Category Archives: Articles

A few observations on Biden’s documents

We don’t know anything all that bad yet.
But there’s still a lot we don’t know. Let’s wait and see.

So far, I’ve seen very few people frame this story properly. The popular choices seem to be: it’s a nothingburger, or it’s just like Trump’s documents scandal. In my mind, the proper framing is that we don’t know how bad this is yet, but it’s being investigated, and before long we will know.

Obviously, there are major differences between Biden’s document problem and Trump’s. The main one is that Biden’s people immediately turned the documents in and seem to have cooperated with the investigation in every way. Probably Biden never would have been caught otherwise. Trump, on the other hand, has done everything he could to deny and obstruct, including having his lawyer sign a false statement of subpoena compliance affirming that all classified material had been turned over, when in fact it hadn’t been.

Here the facts-as-we-know-them so far: Something like 20-30 classified documents have been found in two locations: the office Biden used during the Trump administration at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy in D.C., and Biden’s home in Delaware. The Penn documents were found on November 2, and the ones at the Biden home on various days between December 2 and January 20. The original documents were found by Biden’s own people, and the most recent ones were found by an FBI search that Biden agreed to voluntarily. Assuming the FBI search was thorough, they’ve probably recovered all the documents now.

The response of Biden and his people suggests the mishandling of documents is due to innocent carelessness, but there’s still a lot we (and the special prosecutor) don’t know:

  • how the documents got there,
  • whether Biden himself mishandled the documents or people working for him did,
  • what’s in the documents,
  • whether the mishandling resulted in classified information leaking to enemies of the United States,
  • whether any pattern in the documents suggests that Biden kept them intentionally.

Nothing we know so far suggests that these questions have sinister answers, but we don’t know for sure yet. They should be investigated, and they are being investigated.

The general public has a poor understanding of the rules about handling classified documents and how violations are typically handled. (This became an issue during the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which I wrote about at length at the time. Everything I said then has held up pretty well.)

I’ll pass along my experience from working at a defense contractor and having a top-secret clearance back in the 80s and early 90s. First, the government and the contractors do take this stuff very seriously, but given that millions of people are handling millions of classified documents, violations are happening all the time. Most of them are simple and harmless, like somebody leaving a secret document in a desk drawer overnight rather than locking it up in a safe, like you’re supposed to do.

Not every violation is a federal case. I was never cited for a violation myself, but I heard about people who were. Typically, a careless violation would get you an unpleasant meeting with your boss and somebody from the security department, as well as a note in your file that would speak badly the next time you were considered for a promotion or a raise.

A series of careless violations might get you fired — nobody I knew personally ever was — but people would only be charged with a crime if they were intentionally stealing documents. (That’s why the apparent differences in the Trump and Biden situations matter.)

The Trump and Biden incidents may be linked politically, but they are not at all linked legally. Assuming the Biden investigation doesn’t turn up anything more than carelessness (which, I emphasize again, we don’t know yet) it would be completely reasonable if Trump gets charged with multiple crimes and Biden doesn’t.

Let me make an analogy: Suppose an object in my apartment turns out to have been taken in some burglary. I might have gotten this item innocently; maybe I bought it at a second-hand store. Or I might have some level of guilt; maybe I bought from somebody I knew was shady, or maybe I was involved in the burglary myself. Police should investigate and charge or not charge me accordingly.

Meanwhile, police in a different state find something from an unrelated burglary in somebody else’s home. They also will investigate and charge or not charge the other guy. But those charging decisions are not linked in any way.

That’s how it should be here. The two special prosecutors should do their jobs independently, and the decisions they make should depend on the facts they find in their own particular investigations, without reference to the other investigation. That’s what the rule of law demands, and what I will expect until I get some indication otherwise.

People who assume that this will not happen — say, that Trump can’t be charged now that Biden has an incident with a surface similarity — are implicitly buying Trump’s claim that the investigations into his possible crimes are fundamentally political. Personally, I don’t buy that claim, and I think that reporters and pundits who do base their analysis on such an assumption should say so openly.

There is one important sense in which the cases are not similarly politically: Biden is a politician, while Trump is the leader of a personality cult.

That’s why I can be so calm about a special prosecutor investigating Biden: If he did something wrong, he should face appropriate consequences. I’m fine with that. If the special prosecutor does does unexpectedly turn up something sinister, I’m sure Kamala Harris will be a fine president.

For a large number of Republicans, on the other hand, Trump is not just someone they voted for. He’s their lord and savior, and seeing him in jail would be an unimaginable horror.

Finally, the press coverage of Biden’s documents has been abysmal. In his “Breaking the News” blog (which I subscribe to, but I think you’ll be able to follow the link even if you don’t), James Fallows talks about a variety of recent framing issues, including the Biden documents.

But as a matter of journalistic practice, I think our colleagues need to recognize our enormous responsibility and “agency” about what becomes an issue or controversy. “Raises questions,” “suggests a narrative,” “creates obstacles”—these aren’t like tornados or wildfires, things that occur on their own and we just report on. They are judgments reporters and editors make, “frames” they choose to present. And can choose not to.

The whole article is worth a read.

The Debt Ceiling: a (p)review

The chaos surrounding the Speaker vote may be a preview of a far more consequential vote this summer.

As the House of Representatives endured round after round of voting for a new speaker, most of America probably didn’t take the turmoil all that seriously. It was just Congress being dysfunctional again, and we knew already that the next speaker would be a Republican. Obviously, Kevin McCarthy cared which Republican it would be. But why should we care?

The answer to that question is simple: The battle for the speakership probably doesn’t matter much in itself, but it’s a preview of future votes that will matter. Electing a speaker was the first of a handful of must-do items every Congress faces. The others — appropriating money to keep the government functioning and giving the Treasury permission to borrow money to pay the country’s bills — have very real consequences.

If the speakership was this difficult to decide, what’s going to happen when the other must-do items come up?

In each of those cases, the House is one of the three powers that need to agree; the Senate and the President are the others. So over the next two years, Kevin McCarthy, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden will occasionally have to go into a room and come out with an agreement they all support. That agreement will then need to get majorities in both the House and Senate.

Otherwise bad things will happen.

McCarthy’s precarious hold on the speakership makes him a difficult negotiating partner: If he recognizes that he represents only 1/3 of the power in the room and makes realistic compromises, he might well be deposed when he takes that agreement back to the Republican caucus that elected him. And whatever he agrees to, he may not be able to deliver the votes to pass it.

The upshot is that the other must-do items on Congress’ agenda may not get done, or may face lengthy delays. The two possible consequences of that inaction are a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling crisis.

Government shutdowns are a nuisance. Hitting the debt ceiling would be a disaster. There have been a number of government shutdowns over the years, including a 35-day shutdown just four years ago (when President Trump backed out of an agreement that didn’t include funding for his border wall). So most Americans have at least a vague understanding of what happens: The mail still gets delivered and Social Security checks go out, but hundreds of thousands of other government workers go home, creating work-backlogs that ultimately cost billions to resolve.

It’s a nuisance and a waste, but the country survives it.

But Americans have a much shakier understanding of a debt-ceiling violation, which has never happened. Twice — in 2011 and 2013 — a Republican Congress played chicken with President Obama over the debt ceiling, but disaster was avoided both times. (The debt ceiling was increased three times under President Trump, including once in 2019 after Democrats took control of the House.)

The main thing you need to understand about hitting the debt ceiling is that it would be a much bigger deal than a government shutdown, and would create havoc in both the US and the world economy.

What the debt ceiling is. The debt ceiling (or debt limit) is a legal cap on the amount of money the United States can borrow. It was established in 1917, and is a relic from an era when Congress didn’t have a budgeting process anything like the current one.

The current process is that Congress passes a budget with spending and revenue targets, and then passes individual appropriation bills within that framework. You might think that passing a budget with a deficit would automatically authorize borrowing to fill the gap, but it doesn’t. Having passed those bills, Congress can then refuse to raise the debt limit, creating a contradiction in the laws.

Other countries don’t do this. Only the US and Denmark have a debt ceiling, and Denmark’s political parties never play chicken with it.

Fundamentally, the US debt limit is just a dumb idea. Remember the various Star Trek episodes where the Enterprise’s self-destruct option played a role? The captain (and maybe some other officers) would have to go through a detailed authorization process to start the clock counting down. Our debt ceiling is like a self-destruct process that works the other way: Self-destruct will engage automatically unless the officers regularly go through some complicated process to stop it.

Arguably, Democrats should have abolished the debt limit while they had control of Congress, or at least raised it far enough to keep the issue at bay for another two years. The recent omnibus spending bill would have been the place to do it, but it was hard enough getting Mitch McConnell’s cooperation as it was.

The politics of the debt ceiling. For almost a century, debt ceiling debates were political theater without any real drama. It was an opportunity for the party out of power to bemoan the country’s fiscal health, and members of each house would cast symbolic votes against raising the ceiling. (Senator Barack Obama made such a speech and cast such a vote in 2006.) But everybody knew the bill had to pass, and it always did.

Occasionally other measures would get tacked onto a bill to raise the debt ceiling. In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of reforms to Congress’ budgeting process were added, like the Budget Reform Act of 1990. These were process bills (with bipartisan support) that made it more difficult to pass unbalanced budgets in the future. They did not directly raise taxes or cut spending.

That changed after the Tea Party wave election of 2010. In both 2011 and 2013, Republicans used the threat of breaching the debt ceiling to try to extort severe spending cuts out of President Obama.

Where is the debt ceiling now? The current ceiling (set in December, 2021) is a little less than $31.4 trillion, and the current debt is getting close to that number. There are certain accounting games (which I don’t understand) that the Treasury can play around the margins, but the best guesses are that if nothing is done, the limit will be reached sometime this summer.

What that means is that the Treasury will only be able to sell new bonds as old bonds come due. It will not be legal to sell bonds to pay for the government’s new financial obligations, like interest payments or salaries or Social Security benefits.

Recent annual deficits have been running at around $1 trillion (after peaking at $3.1 trillion in fiscal 2020, the last full year of the Trump administration). So assuming the economy perked along nicely in every other way, a post-debt-ceiling government would have to find $80-100 billion in cuts every month — and probably a lot more than that, because the economy would NOT perk along nicely, resulting in decreased revenues and increased obligations.

Think about the position that would put the Biden administration in: US law limits the revenue it can collect and obligates it to make certain payments (like Social Security benefits, salaries for our soldiers, and interest payments to bond holders). But if those numbers don’t balance and it is forbidden to borrow, there is no legal path for the administration to take. The laws contradict each other, so whatever he does, President Biden will be violating his constitutional duty to “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed”.

