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Chief Justice Roberts OKs Minority Rule

If you’re a Republican, the demographic trends look bleak: Each cycle, your party’s core voters (white Evangelicals) become a smaller portion of the overall electorate. Worse, your positions on social issues (like gay rights) are turning off young voters, even if they’re straight and white, and your leaders target the fastest growing demographic (Hispanics) with vitriol almost every day.

You could try to change all that by shifting your positions. That’s what an RNC report recommended after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss. But the party decided to go another way: Figure out ways to stay in power with fewer votes.

Minority rule. In certain ways, the US system already favors a Republican minority: Small red states like Wyoming or the Dakotas have just as many senators as liberal California, and the Electoral College tilts towards small states. But that natural advantage can be expanded: Voter suppression in Georgia allowed Republicans to keep the governorship there. And, of course, unlimited campaign spending helps Republican candidates win elections they otherwise might not.

But the real pillar of minority rule is gerrymandering. If you draw the districts properly, you can remain in power even if most voters are against you. And if you’re in a state where you have a small majority of voters, you can get a supermajority of seats in the legislature, allowing you to twist the system to your advantage in all sorts of ways.

Take Virginia for example. In 2017, Democrats overwhelmingly won the popular vote in House of Delegate elections, 53%-44%. All the seats were up for election, so you’d think they’d get control, wouldn’t you?

Such a quaint notion! In fact, Virginia delegate districts are gerrymandered all to hell, with the result that Republicans stayed in power: 51 seats to the Democrats’ 49. Apparently, Democrats would have to win by at least double digits to break the Republican dominance.

Same thing in Michigan. In the 2018 elections for the Michigan House, Democrats won the popular vote 52%-47%, but Republicans kept a six-seat majority, 58-52.

On the other hand, you have North Carolina. In 2016, Republicans won the popular vote in the NC House elections, 52%-47%, similar to the Democrats’ Michigan margin in 2018. But with a different result: Republicans got an overwhelming 74-46 majority of the seats. The Republican legislative supermajority was what allowed it to change the rules when a Democrat won the governorship. Maybe the voters still can give statewide offices to Democrats, but gerrymandering lets the legislature strip power away from those offices once Democrats win them.

That’s the essence of gerrymandering today: You don’t really need a majority of voters to keep power, and even a small majority will give you a constitution-amending supermajority, along with the ability to override the vetoes of any governor that the voters manage to elect over your opposition.

Best of all, it’s self-reinforcing: If the other party can’t break your hold on the legislature, then you get to improve your gerrymander every time there’s a new census!

The minority-rule Supreme Court. The Republican minority-rule majority in the Senate allowed Mitch McConnell to block President Obama’s last nominee to the Supreme Court, and to hold the seat open until President Trump (elected with only 46% of the vote) could fill it, as well as name a second justice after Antonin Scalia died. So the Court has a 5-4 conservative majority rather than the 6-3 liberal majority it would have if American voters had actually gotten their way.

So when a gerrymandering case came to the Court this term, it gave the five conservative judges a moral challenge: Defend democracy, or defend the partisan minority that appointed you?

None of them rose to that challenge.

The case. Ostensibly, the case was non-partisan, because it paired a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina with a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland. Both concerned districts for the federal House of Representatives.

But in the larger context the case was very partisan, because nationwide, the Republican Party has embraced gerrymandering whole-heartedly, while Democrats have hung back. When Democrats took over the House of Representatives in January, the first thing it passed was H.R. 1, which banned gerrymandering of congressional districts. (It’s not clear whether Congress has any power over gerrymandering of state elections.) But of course, that bill has never come up for a vote in Mitch McConnell’s minority-rule Senate.

John Roberts’ opinion. There was never any doubt that Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh would take a partisan Republican position. The question mark was Chief Justice Roberts, who ended up writing the majority opinion.

The gist of his opinion is that while of course he personally finds partisan gerrymandering to be a despicable practice, he can only wring his hands, because the law does not allow him to do anything to stop it.

Chief Justice Marshall famously wrote that it is “the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Sometimes, however, “the law is that the judicial department has no business entertaining the claim of unlawfulness—because the question is entrusted to one of the political branches or involves no judicially enforceable rights.” In such a case the claim is said to present a “political question” and to be nonjusticiable—outside the courts’ competence and therefore beyond the courts’ jurisdiction. Among the political question cases the Court has identified are those that lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” …

We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.

The picture he paints is that if the Court interfered at all, then it would be forced to come up with its own answers to questions that ought to be decided by the political branches of government: How should districts be designed? What does it mean for an election to have a “fair” outcome? And so on.

He points out that gerrymandering happened in the era of the Founders, and that their solution to it was to balance state legislatures’ decisions against the check of the federal Congress, not the courts. He points out all the ways that political forces inside the states might defeat gerrymandering without court intervention:

Indeed, numerous other States are restricting partisan considerations in districting through legislation. One way they are doing so is by placing power to draw electoral districts in the hands of independent commissions. For example, in November 2018, voters in Colorado and Michigan approved constitutional amendments creating multimember commissions that will be responsible in whole or in part for creating and approving district maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Missouri is trying a different tack. Voters there overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new position—state demographer—to draw state legislative district lines.

Kagan’s dissent. Justice Elena Kagan acknowledges Roberts’ points, and gives a “close, but no cigar” response to each.

Yes, the Founders knew about gerrymandering, the same way that they knew about firearms. (My analogy, not hers.) But the modern version is a different animal entirely.

Yes, partisan gerrymandering goes back to the Republic’s earliest days. (As does vociferous opposition to it.) But big data and modern technology—of just the kind that the mapmakers in North Carolina and Maryland used—make today’s gerrymandering altogether different from the crude linedrawing of the past. Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses,sometimes led to so-called dummymanders—gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world.

And the thing Roberts said was impossible — judging that the gerrymanders in question were unacceptable without imposing your own vision of fair design and fair outcomes — was exactly what the lower courts had done.

The approach—which also has recently been used in Michigan and Ohio litigation—begins by using advanced computing technology to randomly generate a large collection of districting plans that incorporate the State’s physical and political geography and meet its declared districting criteria, except for partisan gain. For each of those maps, the method then uses actual precinct-level votes from past elections to determine a partisan outcome (i.e., the number of Democratic and Republican seats that map produces). Suppose we now have 1,000 maps, each with a partisan outcome attached to it. We can line up those maps on a continuum—the most favorable to Republicans on one end, the most favorable to Democrats on the other. We can then find the median outcome—that is, the outcome smack dab in the center—in a world with no partisan manipulation. And we can see where the State’s actual plan falls on the spectrum—at or near the median or way out on one of the tails? The further out on the tail, the more extreme the partisan distortion and the more significant the vote dilution.

The North Carolina plaintiffs randomly produced 3,000 districting maps that meet the legal criteria. All of them were more favorable to Democrats than the one the legislature adopted.

Under [the lower courts’] approach, in other words, the State selected its own fairness baseline in the form of its other districting criteria. All the courts did was determine how far the State had gone off that track because of its politicians’ effort to entrench themselves in office. …

The plaintiffs asked only that the courts bar politicians from entrenching themselves in power by diluting the votes of their rivals’ supporters. And the courts, using neutral and manageable—and eminently legal—standards, provided that (and only that) relief. This Court should have cheered, not overturned, that restoration of the people’s power to vote.

And finally, Kagan examined Roberts’ faith that the political system would fix this problem on its own.

The majority disagrees, concluding its opinion with a paean to congressional bills limiting partisan gerrymanders. “Dozens of [those] bills have been introduced,” the majority says. One was “introduced in 2005 and has been reintroduced in every Congress since.” And might be reintroduced until the end of time. Because what all these bills have in common is that they are not laws. The politicians who benefit from partisan gerrymandering are unlikely to change partisan gerrymandering. And because those politicians maintain themselves in office through partisan gerrymandering, the chances for legislative reform are slight.

No worries, the majority says; it has another idea. The majority notes that voters themselves have recently approved ballot initiatives to put power over districting in the hands of independent commissions or other non-partisan actors. Some Members of the majority, of course, once thought such initiatives unconstitutional. But put that aside. Fewer than half the States offer voters an opportunity to put initiatives to direct vote; in all the rest (including North Carolina and Maryland), voters are dependent on legislators to make electoral changes (which for all the reasons already given, they are unlikely to do). And even when voters have a mechanism they can work themselves, legislators often fight their efforts tooth and nail. Look at Missouri. There, the majority touts a voter-approved proposal to turn districting over to a state demographer. But before the demographer had drawn a single line, Members of the state legislature had introduced a bill to start undoing the change. I’d put better odds on that bill’s passage than on all the congressional proposals the majority cites.

She concludes:

Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.

Potemkin democracy. My interpretation of these opinions is that Roberts (and the minority-rule court majority he leads) has no interest in actual democracy, just Potemkin democracy. As long as we have “elections” in which people vote and votes are tabulated, he’s satisfied. If the system has been rigged so that the same people win all the time, well, that’s just politics. And the Roberts Court is above politics.

What I think we should never lose sight of is how all these minority-rule actions build on each other, and then wrap around to cycle through again. A minority-rule Senate and a minority-rule President have given us a minority-rule Court. The Court now is returning the favor, helping the ever-shrinking conservative minority to maintain its hold on power into the indefinite future.

What I Learned from the Debates

This week, 20 Democratic presidential candidates participated in nationally televised debates in Miami: ten on Wednesday and ten on Thursday. In all, the candidates were on stage for four hours. Watch/read for yourself: Night 1 video, Night 1 transcript, Night 2 video, Night 2 transcript.

The Democratic Party was the real winner. Ratings were excellent. With occasional exceptions, the candidates were all well-spoken and their remarks had substance [1], though they did talk over each other too much on Thursday. They also all stayed within shouting distance of the truth. The AP fact-checking column on the first night sounds like quibbling: Beto O’Rourke, for example, said the Trump tax cut will cost $2 trillion, when the official estimate is only $1.5 trillion. The checker admitted that the debate featured “a smattering of missteps … but no whoppers”. CNN’s fact-check of the second night covered just about all the claims that sounded suspicious; a great many of them produced the comment “This is true.”

By contrast, any five minutes of a Trump speech will include several whoppers.

Some pundits criticized the candidates for not going after Trump more (especially on the first night), but I liked that. Trump tries to paint Democrats as just Trump-haters, rather than as thoughtful people with a different (i.e. morally defensible) vision of what America is and where it should go. The first round of debates didn’t fit inside that frame. Trump tweeted “BORING!” during the first night, probably because the conversation was about America rather than about him.

