Category Archives: Articles

What Makes a Good Conspiracy Theory?

We’ll never get rid of them, but can we at least process them better?

On this blog I frequently debunk conspiracy theories that spread among conservatives: QAnon, Obama’s birth certificate, Dominion voting machines, Antifa’s role in the Capitol insurrection, and so on. But this week a liberal conspiracy theory kept showing up in my social-media news feeds: The accusations against Andrew Cuomo are part of a scheme to install a Republican as governor of New York, so that he can use his pardon power to protect Donald Trump from New York state prosecutions.

Debunking the Cuomo theory. Before I start using this as an example of a conspiracy theory, though, let’s dismiss it as a sensible interpretation of events: Suppose Cuomo resigns or is impeached. His replacement is the Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who has no reason to pardon Trump. Next in the line of succession are the Temporary President of the Senate, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the Attorney General — all Democrats.

Then comes the 2022 election. New York electing a Republican governor is not unheard of: George Pataki served three terms from 1995-2006. But Pataki Republicans are not exactly Trumpists, and in recent cycles Democrats have done quite well in New York. Cuomo won his last election (2018) by 23%. But he doesn’t have some unique ability to pull in votes that puts the governorship in danger if he can’t run. Biden beat Trump in New York in 2020 by 23% as well. Kirsten Gillibrand won the New York senate race in 2018 by 34%. Letitia James won the 2018 Attorney General race by 27%. And the names being discussed as 2022 Republican challengers are not ones that should cause Democrats to quake in fear, particularly if a Trump pardon becomes one of the issues.

In short, raising phony accusations against Cuomo in order to keep Trump out of jail would be a wild scheme that had almost no chance to succeed. Not even Trumpists are crazy enough to invest the kind of resources even a failed attempt would require. And besides, there’s a far more mundane explanation for Cuomo’s problems: Being an asshole finally caught up to him.

My rare attempt at bipartisanship. If conspiracy theories appear in both parties, then sensible people in both parties should want to debunk them. That’s why I was pleased to see someone I rarely agree with, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat, contribute to that effort a little while ago with “A Better Way to Think About Conspiracies“.

He starts with the following observation: The only way to get rid of conspiracy theories completely is to induce everyone to accept the expert consensus on everything. Not only is that never going to happen, it shouldn’t happen, because sometimes the expert consensus is self-serving or corrupt or just wrong in the ordinary people-make-mistakes way. I mean, how many experts told us that Saddam had WMDs, or that Trump couldn’t possibly beat Hillary? Worse, occasionally there are real conspiracies, like Nixon’s Plumbers or the baseball owners’ free-agency collusion.

So if we can’t just deny all conspiracies, or insist that people believe whatever the experts say, what can we do?

If you assume that people will always believe in conspiracies, and that sometimes they should, you can try to give them a tool kit for discriminating among different fringe ideas, so that when they venture into outside-the-consensus territory, they become more reasonable and discerning in the ideas they follow and bring back.

Douthat suggests a few sorting principles that can keep people from falling down the Q-Anon rabbit hole.

  • Simple theories are better than baroque ones.
  • Be skeptical of theories that seem tailored to reach a predetermined conclusion.
  • Take fringe theories more seriously when the mainstream narrative has holes.
  • Don’t start accepting all fringe theories just because one of them looks right to you.

To illustrate the simple vs. baroque distinction, he contrasts two origin-of-Covid-19 conspiracy theories: One says “it was designed by the Gates Foundation for some sort of world-domination scheme”, and the other that “it was accidentally released by a Chinese virology lab in Wuhan, a disaster that the Beijing government then sought to cover up”. Douthat rejects the former out of hand, but finds the latter plausible — not true, necessarily, but possibly worth investigating further.

The difference is that the Gates theory requires postulating a whole bunch of other stuff not in evidence. (What powers those nano-chips in the vaccine once they get into your bloodstream?) But the lab-accident theory just has one unusual event, after which a lot of people behave the way we know a lot of people behave: They would rather lie than accept blame. [1]

He illustrates the predetermined-conclusion point by looking at Trump’s various stolen-election theories. If you’ve ever argued with a Trumpist about this, you’ve probably observed what Douthat did: When you disprove one election-fraud theory, the Trumpist doesn’t reconsider his position, but just comes back with another election-fraud theory. If Georgia’s hand-recount disproves the corrupted-voting-machine-software theory (it does), then what about Detroit having more votes than voters? After you debunk that, what about dead people voting? And so on. The conclusion (Trump really won) remains fixed; the conspiracy theories are just roads to get there.

That should count against them.

Douthat’s point about holes in the mainstream narrative is similar to Thomas Kuhn’s account of scientific revolutions: Novel theories shouldn’t dislodge an accepted theory unless the accepted theory is having trouble explaining anomalies. As Einstein reflected, “If the Michelson–Morley experiment had not brought us into serious embarrassment, no one would have regarded the relativity theory as a (halfway) redemption.”

The example Douthat gives is Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein’s career is so unlikely that you can hardly blame people for trying to place him in a larger story. I would point to the pee-tape theory of Putin and Trump. There is essentially no evidence of a pee tape, but Trump’s defenders have never offered an alternative explanation of why he was so subservient to Putin. Instead, they just denied what we could all see. If the alternative to the conspiracy theory is believing that the Trump/Putin news conference in Helsinki is perfectly normal behavior for an American president, then I’ll keep looking for a pee tape.

The fourth point ought to go without saying, but there is a strong pull in the opposite direction: Once you leave the mainstream, other outside-the-mainstream folks feel like compatriots. (Once you accept alien visitors, why shouldn’t Atlantis be real?) Douthat makes a good point, though: All the world’s revealed religions have stressed that not every voice that pops into somebody’s head is the voice of God. You have to practice discernment.

I’ll support him by pointing out that even though the experts aren’t always right, they usually are. So when you believe a conspiracy theory, you’re betting on a long shot. Long shots occasionally come in, but no gambler makes a successful career out of betting on one long shot after another.

My additional principles. I agree with all of Douthat’s principles, but I don’t think he goes quite far enough. I want to add some ideas that I can easily imagine him agreeing with. And even if he doesn’t …

You don’t have to accept the convention wisdom, but you should know what it is. If you reject it, you should have a reason. Before you retweet something bizarre, take a moment to google a news story on the topic, or check some reference like Wikipedia. Is there a widely accepted explanation you hadn’t considered? Is there a reason not to accept it? If you have such a reason, fine. But at least consider a non-conspiracy explanation.

Evil people face the same problems you do. Have you ever tried to organize something? It’s hard. It gets harder the more people you need to coordinate, and harder still if it’s something like a surprise party, where it’s supposed to be secret, so you can’t just blast out an announcement.

It’s not any easier to organize something nefarious. If you can’t imagine how a richer, more powerful version of yourself could pull something off, be skeptical that somebody else is managing it.

Who are “they”? One way to avoid realizing just how big and complicated a conspiracy would have to be is to attribute it to a nebulous “them”, as Donald Trump Jr. does in this clip: “There’s no place that they won’t go. This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head, they canceled the Muppets. They’re canceling Dr. Seuss from reading programs.” They who?

Everybody in a conspiracy needs a motive. The reason the baseball-owner-collusion theory was plausible (even before it turned out to be true) was that all 32 owners had the same financial incentive: paying their players less.

Now consider the theory that ICUs are faking the Covid pandemic. Everybody who works there needs to be in on it: nurses, doctors, cleaning staff, and so on. Either they’re not telling their loved ones, or the loved ones are in on it too. What motives could possibly unify all those people?

Very few people are motivated by evil for its own sake. A theory I heard fairly often as same-sex marriage cases were working their way through the courts was that same-sex couples weren’t actually interested in getting married, they were just trying to destroy marriage for the rest of us. We are all occasionally tempted to do something out of spite, but seriously: Would you devote a big chunk of your life to a project that gained you nothing, but just destroyed something for somebody else? Not many people would. [2]

As new information comes in, bad conspiracy theories have to grow. A good conspiracy theory might even shrink. A sure sign of a bad theory is that every objection is met by expanding the conspiracy. “They’re in on it too.”

But if you imagine organizing a conspiracy yourself, you wouldn’t be constantly trying to bring more people in, because each new person is a new risk. Instead, you’d try to identify the smallest possible group that could pull the operation off.

So if you’re on the trail of an actual conspiracy, the more you find out, the closer you should get to understanding the vision of the planner. Rather than “He’s in on it too”, you should start to realize how a small group of people really could do this. [3]

Contrast this with the nanobots-in-the-vaccine theory. Anybody who has access to a Covid vaccine might put it under a microscope and see those bots. Why aren’t they saying anything? They must all be in on it.

[1] My favorite Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theory is similar: After Oswald fires that first non-fatal shot, a Secret Service agent’s gun goes off by mistake, killing JFK. The agent’s superiors then try to cover that up, and things spiral from there.

Having brought up the Kennedy assassination, which educated my whole generation in conspiracy theories, I have to tell this joke: Two authors of JFK-assassination-conspiracy books are sharing a car as they drive to a convention where they’ll both be on a panel. Unfortunately, they are involved in a highway accident and die. But they’re both virtuous people, so they arrive together in the afterlife.

Their introductory tour of Heaven is given by God Himself, and somewhere between the infinite beach and the endless ice cream bar he tells them that there are no secrets in Heaven. “So if you ever want to know anything — about Heaven, about the Earth, about Me — you just have to ask.”

So one of the authors raises the question he’s been wrestling with for years: “Who really did kill Kennedy?”

And God answers, “Oswald, acting alone, pretty much the way the Warren Report says.”

The authors go silent for a while, until eventually one leans over to the other and whispers, “This goes up much higher than we ever imagined.”

[2] This is one reason I suspect that conspiracy theories do better among religious groups that believe in an active Devil. Unlike anybody you actually know, the Devil is motivated by evil for its own sake. And if the Devil has minions, they also are just trying to do harm.

[3] One of my favorite Kennedy-assassination conspiracy books was Best Evidence by David Lifton. (I’m not endorsing his theory, I’m just illustrating a point.) His theory revolves around how investigators think: They trust some kinds of evidence more than others, and they’ll explain away less-trusted evidence if it contradicts more-trusted evidence.

In a murder case, the best evidence is the body; or, after the body is out of reach, the autopsy. So if you could control that evidence, then you wouldn’t need to involve the whole FBI; they would naturally discount eye-witnesses who saw something that the autopsy says didn’t happen.

Is an Intelligent Cancel Culture Discussion Possible?

Maybe. But we’ll have to cut through a lot of nonsense first.

In case you missed previous posts like “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric” and “Silly Season in the Culture Wars“, here’s what I’ve concluded: The rhetoric on “cancel culture” is wildly overblown, and articles denouncing it almost invariably

  • fail to define what they’re talking about, making me wonder if “cancel culture” is really a thing at all,
  • use a bunch of imaginary examples that fall apart as soon as you look at them, like the “cancellation” of Mr. Potato Head or Dr. Seuss. [1]

Mostly this is a debate between the Right and the Left, with conservatives prophesying the fall of civilization and liberals wondering what the problem is. But a segment of the mainstream commentariat has tried to stake out a middle position, recognizing that Green Eggs and Ham is in no danger and Pepe Le Pew should have disappeared a long time ago, but still repeating right-wing talking points about the Jacobin nature of the “woke mob”.