The US Treasury will be like a family that has to decide which bills to pay after they cash a paycheck. (“Is the WalMart payroll tax payment in yet? Oh, good, we can reimburse a few of those hospitals that have been taking care of Medicare patients.”)

The main effect on the world economy would result from no one knowing what US Treasury bonds are really worth. (Will the interest be paid? What happens when the principal comes due?) Banks around the world keep their reserves in US bonds, so many of them could become insolvent, starting a banking crisis. No one can predict how far that effect would snowball, as a bankruptcy here makes somebody else insolvent, leading to a new bankruptcy there.

Would Biden have any legal options? Maybe. Many possibilities were discussed in 2011 and 2013, but they’re all of the play-stupid-games, win-stupid-prizes variety. (Paul Krugman expressed this sentiment in more sophisticated Princeton-professor terms: “Outrageous behavior demands extraordinary responses.”)

One proposal that sounds like a joke, but was seriously discussed in 2013 was the trillion-dollar-coin. Apparently, a loophole in the law allows the Treasury to create platinum coins of any value.

The Secretary may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.

The intent was to allow the Treasury to make occasional commemorative coins for collectors. But desperate times …

So in this scenario, the Treasury mints a single trillion-dollar coin, which it then takes to a Federal Reserve bank and deposits in the government’s account. Presto! There is now money to meet the government’s obligations.

The general opinion of both the Obama and Biden administrations was/is that such a scheme is beneath the dignity of the United States. But you never know.

But if that’s what it takes …” There’s a school of thought that says hitting the debt ceiling is the lesser evil: Our steadily increasing debt is unsustainable, and if a crash into the debt ceiling forces the government to only spend what it takes in, that’s all to the good.

That debt’s unsustainability is debatable. (Japan’s national debt is two-and-a-quarter years’ GDP, and they show no signs of collapse. The US debt is one-and-a-quarter years’ GDP.) The important thing to note here is that Congress could balance the budget whenever it wants, by raising taxes and/or cutting spending. That happened at the end of the Clinton administration, so it’s not impossible.

The reason a balanced budget doesn’t happen is that the voters don’t really want it to. Balanced budget is a phrase that polls well, but when you get down to the details, people don’t want to pay higher taxes or give up their health insurance to make it happen. And while it’s not hard to find the occasional $600 hammer or bridge-to-nowhere in the federal budget, you’re not going to find a trillion dollars of that stuff, year after year.

Also, it’s hard to take Republican deficit hawks seriously when they ignored the deficit completely during the Trump years, and instead passed a budget-busting tax cut for corporations and the rich. (One thing I can guarantee you: If there’s a debt-ceiling or government-shutdown crisis sometime in the next two years, Republicans will say that tax increases are off the table.)

But suppose you are the rare good-faith Republican deficit hawk who is not just trying to create an artificial crisis for a Democratic president. What should you do? Convince the voters. You should try to build a popular majority around the idea of a balanced budget — a real balanced budget, with numbers backed by actual taxing and spending policies, and not just the words “balanced budget”. Then your popular majority could elect a House, Senate, and president to implement your balanced budget (which Republicans definitely did not do the last time they controlled all the levers of power).

What you shouldn’t do is stand over the self-destruct button and threaten to press it unless you get your way. That’s not democracy. That’s hostage-taking. It’s terrorism.

Hostage-taking? Terrorism? Really? Hostage-taking and terrorism are pejorative terms that are nothing more than insults if they’re not defined. So here’s what I mean by them: hostage-taking is a negotiating tactic based on threats rather than positive offers; in particular, the hostage-taker threatens to do something that does not benefit him or her, and usually claims that s/he does not want to do it.

So when a kidnapper asks for ransom to give your daughter back, at some level that looks like a trade: money for your daughter. But it’s not a positive offer, because the kidnapper is only offering to restore what he took away. The proposed final deal is that the kidnapper gets money, and (at best) you get back to square one, minus the money.

The alternative to the ransom is that the kidnapper will kill your daughter, which he claims he doesn’t want to do. (“I’m not a monster. I don’t enjoy killing little girls.”) So neither of you wants the kill-the-girl option, but the kidnapper is counting on the fact that you are so desperate to avoid it that you’ll do anything else instead.

Terrorism is a political tactic: the attempt to gain a political advantage through threats of destruction.

In the case of the debt ceiling, it’s instructive to read Republican speeches from previous debt-ceiling crises. In 2013, for example, John Boehner acknowledged that the US was on the path to defaulting on its debt if the ceiling wasn’t raised, and acknowledged on another occasion that “Yes, allowing America to default would be irresponsible.” But Republicans didn’t frame this looming disaster as a common peril that they and President Obama should work together to avoid. Instead, Obama should pay for their cooperation by making concessions without getting anything in return. According to Ted Cruz:

Republicans were looking for three things before raising the debt ceiling: a significant structural plan to reduce government spending, no new taxes, and measures to “mitigate the harm from Obamacare.”

So Obama should scrap his signature program while agreeing to spending cuts Republicans wanted, with no indication of any priority Republicans might compromise on. The upshot was just: “Do what we want, or the country gets it.”

Next summer’s crisis. A new hostage-taking crisis was in the background of this week’s speaker election. Nearly all the 20 Republican holdouts who blocked Kevin McCarthy’s election for 14 ballots were also supporters of the January 6 insurrection, and are now gearing up for debt-ceiling battle. They were terrorists two years ago, and they’re terrorists now.

McCarthy critic Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said he wanted McCarthy to devise a debt-limit deal suitable to fiscal conservatives. “Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling? That’s a non-negotiable item.”

We can only hope that Norman and other Republican congressmen understand the difference between a government shutdown and a debt default, or that they will pay attention when someone explains it to them.

CNN reported being told by anti-McCarthy holdout Scott Perry that he had gotten a promise from McCarthy that he would oppose a clean debt-ceiling increase, i.e., one with no ransom demands. The procedural concessions McCarthy has made mean that he can be recalled as speaker if he doesn’t negotiate a high enough ransom. Jonathan Chait doubts that any amount of ransom will be enough.

Imagine a Republican Speaker — any Republican Speaker — figuring out a ransom that almost the entire caucus could agree on. The intraparty dynamics virtually guarantee that anything a Republican leader could agree to would immediately be seen on the far right as too little. All is to say that even if you think Biden ought to negotiate a debt-ceiling-ransom demand, it’s now a practical impossibility.

What the government spends money on. Like balanced budget, the phrase spending cuts tends to poll well in the abstract. There’s a widespread feeling — especially on the right, but also in the electorate at large — that the government spends too much money.

The problem is that most people who feel that way don’t have a clear notion of what the government spends money on. They imagine a budget full of foreign aid, welfare payments to people who don’t want to work, and boondoggle projects that don’t serve any purpose.

If you look at where the money actually goes, though, it’s clear that you can’t make a sizeable dent in federal spending without cutting health care, pensions, or defense. As the population ages, an ever-increasing amount of money will get spent on Social Security and Medicare.

When you understand the reality of federal spending, you see that any serious balance-the-budget deal that doesn’t include major tax increases will have to make significant cuts in Social Security and Medicare. And the Republicans have never run on that platform. “Cut Social Security and Medicare so that the rich can keep the Trump tax cuts” is an absolutely suicidal political platform. That’s why the only way to implement it is through terrorism. They’ll never get there through the democratic process.

The best-case scenario. The main power of the Speaker is to control what comes up for a vote in the House. But there is a way around it: a discharge petition. If a majority of the House members sign a petition to bring a bill to the floor, the Speaker has to allow a vote on it.

Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick suggested that a discharge petition might be how the debt ceiling gets raised. It would only take five Republicans and all the Democrats to make that happen.

The problem, though, is similar to the problem of impeaching Trump a few years ago: The Republicans who signed such a petition would be marked for primary challenges and probably voted out.

Are there still five Republicans in Congress with that kind of courage? We may find out.

Partying like it’s 1942

2022 included a lot of suffering and loss.
But if recent trends continue, we might look back on it as a turning point.

In his six-volume history of World War II, Winston Churchill named the fourth volume — the one that covered 1942 — The Hinge of Fate. To the people living through 1942, I doubt it looked all that wonderful. But from the perspective of the Allies’ eventual victory, it was the year when everything turned around.

There’s reason to hope we might look back on 2022 that way, someday.

2022 was a year when the bottom did not fall out. It tempted us to imagine many horrible outcomes, which then did not come to pass. It was a year of dodged bullets.

That’s what a hinge year looks like.

At the end of 1941, it would have been easy to imagine a total Axis victory. Hitler had overwhelmed Western Europe and conquered the Balkans. Now German troops were just outside Moscow, and he seemed on the verge of driving the British out of Egypt. Japan had crippled the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, and its troops were advancing throughout Southeast Asia. Both Singapore and the Philippines would fall in the first half of 1942.

But 1942 began with Russia’s winter campaign inflicting enormous casualties on the Nazi forces. In May and June the US Navy had defensive victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway. In July, the British stopped Rommel’s advance at El Alamein. By the end of 1942 the battle of Stalingrad, which the Soviets would win decisively in early 1943, had begun.

On New Years Day in 1943, I doubt a lot of Americans believed they were on a glide path to victory. If we had lost the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, Australia and Hawaii might have fallen. Stalingrad was still in doubt. Rommel might regroup and start advancing again. Only in retrospect, when the dodged bullets of 1942 led to a string of victories in 1943-45, did 1942 look like a hinge year. But that’s how historians think of it now.

Now think about 2022. A year ago, Russian troops were massing around Ukraine, Covid had developed its new Omicron variant, and pundits were predicting a 2010/1994-style red wave in the fall elections. Worse than the simple prospect of a Republican Congress, backers of Trump’s big lie were running for secretary of state in all the purple states, setting up the possibility of a better-organized coup in 2024. Trump himself had survived the brief spasm of Republican conscience after January 6, and was firmly in control of the party again. A House committee was investigating January 6, but no one knew what it was finding. By the time it told the public anything, would people still care? And even if it uncovered evidence against Trump, did Merrick Garland have the balls to do anything about it? Like Trump, Jair Bolsonaro was running for a second term in Brazil. As we know from the previous examples of Hungary and India, the second term is when fascism consolidates.

Democracy, both at home and overseas, was losing.

Ukraine. In February, Russia opened a full invasion of Ukraine, with the announced intention of ending the fiction of Ukrainian statehood. The Ukrainians seemed outmanned and outgunned. This vision seemed very plausible:

Consider the following scenario: the front lines are in shambles, the army has been defeated, the road to Kyiv is clear, and the West imposes more sanctions but refuses to go to war. In Ukraine’s capital city, riots erupt in large numbers. Protesters call on the government to step down. Armed groups storm government buildings throughout the country as riots swiftly turn violent. President Zelensky, along with a portion of the pro-Western elite, resigns and departs the country. A transitional administration is built around a simple agenda: sign an immediate ceasefire with Russia (or with whomever Russia chooses, such as the Donetsk or Luhansk People’s Republic) under any circumstances, and organize a constituent assembly election.