What I was looking for. Pollsters like to raise the question: “Which is more important, finding a candidate who agrees with you or one who can beat Trump?” To me, at this point, that seems like a false choice, because we don’t know who can beat Trump yet.

The conventional wisdom says that Trump has abandoned a lot of traditional Republican values, so there should be a large bucket of moderate Republican and Independent voters who Democrats could flip with the right candidate and policies. (David Brooks claims to be one.) The 2018 results seemed to confirm that, as moderate Democratic candidates flipped House seats in a lot of suburban districts. (538 calls these the Romney/Clinton districts.) Presumably they got votes from educated professionals (often women) who used to consider themselves Republicans.

On the other hand, consider this point Pete Buttigieg made to CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday:

If we were sitting here in 2007 saying let’s find somebody so electable, so palatable, so easy for swing voters to get comfortable with that he can carry Indiana for Democrats. I’m not sure people would have said Obama.

But Obama did carry Indiana, which Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton never managed to do. So I think it’s easy to imagine that we know more than we actually do about how 2020 will play out. People will tell you that Democrats are surrendering Ohio or Iowa or somesuch state if they nominate a progressive like Warren or a non-white like Harris or Castro. But who really knows?

There are polls, of course. One recent poll had Biden beating Trump by 13 points, Sanders winning by 9, Harris 8, Warren 7, and Buttigieg 5. But all that could change really fast. (Just a month before the election, Hillary was ahead of Trump by 14 points in one head-to-head poll.) Most Americans have never thought seriously about a Buttigieg/Trump or Harris/Trump match-up, so why should we believe that the opinions they express now mean anything?

That’s why I watched the debates thinking about more than just who I agree with. I was also trying to figure out who is good at this game. Who can handle the back-and-forth of debating? Which candidates can make people listen to them and take them seriously? Who has a vision that, if people do listen to it, they’ll find compelling?

Nothing in Obama’s 2007 resume picked him out as the guy who could carry Indiana or come within a whisker of taking North Carolina. But if you saw him speak to a crowd or debate his rivals, it was obvious that he could play this game.

What the candidates needed to do. Going into the debates, candidates fell into three general categories:

  1. ones you know well: Biden, Sanders, and (to a lesser extent) Warren
  2. ones you’ve heard of if you’ve been paying attention: Harris, Buttigieg, Booker, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, and maybe a few others
  3. ones whose names you might recognize in print (maybe), but you probably couldn’t come up with if you saw their pictures.

Success meant different things in each category.

  • Category 3 candidates just needed to get on the map. They’re racing to become relevant before their seed money runs out. If they said something that made you google them, they succeeded.
  • Category 2 candidates needed to prove they belong on stage with the well-known candidates. A category-2 candidate can play a somewhat longer game than a category-3 candidate. If you came away thinking “I could see that person as President”, that was a successful performance.
  • Category 1 candidates had a chance to complete the sale. If you were already leaning towards one of them, a good performance could cement your support, and possibly upgrade you from a silent supporter to a donor or volunteer. They needed to reinforce your prior ideas about their virtues, avoid a major gaffe, and put your doubts to rest.

Several candidates “won”. When you look at things that way, you realize that it was possible for many people to “win” the debate simultaneously. [2] My impression was that among the category-3 candidates, the big winner was Julián Castro. People were definitely not talking about him before the debate, and afterward they were. I think Tulsi Gabbard made her rep by taking out Tim Ryan on Afghanistan. [3] (I think Ryan is toast.) I thought Eric Swalwell’s pass-the-torch theme fell flat. (As Marco Rubio discovered in 2016, you don’t get credit for your youth if you don’t have any new ideas. And “We need new ideas” is not a new idea.) None the moderate candidates really broke out, but some (Bennet, say) might have positioned themselves to claim the center lane if Biden collapses.

In category 2, Kamala Harris was the big winner, with Cory Booker also having a good night. On Thursday, Kamala went toe-to-toe with front-runner Joe Biden and scored. The night before, Booker looked generally solid and impressive.

I feel like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg lived to fight another day. Neither was a star, but both looked like substantial candidates. (Buttigieg had an issue to face — the police shooting in South Bend — and he did it forthrightly.) Beto O’Rourke, on the other hand, amplified people’s doubts rather than quelling them.

I hesitate to comment at all on Kirsten Gillibrand, because watching her evokes a sexist response that I can’t seem to turn off. She may be saying something perfectly presidential, but she always looks and sounds like a lightweight to me. I don’t know if it’s the dumb-blond stereotype or what, but I have to keep reminding myself to listen to her and judge her fairly. (None of the other female candidates strike me this way, and I have no idea whether other men share this reaction to Gillibrand.)

In category 1, Biden had to have lost ground. He avoided any fatal gaffes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is still the leader in the next round of polls (which should appear in a few days), but if you had doubts about him before, you have more doubts now. Meanwhile, Bernie was Bernie. If you liked him before, you still like him now, but I doubt he convinced many new people.

Elizabeth Warren hadn’t been seen on this kind of stage before, so she had the most to prove; and I think she did. She still needs to learn some debate-craft (like look at the camera — not the moderator — when the question is being read). But she was poised and well-spoken. Her signature virtues of commitment and authenticity came through well. If you went in thinking “I like Warren’s ideas, but I don’t know … ” she might have made a believer out of you.

Here’s some snap-polling from 538 and Morning Consult. The interviews were done immediately after the debate, so I don’t think they captured the full effect, which doesn’t hit until people start comparing notes with each other.

Black candidates and black voters. A similar dynamic is playing out for both Harris and Booker, who are the black candidates in the race. One of the big questions is where the black electorate — which makes up a substantial portion of the Democratic primary electorate, and is an actual majority of Democrats in most southern states — is going to settle.

Historically, blacks have been “conservative” voters in the sense that they are slow to change their loyalties. If they feel that they have a relationship with a candidate, they tend to stick by him or her rather than go for the fresh face making big promises. (Unsurprisingly, Mayor Pete has essentially zero black support so far.) Everyone remembers how much black support Barack Obama eventually had, but forgets that most of those supporters arrived fairly late — mainly after his Iowa victory proved that white people would vote for him.

At this point in 2007, Hillary Clinton was getting a lot of black support in the polls, just as Joe Biden is now. Bernie Sanders couldn’t pry that support away from her, and blacks in South Carolina and the subsequent southern primaries saved Clinton’s candidacy after Sanders’ early win in New Hampshire.

Prior to this week’s debates, an Economist/YouGov poll (Question 46) had Biden with 39% of the black vote, compared to Harris with 5% and Booker with 4%. Clearly, black voters weren’t just looking to see if there was a black candidate in the race. I suspect they are paying special attention to Harris and Booker, but they’ll have to be convinced to move away from Biden.

I’ll be watching the next set of polls to see if the debate convinced them. In particular, Harris’ jab — that Biden was opposing busing at a time when Harris herself was being bused — looked very effective. (Of course, I’m a white guy judging this from the outside.) Biden’s response — that he only opposed busing imposed by the federal government, not community-generated plans like the one Harris benefited from — was unconvincing to anybody who knows the history. Federal intervention was necessary precisely because so many communities resisted school integration. Many communities integrated “voluntarily” only out of fear that the federal government might take the decision out of their hands.

Who can play this game? Which of these people can I picture doing well in a campaign against Trump? [4] The candidates that impressed me in those terms were Harris [5] and Warren. I think either one would look good next to Trump: Warren is a truth-teller where Trump is a bullshitter. Harris is a bulldog prosecutor who will make her points and won’t be distracted. Both of them have an authentic toughness that will show up Trump’s phony bluster.

In a purely physical sense, I think Cory Booker would look good against Trump. At 6’2″, Booker is shorter than Trump’s claimed height (6’3″) but taller than Trump is in reality. (I see something symbolic in that.) Booker is younger and fitter than Trump, and makes a more imposing physical presence. (Trump would not stalk Booker on the debate stage the way he stalked Clinton, lest Booker turn and face him. It’s a simian thing.) He also radiates a dignity that would contrast well with Trump’s sleaziness.

That said, everyone should remember that it’s still early. Recall the 2012 Republican race: Mitt Romney was the early front-runner, but a series of candidates-of-the-week had their moments and briefly passed him: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. But Romney ultimately was nominated. The same thing could happen with Biden this year.


[1] Author Marianne Williamson stood out as the least “presidential” in the field, making a number of statements that sounded more New-Agey than Democratic. Like this from her closing statement:

So, Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me please. You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So, I sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field and, sir, love will win.

But even she had some important things to say about policy. For example, she identified one reason why Americans spend so much on health care: the unhealthy diet pushed on us by Big Agriculture and subsidized by the US government.

What we need to talk about is why so many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses so many more compared to other countries and that gets back into not just the big Pharma, not just health insurance companies, it has to do with chemical policies, it has to do with environmental policies, it has to do with food policies, it has to do with drug policies.

If you want that message in more traditional academic terms, check out this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

[2] Friday, Rachel Maddow made the case that each of the 20 candidates had some particular moment they could point to with pride and build on going forward. Not sure I would go that far.

[3] During the debate I kept asking myself: “Wait. Why don’t I like Tulsi Gabbard?” Then I did some googling and remembered: She’s Putin’s favorite Democrat, probably because she likes to downplay the significance of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Since Gabbard announced her intention to run on Jan. 11, there have been at least 20 Gabbard stories on three major Moscow-based English-language websites affiliated with or supportive of the Russian government: RT, the Russian-owned TV outlet; Sputnik News, a radio outlet; and Russia Insider, a blog that experts say closely follows the Kremlin line. The CIA has called RT and Sputnik part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” …

Coverage of other Democratic presidential hopefuls in pro-Kremlin media has been for the most part perfunctory, limited to candidates’ announcements or summaries of their relative prospects.

A Truthdig article defending her against the Putin’s-favorite charge included this paragraph:

Gabbard’s run for president invites any number of legitimate criticisms. Her past jeremiads against “radical Islam” have reportedly earned the praise of Steve Bannon, and she has professed a curious admiration for India’s Hindu right; the LGBT community remains leery of her candidacy despite her support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; meanwhile, her anti-interventionism can appear “shot through with a pernicious nationalism,” as Branko Marcetic observes in Jacobin. 

[4] People are way too quick to jump to the question: “How will he or she do in a debate against Trump?” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Trump decided not to debate. He’d have some BS reason for chickening out — like his reasons for not talking to Bob Mueller (even though he claimed he wanted to) — and his followers would take whatever-it-was as The Truth.