Bai and Hennessey. Case in point: Matt Bai, warning in Friday’s Washington Post about the dangers of the ongoing “cultural revolution” (and admitting that he’s invoking Mao intentionally). He brushes off the Fox News freakout about Mr. Potato Head, but then takes aim at people like me. [2]

the overwhelming leftist response to Republican hysteria has been to say that there is no such thing as “cancel culture,” no actual threat to free expression. It’s all just a lot of Trumpian nonsense, propagated by racists and sexists.

This isn’t true, and it isn’t helpful.

You know what would be helpful? If folks like Bai would define their terms and offer actual examples that can be be analyzed and compared, so readers don’t just have to take his word for what is or isn’t true. But instead, he makes this sweeping but totally unsupported claim:

A culture of self-censorship pervades media and the arts — a fear that using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book can derail a career.

We are, in fact, witnessing the most direct assault on free expression in my lifetime, mainly because a loud segment of younger activists view free expression as a convenient excuse for perpetuating oppression.

Despite the once-in-a-lifetime gravity of this situation, Bai does not find it necessary to identify a single career that has actually been derailed for “using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book”.

So what exactly is he talking about? If I don’t already know, he’s not going to tell me.

Most sensible liberals I talk to — in politics, news, entertainment or academia — understand this. But there’s a palpable fear of getting on the wrong side of the woke mob, and it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

Who is in this “woke mob”? He doesn’t say, beyond “younger activists” (which, sad to say, leaves me out as I research my Medicare options). But apparently my advanced age has not made me “sensible”, because I have no idea what he means.

Bai is not an isolated example. One of my unimpeachably liberal Facebook friends linked approvingly to this New York Post article by Matthew Hennessey, which tries to rally Gen-Xers against cancel culture’s “millennial Maoists”. (What is it about Mao?) Predictably, Hennessey also doesn’t define “cancel culture”, and (unlike Bai) recites the right-wing litany of imaginary examples. (The article’s illustrations include images from The Cat in the Hat and Gone With the Wind, both of which remain readily available.) And he perversely advocates fighting back against cancel culture by canceling anti-racists:

We will have to engage in a thousand tiny battles every day and it will be terribly uncomfortable. It’ll be hard standing up to school administrators pushing an ‘anti-racist’ curriculum on your kids.

Yeah, how dare the still-unidentified “woke mob” try to teach your children about slavery or structural racism? You absolutely need to protect freedom of speech by censoring that curriculum before the kids ever learn anything from it.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system now. Let’s see if it’s possible to find something here we can think about with some amount of rigor.

Outlines of a reasonable discussion. I suspect the term “cancel culture” is now poisoned beyond recovery. But let’s see if we can tease some kernel of legitimate concern out of the mass of nonsense. Let’s begin with some ground rules.

The phenomenon we end up discussing can’t have political bias built into it, as “cancel culture” currently does. I’m not willing to adopt a frame in which, by definition, only conservatives can have a grievance. If Gina Carano is a victim of whatever-it-is, then so are Colin Kaepernick and the Dixie Chicks.

Whatever-it-is has something to do with the proper limits of free speech. And that discussion needs to start by acknowledging that some limits, both legal and cultural, are necessary and proper. For example, there is room to argue about whether Trump’s January 6 speech should qualify as an illegal “incitement to riot”. But if he had openly said, “Now go to the Capitol and do whatever you need to do to stop Congress from counting the electoral votes”, he should go to jail. Freedom of speech can’t be absolute.

As for cultural limits, consider the example of an announcer’s I-didn’t-know-the-mic-was-live moment at a girls high-school basketball game in Oklahoma Thursday night. (When some of the student athletes knelt during the national anthem, he commented: “Fucking niggers.” [3]) I don’t think you have to be a Maoist to believe he should be fired for that. Not jailed, not lynched — but there should be consequences when somebody goes that far over the line.

And finally, there’s a difference between tolerating someone’s right to say something and providing them a platform so they can say it again. That’s another aspect of the basketball-announcer example. If a guy sitting in a bar makes the same comment to the TV screen, the people who hear it should give him strange looks, and that might well be the end of it. But should a network keep giving this guy a microphone?

To give another example, The Birth of a Nation is a racist movie from 1915, which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube. I’m fine with that, and I’d also be fine with Google (which owns YouTube) deciding not to host it. I would oppose a law that made distributing or watching the movie illegal.

But providing a public venue to screen the movie is a more complex discussion. If I were part of a university community — as either faculty or student — I’d be fine with an on-campus group showing it as part of a larger conversation about racism in film, one that allowed for discussion of the ways it misrepresents the Reconstruction Era. But I would protest if the movie were brought to campus without any context, in a hey-you-might-like-this way, or in any other way that used the university as a platform to promote the film’s racist point of view. [4]

So: It would be valuable for American culture to have a broad conversation about the proper limits of free speech and the proper ways of responding to offensive speech. A worthy goal would be to develop impartial standards that balance what I can do against what can be done to me, regardless of whether I am liberal or conservative.

Another valuable conversation would involve how we want to look at our history. How should we judge people who lived in other eras, when cultural values were different? What points of view have been systematically excluded from our history, and how does the story change when we let those points of view in?

I’ve heard a lot of people claim that eventually we’ll be renaming the Washington Monument, but I’ve never heard anybody seriously propose that. As in the previous discussion: What are the proper limits? Acknowledging someone’s historical significance is not the same as continuing to celebrate that person. We can leave people in the history books without naming schools after them.

Is anybody having that discussion? Maybe, a little. I’ll point you to a couple of worthwhile recent contributions.

First, Scott Illing’s interview with Jeffrey Sachs at Vox. Sachs has recently written an article at ARC on the bills state legislatures are considering (and even passing) that suppress critical race theory. In the interview, he contrasts the left-wing and right-wing threats to free expression.

I’m not comfortable either saying that one side is more dangerous than the other. What I will say is that the threats from the left tend to involve informal mechanisms of sanction, and they are no less censorious for that informality. They can do enormous damage, and it’s a significant problem that can be addressed if more college and university administrators grow a backbone and stand up to that kind of behavior.

Whereas the censorious instinct on the right is largely coming from off campus, and it involves much quieter tools that escape the notice of many commentators.

“Quieter” mainly because the national media doesn’t cover small-state legislatures like South Dakota, where a bill under consideration would

prohibit the use of any material designed to promote an ideological view of history, but simultaneously Gov. Kristi Noem has proposed or has requested $900,000 to overhaul the state’s history curriculum in order to promote the idea that “the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

I hope Sachs eventually tells us specifically about the “enormous damage” to colleges and universities that he sees the Left doing. But the distinction — the Left operating mainly on campus and using social pressure, while the Right uses its political power in red-state legislatures — is useful.

Another worthwhile article is “Cancel Culture is Not a Movement” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New Yorker. Wallace-Wells looks at particular cases and questions whether the “woke mob” operates more as a fear-inducing mirage than as a political force.

To Dr. Seuss Enterprises, it might have seemed possible that a progressive mob was waiting, ready to turn on “McElligot’s Pool” and “Mulberry Street.” But it is also possible—to me, it seems likely—that there was no such consensus at all. …

The college president, the city-council subcommittee, the panel of experts: these figures are often described by their political opponents as if they were as coherent and determined as a closed fist—that there is something cohesive that could be called cancel culture. My own sense is that something close to the opposite is true. The claims of racial justice have upended liberal élites in interesting and profound ways, and left them deeply uncertain: about how much history should be revised, about what kinds of retributive steps should be taken, and, above all, about how many people, really, want radical change.

Just about everyone left of center recognizes that white supremacy persists and is unjust, but “white supremacy” isn’t just a law that can be repealed or a corporate policy the board can change at its next meeting. So the desire to be on the right side of history often runs up against practical uncertainties: What can someone in my position actually do? And how much political capital does the will to change actually have? Will the apparent support for organizational change evaporate if I ask people to commit serious resources or accept significant change in their own lives?

The result can be bold announcements that lack bold follow-through, like Minneapolis City Council members vowing to “end policing as we know it”, but not allowing a police-defunding proposal to go to the voters. Or symbolic actions of little real impact, like San Francisco renaming its schools, or Speaker Pelosi wearing a kente-cloth stole to a demonstration.

College administrators can fire the people at the center of incidents, and sometimes do so too quickly and without due process, because they feel a need to demonstrate that they take the incidents seriously. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter can boot people off their platforms, but the algorithms that identify such people are often no better than the algorithms that show us so many off-base advertisements. Publishers can decide not to publish objectionable books, either before or after someone objects to them. Stores can pull products off their shelves. Individuals can carry signs at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Such actions display concern, but how well thought-out are they, and what next steps do they lead to?

The sum total of these actions can create the impression of a vast conspiracy reaching out to change every aspect of our lives, when the reality is quite different: A small group of activists has identified a problem that a much larger group of sympathizers recognizes as legitimate. But the larger group is fumbling to decide both what it can do about it, and how much it is willing to do.

[1] Jeff Tiedrich expressed this point with a little more vigor than I usually do.

[2] I would be amazed if Bai has ever heard of me or this blog, but he’s aiming directly at the arguments I’ve been making here. It’s hard not to take it personally.

[3] It’s always a question whether to quote exactly what someone said or alter it in some way, like “f**king ni**ers” or “effing N-words”, or to refer vaguely to “a racial slur”. When I’m tempted to do one of those things, I always ask myself, “Who would I be protecting?” In this case, I think I’d be protecting the announcer, by making his words sound less serious than they actually were, so I repeated the offending phrase as he said it.

This policy is open for discussion. The one caution I would give is: Don’t try to speak for other people. I want to know what offends you, not what you think would offend someone else.

[4] In giving these examples, I’m modeling the kind of conversation I’d like to see. In particular, they make the conversation real in a way that the Bai and Hennessey articles are unreal.

Silly Season in the Culture Wars

If the only message you have is to stoke your base’s grievances, occasionally you have to make some up.

This week contained a lot of important news, so you might imagine that conservative news networks would have a lot to talk about. You might even say they had work cut out for them.

  • President Biden’s $1.9 trillion (with a T) spending bill was being debated in Congress, and the opposition message wasn’t getting through to the American people. In one poll, the proposal won support from 68% of Americans, including 37% of Republicans.
  • The battle against the Covid pandemic had major developments: Biden announced that enough vaccine for all adult Americans would be available by the end of May, two months earlier than previously thought. Meanwhile, Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi were removing mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions from their economies, and others were thinking of following suit — despite the fact that daily case-numbers and death-totals are either worse or not much different than when those restrictions were announced.
  • The Senate has been holding hearings on the January 6 insurrection, including testimony from the FBI director.
  • Police reform and voting rights bills passed the House.
  • Refugees are returning to our southern border.
  • A big-state Democratic governor is battling scandal.
  • The Senate still has Biden nominees to confirm. Surely one or more of them has done something worth getting upset about.
  • Biden is planning another trillion-with-a-T infrastructure bill to rebuild America in ways that Trump promised but never delivered on.

Serious stuff. Worth calling viewers’ attention to. Some of it even invites a conservative spin.

But instead, right-wing hosts like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity filled entire segments of their shows with Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, two purported examples of “cancel culture” that (1) are trivial by comparison to several of the issues I just listed, and (2) don’t stand up to even a small amount of scrutiny.

Let’s examine the reality at the root of these controversies.

Mr. Potato Head. Not quite two weeks ago, Hasbro announced that it was changing how it markets its Mr. Potato Head toys:

Hasbro is officially renaming the MR. POTATO HEAD brand to POTATO HEAD to better reflect the full line.