President Biden wanted to help the Ukrainians, but would NATO follow his lead? NATO’s unity of purpose and trust in American leadership had decayed badly during the Trump years, when the American president had openly wondered whether newer NATO members like Montenegro were worth defending, and seemed to hold Vladimir Putin in much higher regard than any democratic leader.

So where would NATO be, after Ukraine fell? Perhaps it would splinter, leaving its more exposed members (like the Baltic republics) open to Russia bullying.

Miss Ukraine Universe, “Warrior of Light”

None of that happened.

Instead, national independence turned out to mean a great deal to Ukrainians, who rallied around President Zelenskyy as a Churchillian figure. President Biden did a masterful job reuniting NATO around its original purpose of stopping Russian aggression. Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership.

The Russian military proved not to be the efficient machine everyone had imagined. It suffered from weak morale, bad planning, and poor equipment. In the north, its forces have been thrown back completely. In the west and south, they have been retreating since summer.

But hinge years are not victorious romps. All this has come at tremendous cost.

For the US, that cost has been almost entirely financial: In 2022 we spent $23 billion on military aid for Ukraine and an additional $25 billion in non-military aid. The recently passed FY 2023 omnibus spending bill included an additional $45 billion. Sanctions on Russian oil and gas undoubtedly have contributed to our inflation, but US troops are not dying and missiles are not falling on American cities.

The direct suffering is being borne by Ukrainians. Casualty estimates are unreliable, but both civilian and military deaths are likely in the tens of thousands. Nearly 8 million Ukrainians (out of a pre-war 41 million, not counting Crimea) are estimated to have fled the country. As of September, one independent estimate of damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure was $127 billion. The same group claimed GDP had fallen by 45%. (Numbers like these came to mind when I read a tweet from Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren objecting to the Ukraine aid in the omnibus bill: “No more money to Ukraine!!! We can’t fight this war for you for eternity!!!”) Our complaints about gas prices must amuse Ukrainian civilians, who — even if they aren’t currently hearing explosions — frequently lose electric power and have trouble staying warm.

But, as the cliche goes, you should see the other guy. Official Russian casualty numbers are either nonexistent or inaccurate, but BBC/Mediazona have compiled a list (by name) of 10,000 Russians soldiers who have died. A complete death list would undoubtedly be much larger, with the CIA estimating 15,000 Russian deaths already by last summer. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley recently estimated Russia had suffered over 100,000 soldiers either killed or wounded. Other sources claim the loss of 3000 tanks, hundreds of planes and helicopters, and 16 boats and ships, including the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, the Moskva.

The blow to Russian prestige has been enormous, and Putin’s ability to intimidate other countries — including the other former Soviet republics — has diminished considerably. Whether all this losing has weakened Putin’s grip on power in Russia itself is hard to judge from the outside. But one indication of internal dissension is the incredible number of oligarchs who have died mysteriously since the war began. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have left the country, either to avoid military service, escape political repression, or perhaps just because they don’t like how things are going more generally.

The 1-6 Committee. On January 7, 2021, and for a week or two afterward, American political leaders of both parties were united in their horror over January 6: Watching Trump supporters violently attack the Capitol, threaten to hang Vice President Pence, and search House offices looking for Speaker Pelosi was too much to stomach, even for Republicans.

But then they saw their base standing by Trump, so they came around. By the time of the impeachment vote in February — which could have disqualified Trump from holding any future office — Mitch McConnell was trying to have it both ways: Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for January 6, but McConnell wouldn’t vote to convict.

Before long, Trump was firmly back in control of the Republican Party, and the official position of the GOP was that nothing about January 6 needed investigating. They blocked a bipartisan commission, tried to bluff Nancy Pelosi into accepting co-conspirator Jim Jordan on the House Select Committee, and boycotted the committee after Pelosi refused.

Nothing to see, just let it go.

The Department of Justice also seemed inclined to let it go. While pursing hundreds of cases against the individuals who invaded the Capitol, DoJ was showing little interest in the planners, or the larger coup plot the riot was part of.

Since the Committee’s hearings began in June, many Democrats have lamented their inability to break through to the Trump base: If you thought at the time that the riot was an appropriate response to a stolen election, you probably still do.

But the hearings kept the issue alive for the other 2/3rds of the country, including a small but decisive slice of the Republican vote in November that supported establishment Republicans like Gov. Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, but couldn’t vote for a Trumpist election-denier like Don Bolduc in the Senate race. Across the country, pro-coup governor and secretary of state candidates went down to defeat, often in states that elected other Republicans.

In the lame-duck session after the election, Congress passed a reform of the Electoral Count Act, to make Trump’s shenanigans harder next time. Merrick Garland named a special prosecutor to pursue Trump’s legal liability.

It’s not justice — yet. But running out the clock has not worked for Trump. No one who wants him to face a jury feels threatened by the questions “Why are you still hanging onto that? Why can’t you just move on?” That’s what the 1-6 Committee accomplished.

Additionally, the midterm voters weakened the entire MAGA movement. Post-election analysis identified a “Trump tax” that might have cost MAGA candidates as much as 7% of the vote. The 2024 Republican nomination now looks likely to be a donnybrook. (Anyone who thinks a MAGA-without-Trump candidate like Ron DeSantis is the only alternative should consult with President Rick Perry. A lot can still happen.)

Making democracy work. In his first year, President Biden managed to get two important bills through Congress: the American Rescue Plan (to tackle the Covid crisis) and a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Those were both major accomplishments, given the Democrats’ slim House majority and a 50-50 Senate that included recalcitrant Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

But surely in a midterm election year, Congress would grind to a halt. We’ve been accustomed to gridlock for many years, even in Congresses with far larger majorities. Of course it would be back.

It wasn’t. In addition to the aforementioned reform of the Electoral Count Act, Congress passed its first significant anti-climate-change bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. Also, the bipartisan CHIPS Act (which invests in the American semiconductor industry), the Respect for Marriage Act (protecting same-sex and interracial marriages against future Supreme Court decisions), and the first gun control legislation in decades.

One explanation for November’s disappearing red wave is that Democrats in Congress had a popular record to run on. The public wants our government to work. (Another explanation is that voters rallied against the Supreme Court, which took away American women’s right to bodily autonomy. As in Ukraine, big costs have been paid.)

As we enter 2023, expert speculation expects apocalyptic showdowns between the new Republican majority in the House and the Democratic Senate and White House, with major unnecessary crises and no substantive legislation. We’ll see if that happens, and if it does, we’ll see how the public reacts. The American people want this all to work.

The world. On Sunday, Brazil had a peaceful transfer of power, with Lula replacing Bolsonaro. The voters of Brazil (narrowly) decided they didn’t want fascism, and the much-rumored Bolsonaro coup never came to pass.

Elsewhere, it’s the authoritarian governments that seem to be facing the most unrest. Protests continue in Iran, despite a government crackdown that includes executions. The Chinese government backed down on its zero-Covid policies in the face of protests. Putin is increasingly isolated in Russia.

The world did not decisively reject authoritarianism and fascism in 2022. (The right-wing coalition that returned Netanyahu to power in Israel is worrisome.) But the global drift away from democracy was checked. Around the world, bullets are being dodged.

A hinge year depends on what happens next. 1942 was “the hinge of fate” in World War II because of what happened the next three years. On New Years 1943, it wasn’t obvious that the Soviets would win at Stalingrad, or that Axis advances elsewhere wouldn’t resume at any moment.

The same thing holds for 2022. We might someday look back on it as the year when everything turned around. But will we? That depends on 2023 and 2024.

Trump still has no counter-narrative

Rather than tell his side of the story, Trump attacks anyone who wants to know what happened on January 6.

This week, the House Select Committee wrapped up its work with an 800-page final report that fleshed out with many details (supported by testimony and documents) the story it started telling in its first public hearing in June.

Before the 2020 election was even held, Donald Trump was plotting to retain power after losing:

  • He would encourage his voters to vote in person (rather than early or by mail) so that their votes (in many key states) would be counted first, giving him an early lead.
  • He would prematurely declare victory and promote the false belief that his eventual defeat was due to fraud. He would suborn government institutions (like the Justice Department) to give his big lie false credibility.
  • By pressuring Republican election officials, legislatures, and judges, he would try to prevent key states from certifying their results and appointing Biden electors to the Electoral College.
  • He would encourage local Republican Party organizations to assemble false slates of electors with forged certificates, and to send their votes for Trump to Congress as if they were legitimate electoral votes.
  • He would pressure Republican legislatures, Vice President Pence, and Republicans in Congress either to recognize his false electors, or to rule that states Biden won were “disputed” so the legitimate Biden electoral votes should not be counted.
  • He would assemble his violent supporters on January 6, and send them to the Capitol for the purpose of intimidating the Congress, disrupting its meeting, and preventing its certification of Biden’s victory.

I think this is a good time to re-emphasize a point I first made in July: Trump has never presented an alternate story in anything but the most general terms: He won the election and it was stolen from him. January 6 was a protest by patriotic Americans legitimately angered by a stolen election, perhaps egged on by an Antifa false-flag operation.

Trump has consistently fought against any attempt to flesh out that account with checkable details. Any stolen-election theory is as good as any other; he has never denied even the most outrageous ones. All his January 6 supporters were patriots; he has never denounced any of them. (In the video message where he finally asked the rioters to go home — after letting the riot play out for three hours, during which more than 100 Capitol police were injured — he said “We love you. You’re very special.“) No members or leaders of the Antifa false-flag operation have been identified. (Antifa itself may not even exist, at least not as a national organization capable of pulling off large-scale operations.)

It’s easy for both the media and members of the general public to miss the significance of this, or even to overlook it entirely. We are used to framing our political discussions in terms of two sides each trying to tell their own stories. (Climate change, for example, is either a looming catastrophe that requires radical reorganization of our economy, or a dubious projection of climate models whose “solutions” are far more expensive than what they would prevent. Racism is either a continuing structural problem in our society, or a historical artifact that was never central to America’s identity.)

But this political debate is different: On one side we have the January 6 Committee trying to tell a story as thoroughly as possible, and on the other we have Trump trying to prevent a story from being told at all.

Nothing illuminates that distinction better than a bit of gaslighting Trump posted to his Truth Social account about a week after the Committee’s first public hearing:

I have sooo many witnesses to everything good, but the highly partisan and one sided Unselect Committee of political hacks has not interest in hearing or seeing them. This Witch Hunt could all be ended quickly if they did!