[5] Prior to the debate, I hadn’t been impressed with Harris, despite all the political insiders who seemed very impressed. In her CNN town hall in April, she seemed tentative. Way too many questions got a non-commital answer like “We need to have that conversation.” At the time, she didn’t look like the right candidate to rally the country against Trump.

This week she did look like that candidate. We’ll see if that transformation holds.

Concentrating on the Border

Whatever we decide to call the camps where we detain immigrants, they are already a disgrace to our nation. If we don’t do something, they will probably get worse.


This week America’s talking heads argued about a label: Should the places where the Trump administration is detaining immigrants be called “concentration camps”? Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used the term (she wasn’t the first), and then pundits inside the Fox News bubble began demanding she apologize: to Trump, to Jews, to history, and so on.

As so often happens, the perpetrator became the victim. The media hasn’t devoted nearly as much time to the real victims — the immigrants (many of them asylum-seekers who have followed the law and done nothing wrong) being herded into camps of dubious safety and hygiene — as they have to the Trumpists howling with outrage. Instead of “What is happening on the border?” our focus has been on “Is it fair to call them concentration camps?”

I will not get snarky about this, because Alexandra Petri has already done that very well. (“If we do not use the right words for this, we might think that something terrible was happening.”) But I will point out that we had a very similar debate (including some of the same people, i.e., Liz Cheney) during the Bush administration: Should “enhanced interrogation” techniques (water-boarding, beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation, extreme heat and cold — sometimes resulting in death) count as torture. Instead of discussing exactly what our country was doing to people we had captured, we argued about a word. Those who felt injured by that word often got more sympathy than the people they were (or were not) torturing.

So what is happening on the border? To a large extent we don’t know. In part, this is why the cable news shows have focused on semantics: It’s easier to find talking heads willing to shout at each other about the proper use of words than to get solid information about how the U.S. is treating people who come here fleeing violence in their home countries.

The National Immigration Justice Center writes:

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is notoriously obscure about the systems it uses to detain immigrants in the United States. Without a court order, it is rare that DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) divulges any details about where its jails and prisons are located, who or how many people are held there, or any details about how they are managed — including how much taxpayers spend to keep them open, and who gets that money.

But at least we can get some population totals. The Detention Watch Network says:

The average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 39,000 in 2017.

More recent estimates, presumably unofficial, place the detainee population at 52,000 and rising (despite a congressional limit of 45,000 and a goal of 40,000).

Is this explosive growth necessary? No. The number of people arriving at the border without visas has been high lately, but fundamentally that’s not the reason so many people are detained. Vox explains.

During [Trump’s] first week in office, he signed an executive order that declared nearly every unauthorized immigrant in the US a “priority” for deportation. (In practice, most of the people the Trump administration has chosen to detain have been immigrants with past criminal convictions or charges — though plenty of those charges aren’t serious enough to require mandatory detention under the law.) The executive order also removed some of ICE’s flexibility to decide which immigrants it was most important to keep in detention.

This, plus the rise in people coming into the US who can’t immediately be deported because they’re children or families, seeking asylum, or both, means Trump has pushed the detainee population to record highs.

But most of those asylum-seeking children and families don’t have to be detained either. In fact, routinely detaining asylum-seekers may be a violation of international law. The Just Security blog notes:

Crucially, international bodies have made clear that detention of asylum seekers must be a measure of last resort, not a default practice imposed automatically or as a broad rule for a large category of people.

Deterring asylum applicants or discouraging future migration is not a lawful basis for depriving an individual migrant of liberty, either under international law (see Detention Guidelines at para. 32) or under U.S. law (see the preliminary injunction issued in RILR v. Johnson).

The administration’s argument for detaining asylum-seekers rests on two dubious notions: (1) All unauthorized immigrants are threats to public safety; and (2) if asylum-seekers are released, they won’t show up for their hearings and will vanish into the immigrant underground.

The first is the baseless propaganda Trump has been pushing since he came down the escalator, and the second is provably false. Syracuse University’s TRAC Project (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse) reports that families who are given legal counsel overwhelmingly do show up for their hearings.

TRAC found that with rare exception virtually every family attended their court hearings when they had representation. Appearance rates at the initial hearing were 99.9 percent. This is in contrast to appearance rates for unrepresented families of 81.6 percent.

Why does an attorney make a difference? Because confusion and miscommunication, not a desire to flout American law, are the main causes of missed hearings. It turns out that the same government that can’t find the kids it has stolen also has trouble delivering notifications to the right places.

When a family doesn’t show up, it does not necessarily mean they had intended to “skip” their hearing. Some immigrants who don’t appear simply have not received notification of their hearing. Others may receive a written notice, but the notice may have been in English which they couldn’t read.

In short, the “reasons” the administration gives are just pretexts. It detains a lot of immigrants because it wants to detain a lot of immigrants.

Deterrence. That last sentence sounds ridiculous, because why would the government want to create such a big headache for itself? The point of detaining tens of thousands of immigrants in unpleasant and unhealthy conditions, rather than letting them live and work in the US while they wait for their hearings, is to deter other foreigners from coming here. (Extra cash for the private prison industry is just a bonus.) So life should be harsh for those awaiting an asylum hearing, and the harsher the better.

Numerous government officials have talked about “deterrence”, and Trump himself promotes being “rough” or “tough” with asylum-seekers to the point of breaking the law. (“When you do these things we have to do,” he complained to Fox Business Network, “they end up arresting Border Patrol people.”)

This is the most important thing to understand about America’s immigrant detention camps: They’re supposed to be unpleasant. It’s not just that systems are overwhelmed (though they are) or that rogue employees misbehave (though they do). Mistreatment of these immigrants is intentional. We’re making an example of them in order to teach the oppressed people of the world a lesson: “Don’t come here, because we’ll be as nasty to you as we’re being to them.”

New information. Eventually, though, a few media outlets started getting past the AOC/Liz Cheney exchanges and giving us some new information about the camps.

This week, for example, we learned about conditions at the border station in Clint, Texas, where hundreds of children are being held.

Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.

Most of the young detainees have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrived at the facility, those who visited said. They have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap.

This is not an oversight. In fact, government lawyers have argued in court that a previous court order that children be held in “safe and sanitary” conditions did not require that the government provide them with soap or toothbrushes, that they have beds to sleep on, or that they be given clean water or adequate quantities of food.

The government knows what it is doing. The cruelty is intentional.

Family separation. The crown jewel in the administration’s program of deterrence has been family separation, which sends the message: “Don’t come here, because we’ll take your kids away and lose them in our system.” That policy was an experiment for about a year, and then was rolled out nationally. Acting Assistant HHS Secretary Steven Wagner said:

We expect that the new policy will result in a deterrence effect, we certainly hope that parents stop bringing their kids on this dangerous journey and entering the country illegally. So we are prepared to continue to expand capacity as needed.

The Trump zero-tolerance policy meant that everyone who surrendered or was caught at the border would be detained. The system for processing asylum claims had an enormous backlog, but court rulings stipulated that minors couldn’t be held more than 20 days. So detaining the adults meant separating them from their children.

Mothers and fathers, most from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, went to jail on charges of misdemeanor illegal entry or felony re-entry. Their children were reclassified as “unaccompanied” and sent into a network of shelters scattered across the country

In all, more than 4,000 children were taken in this manner. Many were not tracked properly, and their parents had a difficult time finding them again once their cases were resolved. In April, the government was estimating it might take two years for some children to be returned.

If you doubt the cruelty of this policy, you should read two articles the New York Times published this week: One is about Baby Constantin, a four-month-old Romanian refugee taken when his father sought asylum for them at the Mexican border.

it would be months before his parents saw him again. Before then, his father would be sent for psychiatric evaluation in a Texas immigration detention center because he couldn’t stop crying; his mother would be hospitalized with hypertension from stress. Constantin would become attached to a middle-class American family, having spent the majority of his life in their tri-level house on a tree-lined street in rural Michigan, and then be sent home. Now more than a year and a half old, the baby still can’t walk on his own, and has not spoken.

His father fell victim to a scam that apparently has been played on a large number of asylum-seekers.

Two months into his detention, an immigration officer came to Mr. Mutu with an offer. As he understood it, if he gave up his claim for asylum, he would be deported back to Romania with Constantin. He agreed, and on June 3, 2018, he was released from his cell and loaded into a van.

He looked everywhere for Constantin and asked the officers where his son was, but was not given a clear answer. At the airport, he refused to board without the baby. The immigration officers, he said, told him that Constantin would be handed to him once he had taken his seat. But the plane lifted off and the baby never came.

In the second article, the same NYT reporter (Caitlin Dickerson) interviews a woman who helped care for Constantin: Alma Acevedo, a 24-year-old who worked for Bethany Christian Services, a foster care and adoption agency that has a federal contract to house immigrant children. It was her first job out of college.

Ms. Acevedo was just settling into the role when things suddenly became more chaotic, in the late summer of 2017. Unlike the teenagers she was used to working with, who had intentionally crossed the border alone, the separated children who began to arrive were inconsolable when they reached her. Each new one seemed to traumatize the rest all over again. “It was horrible,” she said. “We could not do work. It was just a classroom full of crying kids all day.”

… Most days after work, she cried in her car before she left the parking lot. She checked the news on her phone constantly, watching CNN until she went to bed, hoping to find out when the family separations would end.

But they ended, right? Not exactly. You can be forgiven for not knowing that, because a year ago, after a couple months of bad publicity, Trump signed an executive order that purported to end the policy, and a judge ordered that the children be returned.

But remember: The family separation policy didn’t come from nowhere. It came from a desire to be cruel to immigrants, in order to strike fear into the hearts of similar people planning to come here. None of that has changed. The administration separated families not because it needed to, but because it wanted to. It still wants to, and so it finds ways to do so.

Michele Goldberg reports:

To continue separating families, immigration agents appear to be taking advantage of a loophole in the court decision. The injunction doesn’t apply when parents have criminal histories or communicable diseases, which might require them to be quarantined away from their children. Nor does it explicitly apply when children are accompanied by relatives like siblings or grandparents rather than parents, unless those relatives are their legal guardians. And it permits family separation when a parent is deemed a danger to the child.

On the surface, these exceptions seem perfectly reasonable, particularly given the threat of human trafficking. But [Anthony] Enriquez, a lawyer [for Catholic Charities], said they “left a big gaping hole that the government is driving a truck straight through.”

“Criminal history” or “disease” didn’t have to be anything actually dangerous, because the government was looking for pretexts, not reasons.