In other words, Hasbro is de-centering masculinity: Instead of being an “accessory” to her husband, Mrs. Potato Head is now an equal member of the family. Horrors! Your daughter might get the idea that she can find her own place in the world, and doesn’t need a man to define her. And then the Hasbro announcement got even more sinister:

Launching this Fall, the CREATE YOUR POTATO HEAD FAMILY is a celebration of the many faces of families allowing kids to imagine and create their own Potato Head family with 2 large potato bodies, 1 small potato body, and 42 accessories. The possibilities to create your own families are endless with mixing and mashing all the parts and pieces.

So the toy is no longer hetero-normative. If they want, children can build a family with two Mommies or two Daddies. The branding no longer fights that. (Like that matters. I mean, you never cross-dressed Barbie and G. I. Joe, right? Sure. Me neither.) Of course, if you want a Potato Head Family with a Mommy, a Daddy, and a Tater Tot of your own gender, that still works too. (And you can still remove Daddy’s mouth, so he can’t yell at the Tot.) As best I can see, there are no losers here.

Dr. Seuss. The Dr. Seuss situation is similar: A private enterprise is managing its brand in a way that hurts no one.

When Theodore Seuss Geisel died in 1991, the copyrights on his works passed to his widow, Audrey Geisel, who lived until 2018.

In 1993 she founded Dr. Seuss Enterprises, whose stated mission was to “protect the integrity of the Dr. Seuss books while expanding beyond books into ancillary areas.”

Since then, DSE has done a pretty good job keeping Geisel’s flame burning.

Dr. Seuss — who died in 1991 — was one of the top-earning dead celebrities of 2020, with $33 million in total earnings, according to Forbes. That’s up from $9.5 million in 2015. His estate actually earned more than any late celebrity except for Michael Jackson, whose estate earned $48 million.

So maybe they know their business, and their judgement deserves the benefit of the doubt. Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that six of its more obscure titles would no longer be published.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

None of these six was particularly popular.

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” one of the six books pulled by the estate, sold about 5,000 copies last year, according to BookScan. “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” haven’t sold in years through the retailers BookScan tracks.

For comparison, DSE sold over half a million of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!.

So what about these particular six books is “hurtful and wrong”? Unless you have copies lying around — and most people don’t, that’s what it means to be unpopular — it’s hard to judge for yourself. In situations like this, mainstream publications don’t want to call your attention to something just to demonstrate how hurtful it is. (And nether do I, so I’ll provide links you can chase if you’re curious rather than post the images themselves.)

The problem isn’t with the text of the books so much as the illustrations. None of them that I have seen is aggressively racist, like Nazi caricatures of Jews often were, but they contain demeaning stereotypes of Africans and Asians. (The anti-Japanese cartoons Geisel drew after Pearl Harbor, though, are aggressively racist, as many cartoons of the era were. None of them are currently being published by DSE.) You’re not supposed to hate these books’ non-white characters so much as find them different and strange. (The theme of Mulberry Street is that you don’t have to go far to see bizarre things, like “a Chinaman who eats with sticks“.) And a lack of diversity doesn’t help: The monkey-like African natives in If I Ran the Zoo would be less problematic (though still far from acceptable) if they weren’t the book’s only black characters.

(For what it’s worth, I’ll tell a story on myself: When I was three, I had pneumonia and my parents took me to the hospital. In the waiting room, I saw a Black family, maybe the first real-life Black people I had ever noticed. Dark skin was something I only knew from cartoons, when characters fell into mud puddles or got blown up with dynamite. “Mommy!” I announced (or so I’ve been told). “Those people are dirty.”)

If you’ve watched many old Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons — a lot of which have quietly been taken out of circulation — you know that none of this is unusual for the era. Explicitly non-white characters were rare, and the ones that do show up represent something “other”; you’re supposed to react to them, not identify with them. So the problem isn’t that Dr. Seuss was a bad man in the context of his time — in many ways his books were more progressive than their competitors — but that some of his work has aged badly.

What should be done about that depends on what you want Dr. Seuss to be in 2021. If he’s to be a historical figure — a leading children’s-book author of the mid-to-late 20th century — then his work should speak for itself. Leave it alone, and organize a conversation around it, as HBO Max did when it briefly withdrew and then re-launched Gone With the Wind. (GWTW is a spectacular example of 1930s movie-making, as well as a valuable artifact in the history of America’s attitudes towards race. So I encourage you to watch it. Just don’t imagine that its Lost Cause mythology is an accurate depiction of the Old South or the Reconstruction Era.)

But if Theodore Geisel’s legacy is supposed to be timeless — Audrey’s vision — if his work is supposed to live through our era and beyond, then it needs to be curated. Parents and grandparents should be able to trust the Dr. Seuss brand. When you sit down to read to your four-year-old, you should be able to pick up a Dr. Seuss book without worrying that you might put something bad into a developing mind.

That curation is precisely what Dr. Seuss Enterprises was doing when it removed these six books from its catalog. By taking this action, DSE is making it more likely that kids will still be reading The Cat in the Hat or How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 2050.

The conservative policy vacuum. To understand the overblown response to the Potato Head and Dr. Seuss news, think back for a moment to Reagan Era conservatism. Whether you loved it or hated it — and even if you believed some ulterior motive was hiding in its background — you knew its defining principles:

  • Bold foreign policy that maintains America’s military strength and isn’t afraid to use it.
  • Free trade.
  • Less regulation, lower federal spending, and lower taxes.
  • Local self-determination with less central control from Washington.

That all went out the window with Trump. He liked to spend a lot of money on weapons, brag about American military strength, and occasionally threaten other nations with “fire and fury”. But he also pulled back from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; distanced the US from allies like NATO, Japan, and South Korea; and let Vladimir Putin do whatever he wanted wherever he wanted to do it. Mao was probably wrong when he referred to the US of his era as a “paper tiger“, but Trump’s America really was one.

Free trade was replaced by tariffs and trade wars. Some regulations went away — particularly those protecting the environment — but others he stretched to interfere more aggressively in the decisions of US and foreign corporations. Big spending (and big deficits) weren’t worth mentioning any more. And no president in my lifetime did quite so much to impose federal policy on cities and states that didn’t want it. (Last summer, only resistance from the Pentagon kept him from invoking the Insurrection Act and sending active-duty troops into American cities.)

As a result of this reversal, and the absence of any new guiding principles to explain it, today’s Republican Party no longer has a policy agenda. The 2020 Republican platform was to support Trump — period. When the GOP controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it couldn’t decide what to do with that power, other than pass one big tax cut for rich people. It couldn’t even fulfill its promise to repeal ObamaCare, because that would leave a void that it had no idea how to fill. “Complain all you want that the covid-19 relief bill has been packed with all sorts of unrelated stuff from the Democratic wish list,” Megan McArdle wrote yesterday. “At least the Democrats have a wish list. What’s the Republican equivalent?”

Conservatism today is defined not by principles or programs, but by a Leader, an identity, and (most of all) an attitude: Conservatives are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. Mad at “Them” — the libs, the Deep State, Big Tech, the blood-drinking pedophiles — who keep threatening and insulting them.

But the Biden administration is policy-centered, so to the extent that Biden is driving the national conversation, Republicans have little to say. If they wanted to oppose Biden on substance, they’d need to have a Covid relief proposal of their own. (Ten GOP senators did make a laughably low-ball offer that they knew Biden couldn’t accept, but even they only represented themselves. The Republican leadership offered no proposal at all.) Or a coherent response to January 6 and the larger problem of domestic terrorism. Or an infrastructure plan. Or an immigration plan. Or something.

With no ideas to offer, they can only keep their base riled by promoting a never-ending string of “outrages”. Otherwise they’ve got nothing.

The cancel-culture freak-out. The essence of Trump’s message to his base (a message no other Republican is in a position to compete with) is grievance: Somebody is trying to take something from you, so you need a strong authoritarian leader to fight for you.

Some of these threats may be exaggerated, but they have at least a foothold in reality. Many Democrats really would like to take away assault rifles and other military-grade weaponry, or at least stop Americans from buying more. But the number proposing to “disarm” the country entirely is vanishingly small. Many Americans do compete for jobs with foreigners abroad and immigrants at home, though trade and immigration also create jobs and the balance is debatable.

But other “threats” are almost entirely imaginary: Non-white races are trying to “replace” you. Gays and lesbians are conspiring to destroy marriage and the family. Liberals want to criminalize Christianity. Big Tech is trying to steal your voice. Covid is a conpsiracy to take away your freedom. It has become a formula: When the Right needs to energize its base, they invent some nebulous force — “Them!” — that is trying to take away something that should be yours.

This week’s Seuss/Potato story has made this technique really obvious, because the frame fits so badly. Nothing is being taken away from anybody. Whatever you had hoped to do with Mr. Potato Head, you can still do. No one is coming for your Dr. Seuss books. And if you want more, you can buy more, except for a few books you probably had forgotten even existed. What’s more, the rights to those books never belonged to you anyway; if Dr. Seuss Enterprises thinks its brand is healthier without them, that’s up to them.

Conservative rabble-rousers did their best to pretend something else was happening. “They are banning Dr. Seuss books,” said Glenn Beck. They. Not the legal owners of the copyrights, or the organization created by Seuss’ widow to protect his legacy, but a nebulous “panel of ‘educators’ and ‘experts’.”

How much more do you need to see before all of America wakes up and goes “This is fascism!”? This is fascism. You don’t destroy books. What is wrong with us, America? Go out and buy those books today. Find out if you can get them. Buy Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, because it’s the end of an era. It is the end of freedom in America.

Beck is so strongly attached to these six books — none of which are being destroyed — that he gets some of their names wrong.

He wasn’t alone. On Fox & Friends, Donald Trump Jr. also warned about the sinister “they”, and seemed to imply The Cat in the Hat had been canceled.

There’s no place that they won’t go. This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head, they canceled the Muppets. They’re canceling Dr. Seuss from reading programs. … I literally know The Cat in the Hat by heart without the book there because I read it so many times to my children.

(I almost forgot about the Muppets. Last month, Disney Plus began streaming all five seasons of The Muppet Show, making it more easily available than it has ever been. But Disney committed the unforgivable sin of putting content warnings on some episodes, like the one where Johnny Cash sings in front of a Confederate flag. But you can still watch it. No one has had the Muppets taken away from them.)

Kevin McCarthy similarly implied that the most beloved Dr. Seuss books were being canceled — not by the organization charged with maintaining his brand, but by people who don’t like Dr. Seuss. He tweeted “I still like Dr. Seuss” and then read Green Eggs and Ham on Twitter. Why didn’t he read If I Ran the Zoo and show us the primitive African natives?

Tuesday morning, as Christopher Wray verified that white supremacist groups were involved in the Capitol insurrection and Antifa wasn’t, Ted Johnson noticed a subtle difference in what news networks were covering.

The Washington Post provided the numbers:

Over the course of the past week, Fox News has spent 4 hours and 38 minutes on Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and Biden’s comments about Neanderthals, according to a tally by the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America. That compared to 42 minutes from CNN and 39 minutes from MSNBC on those topics.

Fox News on Tuesday alone devoted an hour and nine minutes to Dr. Seuss — more than the combined amount it spent on the coronavirus vaccine and FBI testimony about the Jan. 6 insurrection.

So this is what conservative media has come to: If you have nothing to say to America, and yet you need to keep your base riled up, then you need to rile them up about nothing.

The Action Shifts to Congress

The country now depends on its most dysfunctional branch of government.