Six months later, we still have no idea who these “sooo many witnesses” might be, or what they would say. We do know who they aren’t:

  • Steve Bannon, who is currently appealing his four-month prison sentence for defying the Committee’s subpoena.
  • Peter Navarro, whose trial for the same offense will start in January.
  • Mark Meadows, who has also defied a subpoena and been cited for contempt of Congress, but has not been indicted for it by the Department of Justice. So far, though, Meadows is losing his battle not to testify to the Fulton County grand jury that is investigating Trump’s attempt to overturn his 2020 loss in Georgia.
  • Pat Cipollone, who eventually submitted to a subpoena, but invoked executive privilege to avoid discussing his conversations with Trump. (He did, however, corroborate “almost everything that we’ve learned from the prior hearings”.) Cipollone also lost his battle to avoid testifying to the Fulton County grand jury.
  • Michael Flynn, John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark, and Roger Stone, who did testify, but dodged questions by repeatedly invoking the Fifth Amendment. (Flynn even took the Fifth when Liz Cheney asked whether he believed in the peaceful transfer of power.)
  • Bill Barr, who testified that he told Trump his election-fraud claims were “bullshit“.
  • First daughter Ivanka Trump, who told the Committee that she believed Barr.
  • Barr’s successor Jeffrey Rosen and his second-in-command Richard Donoghue (both Trump appointees) who characterized some of the election-fraud claims as “pure insanity“. They blocked an effort to use the Justice Department to pressure the Georgia legislature only by threatening mass resignations across the Department.

So who, then?

Not Trump himself, who seems incapable of discussing any part of the January 6 story in terms of facts and evidence. Instead, he issues judgments (“partisan”, “one-sided”, his “perfect” phone call to Brad Raffensperger), calls names (“political hacks”, “Witch Hunt”), and makes claims (“the greatest fraud in the history of our country“). When his claims are debunked (as they always are if he includes enough detail to make them checkable), he neither accepts the evidence nor argues with it, but just makes new claims. (The Raffensperger phone call was a classic example. Raffensperger knew that there were no “suitcases of votes”? Never mind, dead people voted. No? Dominion voting machines flipped votes. On and on, culminating in a threat to prosecute Raffensperger. “You can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you.”)

Again and again, Trump has claimed that some bit of testimony was false. (He didn’t grab the steering wheel after the Secret Service refused to drive him to the Capitol on January 6. He didn’t throw food against the wall in the White House.) But he never follows up with an account of what did happen. (What did he think his crowd would do after he sent them to the Capitol? What was he doing during the three hours before he asked the rioters to go home? Did he know what was happening? Talk to anyone on the phone?) After Cassidy Hutchinson spoke to the Committee, anonymous sources told reporters that Secret Service agents were going to dispute her testimony — but they never came forward.

Trump’s “sooo many witnesses” never do. On one side, you have people (most of them Republicans or even Trump appointees) testifying under oath to details that support the Committee’s narrative. On the other, you have people refusing to testify, sometimes to the point of going to jail rather than be disloyal to Trump by telling the public what they know about him.

One final objection a Trump defender might make is that Trump’s witnesses don’t want to hand their testimony to this “one-sided” committee, which might edit it to Trump’s disadvantage. But that doesn’t explain why they don’t come forward at all.

Trump’s post says that with his witnesses’ testimony “This Witch Hunt could all be ended quickly”. So end it, then. The Committee doesn’t have a monopoly on public attention. For two years, the full apparatus of right-wing media has been ready to publicize Trump’s side of the story, if he would only tell one. Trump has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from his supporters, most of whom probably imagined it being used for precisely this purpose.

But Trump has no story to tell. Any account more specific than “They stole the election from me” would quickly fall apart, because it’s just not true. Any witness — including Trump himself — who added supporting detail to that story would risk perjury.

Is Club Q just the beginning?

It seems weird to say that one mass shooting is more disturbing than another. Whatever the details, people are dead for reasons that have little to do with the lives they thought they were leading. They didn’t do anything wrong or take foolish risks. They just happened to be in the way when someone started shooting.

Instinctively, we want to draw lessons from other people’s misfortunes, hoping to find some rule to protect us from similar harm. But mass shootings defy that impulse, because (on a personal level) there’s little to learn from them short of “Stay home and barricade the door.”

The six victims who died in the Chesapeake shooting Tuesday were just people who showed up for work. The three University of Virginia football players killed two weeks ago were on a class bus trip coming back from a play, and one of them was asleep. The five killed in Colorado Springs nine days ago were out at a club. There’s no cautionary tale to tell about them. Their deaths just remind us that we could die too, suddenly, without any prior awareness that we were walking into that kind of story.

So how could one such event be any more disturbing than another (in any way other than quantitatively — more dead, more wounded)? When I mentioned Club Q last week, one commenter wasn’t interested in whether or not it was a hate crime, because that distinction could hardly make it worse. Mass shootings are “wrong on so many levels, finding out why the perpetrator thought they needed to do this heinous thing is at the absolute bottom of my list of questions.”

I get that. And yet, I find myself ruminating over the Club Q shooting more than the others. This shooting seems different to me, because it looks so repeatable.

But even that observation doesn’t quite capture it, because in a sense every mass shootings is a repeat of all the previous ones. The stories have different details, but only a handful of plots: Someone feels insignificant, and believes that killing others will make him consequential. Or feels insulted or threatened or picked on, and wants to act out revenge on the largest possible scale. Or becomes convinced that some grievous wrong is happening in the world, one that they must fix themselves through violence. Or something similar.

Our country is awash in weapons of war. Our culture glorifies violence. We are constantly exposed to conspiracy theories that claim to expose great wrongs and the villains who perpetrate them. So we seldom go more than a week or two without a mass shooting, and sometimes they cluster, so that a new one happens before the news cycle of the previous one has played out.

We know the pattern is going to repeat. Next week, two weeks from now, there will be another shooting, another shooter, another list of dead people, another town that is probably not your town, but probably not so different.

But the Club Q shooting is repeatable in a much more specific way. Conspiracy theories about LGBTQ people, especially trans people, are circulating widely and are no longer just on the fringe: They’re being pushed by leaders in conservative media and politics. Among the theories regularly touted on the right, you will find:

Violence is often suggested as a proper response to these “assaults” on children. In April, Tucker Carlson said:

I don’t understand where the men are. Like where are the dads? You know, some teacher’s pushing sex values on your third grader. Why don’t you go in and thrash the teacher?

The Proud Boys, a group known for violence, several of whom are on trial for their role in the January 6 riot, have been disrupting drag story hours at libraries around the country. Boston Children’s Hospital received bomb threats after right-wing media accused it of “child abuse” for its gender-affirming care.

And then there’s Club Q: Someone kills five and wounds 19 others at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs on the eve of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, when an all-ages drag show was scheduled.

No doubt the shooter has some unique story, but this was not in any sense a lone-wolf attack. An entire political movement has been plowing the ground and planting the seeds for something like this to happen. And they’re not stopping. On only his second show after the Club Q shooting, Tucker Carlson repeated the tropes I listed above, and interviewed anti-trans activist Jaimee Michell, who said:

Saying that “groomer” is an anti-LGBTQ slur, that is doing irreparable damage to us as a whole, and it’s putting a really large target on our backs. And unfortunately, you know, the tragedy that happened in Colorado Springs the other night, it was expected and predictable. Sadly I don’t think it’s going to stop until we end this evil agenda that is attacking children.

I don’t know how to interpret that in any other way than “They had it coming.”

Usually, opinion leaders who campaign against a group are at least momentarily silenced when that group is violently attacked. They may not take any responsibility or make any long-term change in their rhetoric, but they do at least go silent for a while. When the El Paso shooter targeted Hispanics in a WalMart, for example, President Trump did not immediately double down on the “invasion” frame that the shooter had taken literally. He came back to it later, but not right away.

But this time is different. People like Carlson and Michell did double down. They may not have explicitly called for more violence, but they repeated the distorted chain of logic that led to that violence.

The way to start a pogrom against a group of people has been understood for centuries: You tell such a vicious lie about them that, to those who believe your lie, anything done in response seems fair. Anti-Jewish pogroms were started by the blood libel: Jews needed the blood of a Christian child to consecrate their matzohs for Passover. So any child who went missing at the wrong time of year might have been murdered by Jews. “When will these outrages stop?” Christians asked each other, and before long a mob would be in the Jewish quarter bashing heads and burning homes.

That looks to be what’s going on here. In actual fact,

  • Trans people and drag queens pose no threats to your children.
  • No men-claiming-to-be-women are waiting in public bathrooms to attack your daughters.
  • No teachers, counselors, therapists, or doctors are plotting to convince your children to change their genders.
  • Seeing a same-sex couple, either in person or on TV, is no more “sexual” than seeing an opposite-sex couple.
  • Diversity curricula in schools are not grooming your children for pedophiles.

Those are all blood libels. Their purpose is to start a pogrom. And it might be working.

Two Glimpses into the Future

Will American democracy survive after Whites become a minority?
And will the super-rich care whether civilization survives at all?

Following 2020 and 2022 elections, a number of articles have suggested that Democrats losing their hold on Hispanic voters, a development portrayed in liberal circles as something ominous that needs to be fixed. For years, the increasing number of Hispanic Americans was thought to promise Democrats some sort of demographic inevitability, and now they seem to be blowing it.

I’m of two minds about this line of thought. On the one hand, no segment of the electorate should be taken for granted, so the complaints that Democrats are offering Hispanic voters “noble rhetoric but never a seat at the table” deserve serious attention.

On the other, the whole emerging Democratic majority argument now seems wrong-headed, for reasons that Yascha Mounk spells out in the The Great Experiment: Why diverse democracies fall apart and how they can endure.

Mounk is deeply worried about the possible future in which we have a White Party and a People of Color Party. If the major-party identities get fixed in such a tribal way, he has a hard time seeing how democracy in America avoids devolving into civil strife, as it has in, say, Lebanon. Democracy should be about voters who are open to changing their minds when the other party presents a compelling vision, not about rival blocs you are born into and never leave. In a racially-defined two-party system, neither party can hope to convince the other’s voters, so they will end up competing in less positive ways.

To the extent that the parties themselves believe in demographic inevitability, they start to take their own demographic groups for granted and cast the other party’s demographic groups as enemies. You can see this happening already among MAGA Republicans, who see the coming non-White majority as a “Great Replacement” of White people, and try to head off that threat by rigging the system so that the dawning non-White majority never achieves power: stop non-White immigration, stop non-White immigrants from becoming citizens, make it hard for non-White citizens to vote, herd them into gerrymandered districts that minimize their political strength, and so on. Some on the right are ready to jettison democracy entirely rather than face a future where Whites lose power.