For example, a 6-month-old was taken from his father because the father had a conviction for marijuana possession. Another dad lost his kid because he admitted to a conviction for driving with an expired license.

In some cases, the parents hadn’t been convicted of anything at all, but border agents claimed that they had gang affiliations. In other instances, agents stretched the definition of “communicable diseases” to apply to situations that don’t involve quarantine. …  Enriquez represented a child who was sent to New York after her mother was hospitalized for a leg injury in California. Even after the mother was discharged and released from immigration custody, Enriquez said, the government balked at returning her daughter to her until he threatened to sue.

But are they concentration camps? So OK. Now that we have discussed what our country is doing, maybe we can spare a little time to think about what to call it.

We have camps where we keep thousands of people who have done nothing wrong. We could just let them live normal lives while they wait for hearings, but instead we have made their lives unpleasant because that serves our purpose: It is supposed to intimidate other people out of coming here.

Should we call them concentration camps?

Letting that term roll out of our mouths seems like an awesome judgment, as perhaps it should. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen (who has much experience with Russians balking at comparing Putin’s dictatorship to Stalin’s) explains:

We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. …

A logical fallacy becomes inevitable. If this can’t happen, then the thing that is happening is not it. What we see in real life, or at least on television, can’t possibly be the same monstrous phenomenon that we have collectively decided is unimaginable. … Anything that happens here and now is normalized, not solely through the moral failure of contemporaries but simply by virtue of actually existing.

But Anna Lind-Guzik, a self-described Jewish historian, says that we have to take the comparison seriously.

Applying the term “concentration camp” to the indefinite detention without trial of thousands of civilians in inhumane conditions — under armed guard and without adequate provisions or medical care — is not just appropriate, it’s necessary. Invoking the word does not demean the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, the lessons of the Holocaust will be lost if we refuse to engage with them.

It is true that the immigrant detention camps are not death camps, like Auschwitz or Dachau had become by 1945. But (as an excellent article in Esquire notes) the term concentration camp is older than the Nazis. Historian Jonathan Hyslop, author of The Invention of Concentration Camps attributes the idea to four sources, all in the late 19th or early 20th centuries: the Spanish in Cuba (during the Ten Years War), British in South Africa (Boer War), Germans in Southwest Africa, and Americans in the Philippines.

In each case, a colonial power was fighting guerrilla rebels who had considerable support from a widely dispersed population. “Concentrating” the rebels’ potential supporters in camps allowed the imperial soldiers to assume that any local they met outside the camps was an enemy.

These camps were not intended to be death camps. (Quite the opposite, they “protected” the population both from the rebels and from the empire’s own search-and-destroy missions.) But nonetheless, conditions were harsh and got harsher with time. Large numbers of people died.

Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, says:

There was very little in the way of targeted violence. Instead, people died from poor planning, overloaded facilities and unwillingness to reverse policy, even when it became apparent the policy wasn’t working, inability to get medical care to detainees, poor food quality, contagious diseases, showing up in an environment where it became almost impossible to get control of them.

The life cycle. Even the Nazi concentration camps did not become the death factories we now remember until late in their life cycle. When Dachau opened in 1933, it was a harsh prison for Hitler’s political enemies — at that time, mainly Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists. The longer it lasted, the harsher it became. Jews were sent there in large numbers after Kristallnacht in 1938. The Final Solution — the plan to exterminate all the Jews the Nazis could get their hands on — wasn’t formulated until 1941.

Our camps are early in their life cycle. It would be a mistake to imagine that they are already as bad as they will eventually get.

The people in these camps belong to a class (“illegal immigrants”) that our President routinely dehumanizes. Rather than human beings with human rights, or even refugees with recognized rights under our laws, they are regularly denigrated as “animals” or “invaders” or an “infestation“. When a Trump supporter yelled “Shoot them!” during a rally last month, Trump treated it as a joke (and the crowd cheered). Another recent Esquire article elaborates:

The demonization of The Other is a tale as old as America, but Donald Trump has returned the nation to dangerous places in 2019, questioning not just the Americanness, but the very humanity, of Hispanic immigrants and Muslims. He does so by attacking these groups’ violent outliers—the drug dealers and coyotes and ISIS—but these are the only examples of these groups he has ever discussed. There has never been one word about the Guatemalan mother who flees here with her child and works for decades cleaning somebody’s house. It’s only ever the murderers and rapists, and if they’re “invading” your country, any response is justified.

Our stated policy is to be cruel to these dehumanized people, in order to deter other people like them. We are gathering them into camps that are largely hidden from the general public.

It would be amazing if conditions there did not get worse. Caring people (like Alma Acevedo) are not going to want to work there, and such compassionate people who do work there will either harden or leave. Sadists, on the other hand, will be drawn there like flies to roadkill. Out of the public view, ordinary people will find themselves tempted to do incredible things, as ordinary American soldiers did at Abu Ghraib.

So should that count as a concentration camp? I can imagine an argument for saying no: We should reserve the term concentration camp for only the most extreme examples, the ones that are truly Auschwitz-like.

But at best, our own camps are proto-concentration-camps. They are on the concentration-camp spectrum, if still a great distance from the 1945 version of Auschwitz. But it is early in their life cycle, the trends are not good, and who knows how far we will let them go before their story is over.

The Lawless Administration

According to the Constitution, the duties of the President include “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”.  But from the beginning of his administration, Donald Trump has taken the same attitude towards the law as president that he did when he was a New York real estate tycoon: Not “What does the law say I have to do?”, but “Who’s going to make me do it?”

No previous president or administration has had such a disregard for the law, and he seems to be getting more brazen about it. This week included so much lawlessness I need to list it before I go into detail on any of it.

  • Trump announced that there is nothing wrong with doing what he was accused of doing in 2016: accepting help from a foreign government during an election campaign. The law may say otherwise, but so what?
  • An official watchdog group (whose head Trump himself appointed) reported that Kellyanne Conway has repeatedly and brazenly violated the Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from partisan political activity while performing their official duties. The report recommended that she be fired. The White House Counsel rejected the report, and Conway will continue in her job. She has neither apologized nor promised to obey the law in the future.
  • Scandals continued to pile up around Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whose stock in a major road-paving company was long ago identified as a conflict of interest, who attempted to use her position to benefit her family’s company, and who maintains a special pipeline for transportation projects in the home state of her husband, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Friday night, MSNBC’s Ali Veshi (subbing for Rachel Maddow), examined Trump’s long history of telling people to break the law. He mentioned these incidents:

(Veshi might also have mentioned incidents during the campaign, when Trump urged his audiences to beat up protesters. Or his instructions that his administration should defy “all the subpoenas“, regardless of their lawful authority.) In each case, intermediate officials felt obligated to tell the same people to obey the law rather than do what the President just told them to do.


In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Wednesday, Trump said that he would “listen” to any foreign government that offered his campaign dirt on his opponent, and that “maybe” he would call the FBI. But then he elaborated in ways that made the call to the FBI seem unlikely:

I’ll tell you what, I’ve seen a lot of things over my life. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office, you do whatever you do. Oh, give me a break – life doesn’t work that way.

Both Attorney General Barr and FBI Director Wray have said that a campaign receiving offers of help from foreign governments should call the FBI, but Trump explicitly rejected that opinion. “The FBI director is wrong,” he said.

In essence, Trump has announced to foreign governments that he is open for business. If they have anything on his rivals, he wants to hear it. Will he ask questions about whether they broke any laws to get it, as Russia did when it hacked DNC computers? He didn’t say.

Democrats in the Senate offered a bill to require campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance, but Republicans blocked it, as they have blocked every attempt to stop a repeat of Russia’s 2016 interference. It’s hard to come up with an explanation other than the harsh one: Republicans are counting on Russia to help them again in 2020.


When Elaine Chao took office as Transportation Secretary, she pledged to the Office of Government Ethics that she would sell her stock in Vulcan Materials, which the company’s web page describes like this:

Vulcan Materials Company is the nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates—primarily crushed stone, sand and gravel—and a major producer of aggregates-based construction materials, including asphalt and ready-mixed concrete.

Given that the Transportation Department oversees the interstate highway system, the conflict of interest is obvious. She in fact didn’t sell the shares until two weeks ago, after the Wall Street Journal pointed out that she was still holding the shares — whose value had increased by $40,000 in the meantime.

Another obvious conflict is her family’s company, Foremost Group, which the NYT describes as “an American shipping company with deep ties to the economic and political elite in China, where most of the company’s business is centered”. The Times recently revealed that when Chao planned her first trip to China as a member of Trump’s cabinet, she asked for family members to be included in meetings with government officials.

David Rank, who had been deputy chief of mission for the State Department in Beijing, described the request as “alarmingly inappropriate”. The trip was cancelled after State Department officials raised ethical issues. Vanity Fair writes:

Though Chao has not worked for the company since the 1970s, it is the (ongoing) source of her wealth and the political wealth of her husband [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell]. In 2008 her father gave the couple a gift of as much as $25 million, while 13 members of the Chao family, including Foremost CEO Angela Chao, have given more than $1 million to McConnell’s campaigns and to PACs tied to him.

Angela Chao responded to the NYT article with a letter to the editor defending her sister, which in my opinion missed the point and denied charges that were never made.

Finally, there are the conflicts created by her marriage to Senator McConnell of Kentucky. Politico reports:

The Transportation Department under Secretary Elaine Chao designated a special liaison to help with grant applications and other priorities from her husband Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky, paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection.

Draining the swamp indeed.


The Office of the Special Counsel (not to be confused with Bob Mueller’s office; this one is run by Trump appointee Henry Kerner, formerly a Republican congressional staffer) issued a report recommending that Kellyanne Conway be fired for repeated violations of the Hatch Act. The NYT explains:

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are on the job. Named for former Senator Carl A. Hatch, Democrat of New Mexico, the law has been on the books for 80 years. The act dates to Depression-era reforms intended to prevent machine politics in which patronage jobs were handed out to people who then used their positions to help keep their patrons in power.

The OSC report lists several occasions in which Conway was speaking in her official capacity (for example, giving a press interview at the White House or tweeting on a Twitter account that she also uses for official purposes) and also attacking Democrats like Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, or Elizabeth Warren.