Joe Biden began his presidency with a flurry of executive orders, concerning everything from public health to immigration to racial equality. But the United States is not (and should not be) a dictatorship, so executive orders can only go so far. Executive orders can redecorate the rooms of our government, but they can’t remodel the building. To make real change, you need Congress to appropriate money and pass laws.

So as the Biden administration enters its sixth week, the action has shifted to Congress. Congress (as I have pointed out before) is the most dysfunctional branch of American government, and its weakness is the root cause the dysfunction of the other two branches: Both the White House and the courts overreach, because someone has to pick up the responsibilities that Congress drops.

Syria. We saw an example this week, when Biden ordered an air strike on Syria. The legality of this is questionable, because Congress has never specifically authorized military action in Syria. But the last few administrations have justified whatever they wanted to do in the Middle East by stretching the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolutions that Congress passed in 2001 after 9-11 and in 2002 prior to the Iraq invasion. The entire Obama/Trump campaign against ISIS, which culminated in Syria, happened under authority that Congress never realized it was granting two decades ago.

But the blame here belongs to Congress. A responsible legislative body would debate the exact bounds of presidential war-making in the area, and pass a new AUMF that repealed the previous two. Some — Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN), for example — have pushed for this, but most congresspeople would rather dodge responsibility and then complain later if things go wrong in either direction.

In this case, you can be sure that if the US suffered some major reversal in the Iraq/Syria theater — say, a high-casualty attack against our forces or a resurgence of ISIS — many of the same congresspeople who complain about unauthorized military action now would be complaining then that the President hadn’t done enough. Again, this pattern is independent of parties. It was equally true in the Trump and Obama administrations, and under congressional leadership of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Covid relief. The biggest bill facing Congress right now is the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, which passed the House Saturday without a single Republican vote and two Democrats defecting. The Washington Post summarizes the content:

Beyond the minimum-wage increase, the sprawling relief bill would provide $1,400 stimulus payments to tens of millions of American households; extend enhanced federal unemployment benefits through August; provide $350 billion in aid to states, cities, U.S. territories and tribal governments; and boost funding for vaccine distribution and coronavirus testing — among myriad other measures, such as nutritional assistance, housing aid and money for schools.

The bill is popular with the American people, as well as with many Republican governors and mayors. But that isn’t enough to get it Republican votes in Congress. Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy have imprinted the lesson they learned during the Obama administration: If you monkey-wrench the economy, ultimately the party in the White House will get blamed for it.

Heather Cox Richardson:

The Democrats will be able to pass a bill popular with more than 3 out of 4 of us only because they have a slight majority in the House and can use a special budget measure to work around the Republican senators who represent 41.5 million fewer Americans than the Democrats do.

The coronavirus relief bill illustrates just how dangerously close we are to minority rule.

Minimum wage. Meanwhile, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that raising the minimum wage doesn’t fit inside the rules defining the reconciliation process. So if Senate Democrats use that process to pass Covid relief — as it looks like they must to overcome the expected Republican filibuster — the minimum wage won’t be in it. Raising the minimum wage is also popular on its own, and will probably be offered as a stand-alone bill. But popularity with the American people probably won’t garner it enough Republican support to overcome a filibuster.

The New Yorker blows up one central argument against raising the minimum wage:

The fast-food chains insist that if they were to pay their employees more they would have to raise menu prices. Their wages are “competitive.” But in Denmark McDonald’s workers over the age of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents more than it is in the United States. There are regional American fast-food chains that take the high road with their employees. The starting wage at In-N-Out Burger, which is based in Southern California, and has two hundred and ninety-five restaurants in California and the Southwest, is eleven dollars. Full-time workers receive a complete benefits package, including life insurance—and the burgers are cheap and good.

Matt Yglesias:

The genius of America is you need a 60-vote supermajority to raise the minimum wage, but the president can bomb some militia in Iran based on … I dunno … an AUMF from two decades ago that was about something else entirely or something.

The Equality Act. Thursday, the House passed the Equality Act, which would explicitly protect Americans against discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s not inconceivable that the bill could also pass the Senate and become law, but getting the ten Republican votes necessarily to overcome a filibuster looks like an uphill struggle.

Whether it passes or not, the bill is becoming a hot-button culture war issue for conservatives, raising all kinds of dark fantasies that have little basis in reality. Most conservative attempts to argue this point don’t even try to assemble evidence, and the few that do are unconvincing. For example, a Heritage Foundation report against allowing access to single-sex facilities according to gender identity includes a nine-page appendix listing “Individuals charged with sex crimes in intimate facilities”, including such incidents as voyeuristic men dressing as women to enter women’s bathrooms.

I’m sure Heritage believes its readers should be impressed with this mound of “evidence”. But the question is not whether such incidents happen, or whether they continue to happen in venues that allow trans access to bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. The question is whether changing the rules causes such incidents to increase. A trans-friendly bathroom policy exists in enough places now that the question should be answerable.

The Heritage report also does not consider the danger that a transwoman faces if the law forces her to use a men’s bathroom. It’s as if violence and harassment directed at transgender people should not count.

I also note another example of the selectivity of conservative care: They regard the possibility of opposite-sex voyeurism in bathrooms as a world-shaking problem. But men entering men’s bathrooms to look at boys elicits no policy response at all; the status quo is just fine.

The looming filibuster battle. I can imagine readers asking “What’s the point? Why pass bills in the House that Republicans can successfully filibuster in the Senate? They’re not going to change anything.”

That question has both a principled and a practical answer. The principled answer is that you always want to give people a chance to do the right thing, even if you don’t think they will. When politicians make excuses for not serving the people, they should never be able to say, “Nobody asked me.” All the major advances in civil rights started with people making demands that (in the short term) they knew would be turned down. Asking the question is how you get from a vague “It’s just not possible” to a specific “It would happen if those people stopped blocking it.”

The practical answer is that a showdown over the filibuster is looming, and Democrats need to be united to win it. Currently they’re not: Both Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona have come out against eliminating the filibuster.

Turning them around is going to require building popular support. But the filibuster itself is a procedural Senate thing that the average voter doesn’t care about. So the debate will turn on what the filibuster means to ordinary people as they live their lives. Popular bills need to come up and go down — along with the For the People Act, which would ban gerrymandering and many voter suppression tactics, as well as controlling dark money and encouraging small-donor campaign financing — to connect the filibuster with problems that people can see.

Defenders of the filibuster sometimes warn that Democrats will be sorry if they end the filibuster and then lose the Senate, as they might in 2022 (while still representing more voters than the GOP). But that observation ignores how the Republican Party has changed in the last decade: It has no legislative program beyond tax cuts, which can pass through reconciliation.

Conversely, Democrats are more likely to lose the Senate if voters see that a Democratic Senate can’t accomplish its goals.

Biden’s nominees. Politico published a summary of how Biden’s nominees were faring in the Senate as of Thursday. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland is likely to be approved by the Judiciary Committee today, sending his nomination to the Senate floor for final approval.

PBS Newshour notes the “pattern of minority nominees encountering more political resistance than white counterparts”. A look at Politico’s list demonstrates that the difference isn’t across-the-board. Some Black (UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin), female (Greenfield, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines), Latino (Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas), and gay (Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg) nominees have gotten through the process relatively unscathed.

But where Republicans have unleashed fireworks, the targets have largely been people of color, particularly women, and white transwoman Rachel Levine, who endured some abusive questioning from Rand Paul. The Newshour article focuses on Deb Haaland, who seems likely to become the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, but took some harsh grilling from Republicans on the Energy Committee. Afterwards, John Kennedy of Louisiana told reporters she was “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job”. (Haaland’s sin appears to be a desire to phase out fossil fuels. I suspect Lenin was pro-fossil-fuel, so Kennedy may not be completely wrong.)

Newshour continues:

The confirmation of Neera Tanden, who would be the first Indian American to head the Office of Management and Budget, was thrown into doubt when it lost support from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He cited her controversial tweets attacking members of both parties.

Critics also have targeted Vanita Gupta, an Indian American and Biden’s pick to be associate attorney general, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Health and Human Services secretary. Conservatives launched campaigns calling Gupta “dangerous” and questioning Becerra’s qualifications.

I think the apparent racism is less personal animosity than an attempt to exploit the implicit racism of the Republican base. (Manchin is a Democrat, but needs Republican votes to stay in office.) The GOP strategy is to paint Biden’s nominees as way-out, far-left, bomb-throwing extremists. As Republicans noticed during the Obama administration, and later refined in their attacks on the Squad, that kind of mud doesn’t stick as well to a white man as it does to a woman of color. (That’s why when Bernie Sanders and AOC support the same thing, the attack goes against AOC. The GOP has made AOC the face of the Green New Deal, while poor cosponsor Ed Markey can barely get any credit.) The base doesn’t even have to notice that they’re responding in a racist or sexist fashion, they just have to unquestioningly accept accusations against the chosen targets that they might doubt if the same things were said about white men.

Julian Brave NoiseCat writes about Deb Haaland:

What Haaland actually brings — and what the Republican Party seems to consider so dangerous — are experiences and perspectives that have never found representation in the leadership of the executive branch. In fact, Republicans’ depiction of the first Native American ever nominated to the Cabinet as a “radical” threat to a Western “way of life” revealed something about the conservative id: a deep-seated fear that when the dispossessed finally attain a small measure of power, we will turn around and do to them what their governments and ancestors did to us.

North Dakota Is About to Kill the National Popular Vote Compact

Presidential elections are rigged in favor of Republicans. North Dakota wants to keep it that way.

As we’ve seen in the last two elections, the Electoral College gives the Republican candidate about a 3-4% advantage, which might be growing as the rural areas (which the EC over-weights) get more conservative and the cities (which it underweights) more liberal.

Hillary Clinton won the 2016 popular vote by 2.1% but still lost the election, and Biden’s 4.4% victory in 2020 goes away if you lower his margin by .7% across the board. (He loses Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, leading to a 269-269 tie that the House — with one vote per state delegation — would have decided in Trump’s favor.) Hillary would still have lost if you similarly boosted her margin in every state by .7%.

So the Electoral College’s thumb-on-the-scale was worth about 2.8% in 2016 and 3.7% in 2020. Republicans like to talk about “rigged elections”. Well, they’re right: Presidential elections are rigged in their favor.

The straightforward way to unrig our elections would be to pass a constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College and awarding the presidency to the candidate who gets the most votes. But that path requires a 2/3rds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by 3/4ths of the states, so it can’t pass without bipartisan support. Few Republicans have a sense of fair play or respect for democracy, so they’re not going to give up the unfair advantage the EC gives them. [1]

An alternative scheme for unrigging our elections is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact: States agree to appoint electors for the candidate who wins the national popular vote, even if that candidate didn’t win in their particular state. If states representing 270 electoral votes all passed a law joining the compact and fulfilled their commitments, the Electoral College would never screw the American people again.

I have mentioned before that, as much as I like this idea, I would never trust this agreement. In 2020, we saw how many bad-faith actors hold positions of authority in the Republican Party. (Though most Republican election officials did their jobs honestly; Biden could not have won without them.) It was hard enough to feel secure that Republican legislatures wouldn’t step in and illegitimately award their electors to Trump, even though he got fewer votes both in their states and in the nation as a whole. If a Republican legislature in a place like Georgia or Wisconsin could give a Republican the White House just by agreeing with the voters in their state, I have to believe they would, no matter what commitments they might have made previously. [2]

Well, it looks like messing up the NPVIC is even easier than I had thought. North Dakota, owner of exactly three electoral votes, may be about the skewer the whole thing: The state senate has passed a law that forbids state election officials to release their popular vote totals until after the Electoral College meets.