Many Democrats, on the other hand, fail to see why they need to win Hispanic votes. I mean, they’re Hispanics. What’s wrong with them if they can’t see which party they’re supposed to support? Conversely, White Evangelicals get written off, and they shouldn’t be. There are good Christian reasons to support liberal policies, and that argument needs to be made.

But Mounk is an optimist in that he believes the melting pot is still bubbling, at least for some groups. The original ethnic majority in the US was English, then Northern European (minus the Irish), and then grew to include Eastern and Southern Europeans (plus the Irish). (Jews, I think, are a special case — assimilated in some ways but not others, and still a political identity in a sense that Italians and Poles no longer are. Jews are separate enough that Doug Mastriano would try to make an issue of Josh Shapiro’s religion in the 2022 Pennsylvania governor’s race. But they’re accepted enough that he failed by a wide margin.) So why couldn’t it also absorb Hispanics, Asians, and Muslims? He thinks that’s starting to happen, and sees it as a good thing: There should be no need for either a White Party or a People of Color Party.

When their race or religion stops being a defining characteristic, Hispanic, Asian, and Muslim political views may come to more closely resemble the rest of the country. Hispanic businessmen, for example, may start to vote like other businessmen, Hispanic Catholics like other Catholics, and Asian or Muslim professionals like other professionals. If Republicans stop casting non-Whites and non-Christians as enemies, people of any race or religion may decide that they prefer lower taxes, less regulation, and other traditionally Republican policies.

Mounk glides over what this means for Black people, whose path into the mainstream has always been more difficult. (To an extent, non-Blackness has been the unifying principle of America’s ever-expanding “White” majority.) Mounk doesn’t explain why this will change, which I think is a major hole in his argument. But I believe this much of his thesis is sound: It’s a mistake to think that people will or won’t vote for you purely because they belong to this race or that religion. There’s nothing inevitable about Democratic dominance in a post-White-majority America — and that’s a good thing for democracy. Both parties would do well to recognize that fact and compete to win the allegiance of the new voters.

Another interesting recent book is Survival of the Richest: escape fantasies of the tech billionaires by Douglas Rushkoff.

Rushkoff describes himself in the introduction as a “Marxist media theorist” and “a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technology on our lives”. So he is “often mistaken for a futurist” and often finds himself at the same futuristic conferences as tech billionaires. One time he was paid to fly out to a desert compound, and discovered that the small conference he thought he would address was actually a handful billionaires who wanted advice on where to site their apocalyptic refuges and how to keep control of their mercenaries after the legal system collapses.

His book describes a fundamental change in capitalism and the capitalist mindset. Originally, the point of establishing some income-producing enterprise — a shop, a farm, a factory, or whatever — was to create something that could be passed down through the generations like a medieval fiefdom. (This is my interpretation of Rushkoff’s point, and the examples that follow are mine rather than his.) For example, I imagine Henry Ford would have been thrilled to glimpse a future in which the Ford Motor Company still existed 75 years after his death and was still a major source of wealth for his descendants. Some small-scale capitalist — let’s call him Jack — might well have a similar fantasy of a great-grandchild still owning and operating Jack’s Bar & Grill a century hence.

But recently, particularly in the tech world, the prevailing fantasy has shifted to one where you cash out. Elon Musk‘s original fortune, for example, came from co-founding Zip2 and then selling it to Compaq for $300 million. He then co-founded an online bank, which merged into PayPal, which was eventually bought by eBay.

These days, that’s what a tech entrepreneur hopes to do: turn an idea into a business that works, then sell that business and move on to the next idea. It’s as if, rather than open a Mom & Pop grocery and hope to pass it down to your kids someday, you started M&P Grocery Franchises with the idea of selling it to Walmart or Kroger in a few years.

The old model softened capitalism somewhat by connecting the capitalist to the community, because the community was the arena in which success would ultimately play out. Your shop might become a landmark, or your factory could make you a pillar of the community. Some rich families were easily identified with their cities, like the Pillsburys in Minneapolis or the Buschs in St. Louis.

The new model, though, is about transcending the community. You build a team to implement your idea. You hire workers to provide your service or build your product. And once all those relationships are established, you sell and move on.

Rushkoff refers to this as “The Mindset”, and he thinks it explains the wealthy’s disinterest in preventing possible future dystopias: My ultimate fantasy doesn’t rely on the world not going to hell, but on transcending Earth-bound society by colonizing Mars, or uploading my consciousness to the Cloud, or building my Bond-villain bunker in the wilds of Alaska (assuming I can figure out how to control my mercenaries after the legal system collapses).

[T]hese people once showered the world with madly optimistic business plans for how technology might benefit human society. Now they’ve reduced technological progress to a video game that one of them wins by finding the escape hatch.

When can I stop writing about Trump?

Maybe soon. Trump-related stories were all over the news this week,
but they point towards a future where Trump may not matter.

I didn’t want to write another Trump post this week, but the convergence of headlines was hard to ignore. This week:

  • Trump announced his 2024 candidacy.
  • Republicans and conservative media were surprisingly cool about a Trump candidacy.
  • Merrick Garland named a special prosecutor to investigate/prosecute Trump.
  • Elon Musk restored Trump’s Twitter account.

So I guess I have to pay attention.

Has he finally jumped the shark? Last week I was skeptical that the GOP was finally getting over Trump. Sure, he endorsed a string of bad candidates who lost winnable races, and a statistical analysis indicated that MAGA Republican candidates for Congress ran about five points behind non-MAGA Republican candidates. And yes, Ron DeSantis’ surprisingly large victory margin in Florida supported the idea that he is a winner while Trump is a loser. So it wasn’t all that surprising that a few GOP leaders and conservative pundits began inching away from the Former Guy.

A week ago, I wasn’t buying it. Republicans have tried to move away from Trump before — most recently after he incited a mob to attack Congress in an effort to hang onto power after losing the 2020 election. But it never lasts. After January 6, it took about three weeks for Kevin McCarthy to go from wanting Trump to resign to making a Mar-a-Lago pilgrimage. Why should this time be different?

But this week, maybe I am buying it. I’m at least examining the possibility. Trump announced his 2024 candidacy Tuesday, and the response was not what either he or I expected. No major network carried the whole speech live: Fox and CNN started to, but then cut away as Trump rambled. The Fox coverage was particularly Orwellian: As Trump droned on, the network’s talking heads enthused about the greatness of the event they had stopped broadcasting. “This was an absolutely brilliant speech,” Mike Huckabee proclaimed, using the past tense to describe something that was still happening, “the best I have heard him give in a long time.”

Most news outlets ran articles on the speech, but they were more skeptical than thrilled or horrified. The snarkiest was Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, whose cover said “Florida Man Makes Announcement, page 26”. Trump had probably pictured his fans cheering and his enemies trembling in fear or outrage. But I don’t think he expected so many people to laugh.

The Democratic response is also telling. Democrats worry about whether Biden is up for another run, about who could replace him if he isn’t, and about whether younger Trumpists like DeSantis or Youngkin might be harder to demonize than the Mar-a-Loser. Beating Trump, on the other hand, is a familiar challenge. We did it before, we’ll do it again.

Et tu, pastor? Apparently even Evangelical leaders are jumping off Trump’s sinking yacht.

“He used us to win the White House. We had to close our mouths and eyes when he said things that horrified us,” [televangelist Mike] Evans wrote. “I cannot do that anymore.”

Had to? The supposed heirs to the tradition of the Prophet Nathan and John the Baptist had to bow down to Trump. And the spark causing Evans to turn away is not some new outrage that he just can’t stomach — or even a straw that finally broke his back — but Trump’s loss of power and influence.

What might be happening. Here’s my theory: The hard-core Trump cultist worries about being a loser, but in his mind he becomes a winner by identifying with the ultimate winner, Donald Trump. As the classic children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me” puts it: “They are weak, but He is strong.” Trump is fighting the same dark forces that the cultist blames for his own disappointments, but Trump is going to defeat them.

Trump constantly stokes this identification, claiming that people who attack him are really attacking his followers, as if his followers had been assaulting women, taking money from foreign governments, or stealing classified documents.

But what if Trump starts to look like a loser himself? He rolled through the 2016 primaries, then in November unexpectedly won in the Electoral College in spite of losing the popular vote by millions. When he lost bigly to Biden in 2020, he said he really won, and his cult agreed to believe that story. But in 2022, Trump’s candidates lost all over the country. (And this is where the Trump cult’s anti-Biden and anti-Democrat propaganda boomerangs: How could all those MAGA Republicans possibly have lost? Biden is senile. Fetterman is a vegetable after his stroke. Everybody hates Gretchen Whitmer because of her Covid tyranny. How did they win? How did they beat Trump?)

So you lose once and claim the other guy cheated. OK, maybe. But you can’t go to that well over and over. The message has to be: “The other guy cheated me, and I’m going to make him pay.” If you can’t make him pay, if you get cheated again and again — then you’re just like the rest of the losers.

What happens then? I don’t expect Trump’s followers to turn on him because he has stopped winning. But I do think their enthusiasm starts to fade, because he’s not delivering the ego boost they need any more. So maybe they just quietly drift away.

Establishment Republicans hope someone like DeSantis can excite the base without reproducing Trump’s embarrassing transgressions, but I don’t that’s going to work. Trump’s trangressiveness is an irreplaceable part of his appeal. He does whatever he wants. He calls Mexicans rapists, cheats the taxman, taunts his opponents with playground nicknames, grabs women by the pussy — and gets away with it all. That’s what being a “winner” means to Trump’s base.

Telling it like it isn’t. The Atlantic’s David Graham made another good observation about the difference between Trump 2024 and Trump 2016. In spite of all his exaggerations and lies, Trump 2016’s appeal

was built on his willingness to speak the supposedly obvious facts that other politicians would not. He would tell voters that the political system was rigged toward donors. He would say that free-trade policies had harmed many Americans. If they were racist or xenophobic, he’d speak their truths, too. The central appeal was common sense, even when it was neither common nor sensical.

But Trump 2024 asks his followers to disbelieve things they can see and misremember events they lived through.

Consider this account of his presidency from the announcement speech: “Two years ago when I left office, the United States stood ready for its golden age. Our nation was at the pinnacle of power, prosperity, and prestige, towering above all rivals, vanquishing all enemies, and striding into the future confident and so strong … There was never a time like this … When the virus hit our shores, I took decisive action and saved lives and the U.S. economy.”

Some people might want to remember 2020 that way, but few will be able to manage it.

The special counsel. Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to investigate events related to January 6, and also to the classified documents and presidential records found at Mar-a-Lago. In his press conference, Garland said:

Based on recent developments, including Trump’s announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election, and the current president’s intention to be a candidate in the next election, I have concluded it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.