Conway has dismissed the whole issue, and all attempts by ethics officials to work through the White House Counsel’s office have by stymied. The report concludes:

Ms. Conway’s persistent, notorious, and deliberate Hatch Act violations have created an unprecedented challenge to this office’s ability to enforce the Act, as we are statutorily charged. She has willfully and openly disregarded the law in full public view. As recently as May 29, 2019, Ms. Conway defiantly rejected the Hatch Act’s application to her activities, dismissed OSC’s 2018 findings, and flippantly stated, “Let me know when the jail sentence starts.” And she made it clear that she has no plans to cease abusing her official position to influence voters. Ms. Conway’s conduct undermines public confidence in the Executive branch and compromises the civil service system that the Hatch Act was intended to protect. Her knowing and blatant disregard for the law aggravates the severity of her numerous violations.

After the report came out, a Deadline reporter asked Conway for a reaction. She replied: “I have no reaction. Why would I give you a reaction?”

Trump has made it clear that Conway will not be fired or otherwise disciplined. The White House Counsel’s office issued a statement defending her actions, which a University of Texas Law School professor described as “fooling no one“.

In this White House, faithfully executing the laws is not seen as a priority, or even a duty. The law is something to be gotten around, not something to obey.

Socialism: What’s in a word?

The word socialism has become a little like the word God: something we can almost all believe in as long as we get to define it our own way. Depending on the speaker, socialism can mean Denmark or Venezuela or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or even the National Socialism of Hitler’s Germany. In FDR’s day Social Security was denounced as “socialism” and in JFK’s day Medicare was. Now those programs enjoy almost universal popularity. So are we all socialists now?

If socialism means buying things collectively through the government, then your local fire department is socialist, and so are the national parks and the interstate highways. Who doesn’t like them? On the other hand, if socialism means buying everything collectively, so that we eat in big government cafeterias rather than in our own kitchens and dining rooms, that would be a lot less popular. So which is it?

And if we can’t decide which it is, why are we talking about it at all?

What Bernie said. Bernie Sanders wants to have that discussion, and I don’t think any of the other Democratic candidates do. Wednesday, he gave a major speech (video, transcript) embracing socialism and attempting to define it his own way.

We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.

He listed these economic rights:

  • The right to a decent job that pays a living wage
  • The right to quality health care
  • The right to a complete education
  • The right to affordable housing
  • The right to a clean environment
  • The right to a secure retirement

How others responded. Among this cycle’s Democratic candidates, none of those rights seems terribly radical. True, not every candidate would agree with all of them. The more moderate ones would see them as goals to work toward rather than rights that need to be delivered immediately. (Let’s extend quality health care to more people, even if we can’t get a universal program passed.) Each candidate would have a different interpretation of those rights (what jobs are “decent”? when is an education “complete”?), of the kinds of programs necessary to ensure them, and how to pay for those programs. But nothing on that list should inspire shocked pointing and cries of “infidel!”

All the same, nobody joined Bernie in endorsing socialism by name. Elizabeth Warren, the candidate whose policy proposals are probably closest to Sanders’, noncommittally said, “I’ll have to hear his speech.” But Warren has kept the word capitalism in her proposals (as in the Accountable Capitalism Act). She styles her program as a reform of capitalism, not a revolution that replaces it with socialism.

Other candidates were more critical.

Of the two dozen Democrats running for president, some are ready to sign on to ideas Sanders has pioneered, such as Medicare for All, but none agree with democratic socialism as a way to govern, or as a pitch that will defeat President Donald Trump. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who was booed for condemning socialism two weeks ago in a speech before the California Democratic Party, laughed at the title of Sanders’s speech when I read it to him. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado let out an exasperated chuckle. “I don’t think the American people even know what that means,” he told me. “Nobody in my town halls talks about democratic socialism versus oligarchy and authoritarianism.” When I read the title of the speech [“How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism”] to Senator Kamala Harris of California on Monday after an event in Dubuque, she responded with a simple “Huh.”

Republicans, on the other hand, love to talk about socialism, and to label Democratic proposals “socialist”. One favorite technique is to dismiss a Democratic proposal as “socialist” without identifying any specific flaws, as if socialism were a plague that can only be fought by quarantine. Before he officially became a politician, Ronald Reagan attacked a proposal similar to Medicare like this:

I know how I’d feel, if you, my fellow citizens, decided that to be an actor, I had to become a government employee and work in a national theater. Take it into your own occupation or that of your husband. All of us can see what happens: Once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man’s working place and his working methods, determine his employment, from here it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism — to determining his pay, and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go, or what they will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.

So sure, the idea that Grandma can go to the hospital after she falls sounds good, but it’s socialism. Before long we’ll all be living in government dormitories.

My own view of capitalism and socialism in America. Debating socialism and capitalism, as if they were two distinct roads and we could only choose one, seems misguided to me.

When I look at America, I see capitalist and socialist economies existing side-by-side. We commonly go back and forth between them without thinking about it. Your driveway is part of the capitalist economy; the street is in the socialist realm. When your kids play in the front yard, they’re under the aegis of capitalism. If they go down to the park, they’ve crossed into socialism.

(In Debt: the first 5,000 years, David Graeber also posits an underlying communist system, which we instinctively revert to in emergencies. When the flood hits, you rescue your neighbors in your boat — without going through either a market or a government office — because you have a boat and they need rescuing. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.)

What we’re mainly arguing about when we talk about socialism is where the boundary between the two realms will be. Should our kids be educated in public schools (socialism) or private schools (capitalism)? If we raise taxes to improve the library (socialism), maybe I won’t be able to afford to buy as many books (capitalism).

In my view, the balance has shifted too far in the capitalist direction, and needs to shift back. Market forces are doing a really bad job of organizing our health care (as I see in my own life). Pro-capitalist Republicans deny climate change because capitalism has no answer for it.

So while I have no desire to destroy the capitalist system root and branch, I want to move the boundary to shrink the portion of the economy it commands. I don’t think we need public dormitories and cafeterias, but I also don’t think we want capitalists manipulating the insulin market.

What’s in a word? Whatever politicians say in their speeches, only a few libertarian radicals want to get rid of socialism entirely, and only a few communist radicals want to get rid of capitalism entirely. We’re going to continue living in a mixed economy and arguing about what activities belong in each realm. So the idea that we’re going to accept or reject socialism once and for all is unrelated to the world we actually live in.

But we keep trying to have that conversation, and it seems that every politician but Sanders (Republican and Democrat alike) has come to the same conclusion: Democrats are better off talking about their specific policies — universal health care, free college, sustainable energy, etc. — than having an abstract argument about capitalism vs. socialism.

So why does Bernie want to have that argument? I think the word socialism symbolizes a point he wants to make, something that’s key to his political identity. The argument about socialism has become a metaphor for a more nebulous question: How screwed up are things, what caused it, and how big a change is necessary to set the country on the right track again?

Joe Biden’s message is that Trump screwed things up. The country was more-or-less on the right track under Obama, and we just need to get back there. Trump’s extremism has shown Republicans what their flirting with white supremacy and subverting democratic norms leads to, and once he’s gone they’ll be more reasonable. So there’s no need to change America’s underlying system, we just need a new president — preferably one with a majority in both houses of Congress, like Obama had for his first two years.

Elizabeth Warren’s message is that the turn towards unfettered capitalism is the problem and it began around the time of the Reagan administration. She uses her personal story to say: We used to have opportunity. You could buy a house on one income. You could work your way through college and graduate without a mountain of debt. Now, irresponsible banks throw the world economy into a near-depression, and they get bailed out. CEO pay is out of control. More and more chunks of the economy are monopolies or oligopolies.

So Warren’s message is one of reform: We need to get capitalism back under control, so that it works for the many again instead of just the few.

But Sanders’ message is that America is screwed up at a much deeper level, and it was never really on the right track. In his speech, he points to FDR’s New Deal not as a time when things were going right, but as a time when people had a vision of a better system. In his speech he said:

Over eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.

This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.

Unlike Trump, Bernie doesn’t think America can be made great again, because it was never really great. For a while we had a vision of greatness, but we left it unfinished. We don’t need reform, or the mere updating of old values to new circumstances. We need transformation and even revolution.

And let me also be clear, the only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution – where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy by having the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.

And that, I think, is why Sanders embraces the label socialist, while other Democrats shrink away from it. To him, the word symbolizes a whole new system, a revolutionary transformation.

In short, Bernie is appealing to a level of discontent that no other candidate (except maybe Trump, who represents a vision of authoritarian revolution; I would compare him not so much with Hitler as with Franco) sees. Sanders sees a country, a political system, and an economic system that is too far gone to be reformed. Rather than build on what has come before, he prefers a blank-sheet-of-paper approach. Rather than make deals with some collection of the current power brokers, he wants a peaceful popular uprising to blow them away.

So the argument about socialism is really an argument about that extremity of discontent: How many people feel that way? Some, definitely. But are there enough of them to win a nomination and presidency?

Bernie thinks there are. Other candidates disagree — and I guess I do too. But that’s what campaigns are for: We’re going to find out.

We need hope, not optimism

As regular readers probably know, when I’m not writing this blog I’m writing for a religious magazine and giving talks at churches. When you have that much religious exposure, sooner or later you end up thinking about hope, because hope is religion’s central product.

Humanistic religions offer hope for human progress, while salvation-oriented religions offer hope for a better world to come, but pretty much every flavor of religion deals in some kind of hope: for miracles, for eternal life, for an escape from suffering, for strength to change, for the eventual triumph of the better angels of our nature, or some other desirable outcome.

Once you start thinking about hope, your reading will fairly quickly bring you to a useful distinction that (for reasons I don’t understand) never catches on with the general public: Hope is not optimism.

The two words often get used interchangeably in conversation, and you do often find them together in real life: Hopeful people tend to be optimistic, and vice versa. But once in a while the difference between them is important. I feel like that’s true now in American politics, so I’m pointing it out in this secular context.

  • Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Optimists expect the future to turn out well; pessimists expect it to turn out badly.
  • Hope and its opposite (despair) are attitudes towards the present. Hope holds that efforts to make life better are worthwhile, while despair asserts their pointlessness. Hope says, “Let’s try it” and despair answers “Don’t bother.”

So an optimistic person plants a garden because the rains will come and the plants will grow and the harvest will be bountiful. But a hopeful person plants without knowing what will happen, because the possibility of a harvest is worth creating.

Since we seldom actually know what’s going to happen (even when we think we do), optimism is more brittle than hope. After a hot, dry week, favorable assumptions about the future can flip to unfavorable ones, and our optimism can crash: A drought has started, the crops are doomed, we’re all going to starve. The garden might go untended while the formerly optimistic person searches the horizon for signs of rain.

Meanwhile, the hopeful person just keeps gardening. The harvest was uncertain when everything looked fine, and it’s still uncertain now. It’s worthwhile to keep going.