[A] public officer, employee, or contractor of this state or of a political subdivision of this state may not release to the public the number of votes cast in the general election for the office of the president of the United States until after the times set by law for the meetings and votes of the presidential electors in all states

The upshot is that there would be no official national popular vote total. Compare this to the process laid out in the NPVIC:

Prior to the time set by law for the meeting and voting by the presidential electors, the chief election official of each member state shall determine the number of votes for each presidential slate in each State of the United States and in the District of Columbia in which votes have been cast in a statewide popular election and shall add such votes together to produce a “national popular vote total” for each presidential slate.

The chief election official of each member state shall designate the presidential slate with the largest national popular vote total as the “national popular vote winner.”

The presidential elector certifying official of each member state shall certify the appointment in that official’s own state of the elector slate nominated in that state in association with the national popular vote winner.

If everyone involved would carry out the spirit of this agreement in good faith, probably there would be no problem. It’s extremely unlikely that North Dakota’s votes would make the difference in the national popular vote, so even without knowing their totals, the popular-vote winner should be apparent. In 2016, for example, only 344K votes were cast in North Dakota, and Hillary won nationally by 2.9 million.

But now let’s talk about the real world, where bad-faith actors abound. If I’m, say, a Republican official in 2016 Wisconsin, where a good-faith application of the NPVIC would have me appoint pro-Hillary electors even though Trump won my state, I can claim that without the North Dakota votes the conditions of the NPVIC have not been fulfilled. Would the Republican legislature or a Republican-appointed judge overrule me? I kind of doubt it.

So I think the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is dead. This particular hole could be patched without a constitutional amendment, if Congress could pass a law (over a Republican filibuster) mandating that states release their vote totals in a timely fashion. But I think this would just start a game of whack-a-mole. And what if a red state whose vote totals do matter, like Texas, decides to play?

I think the monkey-wrenchers win this battle, and we’re stuck with the Electoral College until we can muster a constitutional amendment.

[1] Electoral College advocates sometimes hide their partisan intentions by making arguments that sound good, but don’t hold up to even a small amount of scrutiny. For example:

A presidential campaign aimed at achieving a popular vote majority would completely ignore most states and focus, instead, on a few populous states containing the nation’s largest cities. This urban-centric strategy would silence the political voice of most regions of the country.

Anybody who has lived in a state with a big city knows this isn’t true. If it were, no Illinois candidate would ever leave Chicago, Texas campaigns would only happen in Houston and Dallas, and Florida candidates would camp out in Miami. They don’t — and for good reason. Consider, for example, the map of the Ted Cruz/Beto O’Rourke Senate race of 2018. Cruz lost just about all the cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso — but won anyway because the rural areas came through for him.

In a popular-vote system, candidates look for votes wherever they think they can get them, because all votes count the same. Convincing somebody to vote for you in Chugwater, Wyoming counts just as much as convincing somebody in Los Angeles.

In fact, if you apply the make-them-campaign-everywhere argument honestly, it will point you in exactly the opposite direction: Because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates only campaign in swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida, and ignore most of the American people. Here’s a map where states are sized according to how many presidential campaign events happened there in 2012. Three of the four biggest states — California, Texas, and New York — don’t even show up. But neither do small states like Alaska, Utah, or Rhode Island, because nobody bothers to compete in states where the electoral votes aren’t up for grabs.

In a popular-vote system, it would make sense for a Democratic candidate to campaign in, say, the Black neighborhoods of Memphis or the Hispanic areas around El Paso — because there are people there who might be convinced to vote for you. Similarly, a Republican candidate should hold rallies in upstate New York or conservative Chicago suburbs. But they don’t, because in the Electoral College system, competing for votes that won’t tip a whole state is wasted effort.

So in fact it’s the Electoral College that silences “the political voice of most regions of the country”.

[2] The Compact tries to deal with the question of states changing their minds:

Any member state may withdraw from this agreement, except that a withdrawal occurring six months or less before the end of a President’s term shall not become effective until a President or Vice President shall have been qualified to serve the next term.

But there is no enforcement mechanism, and a basic principle of our system of government says that no legislature can claim power over a future legislature. (As Jefferson put it: “The dead should not rule the living.”) So if Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan had joined the compact in 2015, and then in 2016 one of them passed a law refusing to award their electors to Hillary, I think Trump still becomes president. States might sue each other later, but the deed would be done.

Who Messed With Texas?

This week’s human tragedy was caused by a political failure that no one is taking responsibility for.

This week’s Texas disaster has really been three related stories:

  • The situation on the ground has been horrific. Millions of people were significantly inconvenienced, many thousands had to leave their homes, and dozens died.
  • Bad weather was the immediate cause, but the deeper cause was bad policy. Texans’ hardships arose directly from the state’s short-sighted, low-regulation, keep-the-government-out-of-my-business political philosophy.
  • The response of the Republican politicians who hold power in Texas has been reprehensible.

It’s important to keep all three stories in mind, and not let the entirely justified outrage you feel about Ted Cruz running away to Cancun or Greg Abbott blaming renewable energy divert your attention from the underlying human tragedy. So let’s examine the three aspects of this week’s events in their appropriate order.

What happened. A major winter storm hit most of the country this week. In the Midwest and Northeast, people expect that kind of thing from time to time, so we’re ready for it. Here in Massachusetts, we began the week with a foot of snow already on the ground from the previous storm. But even here, winter weather still causes problems: We haven’t put all our powerlines underground where they belong, so occasionally a heavy snow will bring one down and black out a neighborhood or two for a few days. But it seldom leads to a widespread calamity like Texas experienced.

Winter storms are much rarer in the South, so Southerners are not as well prepared. For example, it turns out that Memphis only has 13 snowplows for its 7,500 miles of streets. The situation was probably not much better in places like Mobile or Little Rock or Tulsa.

But nowhere else in the United States experienced the kind of cascading disasters that unfolded in Texas. By Sunday, the weather was more-or-less back to normal, with temperatures in the 60s and 70s across much of the state. But the crisis is far from over. CNN summarizes:

At least 26 people died across the state since February 11. Millions lost their power, forcing families to huddle over a fireplace, scavenge for firewood or spend nights in their car trying to stay warm. Others spent hours searching for food as shelves emptied and weather conditions led to food supply chain problems. The frigid temperatures caused pipes to burst, leading to water disruptions for roughly half the state’s population. Covid-19 relief efforts, including food banks, were shuttered. Vaccine shipments were delayed and many appointments were canceled.

It could have been even worse. According to unnamed officials quoted by The Texas Tribune, as demand increased and suppliers dropped out of the system, the state’s power grid was “minutes and seconds” away from “a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months”.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power outstrips the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid could have taken months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

What would that worst case look like? Probably something like this:

As a result of the blackouts, at least three Texans died of carbon monoxide poisoning because they ran their cars in unventilated garages. Elsewhere, the freeze affected local water-treatment systems, creating situations where people needed to boil their tap water (with what power source?) before drinking.

Some 13.5 million people throughout Texas have experienced water disruptions, with nearly 800 water systems reporting issues like frozen or broken pipes, according to Toby Baker, executive director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. About 725 systems are under a boil-water advisory, Baker said. …

In Austin alone, the state capital’s water supply lost 325 million gallons due to burst pipes, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said in a Thursday news conference.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation says that’s 43 million cubic feet of water, which is bigger than the 37 million cubic feet in the Empire State Building.

Aftermath. It will be weeks before the state’s plumbers can fix all the broken pipes, or we learn how many Texans caught Covid while gathering in the homes of whichever friends or relatives happened to have heat or water.

And the hits keep coming: In the aftermath of the natural disaster, many Texas households face an unexpected financial disaster: The New York Times profiled one Texan who suddenly found himself owing $16,732.

The steep electric bills in Texas are in part a result of the state’s uniquely unregulated energy market, which allows customers to pick their electricity providers among about 220 retailers in an entirely market-driven system.

Under some of the plans, when demand increases, prices rise. The goal, architects of the system say, is to balance the market by encouraging consumers to reduce their usage and power suppliers to create more electricity.

But when last week’s crisis hit and power systems faltered, the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordered that the price cap be raised to its maximum limit of $9 per kilowatt-hour, easily pushing many customers’ daily electric costs above $100. And in some cases, like Mr. Willoughby’s, bills rose by more than 50 times the normal cost.

Dallas Morning News elaborated:

That means $9 for a kilowatt-hour that usually costs [Griddy customer Karen] Cosby around 7 cents, and sometimes as little as 2 cents. … The price per megawatt-hour reached $9,000 around 10 p.m. Sunday night and stayed there for much of Monday and all of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday morning, it fell to $35 and kept dropping. At 4 p.m., it was 85 cents. …

While searching for a new provider, Cosby flipped the breakers connected to her heating units and moved into a small bedroom with an air mattress and her two dogs, Onie and Birkin, and shut off the rest of the house. Her energy use was limited to a space heater, making a cup of coffee in the morning and using the microwave for four or five minutes to heat her meals.

“It’s been 43 degrees in the house since Monday, and I still have a $5,000 bill,” she said.

Why it happened. One of the striking things about the crisis was not just that Texas was hit worse than neighboring states, but that some parts of the state did much better than others. On Tuesday, at the height of the power disruptions, only .04% of households tracked in El Paso County were without power, while the comparable number was 29% in Dallas County, 44% in Travis County (Austin), 41% in Tarrant County (Fort Worth), and 18% in Harris County (Houston).

The difference was that El Paso, sitting at the far western edge of the state, is outside the Texas power grid. (MSNBC frequently interviewed Beto O’Rourke, who was sitting in his brightly lit El Paso home.)

Texas is the only state that has its own grid, which it maintains in order to avoid federal regulation. The rest of the US is on either the Western power grid (like El Paso) or the Eastern Power grid, like the panhandle and a few counties on the state’s eastern border. (In Bowie County, home of Texarkana, 10% of households lost power.) So when Texas’ supply/demand situation went bad, the rest of the country couldn’t bail them out.

As for why it went bad, there’s an immediate answer and then a more general answer. The immediate answer is that at precisely the time when Texans wanted more heat, suppliers were failing to handle the cold.

The system broke down this week when 185 generating units, including gas and coal-fired power plants, tripped offline during the brunt of the storm. Wind turbines in West Texas froze as well, and a nuclear unit near the Gulf of Mexico went down for more than 48 hours. Another problem emerged: Some power plants lost their pipeline supply of gas and couldn’t generate electricity even if they wanted to capture the high prices.

All sources of power were affected, but the biggest problem was natural gas.

The biggest shortfall in energy production stemmed from natural gas. Gas pipelines were blocked with ice or their compressors lost power. Much of the gas that was available was prioritized for heating homes and businesses rather than generating electricity. That’s helpful for people who use gas for heating but less so for those who use electric furnaces.

That’s the short-term cause, but nothing about that was inevitable. The Chicago Tribune contrasted Texas’ problems with power generation in Wisconsin.

So why does the power continue to work in places like Wisconsin, where bitter cold is a way of life? The reason is simple: Generators in the Upper Midwest are designed to work in frigid conditions, unlike those in Texas.

“We designed all our infrastructure for these bitter-cold temperatures,” said Paul Wilson, a professor of nuclear engineering at UW-Madison who studies electrical systems.

That means insulation, heated pipes, crushers to break up frozen coal.

“We design everything with the understanding that it can get down to 40 degrees below zero and even stay there for a few days,” said Madison Gas and Electric spokesman Steve Schultz. “We also test our equipment regularly to make sure it’s working properly and prepared for frigid conditions.”