This announcement has both optimistic and pessimistic interpretations for people who want to see Trump held accountable for his crimes. The pessimistic interpretation is that Merrick Garland is adding his name to the list of people who couldn’t manage to nail Trump. James Comey couldn’t do it. Bob Mueller. The first and second sets of impeachment managers. The January 6 Committee. And now Merrick Garland. He passes the baton to Jack Smith — and why should Smith do any better than the previous investigators?

Andrew Weissman, who was part of the Mueller investigation and wrote the book Where Law Ends about it, believes this time is different.

The new Special Counsel, unlike Special Counsel Mueller, WILL be able to indict Trump as he is no longer POTUS and WILL NOT have to worry about being fired from one day to the next by sitting POTUS. And he inherits a large amount of evidence and a team that is in place already. The new Special Counsel also will not have to overcome, as Special Counsel Mueller did, Trump’s dangling presidential pardons to thwart cooperation with the investigation. Or using DOJ to stymie and misrepresent the investigation.

New York magazine’s Intelligencer column presents a more balanced view: However it unfolds, this process is still going to take a long time. The big timing decision for Smith to make is whether to indict Trump quickly for the Mar-a-Lago documents — a fairly simple case that is nearly ready to go — or to wait until a more complex January 6 investigation is complete and charge everything at once.

Trump and Twitter. And speaking of sinking yachts, Elon Musk arbitrarily announced the reactivation of Trump’s Twitter account Saturday evening. Trump had been banned from Twitter because he misused it to foment violence on January 6, and seemed like to misuse it again. To me, that logic still holds, but apparently not to Musk. He had previously said that the no major reinstatements would happen until he could convene “a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints”. But never mind. Musk posted a poll Thursday and announced the result Saturday.

Anyway, at the moment all this means is that Trump’s old tweets are available again. Trump has not tweeted anything new yet, and his agreement with Truth Social (which he at least partially owns) puts restrictions on what he can post on other social-media platforms. So we’ll see what happens.

He may be worried about returning to Twitter only to see it quickly declare bankruptcy, which Musk has floated as a possibility. There’s a limit to how much failure his public image can stand to be associated with.

Notes on the midterm elections

Saturday night, when Nevada had counted enough votes to declare Catherine Cortez Masto re-elected, we learned that the Democrats would hold onto the Senate. They may even gain a seat, if Raphael Warnock can win the December 6 run-off in Georgia.

As of this morning, almost a week after election day, Republicans are leading in the House, but still have not nailed down a majority. 212 races have been called for Republican candidates, 204 for Democrats. 218 are needed for a majority. NBC is estimating that when all the counting is complete, the GOP will have a slim 219-216 majority. (So assuming Lauren Boebert hangs on to her current slim lead, Speaker McCarthy will lose any vote in which he can’t get Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Green’s support.)

In the states, Florida went very red, but both Michigan and Minnesota very blue. Democrats flipped governorships in Massachusetts and Maryland, Republicans in Nevada. Arizona is still undecided.

There’s probably a lot to learn from these results that I haven’t deciphered yet. But here are a few conclusions that seem obvious.

Voters in swing states don’t believe the Big Lie about 2020, and want to continue having democratic elections. My biggest fear about the midterms was that they would herald the end of democratic elections in the United States. But that didn’t happen. Yesterday, the NYT’s home page included the headline “Every election denier who sought to become the top election official in a critical battleground state lost at the polls“.

During the 2020 election, it was secretaries of state — both Democrats and Republicans — who stood up to efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies to overturn the results. State election officials certified vote tallies over Republican objections, protected election workers from aggressive partisan poll watchers and, in at least one case, refused a personal entreaty from the president.

The next spring, several candidates pushing the false narrative that the 2020 election had been stolen announced their intention to run to be the top election officials in critical states.

Republican candidates for secretary of state in places like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico claimed the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump, without basing that belief on the slightest bit of evidence. In Pennsylvania the secretary of state is appointed by the governor, and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano was running as a rabid election denier (in addition to being a Christian nationalist and a barely-in-the-closet antisemite). In Georgia, incumbent Republican Brad Raffensperger had beaten back an election-denier challenge in the primary.

Victories by election-denying candidates would have opened the possibility that in 2024, MAGA secretaries of state might refuse to recognize a Democrat’s victory. If they needed no evidence beyond Trump’s say-so to declare fraud in 2020, why wouldn’t they do the same in 2024?

Fortunately, all those candidates lost. Some of the races were disturbingly close — though Mastriano got soundly thrashed — but they lost. Only Indiana chose an election-denying secretary of state. That could be a problem locally, but it’s unlikely to affect a national election, since a Democratic presidential candidate could only carry Indiana in a national landslide. (Barack Obama barely did in 2008.)

Sweeping abortion bans are unpopular. A lot of Americans have conflicted views about abortion, so the wording of a proposal matters. But if you put a broad abortion ban in front of the voters, they’ll reject it even in some pretty conservative states.

We saw that already in August, when Kansas (which Trump carried 56%-42% in 2020) held a referendum that would have given the legislature the power to ban abortion. (The state’s supreme court had found a Roe-like right to abortion in the state’s constitution. This proposed amendment would have removed that right.) The legislature scheduled the vote to coincide with a primary election that was likely to draw more Republicans than Democrats, but it didn’t matter: Turnout was huge and the proposal failed 59%-41%.

Tuesday, proposals to protect reproductive rights were on the ballot in Vermont, California, and Michigan, while voters had a chance to restrict abortion rights in Kentucky and Montana. The pro-choice side won all five.

The abortion issue is also getting credit for the Democrats avoiding the typical midterm-election-collapse of a party in power. It’s hard to say precisely why voters decide to show up and lean one way or another, but the turnout of young voters was high and heavily Democratic, and Democrats won 68%-31% among single women. Chances are that abortion had something to do with that.

[BTW, it has been hilarious to watch conservative pundits struggle not to grasp that single women don’t want the Republic of Gilead controlling their bodies and making major life decisions for them. Fox News’ Jesse Watters noted that married women tend to vote Republican, so he had a solution: “We need these ladies to get married. And it’s time to fall in love and just settle down. Guys, go put a ring on it.” One America News’ Addison Smith went even further down the patriarchal rabbit hole: “Secular progressivism has turned people into masochists. … 68% of single women voted for people who vowed to let them legally murder their children and continue on living miserable single lives without purpose, without responsibility or meaning.” Attention single women: After a quick search, I wasn’t able to determine whether Addison Smith is married, so he might still be available to bring purpose and meaning to your otherwise pointless life.]

Trump is hurting the Republican Party. He wasn’t losing any races himself this time, but he screwed up the GOP in two other ways. First, the unqualified and too extreme candidates he pushed to victory in the Republican primaries went on to lose winnable elections.

New Hampshire is a good example. Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who kept his distance from Trump, cruised to a 57%-42% victory. But Trump-endorsed election-denying Don Bolduc lost to incumbent Senator Maggie Hassan 54%-44%. Those two results are from the same voters on the same day, so about 1 NH voter in 8 must have voted a Sununu/Hassan split ticket.

Similarly in Georgia, Brian Kemp (who defeated a Trumpist challenger in the GOP primary after certifying Biden’s 2020 victory) won the governorship 53%-46%, while Trump’s handpicked senate candidate Herschel Walker faces a run-off after trailing 49%-48% Tuesday.

The second way Trump undercut the GOP was to divert attention towards himself, his petty grievances, and his backward-looking complaints about 2020, and away from issues like inflation that were working for Republicans. He doesn’t seem to realize that if the 2020 election were run again, he would get his butt kicked again. Most unpopular presidents see their images improve in hindsight, but not Trump. 54% of the public still views him unfavorably.

Conservative power brokers like Rupert Murdoch and mainstream Republican politicians like Paul Ryan see what’s going on and would like to free the party from Trump’s destructive influence, but I’m betting against them. There’s a lot of Trump-blaming in conservative media right now, but that just means it’s January 7 again. Before long, the would-be rebels will be crawling to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring, as they did only weeks after January 6. The NYT’s Jamelle Bouie agrees with me:

The idea that Republican elites could simply swap Trump for another candidate without incurring any serious damage rests on two assumptions: First, that Trump’s supporters are more committed to the Republican Party than they are to him, and second, that Trump himself will give up the fight if he isn’t able to win the party’s nomination.

I think these assumptions show a fundamental misunderstanding of the world Republican elites brought into being when they finally bent the knee to Trump in the summer and fall of 2016.

But Jonathan Chait disagrees. It’s different this time, he says, because Ron DeSantis provides a real alternative.

Either way, it’s going to be ugly. Trump has already shown that he will try to burn down a democracy that won’t re-elect him. No one should be surprised if he burns down a party that won’t re-nominate him.

Gerrymandering matters. For years, voters in Michigan have voted for Democratic candidates for the legislature, only to see Republicans keep control. But in 2018, Michigan voters reestablished democracy in their state by overwhelmingly passing Proposal 2, which created a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Tuesday was the first election held under the new nonpartisan maps, and Democrats won majorities in both houses for the first time in almost 40 years.

Compare Michigan to Wisconsin, which is still heavily gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor. Democratic Governor Tony Evers was re-elected with 51% of the vote, and Republican Senator Ron Johnson was re-elected with just over 50%, suggesting an evenly divided electorate. But Democrats narrowly avoided a veto-proof Republican supermajority in both houses of the legislature, which would have made Governor Evers virtually powerless.

Both parties gerrymander when they can, because it’s political suicide to let the other side play by different rules. (Though no Democratic-controlled state mirrors Michigan, with an entrenched Democratic legislature thwarting a Republican majority in the electorate.) But Democrats want to end this game: An anti-gerrymandering provision was part of the For the People Act, which has passed the House in 2019, 2020, and 2021, only to be blocked by Republican filibusters in the Senate. A scaled-down proposal, the Freedom to Vote Act, was put together by Senators Manchin and Klobuchar. But it also was blocked by a filibuster.

The stuff Biden did is way more popular than Biden himself. The pundits predicting a red wave were fooled by Biden’s low approval rating: 41.5% in the latest 538 average, barely higher than Trump’s 39.9%. Normally, a president with numbers like that sees his party get clobbered in the midterm elections.

But Friday, Chris Hayes made an interesting comparison to 2010, when there really was a red wave. In 2010, the Democratic Congress had just passed ObamaCare, and it was very unpopular. (Since it hadn’t taken effect yet, Republicans could claim anything they wanted about it, and they did.) The way Republicans ran against Democratic incumbents that year was simply to point to that vote.