I trust that the application to the current political situation is already clear to you: An enormous amount of political discussion these days is of the optimism-versus-pessimism variety: Will we manage to get rid of Trump, either by impeachment or election? Is democracy already so damaged that it won’t recover in our lifetimes? Assuming we have a next leader, will he or she be able to heal the partisan divisions, or will America keep spiraling towards division or civil war?

And what about climate change? Are we past the point of no return? Will we pass it soon? Is civilization as we have known it already fated for ruin?

Truthfully, I have no idea.

I know most of my readers don’t want to hear that. Every now and then I find myself conversing with someone who has cast me in a Guardian of Optimism role. I think they cast me that way because I keep paying attention to the news and writing this blog every week. Surely all that would be too depressing if I didn’t think everything was going to work out eventually.

So they want me to pass along my optimistic secret: “Tell me it’s going to be OK. Tell me we fix this.”

I can’t. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. To be either an optimist or a pessimist requires a level of hubris I don’t have. For good or ill, reality has a way of doing whatever it damn well pleases, no matter how tightly we think we have it tied down.

So my advice at this point in history is to get comfortable with not knowing and try to stay hopeful. Keep tending the garden and let the rain do whatever it does.

Which means: Try not to waste too much of your time and energy searching poll results for evidence that Trump will or won’t be re-elected. Don’t agonize over who the Democrats will nominate. Don’t watch panels where pundits argue over their predictions. Don’t try to pick the exact year when the climate catastrophe will hit.

Just do something. Campaign, demonstrate, give money, write letters, mobilize your friends. Whatever you can think of.

Will it work? Who knows? We don’t need to know. Someday, maybe, we’ll look back and see that whatever we did either worked or didn’t work. Between now and then, a lot of unforeseeable stuff is going to happen.

So don’t waste a lot of time trying to foresee it. The harvest — as rich or barren as it might eventually be — will get here soon enough. Until then, just keep working. It’s worthwhile to create possibilities.

What makes Donald Trump so smart?

Trump wants to believe, and wants us to believe, that he’s very intelligent.
But what kind of intelligence is he talking about?


When Donald Trump first described himself as an “very stable genius” — and was roundly ridiculed for doing so — I figured it was just one of those unfortunate phrases that sometimes slip out in the back-and-forth of social media. (I hate to think what a close inspection of my Facebook activity log would turn up.) But when he chose to repeat it just a week or so ago, it became clear that he really means it. Apparently “extremely stable genius” is part of the self-description that bounces around inside his head.

He also puts a lot of stock in the intelligence of others, or at least in its lack: Many of his insults directed at others target their intellect. Recently he tweeted that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had called Joe Biden a “low-IQ individual”, a comment that made him smile. (Kim’s assessment of Trump himself as a “dotard” is apparently long forgiven.) Politico notes:

In recent years, Trump has accused Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), actor Robert De Niro, Washington Post staffers, former President George W. Bush, comedian Jon Stewart, Republican strategist Rick Wilson, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, and Rick Perry, now his energy secretary, of having low IQs.

Back in 2013 he tweeted:

Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.

Apparently, though, not everyone does know it. (According to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Trump claiming that everyone agrees with him is a tell that he’s lying.) Rex Tillerson called him a “fucking moron” and Jim Mattis said he had the understanding of “a fifth or sixth-grader”. Numerous other high-ranking Trump appointees (John Kelly, Steve Mnuchin, Reince Preibus, H. R. McMaster) have referred to him as an “idiot”, with former economic advisor Gary Cohn adding that he is “dumb as shit”.

You might imagine that insults like this naturally fly back and forth in a high-pressure environment like the White House. But I haven’t come up with a comparable example from the previous administration, where someone who worked closely with President Obama claimed he had below-average intelligence. Maybe I’ve just forgotten.

How to prove you’re smart. Trump could of course settle all this by releasing an IQ test, the way that he has often demanded that others (Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren come to mind) release personal information to prove their claims. He could also support his “stable genius” claim by releasing stellar grades, or pointing to some singular academic honor (like Bill Clinton and Pete Buttigieg can point to their Rhodes scholarships, or Barack Obama his presidency of the Harvard Law Review).

Or he could demonstrate his intelligence to us directly, by speaking to the American people about difficult subjects and impressing us with the clarity of his thought. Barack Obama used to do that. I’ve often come away from an Obama speech feeling like I had learned something, and understood some topic in a way I never had before.

He could show an ability to think on his feet. He could submit to unscripted questions from voters or journalists. And rather than go off into a word salad of free association, he could answer those questions with facts (that are actually true) and insights the questioners hadn’t anticipated. I have attended a bunch of New Hampshire townhall meetings in the last few presidential cycles and watched politicians do this, some more skillfully than others. John McCain was brilliant at fielding whatever question anyone wanted to throw at him, even after he had been on his feet for hours. So was Chris Christie. I didn’t have to agree with their conclusions to appreciate their intelligence.

Obama could even face an audience of enemies and answer whatever questions they raised. He once went to  retreat of the House Republican caucus and owned the room. They couldn’t touch him. The best evidence that they knew they were beaten is that they never invited him back.

A different kind of smart. But maybe I look for that kind of evidence because I don’t define smart the same way Trump does. Maybe my notion of intelligence is self-serving: I was good at tests and classes, so that’s what I look for. I’m good with words and explaining things, so that’s how I want intelligence to be judged.

But maybe when Trump looks in the mirror, he sees a different kind of smart.


The best evidence that he does comes from a 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. Clinton suggested that Trump doesn’t release his tax returns because

maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

Trump didn’t dispute Clinton’s claims, but spun them in a positive direction: “That makes me smart.”

To me, that suggests a whole different vision of human intelligence and its uses. Maybe life is a game where we’re all trying to gain advantages over each other. And anybody can claim an advantage they deserve. Millions of Americans, for example, avoid paying taxes by being poor; that’s not very smart. But claiming an advantage you don’t deserve, like not paying taxes when you’re rich — you have to be pretty smart to do that.

As soon as I understood that simple notion, I began to appreciate Trump’s genius. Once you know what kind of intelligence you’re looking for, you can see it all through his life.

Avoiding military service is smart. Risking your life is not smart at all, especially if there are other people who can serve in your place.

Trump avoided the draft during the Vietnam War by getting a medical deferment based on having bone spurs on his feet. But are those bone spurs real? The daughters of the (now dead) podiatrist who signed off on the bone-spur claim believe their father made the diagnosis as a favor to Trump’s father. “Elysa Braunstein said the implication from her father was that Mr. Trump did not have a disqualifying foot ailment.”

Democratic candidates Pete Buttigieg and Seth Moulton are simpletons by comparison. They could have avoided risking their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq without faking anything; all they had to do was not volunteer. But like many people less smart than Trump, they try to make the issue about him rather than them. Buttigieg said:

If you’re a conscientious objector, I’d admire that. But this is somebody who, I think it’s fairly obvious to most of us, took advantage of the fact that he was the child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place.

And Moulton put it like this:

I don’t think that lying to get out of serving your country is patriotic. It’s not like there was just some empty seat in Vietnam. Someone had to go in his place. I’d like to meet the American hero who went in Donald Trump’s place to Vietnam. I hope he’s still alive.

As with so many controversies, Trump could easily clear this up: He could release x-rays of his feet.

Stiffing your contractors is smart. In 2016, USA Today documented hundreds of examples of Trump refusing to pay for work he had hired individuals or contracted small businesses to do. (YouTube lets you watch several of his contractors tell how they were short-changed.)

Michael Cohen’s testimony backed up USA Today’s reporting:

Some of the things that I did was reach out to individuals, whether it’s law firms or small businesses, and renegotiate contracts after the job was already done, or basically tell them that we just weren’t paying at all, or make them offers of, say, 20 cents on the dollar.

Vox summarizes the tactic:

The basic Trump method, established as far back as his Atlantic City casino days, goes like this:

  • First, Trump contracts with someone to do some work for him.
  • Second, the work gets done.
  • Third, Trump does not pay for the work.
  • Fourth, the people Trump owes money threaten to sue him.
  • Fifth, Trump offers to pay a small fraction of the sum they originally agreed on.

The person Trump owes money to is now faced with an unattractive choice. He can accept 20 or 30 percent of what he is owed right now. Alternatively, he can hire a lawyer and fight out a lawsuit that might take months or years. Since Trump is rich and has lawyers on his staff, it’s nothing to [him] to fight an extended legal battle. And since Trump is the one not paying the bill, delay is inherently in his favor.

If you’ve ever had work done for you, you probably paid the money you agreed to. That’s because you’re not as smart as Donald Trump.

Choosing the right parents is smart. The reason Donald became rich isn’t that he’s a great businessman, it’s that his father Fred was a great businessman — and a brilliant tax evader. (That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.)

Last October, the New York Times published its research on how much Donald got from Fred: at least $413 million, “much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s”.

The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.

Dealing with Russian oligarchs is smart. According to Foreign Policy,

By the early 1990s [Trump] had burned through his portion of his father Fred’s fortune with a series of reckless business decisions. Two of his businesses had declared bankruptcy, the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City and the Plaza Hotel in New York, and the money pit that was the Trump Shuttle went out of business in 1992. Trump companies would ultimately declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy two more times. When would-be borrowers repeatedly file for protection from their creditors, they become poison to most major lenders and, according to financial experts interviewed for this story, such was Trump’s reputation in the U.S. financial industry at that juncture.

The money for the Trump Organization’s comeback came mostly from overseas, and particularly from Russia, where the fall of the Soviet Union had created new billionaires who didn’t trust the Russian legal system and so wanted to get their money out of the country. The Center for American Progress investigated the many business ties between the Trump Organization and Russian oligarchs.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was vital to get the money out of Russia without a trace, stashing it away from the prying eyes of tax agencies or law enforcement. Clandestine transfer was particularly critical if that money represented proceeds of a crime. Foreign real estate soon emerged as a preferred safe harbor.78 And because the Trump Organization reportedly had a reputation for not asking too many questions, Russian money flowed into Trump’s properties. … In September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. famously boasted of the Russian money “pouring in” and then observed that, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”84

CAP’s Moscow Project goes into more detail:

Some of the individual deals have attracted attention, most notably the Russian fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev’s 2008 purchase of one of Trump’s mansions in Palm Beach. He paid a reported $95 million for it—$53 million more than Trump paid for it four years earlier. The transaction has received scrutiny from investigators, particularly because, though Trump justified the price increase by claiming he had “gutted the house” and spent $25 million on renovations, there were few apparent alterations. Such rapid and unexplained increases in price are frequently cited as red flags for money laundering through real estate.