Wind turbines are equipped with winter weather packages such as heating elements to keep ice off the blades and insulated gearboxes, allowing them to work at temperatures as cold as 22 below zero.

But that costs money, and the Texas system prioritizes price over reliability.

Industry experts say there are no explicit regulations that outline cold weather reliability, but there are economic incentives in regulated states like Wisconsin, where electricity rates are structured to give utilities a return on their investments in power plants.

“In a place like Texas where you’re competing to be the cheapest all the time you’re able to take those risks,” said Marcus Hawkins, a former engineer with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission who now runs a multi-state regulatory organization. “Any added capital costs makes you less attractive to the market.”

The Wall Street Journal has more detail:

Texas has long prided itself on its wholesale power market. It was born from a legislative effort in the 1990s that broke up the state’s utility monopolies, introducing competition among a larger universe of power generators and retail electricity providers.

The result was a laissez-faire market design that rewards those who can sell power inexpensively and still recover their capital costs. That keeps prices low when demand is steady. When demand spikes, however, so do prices, which can climb as high as $9,000 per megawatt-hour to incentivize power plants of all kinds to fire up.

If an electricity producer agrees to supply power into the market and then fails to deliver, the producer has to pay for the cost of replacing it. But if a plant trips offline and stays out of the market for an extended period, as happened this week, there is no penalty besides lost revenue.

USA Today describes one of the key features making Texas’ system vulnerable:

The ERCOT grid is what’s known as an “energy only” market, in which generators are compensated only for electricity actually delivered. In an “energy plus capacity” market, they also would be compensated for generating capacity that’s maintained but kept in reserve for special or unusual circumstances.

The result is a system that runs cheaply most of the time, but is prone to catastrophic failures like the one that happened this week. Essentially, the state is like a household that decides to save money by not paying for fire insurance. As long as your house isn’t burning down — and how often does that happen? — you’re winning.

Similarly tempting personal decisions would be not changing the oil in your car, not having health insurance, or not fixing the leak in your roof. Those things cost money, so in the short term your bank balance looks better if you skip them. For a while, Karen Cosby saved money by contracting for variable-rate electricity through Griddy. But this week she lost far more than she had ever saved.

The reason we have government regulations is precisely to remove short-term temptations (for both individuals and corporations) that have negative long-term effects. You could save money by buying a car without seatbelts or airbags, for example, but the government won’t let you. When Hooker Chemical started burying barrels of chemical waste in Love Canal in the 1940s, that probably looked like the most economical way to deal with it. But a few decades later it had caused a public-health disaster that cost $400 million to clean up. So in the long run it wasn’t economical at all. If there had been an EPA in the Roosevelt administration, Hooker undoubtedly would have complained about the cost of its regulations, and how much they added to the price of chemicals. But in the long run those regulations would have saved not just lives, but money as well.

Warnings. You can’t fault leaders for failing to see something that is truly unforeseeable. But while this winter storm was certainly unusual, there had been warnings that such things were possible. The Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 similarly led to rolling blackouts, for the same reasons as played out this week:

Post-analysis indicated that the cold temperatures had caused over 150 generators to encounter difficulties; loss of supply, instrumentation failures, and gas well-head freezing were some of the source causes

After that event, the Texas Public Utilities Commission issued a report. The Austin Statesman article on that report quoted a previous report from 1990 about a 1989 winter storm.

“The winter freeze greatly strained the ability of the Texas electric utilities to provide reliable power to their customers. Record and near-record low temperatures were felt throughout the state resulting in a significantly increased demand for electrical power.

“At the same time that demand was increasing, weather-related equipment malfunctions were causing generating units to trip off the line.” As a result, it noted, the state suffered widespread rolling blackouts and “near loss of the entire ERCOT electric grid.”

A state senator in 2011 recalled the 1990 report and said:

What I don’t want is another storm and another report someone puts on the shelf for 21 years and nobody looks at.

But the only difference this time around is that the report only sat for 10 years rather than 21. (Which, BTW, is exactly what climate change predicts: Extreme weather events will happen more frequently.) Both reports listed ways ERCOT and the generating companies could make the system more resilient in the face of cold weather. But in typical Texas fashion, most of the recommendations were neither mandated by law nor motivated by subsidy. They were simply best practices that a responsible company should follow, even if the market pulls them in another direction.

So here we are again.

Political response. In a state like Texas, where one party has been in power since George W. Bush became governor in 1995 and the GOP gained full control of the legislature in 2003, I suppose it’s too much to expect the political leadership to say, “Wow, we really screwed up. But now we’ve got religion about winter storms and regulation, so we’re going to do better.” Even so, you might hope for a blame-free let’s-focus-on-the-future stance that more-or-less deals with the reality of the situation.

That’s not what has happened. Instead, the process seemed to go like this: What Republican talking points are lying around to respond to unreliability in the energy grid? How can we use those pre-established frames to shift the blame onto liberals?

For years, the fossil fuel industry’s criticism of solar and wind power has been that it’s unreliable: Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, but you can always burn coal or natural gas. Republican politicians like ex-President Trump frequently echoed that claim:

You know, Hillary wanted to put windmills all over the place. Let’s put up some windmills — when the wind doesn’t blow, “just turn off the television darling, please. There’s no wind — please turn off the television quickly!”

So that explanation was sitting in Republican voters’ heads, ready to be activated when Governor Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity:

This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. … Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. … It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.

Right-wing media picked that up and ran with it. Tucker Carlson described Texas as “totally reliant on windmills”.

Then it got cold and the windmills froze, because that’s what happens in the Green New Deal. … Now the same energy policies that have wrecked Texas are going nationwide — coming to your state.

And again:

So it was all working great until the day it got cold outside. The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died.

Windmills functioning normally on Ross Island in Antarctica.

Trump-administration Energy Secretary Rick Perry arguably is more to blame for this week’s disaster than anyone else, because he was the governor who received and ignored that PUC report on the 2011 storm. But rather than apologize for his failures, he criticized President Biden:

If this Green New Deal goes forward the way that the Biden administration appears to want it to, then we’ll have more events like we’ve had in Texas all across the country.

National Memo’s Joe Conason points out the larger pattern:

If the fatal farce in Texas seems all too familiar, then you may be noticing an eerie resemblance to the botched pandemic response of the Trump administration. The impulse of Republicans in government is not to govern but to shift responsibility and try to affix blame, almost always on “liberals” or “socialists” or some other partisan goblin. What they seem utterly unable to provide are honest leadership and real solutions.

And finally we come to Ted Cruz. If these events ever become a major movie, Ted Cruz is going to be the comedy relief, the buffoon whose self-centeredness is so absurd that the audience can only laugh. You’ll see footage of a family shivering in their car or some elderly woman hoping her daughter will return soon with a fresh oxygen canister, and then you’ll see pot-bellied Ted Cruz standing in the Cancun airport wearing his flag-of-Texas face mask. (All that’s missing is somebody to play Laurel to his Hardy.)

Because that’s leadership in Texas: When the people they represent are suffering in the cold, leaders jet off to a nice warm beach, taking police away from emergencies to provide an escort to the airport.

After he’d been spotted and the story was blowing up on social media, Cruz did what any good father would do and blamed his pre-teen daughters.

Like millions of Texans, our family lost heat and power too. With school cancelled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends. Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon.

That statement wasn’t just craven, it was misleading: Dropping the kids off wasn’t in the original plan. Ted’s original ticket had him staying through the weekend. Anyway, the jokes practically wrote themselves: When a failed state can’t provide basic services, who can blame a father for leading his family across the Mexican border to find a better life?

Almost as bad as Cruz’ original decision was the way that right-wing media defended him: He’s just a senator. What could he possibly do?

The fact that people think Ted Cruz, a United States Senator, can do anything about a state power grid, even his own, is rather demonstrative of the ignorance of so many people who cover politics.

Moving his family to a pricey beach resort was, in fact, the responsible thing to do.

People who can take care of themselves and their families in an emergency should take care of themselves and their families in an emergency, if only to remove the possibility of their having to be taken care of by the public. Of course, Senator Cruz probably will be more comfortable in Cancun than he would be in River Oaks, but it is no less the case that by absenting himself from the scene, he has given Houston — including its utility providers and its emergency services — one fewer person to worry about. From that point of view, Senator Cruz has a positive moral obligation to be in Cancun.

Atlantic’s David Graham makes the proper response:

Cruz’s error is not that he was shirking a duty he knew he should have been performing. It’s that he couldn’t think of any way he could use his power as a U.S. senator to help Texans in need. That’s a failure of imagination and of political ideology.

You know who thought of something he could do? Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost to Cruz in 2018. He organized volunteers to call Texas senior citizens, find out if they needed anything, and help them access available resources.

BIG THANKS to the volunteers who made over 784,000 phone calls to senior citizens in Texas today. You helped to connect them with water, food, transportation, and shelter. And you made sure that they knew we were thinking about them and that they matter to us.

Somebody else who came through was the congresswoman right-wingers love to hate: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who used her fame and connections to raise millions of dollars for Texas relief. Ted knows a bunch of rich people who supposedly care about Texas. Do you think maybe he could have done that?

But Ted couldn’t lift a finger, because doing so would just promote the idea that the public good is a real thing, that people should expect politicians to care about them, and that government has a role to play in dealing with forces beyond the scale of individual action.

And if people started to believe things like that, the Republican Party would be toast.

The Week That Broke Trump’s Brand

Officially, Trump was acquitted. But he still lost, and the Republican Party lost with him.

[I’m not sure who to credit for the cartoon above, but I found it here.]

At this rate, the fourth impeachment will nail him. (No. Seriously, I hope this is the last impeachment article I ever have to write.)

The Senate vote. When Trump was impeached in 2020, a majority voted for acquittal: 52-48 on the abuse-of-power article and 53-47 on obstruction of Congress. Only one Republican (Mitt Romney) voted to convict, and him only on abuse of power.

Saturday, in contrast, seven Republicans voted against Trump, resulting in a 57-43 majority for conviction. That was still ten short of the 2/3rds supermajority needed, but makes laughable Trump’s characterization of the trial as “the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country”.

The seven Republicans with spines were Romney again, the two “moderate” women who always come up when Democrats are looking for bipartisan support (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine), the guy who is positioning himself to be the take-back-the-GOP-from-Trump 2024 presidential candidate (Ben Sasse of Nebraska), two guys who don’t have to worry about a primary challenge because they’re retiring (Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina), and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, whose term runs until 2026, and who gave a refreshingly simple explanation of his vote: “I voted to convict President Trump because he is guilty.” (That vote got him immediately censured by his state GOP.)

The guilty-but-acquitted faction. You might think Cassidy’s explanation goes without saying — that of course people who thought he was guilty voted to convict — but in today’s intimidated Republican Party it doesn’t. Mitch McConnell also thought Trump was guilty, but he voted to acquit anyway, because that’s the kind of guy McConnell is.

The speech McConnell gave immediately after the vote, when he could just blow smoke without any consequences, resembled a summation for the prosecution. He called the insurrection “a disgrace” caused by Trump’s “disgraceful dereliction of duty”. He held Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the attack on the Capitol, because “The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things.” After the insurrection began, Trump’s response was “unconscionable”. “He didn’t take steps so federal law could be faithfully executed, and order restored.”

McConnell didn’t convict because he manufactured a constitutional reason not to, one in conflict with the practice of the framing era, against a precedent set in the 19th century, and rejected by the Senate itself just a few days ago: “We have no power to convict and disqualify a former officeholder who is now a private citizen.”