Nothing in this cycle played that same role of connecting Biden’s unpopularity to specific votes in Congress. If Democrats got criticized for voting for the Inflation Reduction Act, they could say, “Yes, I lowered your prescription drug costs, invested in renewable energy, and created jobs for American workers.” The bipartisan infrastructure bill? “Yes, I voted to rebuild America’s roads and bridges, bring broadband internet to rural areas, and replace lead water pipes that have been poisoning our children.” American Rescue Plan? “I voted to get Americans vaccinated, send money to people who couldn’t work during the pandemic, and give loans to businesses so they wouldn’t have to fire people.”

And so on.

So sure, Americans are frustrated with inflation, and Republicans were able to fan people’s fears about rising crime and a few other issues. But how could challengers pin those problems on the incumbent senators or representatives they were trying to replace? And while 2010 Republicans could promise to repeal ObamaCare, what exactly were 2022 Republicans proposing to do about inflation, crime, or anything else?

Polls are more-or-less accurate if you don’t expect too much out of them. I’ve seen a lot of the-polls-were-wrong-again punditry, but I don’t think it’s deserved.

Take the Georgia Senate race, for example. 538’s final pre-election analysis said that Herschel Walker had a 63% chance of winning, with a predicted margin of 1.2%. But now that the votes have been counted, Warnock holds a .9% lead. (Warnock is still short of 50%, so a run-off is happening December 6.)

So Nate Silver’s prediction was off by 2.1%. You can’t really expect pre-election polling to be more accurate than that.

At best, a poll is a snapshot of where the electorate was a day or two before the election, accurate to within some margin of error. Averaging a bunch of polls (as 538 does) should shrink that margin, but not to zero. And as for people who decide at the last minute to vote (or not vote), or who change their minds in the booth — there’s really no accounting for them.

In short, the right response to the Georgia outcome is not “538 was wrong to say Walker would get more votes, because Warnock did”, but “538 said the race was going to be close and it was.”

That’s why the model said “63% chance”. Just for reference, NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo is currently hitting 65% of his free throws (well below the league average of around 78%). That’s better than a coin flip, but when he steps to the line, Bucks fans are holding their breath rather than counting the points.

Is a more accurate system possible? Well, maybe, but you won’t like it. I suspect that somewhere in the basement of Meta headquarters, somebody has developed an algorithm that predicts how each of Facebook’s tens of millions of users will vote. (For most of us, it wouldn’t be that hard.) Facebook users may not be absolutely typical of the electorate, but the differences are probably not difficult to model and compensate for after you review the data from a few election cycles. And on election day, if the app on your phone is tracking your location, it knows whether you went to the polls.

Facebook’s huge sample base would eliminate nearly all the statistical error. Since it’s a spying algorithm rather than a request for information, you couldn’t just refuse to answer, eliminating another source of polling error. And in order to lie to the algorithm, you’d have to change your whole online behavior, which hardly anybody is going to do. The algorithm’s estimates would always be up to the minute, and in the end it would know a lot about who voted.

I’ll bet that system could be pretty accurate.

Expert speculation, on the other hand, isn’t worth the attention it gets. All that talk of a “red wave” didn’t come from the polls. 538’s generic-ballot polling average finished with a Republican advantage of 1.2%, which would lead a person to expect a Republican Congress, but not a sweeping rejection of Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats. (Compare that margin to true wave elections: In 2010, Republican House candidates got 6.8% more votes than Democratic candidates. In 2018, Democrats did 8.6% better than Republicans.)

The red-wave speculation came from pundits, both too-optimistic Republicans and too-pessimistic Democrats.

The right lesson to draw is that we spend way too much time listening to people speculate about stuff they don’t really know. Psychologically, it’s understandable: We get anxious leading up to an election or some other big event, so we want to believe that someone can tell us what’s going to happen. Even hearing that things are going to go badly can be more comforting than facing life’s real uncertainty.

It’s also understandable from the networks’ point of view: Actual reporting is hard and can be expensive, but gathering a panel of talking heads in the studio is easy and cheap. (A lot of them have a book to sell, a candidate to push, or some other reason they want to be on your show. So you may not have to pay them at all.) By air time, an investigative reporter may or may not have cracked whatever story she/he/they has been working on, but a pundit can be guaranteed to have a speculation ready on demand.

Unfortunately, those speculations aren’t worth much. If listening to them makes you feel better, fine. But don’t kid yourself that you’re receiving valuable information. Life really is terrifyingly uncertain.

So in the end, I wind up agreeing with the conclusion of the editorial I linked to about the polls being wrong again, if you change “study polls” to “try to prognosticate”:

Voters would do well to study the issues more than they [try to prognosticate], and media would do well to provide valuable issue-oriented reporting instead of reporting on a horse race that can change minute to minute.

[BTW: If political predictions were intended to be accurate, networks would keep detailed statistics on which pundits were right or wrong, and there would be bidding wars over the ones with the best records. That doesn’t happen, does it? The red-wave predictors aren’t going to lose their jobs, and somebody who got it right isn’t going to suddenly vault to the top of the profession the way a market-beating hedge-fund manager would.]

Can conservatives be allies against climate change?

They’ve given us a lot of reasons to be skeptical.
But we’re surrendering to hopelessness if we assume bad faith.

A week ago Friday, the NYT published an essay I’m still puzzling over: Bret Stephens — a Times columnist whose hiring I have always attributed to the newspaper’s affirmative-action-for-conservatives policy — wrote “Yes, Greenland’s Ice is Melting, But …“. Reading it raised a question in my mind: “Yes, conservative minds are changing, but … can they ever change enough to make them real allies?”

Anybody who has been watching this topic has seen the pattern. Over the last decade or so, conservatives who aren’t willing to deny reality completely have staged a retreat worthy of a great general, slowly falling back from one line of defense to the next. The major defense lines, as I remember them (and still run into them from time to time), look like this:

Most frustrating of all are the people who shift back and forth from between defensive positions. One day they’re admitting greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate, and the next day it’s all a hoax again. But whatever line of defense they choose, the conclusion is always the same: Do nothing. It’s the wrong time, or the wrong tactic, or we’ll never get China and India to cooperate, or something. There’s always something.

So it’s easy to get cynical, and to assume that any conservative who briefly seems to be talking sense about the climate is doing so in bad faith. Their new understanding, whatever it is, is just the next line of defense against doing anything substantive to avert the looming disaster.

But here’s the problem with that cynicism. The people who are already convinced drastic action is necessary aren’t a big enough voting bloc to carry out drastic action.

Occasionally I’ll see polls that indicate otherwise, but those numbers are deceiving: Many will tell a pollster they support climate-change action, but then will be protesting in the streets as soon as a carbon tax makes gas prices rise or their heating bills go up. (See, for example, the “yellow vests” in France.)

So if we’re actually going to tackle this problem, we need converts — real ones who understand that sacrifices need to be made if we’re going to save future generations from much worse prospects. From there it follows that we need to welcome converts, rather than give them the third degree to make sure they’re serious enough.

What’s more, lots of people aren’t going to change their minds all at once. Road-to-Damascus conversions do happen, but they’re rare. Many who come to see the reality of the climate challenge are going to see it in stages. So while that bulleted list above may be a line of successive defenses for bad-faith pseudo-converts, it can also be a road of progress for good-faith real converts. Is your it’s-all-a-hoax cousin now admitting that temperatures are going up? Rejoice! It’s a step.

I understand that it’s frustrating as hell to stand on the deck of the Titanic and try to stay calm while people tell you it’s not time to lower the life boats yet. But if you’re not able to lower the lifeboats by yourself, what else can you do? You need to meet these people where they are and coax them into doing the right thing. That may be time-consuming and time may be short, but if there’s not a more direct path …

And that brings me back to Bret Stephens. There are lots of reasons to be cynical here. “Yes, Greenland’s Ice is Melting, But …” is laid out like a new line of defense, with the “but” seeming to lead to “we still shouldn’t do anything”. And that’s kinda-sorta where most of the essay goes. His argument is structured as a series of buts: Yes, Greenland’s ice is melting,

  • but we need to recognize clean energy’s limitations
  • but we’ve gotten better at mitigating climate disasters
  • but we need to accept economic growth as a benefit
  • but we need solutions that align with human nature
  • but we need to avoid alarmist activism
  • but the market, not the state, will solve the problem

Sounds terrible, right? I mean, alarmist is one of those right-wing boogyman words, like woke or socialist. It doesn’t have any objective definition, it’s just a pejorative that conservatives throw at people who say things they don’t want to hear. Human nature is another much-abused term, strongly related to the idea that anything I object to is “unnatural”. And greenhouse-gas emission, like all pollution, is a classic example of a market externality, a cost the market can’t see because it’s primarily borne by someone other than buyers and sellers. Markets won’t address externalities unless government restructures transactions to make the cost visible (say, by creating an artificial cost through taxation). So even a “market” solution will not be the market acting instead of the state, it will be the market acting in concert with the state.

But even after all that, Stephens concludes with a point that’s not a “but” at all.

  • The conservative movement needs to set an example for its children and prepare for the future.

A problem for the future is, by its very nature, a moral one. A conservative movement that claims to care about what we owe the future has the twin responsibility of setting an example for its children and at the same time preparing for that future. The same prudential logic that applies to personal finances, business decisions, Social Security, the federal debt or other risks to financial solvency should dictate thoughtful policies when it comes to climate.

So in other words, Stephens writes a litany of but-this and but-that, but comes around to the conclusion that we have to do something.

That conclusion made me reevaluate who all the yes-buts were for. What if they’re there not to provide further lines of defense against action, but to reassure conservatives that he’s still one of them? As in: I still believe in markets and growth, and I still look skeptically at big government programs, but I also think we have to do something about climate change. I haven’t drunk the woke liberal new-world-order kool-aid, but I think we have to do something about climate change.

Conservative media has created a caricature of climate-change activists as wild-eyed religious fanatics who support one-world socialist dictatorship, hate technology, want to take us back to the Dark Ages, and don’t care if a few billion people have to starve to death while we’re getting there.

Stephens is writing largely for folks who have bought that propaganda, so he can’t just announce that he’s become one of Them now. If he’s going to bring any part of this fan-base with him, he has to write something like this essay — as if facing reality about the climate without going insane is some brand-new position he just discovered, and you can join him there without also joining AOC, who presumably is off on some other island out there somewhere.

So what can he teach me? Respect. As I said above, I don’t think Stephens’ essay was written with me in mind, so a lot of his points don’t say much to me. But I do learn a few things.

The first noteworthy nugget is how this whole adventure started: Back in 2017, Stephens wrote a climate-change-skeptical column, which a lot of scientists denounced. One of them was oceanographer John Englander of the Rising Seas Institute.

Two years later, on a visit to New York, he wrote me out of the blue and asked to meet. Unlike most of my detractors, his note was so cordial that it seemed churlish to say no. We met the next day.