It’s worth noting that the overall Florida real estate market had crashed between 2004 and 2008. Not many Florida property owners were smart enough to double their money during that period.

Trading in your wives is smart. Trump’s brilliance is not restricted to the business world. That whole “forsaking all others” and “till death do you part” thing is just another example of a contract that smart people can wriggle out of. Only suckers grow old with their first spouses, watching their bodies sag and wrinkle with age.

Ivana may have been a 28-year-old model when Trump married her in 1977, but by 1992 she was over 40 and had given birth to three Trump children. Her body was a depreciated asset by that point, so Trump moved on to Marla Maples, who he had met in 1989 when she was 25, and began a relationship with well before his divorce from Ivana. Trump and Maples then divorced in 1999, possibly because he had started dating 28-year-old Melania in 1998.

This short account leaves out his various affairs unrelated to marriage, like Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, as well as the women he has bragged about “grabbing by the pussy“.

At 72, is he done trading for newer models? Melania will turn 50 in 2020, a milestone no previous Trump wife has ever reached.

Employing undocumented immigrants is smart. American workers and green-card holders may have a lot of virtues, but they’re expensive and have a tendency to insist on their rights, all of which is very inconvenient for a business trying to make a profit.

Naturally, then, Trump’s clubs and golf courses have a long history of employing undocumented immigrants. It’s a win-win thing.

Angulo learned to drive backhoes and bulldozers, carving water hazards and tee boxes out of former horse pastures in Bedminster, N.J., where a famous New Yorker was building a world-class course. Angulo earned $8 an hour, a fraction of what a state-licensed heavy equipment operator would make, with no benefits or overtime pay. But he stayed seven years on the grounds crew, saving enough for a small piece of land and some cattle back home.

Now the 34-year-old lives with his wife and daughters in a sturdy house built by “Trump money,” as he put it, with a porch to watch the sun go down.

It’s a common story in this small town [in Costa Rica].

Other former employees of President Trump’s company live nearby: men who once raked the sand traps and pushed mowers through thick heat on Trump’s prized golf property — the “Summer White House,” as aides have called it — where his daughter Ivanka got married and where he wants to build a family cemetery.

“Many of us helped him get what he has today,” Angulo said. “This golf course was built by illegals.”

Cheating people who trust you is smart. The image Trump has consistently presented, particularly in The Art of the Deal, is of a brilliant businessman who received relatively little help from his father or Russian oligarchs, but made billions through his own remarkable abilities.

Who wouldn’t want to learn the secret tactics and techniques of such a successful money-maker? That was the premise of Trump University, a series of workshops and courses available to anybody who believed in the story Trump told about himself. The ads said:

He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.

It was a con, one aimed not at bankers or other real-estate moguls or the government, but at “Americans like you”.

Jason Nicholas, a sales executive at Trump University, recalled a deceptive pitch used to lure students — that Mr. Trump would be “actively involved” in their education. “This was not true,” Mr. Nicholas testified, saying Mr. Trump was hardly involved at all. Trump University, Mr. Nicholas concluded, was “a facade, a total lie.”

Retirees and other folks who couldn’t afford to lose the money were encouraged to max out their credit cards to pay Trump U’s fees. After all, one of Trump’s get-rich secrets was to use other people’s money.

If he hadn’t been elected president, Trump might have stalled the lawsuits from his marks students long enough to get them to settle for far less than the $5 million profit he’s estimated to have made off them. But after the election he decided he needed to make this potential scandal go away, so he settled for $25 million.

Sometimes it’s smart to let the smaller con go so you can pursue the bigger con.

Profiting from public office is smart. Previous presidents have either put their investments in a blind trust or moved them into non-conflicting vehicles like treasury bonds. No law forced them to do this, it was just a political norm that they assumed voters cared about.

It took someone as ingenious as Trump to realize that voters actually don’t care, or that they’ll get used to conflicts of interest that occur on a massive scale.

This effect is similar to the Big Lie technique developed in Germany before World War II: Ordinary people tell little lies, so they’re well practiced at spotting them. But a big lie requires the kind of audacity that ordinary people lack. Since they can’t conceive of telling such a lie, they assume there must be some truth behind it. As one German leader put it: “It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Same thing here: Ordinary people understand small-scale cheating, so they’ll get upset if a politician hires an illegal immigrant as a nanny, for example. But if a president spends over $100 million of public funds on golfing at his own properties — more or less just transferring money from the Treasury into his own pocket — it goes right past them. They’ll care if contributions to a Clinton charity might get you an appointment with the Secretary of State, but if $200,000 paid directly to the President gets you membership in a club he visits almost every weekend, and might result in an ambassadorship, or even put you in a position to run a major government agency, it is so bold that people assume it must be OK.

Ditto for the people who contribute to Trump’s campaign: A big chunk of their contribution goes straight into his pocket, because the campaign is run through Trump properties. Since he became the 2016 nominee, Republican Party events have also largely been moved to Trump properties, generating a considerable profit. It’s right out there in the open, so it can’t be corrupt, can it?

He also profits from foreign governments and US companies who want to get in good with him: They are major patrons of the Trump International Hotel and Trump World Tower. The favors they want come from Trump the President, but the payments go to Trump the businessman.

A related issue is corruption throughout the administration. If one cabinet secretary is corrupt, he or she will stand out and be a scandal. But if nearly all of them are, the story is too big for the public to comprehend.

Changing your beliefs is smart. When Trump was breaking into New York society as the son of a new-money upstart, it was a good idea to profess New York ideas. In 1999, for example, he told Meet the Press:

Well, I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debate the subject. But, you still, I just believe in choice.

In the past, he also has supported gay rights and even trans rights. Over time, though, all that has vanished as he has harmonized his views with the Evangelical Christians who form a large part of his base.

Picture it: If you had been a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, Bible-ignorant, twice-divorced libertine so comfortable in your debauched image that you can joke in public about incest with your daughter, would it have occurred to you that you could become the darling of the religious right? Could you have pulled that transition off?

That takes a kind of genius most of us can’t even imagine.

What about you? If you are a Trump supporter and look too closely at Trump’s ex-wives, Trump U students, or the pro-choice and LGBTQ people who trusted him, you might have a disturbing thought: At some point in the future, he might be able to gain some advantage from double-crossing you too.

Would he do that? Well, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do?

Two Paths to Impeachment

More and more, it looks like impeachment hearings are going to happen eventually. The main question is when, not whether.

The news media is presenting this as an internal struggle among Democrats, with Speaker Pelosi being against impeachment and an increasing portion of her caucus being for it. But I’m reading those tea leaves a little differently: I think Pelosi wants to get to impeachment by a less direct route — appearing less eager, but gathering evidence and building public support in hearings resembling more ordinary Congressional oversight. Her plan, if all goes well, is to arrive in the same place at more-or-less the same time.

Channeling the Speaker. I think her reasoning is correct as far as it goes: While the Democratic base is strongly in favor of impeachment, the party did not run on impeachment when it won its decisive victory in 2018. [1] Pelosi knows that her majority rests on swing districts where voters are not yet convinced that impeachment is necessary.

In Pelosi’s vision (as I channel it), the investigations currently underway in a variety of House committees will eventually produce stunning revelations from subpoenaed documents (like Trump’s tax returns) and riveting public testimony from witnesses (like Robert Mueller and Don McGahn). This will turn public opinion in favor of impeachment, and Democrats can then claim to be following the public rather than leading it somewhere it doesn’t want to go. Conversely, if the public sees the evidence and doesn’t care, a Democratic push to impeach could be a Charge of the Light Brigade — courageous, but ultimately suicidal. [2]

This week, though, Pelosi has barely managed to keep down a revolt in her ranks, from Democrats who want the Judiciary Committee to start impeachment hearings immediately. Their argument is also correct as far as it goes, and Pelosi does not really dispute it: The Mueller Report shows (but does not conclude) that Trump committed obstruction of justice on numerous occasions. [3]

Grounds. More than 900 former federal prosecutors (400 when the linked article was written) have signed a statement including the following:

Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.

The seven obstructions of justice are in addition to a number of other possible offenses, such as violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause and the violations of campaign finance law involved in the payoff to Stormy Daniels. [4]

Abuse of power can also be impeachable, even if the laws have not been technically broken. [5] Now that Trump is making a regular practice out of abusing the national-emergency laws to usurp Congress’ constitutional powers, and denying that Congress has any role in overseeing the Executive Branch, impeachment may be the only way for Congress to defend its status as an equal branch of government. [6]

And in spite of the President’s “no collusion” mantra, the Mueller Report did not completely settle that issue either. At least one of Trump’s obstructions may have succeeded in preventing Mueller from getting to the bottom of things: We know that Paul Manafort gave campaign data to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Russian intelligence operative Konstantin Kilimnik, but we don’t know precisely what or why — possibly because Trump’s witness tampering kept Manafort from cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.

Why not now? The impeachment-now argument has two pieces:

  • Regardless of any political calculations, Congress has a constitutional duty to defend the Republic from presidential criminality. Doing nothing doesn’t just leave Trump in office until the voters (we hope) remove him in 2020; it changes the rules for all future presidents.
  • At crucial moments, Congress has a responsibility to lead the public rather than just follow it. So the Democratic House majority shouldn’t just sit tight and hope that the public catches on to the danger of leaving Trump in office. It needs to go to the public and make that case. By leaving open the possibility that it might not proceed to impeachment, the House is signalling to the American people that what Trump has done and continues to do is not that bad.

What has pushed Democrats towards revolt recently has been Trump’s brazen stonewalling of the various House investigations. More and more, he seems to be claiming an absolute supremacy for the presidency, without checks-and-balances from Congress or the courts. [7]

If his effort succeeds, Congress will not be an equal branch of government any more. Republicans who doubt this should try to imagine their own reaction if President Obama had simply denied that Benghazi was any of the Republican Congress’ concern, and refused to let any executive-branch officials testify to congressional committees.

Appeal to the courts. Trump’s resistance underlines a weakness in our constitutional system: Congress has a great deal of power on paper, but using it largely relies on the good faith of the executive branch. A bad-faith president has many ways to stymie Congress, which has no police force, army, or jail of its own.

And so the House committees have had to go to the third branch of government, the courts, in an effort to enforce their subpoenas. This is necessarily a slow process, and leaves open the possibility that Trump’s lawlessness may lead him to defy court orders the same way that he has been defying congressional subpoenas, moving us near the point of a coup. If it comes to that, the courts command no more guns than Congress does. [8]

The slowness of the legal process, and the possibility that neither Trump’s taxes nor Don McGahn’s testimony will ever become public, has caused Democrats’ frustration to boil over into impeachment talk, in spite of Pelosi.