Other too-timid-to-vote-their-conscience GOP senators — Thune, Portman, Capito, and maybe more — also hid behind this bogus “constitutional” principle. I predict this interpretation will go out the window if it ever protects a Democrat.

McConnell went on to say (in a section of his speech he apparently added at the last minute, because it wasn’t in the pre-speech transcript his office provided):

President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office. … He didn’t get away with anything yet. Yet. We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one.

This idea will go out the window even sooner. If Trump does get criminally prosecuted, expect McConnell and all the other “constitutional” objectors to denounce his indictment as a politicization of the justice system. Republicans never admit that they have placed Trump above the law, but any forum that tries to hold him accountable is the wrong one.

The witness controversy. Saturday morning there was a flurry of uncertainty, as the House managers asked have a witness: Republican Rep. Herrera Beutler, who had reported on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s phone conversation with Trump:

When McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol. McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters. That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’

This incident is damning, because it emphasizes not just that Trump wasn’t eager to call the mob off, but that he was using the attack to pressure Congress; he wanted them not to finalize his loss by accurately counting the electoral votes.

The problem with Beutler’s account is that it’s hearsay; the story of the call was “relayed to me” by McCarthy. Her testimony would backfire if Trump’s lawyers then called McCarthy to the stand and he denied that the incident ever happened. If Trump’s lawyers wanted to call a lot of witnesses — they claimed they would, but that was probably a bluff — the trial might have continued for two weeks or more.

In the end, a compromise was worked out: An affidavit from Beutler was entered into the record, no witnesses were called, and the trial wrapped up on Saturday as planned.

On my Twitter feed, I saw the progressives I follow — both national figures and my personal friends — react in outrage. DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas tweeted (and was retweeted by Amanda Marcotte):

The storyline just changed from “soulless Republicans acquit guilty Trump” to “cowardly Democrats abandon case”

I don’t see it. (And as a matter of record, that was not the Sunday morning headline.) To me it looks like this: As of Saturday morning, the prosecutors had achieved everything they were going to achieve. They had performed flawlessly and made a convincing case to the country, while Trump’s lawyers looked pathetic. They had persuaded enough Republican senators to invalidate Trump’s predictable claim of a “witch hunt”, but not enough to convict.

The wonderful thing about a trial is that it cuts through the cacophony of conflicting voices and focuses attention on a single narrative, or two competing narratives. Trump’s scattershot approach — Antifa! the George Floyd riots! — may work on social media, but he had no answer for the story the House managers told: After Trump had lost the election, he tried to hang onto power through lies and violence.

America heard that story.

Keeping the trial going for another week or two would not have changed the outcome. It’s possible those two weeks would have gilded the lily. Maybe Republicans would squirm more and look worse to the public. But another possibility was that something unpredictable would give Trump’s supporters a talking point. (Imagine, say, that another police shooting had led to violence from groups Democrats support.) Maybe the trial would bog down in procedural issues and the nation would tune out. Maybe the politics would turn as voters wondered why the Senate was talking about Trump rather than Covid relief.

If I had been in the Democrats’ strategy room, I think I’d have said, “We’ve got what we’re going to get. Let’s end this before anything goes wrong.”

Trump lost. One reason I feel that way is that I agree with David Frum: Trump lost. As the NYT’s Peter Baker put it, the vote was “an escape, not an exoneration”.

I think the 57-43 vote, in which Democrats stayed united and Republicans fractured, is the final episode of the 2020 election — the loss that concludes four months of Trump losing.

Ever since the vote totals started moving decisively towards Biden late on Election Night, Trump has been assuring his supporters that vindication was coming: Election boards would refuse to validate Biden’s win. No matter how many times Trump’s lawyers failed, the next court case would be the big one. Republican governors would refuse to certify the election results. Republican legislatures would appoint their own electors. Mike Pence would refuse to recognize the swing state votes; and if he didn’t, January 6 would be “wild”.

I hope that someday, somebody in Trump’s inner circle lets us know what he thought was going to happen when he sent his mob to the Capitol. His pre-insurrection speech didn’t instruct them just to protest the inevitable culmination of the electoral process, he told them to stop it: “stop the steal”. But how did he imagine they would do that? Just standing outside the Capitol waving Trump flags clearly would not do it. And even their violent riot only delayed Trump’s defeat by a few hours. So what was his plan for victory? Did he really expect them to hang Pence? Hunt down Pelosi? Use those zip-ties to take members of Congress hostage? Capture or destroy the electoral-vote ballots? What?

Whatever he imagined, it didn’t work. The insurrection was another defeat. His QAnon supporters then had elaborate fantasies of what would happen on Inauguration Day, but that vision only yielded another disappointment. And this week, if you were waiting for Trump himself or his brilliant legal team to humiliate his accusers, you were disappointed again.

The broken brand. When I think about Trump’s appeal, I remember a line out of Robert Penn Warren’s classic political novel All the King’s Men. Weeks after the Boss, Governor Willie Stark, has been assassinated, the narrator runs into Stark’s stuttering driver Sugar Boy. “They w-w-wasn’t n-n-nobody like the B-B-Boss,” he says. “He could t-t-talk so good.”

People look for things in their heroes that they find lacking in themselves. In Trump, people who felt like they were losing identified with a winner. Americans who felt voiceless and powerless identified with someone who was loud, unafraid to say outrageous things, and impossible to ignore. If they feared being called “racist” or wearing some other negative label, they loved that Trump never took such criticism lying down, but always gave back better than he got. I’ve heard his White House’s communications strategy described like this: Every day should be a drama in which Trump defeats his enemies.

That’s been his brand: a fighter, a winner. And this week completely wrecked it. Day after day, the House managers described his “Big Lie” of election fraud, and how it led to the failed insurrection. And no one struck back. He was invited to testify and chickened out. His lawyers had a giant stage on which to prove to the world that Biden stole the presidency, but (like the lawyers in most of his court cases) they didn’t try. Instead, they argued narrow legal points: The Constitution doesn’t allow the Senate to convict a former president. The First Amendment gave him a right to say what he did, whether it was true or not.

Rather than defend him, Republican senators hid behind technicalities. No talented lawyers would take his case, so he was left with clowns that Jamie Raskin’s crew completely outclassed. At times it seemed as if Trump’s lawyers hadn’t even talked to their client. When did Trump find out the riot was happening? asked Senators Collins and Murkowski, two potential swing votes. There was no way to know, claimed Michael Van Der Veen (a personal injury lawyer suddenly called up to the big leagues), because the House managers had refused to investigate. Later, Van Der Veen whined that the trial was “the most miserable experience I’ve had down here in Washington, D.C.”, setting Raskin up to respond: “For that I guess we’re sorry, but man, you should have been here on January 6th.”

Trump is no longer the larger-than-life winner his followers need him to be. He’s a loser surrounded by losers. (And that’s only going to get worse as lawsuits and indictments unrelated to January 6 start to roll in.) Trump was supposed to make people stop laughing at his supporters, but if you’ve been echoing his repeated claims of vindication, you keep getting embarrassed when they come to nothing.

Now that the trial has ended, the country’s attention will shift back to the battle against Covid, and to Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal to repair the economic damage it has done. For months — even while he was still president — Trump has had nothing to say about the pandemic. And now, no one cares what he thinks.

The broken party. The Senate outcome — Democrats united, Republicans divided — symbolizes a larger political reality going forward. The split wasn’t between those who believed the Democratic narrative and those who don’t. A bipartisan consensus of Americans understand now that Trump tried to stay in power through lies and violence. Democrats are united in believing this was bad. Republicans are split about it.

CNN’s Ronald Brownstein examines the polling and finds a disturbing fault line in the GOP.

One-sixth to nearly one-fifth of Republicans have praised the January 6 attack in polling from PBS NewsHour/Marist and Quinnipiac. That’s a far higher percentage than among the public overall (just 8% in the Marist survey and 10% in Quinnipiac.) In the American Enterprise Institute poll, about 3-in-10 Republicans said they believed the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The share of Republican voters who express support for the use of force to advance their political goals in general is considerably larger. In the American Enterprise Institute survey, 55% of Republicans agreed that “we may have to use force to save” the “American way of life.” Roughly 4-in-10 agreed with an even more harshly worded proposition: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.”

Brownstein suggests that what Mitch McConnell has described as a “cancer” in the party may have gotten so big that it is inoperable. Maybe the conspiracy-theory-and-violence faction of the GOP is too small to win with, but too big to win without.

I don’t think anybody over there has an answer for that.

Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric

It’s not just that conservatives define terms differently. Sometimes their relationship to words defies definition entirely.

If you’re like most liberals, you probably from time to time take a walk on the other side of the line. Maybe you channel-scan through Fox News or even Newsmax. Or click on some of the links your Trump-adoring relatives send you. Or listen to a speech by some politician you can’t stand. Maybe you go so far as to read entire books written by people like Tucker Carlson or Newt Gingrich, or by academic types who are probably liberals themselves, but have spent years studying Trump supporters in rural Louisiana or in Evangelical churches.

And you still don’t get it.

It’s worse than just that you can’t follow the arguments, such as they are. You can’t even understand the words. Why is it “cancel culture” when Josh Hawley loses his book contract after cheerleading an insurrection, but not when Colin Kaepernick gets drummed out of the NFL for protesting racism? What does it mean when conservatives say “America is a Republic, not a Democracy“, as if that explained something obvious? Why are college professors and Hollywood actors “the elite”, but billionaires like the Kochs and the Mercers aren’t? Why is it “socialism” to subsidize windmills, but not coal mines? And who exactly are these “real Americans” that Donald Trump speaks for, when the American electorate rejected him by over seven million votes?

The cancel-culture example. The usual liberal response when we run into one of these one-sided pejorative terms, terms that apply to us but never to them, is to charge hypocrisy. From the way the term applies to us, we intuit a definition, then ask why conservatives don’t apply that definition consistently. [1]

Wil Wilkinson, formerly a vice president at the liberal Niskanen Center, is sometimes pointed out as an ironic victim of “cancel culture”, because he recently lost his job after making an unfortunate joke on Twitter. [2] The irony comes from the fact that Wilkinson has been a critic of the whole cancel-culture conversation. To some conservatives, Wilkinson getting “canceled” is like the moment in a horror movie when the monster attacks the guy who’s been claiming there’s no monster.

Interestingly, though, Wilkinson himself still doesn’t believe cancel-culture is a thing. He defends his skepticism by stating his faith in something else: the power of definitions.

I also tend to believe that terms that successfully pick out real things in the real world — terms that aren’t merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments — can usually be given a definition that allows us to get at least a rough handle on what’s included and excluded from the category. But I’ve yet to encounter a definition of “cancel culture” that overcomes my suspicion of sloganized epithets.

Wilkinson quotes L.D. Burnett: “There is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’. There is only culture.” In other words, societies have norms, and violating those norms leads to consequences. If you behave in ways your community considers unacceptable, people will shun you in an attempt to shame you into compliance.

In the Burnett/Wilkinson model, the examples of so-called cancel culture are just situations where norms are changing. Actions that used to be acceptable (like a male executive referring to his female secretary as “my girl”) have become unacceptable, and actions that used to be forgivable examples of bad taste (like making racist or sexist jokes at the expense of a co-worker) are now firing offenses.

If you still believe in the old norms, then the consequences that follow from violating the new norms are extreme over-reactions. But instead of openly debating the old norms versus the new norms, old-norm advocates simply apply a pejorative label to the new-norm consequences.