Englander is a trim, affable and eloquent man of 72 who once ran the Cousteau Society and reminds me of a bearded Patrick Stewart, albeit with an American accent. His pitch was simple: The coastline we have taken for granted for thousands of years of human history changed rapidly in the past on account of natural forces — and would soon be changing rapidly and disastrously by man-made ones. A trip to Greenland, which holds one-eighth of the world’s ice on land (most of the rest is in Antarctica) would show me just how drastic those changes have been. Would I join him?

Again, it seemed churlish to say no (though the pandemic would delay my trip by two years). More to the point, if my main objection to the climate activists was my impression of their overweening certitude, didn’t it behoove me to check my own? Where — except in the risk of changing my mind — was the harm in testing my views?

In other words, Englander made an assumption of good faith. He reached out not with insults or claims of authority, but simply said “Come and see for yourself.”

Now, most of us are not in a position to take people to Greenland. But we can approach them in a manner that offers them an opportunity to be their best selves.

That approach defuses precisely the propaganda I pointed to above. If you and I are real people, then we might have a discussion where real ideas get exchanged. But if we’re two caricatures, that’s not going to happen. So it’s important to break the frame in both directions: I’m not casting a negative image on the other person from the outset, and (because I’m aware of the caricature in their head) I’m not invoking their negative image of people like me.

Lesson 2: risk. The conservative caricature of a climate-change activist is “alarmist” — someone running around saying “We’re all gonna die!” And yes, there are a few such people; drawing undue attention to them is one way that Fox News supports the caricature. Stephens ends up restating the risk for himself:

Talk of an imminent climate catastrophe is probably misleading, at least in the way most people understand “imminent.” A continual drumbeat of alarm may do more to exhaust voters than it will to rouse them. A more accurate description of the challenge might be a “potentially imminent tipping point,” meaning the worst consequences of climate change can still be far off but the end of our ability to reverse them is drawing near. Again, the metaphor of cancer — never safe to ignore and always better to deal with at Stage 2 than at Stage 4 — can be helpful.

I’m not sure who he thinks will find this description new — certainly not most climate scientists. And how is it inappropriate to sound the alarm about a “potentially imminent tipping point” or a stage-2 cancer?

But the key point here is to recognize that people are bad at thinking about distant but high-impact risks. Stephens addresses this problem by consulting the kind of risk-assessor conservatives respect: a hedge-fund manager. That’s not where I would have gone, but he ends up getting good advice.

“If you face something that is potentially existential,” he explained, “existential for nations, even for life as we know it, even if you thought the risk is, say, 5 percent, you’d want to hedge against it.”


“One thing we try to do,” he said, “is we buy protection when it’s really inexpensive, even when we think we may well not need it.” The forces contributing to climate change, he noted, echoing Englander, “might be irreversible sooner than the damage from climate change has become fully apparent. You can’t say it’s far off and wait when, if you had acted sooner, you might have dealt with it better and at less cost. We have to act now.”

Lesson 3: Purity. When you frame something as a moral problem, one temptation is to “Go and sin no more.” In other words, we’ve been harming the environment, so from this day forward we should fight against anything that harms the environment.

But there’s a problem with that: Any form of drastic climate action is going to have environmental side-effects, not all of them good. One example Stephens cites is mining: If we’re going to switch to electric cars, we’re going to need a lot more rare-earth minerals for batteries. All that mining is going to have some negative consequences, especially local ones in the mining communities.

Similarly, hydro-electric dams produce power without carbon emissions, but they also change the eco-systems of the dammed rivers. Nuclear power plants produce zero-carbon power, but leave us with a thousands-of-years waste-management problem. If regulated properly to minimize methane leaks, fracking can produce a fuel that still emits carbon, but less of it than coal.

None of those are sin-no-more solutions. They’re paths into the future that trade some environmental damages off against other environmental damages.

And this is where conservatives who actually want to solve the problem can play a role. Because while markets suck at sinning no more, if they’re properly regulated they can be good at trading some kinds of risks and harms off against others.

Purity makes for good slogans. But actual solutions are going to involve trade-offs. We’re going to have to make judgments about how much pain the public is willing to accept at any given moment, and to work as efficiently as possible within that pain-budget.

So is he serious? Maybe, maybe not. But I think we have to hope that he is, and that he is blazing a trail for some larger number of conservatives who don’t want their grandchildren to remember them as villains. The kind of action we want requires a bigger consensus than we have. So we need to gather converts wherever we can find them.

Closing Arguments: Biden’s accomplishments

With a refreshing lack of bombast, President Biden and the Democratic Congress have gotten a lot done.

People who believe the media has a liberal bias should consider two phenomena:

  • How easy it is to make people forget the disasters that Democratic presidents inherit from their Republican predecessors.
  • How quickly Democratic accomplishments pass out of the public’s attention, as if they never happened.

So any account of Joe Biden’s accomplishments has to start by recalling where we were on Inauguration Day, a memory that has somehow grown rosy in some people’s minds. (President Obama had to deal with a similar amnesia, as many people forgot Bush had handed him the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression.)

  • Unemployment was at 6.3%, compared to 3.5% last month.
  • 104,265 Americans died of Covid in January, 2021, a rate of 3,363 per day. The current rate is 361 per day.
  • 12-month GDP was $22.22 trillion, barely more than the February 2020 level of $21.92, and well below August 2022’s $25.80 trillion.
  • American troops were still in Afghanistan, having accomplished virtually nothing after 20 years of nation-building that Trump pledged to end, but didn’t.
  • The federal budget deficit for FY 2020 (October, 2019 through September 2020, Trump’s last full year in office) was $3.1 trillion. The FY 2022 deficit was $1.4 trillion. We are currently in FY 2023, whose deficit is projected to be $1.2 trillion.

So let’s start there. Under Biden, we have significantly lower unemployment, higher GDP, fewer Covid deaths, a lower deficit, and our troops are out of Afghanistan.

The economy. In 2019, when unemployment spent most of the year in the 3.5-3.7% range, Trump declared it “the greatest economy in history“. Then the pandemic hit, the economy collapsed, and unemployment skyrocketed to 14.8% in April, 2020.

Both Trump and Biden fought to keep the economy going with emergency stimulus measures, including direct payments to individuals. As a result, the March-September period of this year once again saw unemployment in the 3.5-3.7% range. Jobs are once again plentiful, wages are rising, and many businesses complain about not being able to find enough workers.

The cost of this impressive economic performance in challenging circumstances has been inflation, which peaked at 9.1% (year-over-year) in June and has since been trending downward, though it remains an uncomfortably high 8.2%. (The war in Ukraine also factors into rising energy and food prices.) However, the US is doing relatively well in comparison with similar economies. Inflation is running at 10% in the 19-country eurozone and 10.1% in the United Kingdom.

It is hard to see how any of this will improve if Republicans reclaim either house of Congress. Looking forward to 2024, it will be in Republicans’ interest to block whatever Biden tries to do, especially if it would help the economy. In particular, we can expect a Republican-controlled house of Congress to return to the ransom-demanding practices the GOP used against President Obama. Expect another debt-ceiling crisis, and perhaps this time they’ll push the country into default.

Covid. In spite of his overall mismanagement of the Covid crisis, Trump deserves credit for funding the “warp speed” plan to develop a vaccine quickly. The first vaccines were approved in December 2020, leaving Biden to figure out how to get shots into Americans’ arms.

That was a key part of the American Rescue Plan that Biden got through Congress and signed less than two months after taking office. Remember how, under Trump, states competed with each other for resources to fight the pandemic? That hasn’t happened under Biden. Vaccines have been distributed fairly and for free. (Pfizer recently announced its intention to charge $110-130 per dose when government funding runs out. Imagine if we’d had to pay that from the beginning.)

Republicans could have given Trump credit for the vaccines and made vaccinating the country a bipartisan goal, but instead decided to go the other way. Together with conservative media, they ran a disinformation campaign about vaccines, masks, and everything else Covid-related. As a result, blue Massachusetts has an 82% vaccination rate; red Alabama 52%. Nonetheless, Biden still managed to get 68% of Americans fully vaccinated, including 93% of those over 65.

One cost of Republican disinformation, it’s worth pointing out, has been paid by their voters.

Average excess death rates in Florida and Ohio were 76% higher among Republicans than Democrats from March 2020 to December 2021, according to a working paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Believing what Republican politicians and Fox News hosts tell you can endanger your health.

Foreign policy. When Biden took office, NATO was in shambles. Trump had repeatedly questioned the value of the alliance, and had even suggested the US might not fulfill our treaty obligations to defend other NATO countries if they were attacked. He seemed unable to criticize Vladimir Putin, and even took Putin’s side against US intelligence services in a particularly egregious meeting in Helsinki.

Biden’s reassembly of the alliance has been masterful. NATO has stood together in helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion, and has even drawn Sweden and Finland into the alliance. Putin, who dominated Trump, has been completely outplayed by Biden. (Trump has continued to be in thrall to the Russian dictator. Shortly after the Ukraine invasion began, Trump described Putin’s move as “genius“.)

The US exit from Afghanistan was ugly, but necessary. To his credit, Biden was willing to swallow the medicine that three previous presidents had passed on to their successors. Trump had entered office promising to end the Afghan war, and repeatedly said he was doing so (including ordering an abrupt withdrawal after the 2020 election, which was not carried out). But he didn’t. Biden did.

After 20 years of nation building, including countless billions spent training and equipping the Afghan army, the Afghan government couldn’t even hang on long enough for us to get out of the country. Sad as those events were to witness, they demonstrated conclusively that our presence, and the continuing sacrifices of our troops, were accomplishing nothing.

Legislation. Another unfulfilled Trump promise that Biden delivered on was the bipartisan infrastructure package.

The legislation will put $110 billion into roads, bridges and other major projects. It will invest $66 billion in freight and passenger rail, including potential upgrades to Amtrak. It will direct $39 billion into public transit systems.

The plan will put $65 billion into expanding broadband, a priority after the coronavirus pandemic left millions of Americans at home without effective internet access. It will also put $55 billion into improving water systems and replacing lead pipes.

That bill didn’t just start the long-delayed rebuilding of America, it also proved that the two parties can still work together. 19 Republican senators and 13 representatives voted to pass it.

Biden’s third major piece of legislation was the Inflation Reduction Act, which he signed in August. This is the first major piece of legislation to fight climate change, and is projected to result in the US’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 being 40% below 2005 levels. It also cuts the deficit and reduces prescription drug prices.

Executive orders. President Biden has used his power to help Americans who need it. Among many other moves, he has ordered a limited student debt forgiveness (though Republicans have gone to court to block it), and is also pardoning non-violent federal prisoners whose only offense is marijuana possession.