But Pelosi’s allies raise this point: What problem does an impeachment inquiry solve? An impeachment subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee would subpoena the same documents and witnesses as the other committees have. Trump would likewise refuse to cooperate with those subpoenas, and the subcommittee would file the same lawsuits the other committees have already filed. So where’s the win?

An impeachment subcommittee would be on somewhat more solid legal ground, because it would be addressing an issue that the Constitution delegates to the House specifically. But so far, the House’s position has not lacked for legal strength.

This week, two judges rejected out of hand the Trump administration’s contention that Congress’ investigative power is tightly constrained. They did not suspend their rulings pending appeal, indicating their opinion that Trump’s arguments are baseless. Trump’s lawyers will undoubtedly appeal, but will be forced to appeal quickly before the documents are turned over, rather than using the legal process to stall.

Where the conflict goes. If you believe, as I do, that both paths ultimately go to the same place, ultimately this is all going to come down to three questions:

  • Is the Supreme Court (and its two Trump appointees) as partisan as it sometimes appears, or will it reject Trump’s baseless objections and enforce legal subpoenas?
  • If the Supreme Court rules against him, will Trump comply, or will he defy the united opinion of the legislative and judicial branches of government? This would amount to proclaiming the complete supremacy of the executive branch, and set the stage for dictatorship. [9]
  • If Trump’s disregard of constitutional government becomes that blatant, will Senate Republicans finally turn against him and vote to remove him from office?

I can only hope that by 2021 these scenarios will look hysterical. But given the once-unthinkable actions we’ve seen these last two years, they don’t seem hysterical to me now. I don’t expect events to go this way, but it seems likely enough that we need to be prepared.

If things do go that far, America will face a fourth question, one that comes up frequently in fragile democracies, but has never been raised in the 232 years since the ratification of the Constitution: If Trump would refuse to accept removal from office, what would the armed forces do? My firm belief is that they would back the law rather than the removed president. But let’s hope we never need to find out.


[1] It’s worth noting that, unlike President Trump, Speaker Pelosi represents a majority of the American people.

Democratic candidates for the House got nearly 10 million more votes in 2018 than Republican candidates, winning a 53%-45% popular vote victory. That victory was larger in both raw votes and percentage than the Republicans’ 2010 rout. However, gerrymandering held Pelosi’s majority down to 235-199, compared to the 2010 Republicans’ 242-193 margin.

[2] I often see reference to the public’s reaction against the Clinton impeachment. But Democrats’ shouldn’t read that as a rejection of impeachment in general. The public supported Clinton because they came to believe he was being impeached for what was essentially a private matter. Hillary should have been furious about Monica Lewinsky, but it really wasn’t Congress’ business.

The challenge for the Democrats is to make it clear that a Trump impeachment is about protecting democracy, not just partisan pique.

[3] I counted seven when I read the report. Many people say ten, but that’s not quite right. Mueller examined ten incidents that had some appearance of obstruction, but found all three elements of obstruction in only seven.

I don’t think that makes a significant difference. It’s not like the first seven obstructions of justice are free, but an eighth puts you over the limit.

[4] Michael Cohen has already gone to prison for this.

[5] We have this on the authority of no less an expert than Lindsey Graham.

The point I’m trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office.

[6] Defending the status of Congress was what pushed me over to the impeachment camp a week after writing that I didn’t think the Mueller Report justified it.

[7] I’ve tended to shy away from psychoanalyzing Trump, but here it seems relevant: Throughout his life, Trump has taken a sociopathic view of rules, in which they are simply obstacles to overcome on the way to getting what he wants. By contrast, a properly socialized person sees rules as defining a game we play together. We obey rules not just because we will be punished for breaking them, but because we want the game to continue. (Marriage — another institution whose rules Trump has repeatedly flouted — is a good example here. In a healthy marriage, neither spouse examines the wedding vows for loopholes. Instead, each asks what effect an action has on the relationship, rather than whether it is technically permissible.)

Trump’s attitude occasionally seemed abnormal even in the rough world of New York real estate, where he would honor only as much of a contract as the other party was willing and able to enforce in court. But no previous president — not even Nixon — has ever approached the presidency in such a way. In any conflict, Trump looks at a move and asks “Will it get me what I want?” without regard to whether he is breaking American democracy.

[8] As Stalin is supposed to have asked in regard to the moral force of the Catholic Church, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” John Roberts has the same number.

[9] If he got away with this, Trump might subsequently go along with the forms of democracy, in the same way that Caesar Augustus allowed the forms of the Roman Republic to continue. But like Augustus, he will have shown that no one can stop him from doing whatever he wants.

The Weakness of America First

If we’re just for ourselves, why should anyone else cooperate with us?


The news these last two weeks has been full of foreign policy. The trade war with China has heated up. Conflict with Iran seems closer than ever to a shooting war.

It’s easy to get lost in the details of either story and miss the larger picture: These are both countries that President Obama tried to deal with by forming a broad alliance based on principles. But Trump tore up those agreements and processes in favor of going it alone as part of his “America First” vision.

In both cases, Trump’s approach has put the United States in a far weaker position.

China. On trade, American policy for decades has revolved around establishing “rules of the road”: principles of fair trade that large coalitions of nations could agree to, establishing a club that rogue nations might want to join badly enough to change their behavior. You can argue with the content of any particular agreement — maybe you have a different vision of fair trade and want different rules — but the principle is sound.

Trump has taken a different approach: The United States is bigger than the other kids on the playground, so we’ll make them play a game that we win. Our size advantage is bigger when we deal with other nations one-by-one, so that’s how we’ll do it.

It hasn’t worked. Sovereign nations don’t like to be dictated to, and a foreign leader can gain political support by resisting our domination, even if there’s an economic price to pay.

We should have learned this lesson from Cuba. We are much, much bigger than Cuba, and we threw the biggest economic punch we have: a complete embargo. Cuba is probably considerably poorer than it would be if it had been trading with America these last 57 years. But that economic blow did not destabilize the Castro government or make it do what we wanted.

A more recent signal is that Friday the Trump administration punted on its tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum, getting little more than a return to the status quo ante. No major economy is more dependent on the American market than Canada is. If we can’t use that advantage to push Canada around, what countries can we expect to yield to this approach?

Not China, apparently. China’s economy will be equal to ours in a few years, if it isn’t already. (Roughly, China has four times as many people at a quarter our standard of living. Catching up is easier than leading, though, so their economy is growing much faster than ours. The question is when their economy will pass ours, not whether.) China’s economy is more dependent on exports than ours is, so a tariff war strikes harder there. But I suspect their government is less vulnerable to popular discontent than ours, which points the other way.

So Trump’s tariff threats have not brought the Chinese to their knees. And since that’s the only card he knows how to play, he has to keep raising the stakes, assessing larger and larger tariffs on more and more Chinese goods. Meanwhile, Chinese reprisals are hitting America farmers hard, and government bailouts are a poor substitute for a fair price on soybeans.

In addition to just wanting to export more and import less, the US has legitimate issues with China: protecting intellectual property, mainly, and perhaps also an artificially low valuation of China’s currency. But those are rules-of-the-road issues. Wouldn’t it make more sense to form a club that obeyed those rules, and make it so attractive that China would change its behavior in order to join?

That was the whole idea behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled the plug on. I know lots of people had lots of complaints with various features of the TPP, but the general strategy was correct: Don’t negotiate with China one-on-one, negotiate as part of a trade alliance that also includes Japan, Canada, Singapore, and a bunch of other nations.

Iran. The other big foreign-policy story of recent weeks has been the increased tensions with Iran, which led to this Trump tweet on Sunday:

If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!

This resembles his fire-and-fury threat against North Korea, which has led neither to fire and fury nor to any substantive concessions from the Kim regime. The Hill sums up recent escalations:

In recent weeks, the U.S. has deployed a carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf in response to what national security adviser John Bolton said were aggressive moves by Iran in the region. On Wednesday, the State Department pulled all nonemergency personnel from Iraq, citing possible threats from sectarian militias with ties to Iran.

We’ve also made noises about sending 120,000 troops to the area, and have been ratcheting up pressure on Iran’s economy, trying to choke off its oil exports. (Iran’s biggest customer is China, by the way. What if China strikes back against Trump’s tariffs with something more than just reprisal tariffs?)

Many have compared this increasing pressure to the build-up to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002-2003, but one feature of President Bush’s strategy is missing: our allies. The British, for example, don’t seem to be on board.

The top British general in the US-led coalition against Isis has said there is no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria, directly contradicting US assertions used to justify a military buildup in the region.

Iran is roughly three times the size of Iraq, so a reasonable guess would be that war with Iran would be three times as nasty. Wouldn’t it be nice to confront Iran with a coalition of powerful nations rather than stand alone against them?

Guess what? Obama did precisely that, and Trump tore it up.

The Iran nuclear agreement included not just us and them, but also the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, and France, plus the EU. Those countries were all committed to re-establishing economic sanctions if Iran violated the terms of the agreement, which so far it seems not to have done. (Though it has announced that it may start enriching uranium again, given that it’s getting so little benefit out of the deal now that Trump has unilaterally imposed new sanctions.)

If that deal unravels, and if the other parties to the deal blame the US (as they clearly should), then we’ll be in a far worse position than we were before the deal was signed: Iran will be on course for a nuclear weapon again, and we’ll be on our own trying to stop them.

America First means America Alone. The United States is strongest when it stands for something more than just its own interests. If it stands for human rights, for mutual security, for a fair system of international trade, for nuclear non-proliferation, and for a multi-national approach to global challenges like climate change, then the US can lead a broad coalition and get things done.

What’s more, a principle-based approach is a bigger political threat to governments that oppose us. Imagine you’re a citizen of China or Iran. President Obama was asking your country to become a responsible member of the community of nations. But Trump just wants to push your country around and gain an advantage over you. When your own government starts asking you to make sacrifices, aren’t you more likely to make them willingly against Trump?

If we have no vision of a just world order, but are just out to win for ourselves, why should anyone cooperate with us? Why should traditional allies like Canada or the UK support us? Why should dissident elements in Iran or China put pressure on their leaders to make a deal with us?

America First means America Alone, facing rivals who are internally united against us. Far from being “great again”, Trump’s America is considerably weaker than America has been in our lifetimes.

What should “electable” mean?

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


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

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

We can’t let that happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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