candidate. That won’t happen everywhere.) But their analysis of the entire run of special elections indicates that Democrats are running 9 points (not 11) better than previous results would lead you to expect. If that holds up, it still gives them a huge win in November.

The battle to interpret the race began almost immediately. Republicans, who previously had described Lamb as “far left“, claimed that Lamb had won by looking like a Republican: He criticized Nancy Pelosi, didn’t rail at Trump, didn’t back gun control, supported Trump’s tariffs, and said that his personal beliefs were pro-life. This was a fairly bogus argument, though: Lamb ran against Trump’s tax cut, which was the only major piece of legislation Republicans passed this year; on abortion he says “we defend the law as it is“; the NRA spent money to defeat him; he wants to fix ObamaCare rather than repeal it; and he was more aggressively pro-union than most Democratic candidates.

Progressive and centrist Democrats both began spinning the race as well. Centrists are arguing that Democrats should nominate moderate candidates who can appeal to Republicans fed up with Trump. Progressives are arguing that Lamb’s victory depended on getting a high turnout from the Democratic base, so Democrats need to stand for policies that will energize that base.

It would be nice to have exit polls to help us sort these claims out, but there weren’t any. So both the convince-swing-voters and the turn-out-the-base theories are plausible. We don’t know for sure whether Trump voters changed their minds and voted Democratic, or Clinton voters (or even some who thought Clinton wasn’t liberal enough to vote for) came out to vote while Trump voters stayed home.

In some sense it doesn’t matter, because Lamb’s policy choices play well under both theories: Maybe he got votes from moderate Republicans (like college educated women in Pittsburgh suburbs). Or maybe marginal Republican voters stayed home because Lamb wasn’t scary enough to motivate them to vote against him.

My take on all this shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read what I wrote about Alaska last month and Montana last week: Democrats should run candidates who match their districts. I’m against nationalizing the election around a progressive agenda, like Medicare-for-all or impeachment or banning assault rifles or a $15 minimum wage. But I’m for candidates running against the Democratic establishment in places where the Democratic establishment is unpopular, and I think we need to challenge Democrats who are more conservative than their voters. Just because I like a Conor Lamb in PA-18 doesn’t mean I oppose a progressive challenge to Diane Feinstein. California is a different electorate.

As for what the Democratic Party should stand for, I think it should stand for principles rather than specific pieces of legislation. (OurFuture.org derides this approach as “a list of desirable goals, rather than explicit pledges”. Yes, that’s exactly what I want from the national party. Let local candidates craft their own explicit pledges.) Here’s what I mean: We want more and more people to have health insurance, with universal coverage as the ultimate goal. We want to shift the tax burden back towards the rich and corporations. We want to protect the safety net, fight climate change, invest in education, welcome immigrants and refugees, make our guns laws less crazy, keep government out of Americans’ sexual and reproductive decisions, protect minority rights, and end mass incarceration.

That’s far from “not standing for anything”, and it makes a stark contrast with Republicans, but it also gives local candidates room to adapt to their voters. It makes room for Bernie-ish candidates in liberal districts, but also for candidates like Conor Lamb and Doug Jones. Candidates in Chicago or San Francisco can run on Medicare for All, while candidates in Alabama or rural Pennsylvania can defend Medicaid and ObamaCare.

Beyond that, I draw some more tactical lessons:

  • Democrats in districts that Trump carried don’t have to run against Trump, because Trump is already on everybody’s mind anyway. Anti-Trump resistance voters are going to come out and vote, whether you whip them up or not. Meanwhile, some Trump voters might stay home if you don’t insult or goad them. Best of all is when Trump himself makes the race about Trump, as he did in PA-18: The Democrat focuses on local lunch-pail issues, while Trump talks about himself.
  • The racist/populist vote is probably lost to Democrats (and good riddance), but there’s also a non-racist/populist vote they can get. Lamb’s optics helped him there: He’s a young fresh face who represents you, not an ideology or his party’s establishment.
  • Not everybody needs to have been a captain in the Marines, but new candidates need a non-political backstory. They shouldn’t be poli-sci majors whose resume is a series of congressional-staff jobs.
  • Unions may be a fading force in American politics, but there are places where they still matter. In the same way that Republicans can’t really run away from Trump, I don’t think Democrats can run away from unions. The anti-union vote is going to go against you anyway, so you might as well give pro-union voters some reason to support you.