Slogans like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” are used again and again to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position. … That’s why “cancel culture” tends to strike me as more of an evasive maneuver than a coherent idea with determinate content.

I was glad to see Wilkinson bring in “political correctness”, because that is an important example of the same phenomenon: Groups that used to be politically and culturally powerless, or even invisible, (like non-whites, women in the workplace, gays and lesbians, or Hindus) can now demand to be treated respectfully. If you show the kind of disrespect that used to be common, you will face consequences.

Instead of debating that norm-change openly, though, people who refuse to adjust to the new norms apply the pejorative label “political correctness” to the consequences. Like “cancel culture”, the term has no definition.

Let’s go meta. Burnett points out that labeling some action as “cancel culture” is itself an attempt to induce shame. In other words, it tries to enforce what the shamer sees as a norm.

Wilkinson’s article is also trying to enforce an unstated norm, one about how people are supposed to think and argue: Words are supposed to have definitions, and not be “merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments”. Arguments are supposed to appeal to universal principles that go beyond just “my side is right and your side is wrong”. People who violate those norms should be ashamed of themselves, and the rest of us should refuse to take their arguments seriously until they change.

In academic circles, those standards go without saying. No one in any field would write in a journal article: “I’ve decided to leave ‘the elite’ undefined, so that I can apply the term pejoratively to my enemies but not my friends.” From the academy, similar norms have trickled down to the educated classes — who don’t always respect or observe them, but nonetheless accept that they ought to respect and observe them.

We sometimes forget, though, that not everyone thinks this way. In fact, there was a time when no one thought that way. Entire civilizations have functioned without definitions or universal principles.

Definition versus usage. If you’re a physicist, the word “red” has a very precise definition for you: light with a wavelength between 620 and 720 nanometers. For the rest of us, not so much. I’ve been using “red” for as long as I can remember, and I didn’t know that definition until I just looked it up.

It’s not that I have some other definition of “red”. I don’t have one at all, and yet I never feel the lack of it. I have a very clear idea what “red” means. I just can’t express it in words.

I don’t remember learning “red”, but I suspect it was the same way I’ve seen parents teach it to their children: Somebody pointed at red things and said “red”. When I tried to imitate them, they corrected my mistakes and cheered when I got it right. Eventually my performance became flawless.

Sometimes an undefined term has a paradigmatic example. At the paint store, “red” is specified by a color card: If something resembles the color card, it’s red. Similarly, “sweet” is the taste of sugar. To the extent that a taste resembles sugar, it’s sweet.

You could live your whole life without ever learning the dictionary definition of anything. Your community would train you in the proper usage of words, and when people disagreed, some paradigmatic example could resolve the dispute. The idea that you’re supposed to be able to define your words in terms of other words would just go right past you.

That’s what’s going on with “cancel culture”, “political correctness”, and the conservative phrases I listed above. They don’t have definitions, they have usages. People learn how to use these terms by hearing other people use them, then doing trial-and-error until their usage matches the rest of the conservative community.

So why isn’t Colin Kaepernick an example of cancel culture? Because it’s not used that way. If someone pointed at a dandelion or a banana and said “red”, I would just know that they’re wrong. I couldn’t explain why they’re wrong; they just are. “Red” isn’t used that way.

What does “America is a republic, not a democracy” mean? Nothing, actually. The phrase has a usage, not a meaning. Conservatives say it when liberals object to some minority-rule tactic like gerrymandering or the Electoral College or giving Wyoming the same number of senators as California, but DC and Puerto Rico none at all. If you’re hoping for some definition of “republic” that turns that usage into a meaning, though, you’re not going to get one.

Oral culture versus literate culture. If you want to see a society just beginning to grasp how to use the definitions and principles of logical thought, go read one of Plato’s dialogues. Most of them follow the same formula: Socrates is talking to somebody who uses a word, like “courage” (Laches) or “temperance” (Charmides) or “justice” (Republic). Socrates asks them what the word means, and they give him an example of its proper usage. So Laches says: “He is a man of courage who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy.” Socrates points out that an example isn’t a definition, and they go round and round from there.

What becomes clear in these dialogues is that in Golden Age Greece, definitions were kind of a new thing, and the idea that you ought to be able to define the terms you use was novel, even a bit weird. Literate culture was still being invented, and it was trying to replace an oral culture where words had proper usages, but not definitions. Folks like Laches clearly expected a process like this: If two people aren’t sure they mean the same thing by a word, they trade examples (“Fire trucks are red.” “Ripe strawberries and tomatoes are red.”) until the agreement is clear.

Universal principles were similar innovations of literate culture. In the previous oral culture, traditional wisdom consisted of stories, and of aphorisms that might be the morals of stories. Aphorisms typically are not even trying to be universally true, like principles, but often come in contradictory pairs. So “Always look before you leap” contradicts “He who hesitates is lost”. Oral-culture discernment revolves around understanding the story you happen to be in. Is the current situation part of a look-before-leaping story or a hesitate-and-lose story? A stop-and-smell-the-roses story, or a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines story? [3]

Discernment is primarily a community process that depends heavily on tradition and authority. That gives it a resilience and stability, but also makes it prone to perpetuating a community’s bigotry and justifying the self-serving pronouncements of corrupt authorities. (It’s way too tempting to discern that we’re in a you-have-to-yield-to-me story.) Literate culture’s logic aimed at replacing discernment with more individual and algorithmic processes like measurement, calculation, and deduction.

In spite of its books and intellectuals, Evangelical Christianity is fundamentally an oral culture. Trumpist conservatism is built on top of it. One of the challenges conservative Christians have faced since pledging their allegiance to Trump is how to justify supporting a man who has literally no Christian virtues, and who appears to understand nothing about the Christian religion.

The answer they found was a story: the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the refounding of the Temple in Jerusalem. A key player in that story is Cyrus the Great of Persia, who was not a follower of Jehovah, but nonetheless was used by Israel’s God to fulfill His promise to Jeremiah and the Jewish people.

For believers who subscribe to this account, Cyrus is a perfect historical antecedent to explain Trump’s presidency: a nonbeliever who nevertheless served as a vessel for divine interest. For these leaders, the biblical account of Cyrus allows them to develop a “vessel theology” around Donald Trump, one that allows them to reconcile his personal history of womanizing and alleged sexual assault with what they see as his divinely ordained purpose to restore a Christian America.

That’s how oral culture works: This is the story we’re in, so we should do these things. No principles of action are being proposed, so you can’t argue about it in a Socratic sense. It arises from a process of community discernment, not a process of logical thought.

If you push further on Trump’s transgressions, you’re likely to hear that Christians believe in forgiveness. A text from the Bible will be quoted to prove it. Of course, they didn’t believe in forgiving Bill Clinton, but that also is Biblical, because the Bible contains both harsh and forgiving verses. Clinton was a harsh-verse situation, and Trump is a forgiving-verse situation. [4] If you can’t see that, you’re not part of the community. [5]

If you look at how QAnon works, it too is an oral culture. A few weeks ago, The New York Times profiled a “digital warrior” of QAnon.

For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative. (She once spent several minutes explaining how a domino-shaped ornament on the White House Christmas tree proved that Mr. Trump was sending coded messages about QAnon, because the domino had 17 dots, and Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet.)

When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her.

This collaborative element, which some have likened to a massively multiplayer online video game, is a big part of what drew Ms. Gilbert to QAnon and keeps her there now.

“I am really good at putting symbols together,” she said.

Q has identified the story we are living inside [6], and the community now attempts to discern how current events fit into that narrative.

How should we respond? I wish I had a better answer. The main advice I have is to recognize what’s happening and stop doing things that don’t work, even if you think they should work.

The factor you have the most control over is your own thinking. So: Don’t read meaning into things that don’t have any meaning. And don’t respond as if they meant the things you think they ought to mean. “Cancel culture” and “political correctness”, for example, are a sticks-and-stones situation. If they meant something negative, and that meaning applied to something you were doing, then you should probably feel bad about it. But they don’t mean anything; they’re just words that are said in particular settings.

Rather than answer based on the meaning you imagine a phrase has, question it. If the person you’re talking to thinks a term has a meaning, let them explain it. Chances are that they can’t. Let them be frustrated rather than you. (WWSD. What would Socrates do?)

When dealing with people you know well, consider the possibility that they don’t know (or have forgotten) that literate culture and logical thought are even possible. Providing an example of a different way of thought will probably not produce sudden results. But over time it might be significant.

[1] A few conservatives also interpret this behavior as hypocrisy. Robby Soave of Reason wrote:

If you only criticize cancel culture when it’s your side being canceled, then you aren’t really attacking the concept—you’re just playing defense for your team.

[2] “If Biden really wanted unity,” Wilkinson tweeted, “he’d lynch Mike Pence.” The joke — that if Biden did lynch Pence, he’d be carrying out an ambition of radical Trumpists, thereby promoting unity — was lost on his bosses, who focused on the apparent call for violence. They don’t let conservatives get by with the it’s-a-joke excuse for endorsing violence, so they didn’t accept that excuse from one of their own either.

[3] Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato is all about life on the boundary between oral culture and literate culture. The reason Plato was so hostile to poets, in Havelock’s telling, was that poetry was the source of the aphorisms that competed with principles. As long as people revered the poets as fonts of muse-inspired wisdom, logical thought would never take hold.

[4] “The Christian’s Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same, but the medical practice changes.” – Mark Twain, Europe and Elsewhere, “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice”

[5] An example of how the same narrative can be either positive or negative: Compare the Biblical characters of Esther and Jezebel. Both are women who marry foreign kings, and use their influence to make the king more accepting of the religion of their homeland.

Esther is one of the Old Testament’s great heroines, and Jezebel one of its villainesses. The difference is almost entirely a my-team/their-team thing: Esther is a Jewish queen of Persia who uses her influence to save Jews from persecution. Jezebel is Phoenician queen of Israel who induces King Ahab to open Israel to the religion of Baal. (Trumpist pastors have begun calling Kamala Harris “Jezebel”. It appears to mean nothing more than that she’s a powerful woman they don’t like.)

[6] The story is that “elites” at the top of the media and the Democratic Party (but also some Republicans) are Satan worshipers who practice pedophilia and drink human blood. Donald Trump is the hero who is going to bring them down. The exposure and punishment of these crimes, leading to mass arrests and executions, is always just around the corner.

The Republican Party Chooses Not to Change

Impeachment is a chance to put the Trump Era in its rearview mirror, but instead the GOP is doubling down on authoritarianism and conspiracy theories.

Less than a month ago, then-President Donald Trump incited a mob to attack Congress, for the purpose of hanging onto power in spite of having decisively lost the November election. At the time, that crime seemed to put the capstone on the most lawless administration at least since Richard Nixon’s, and maybe in all of American history.

Republican members of Congress, who (like Democrats) had to evacuate the House and Senate chambers in fear for their lives, briefly seemed willing to reconsider where their unquestioning support of Trump had brought them. Trump’s attempted coup — the culmination of a months-long plot attempt to undo his loss and effectively end American democracy — brought to a head a theme that the country has been debating since 2015: How far will Republicans let Trump go?

Back then, the debate was about norm-violations that look small compared to insurrection, but had previously been beyond the pale: calling Mexican immigrants rapists, or claiming that American POWs are not heroes, or ridiculing a reporter by imitating his disability, or encouraging his supporters to be violent, or bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Trump critics raised a reasonable question: If those actions aren’t over the line, where is the line? We never got an answer, but instead were accused of paranoia. Trump was unorthodox and not “politically correct”, but imagining that he was dangerous to the American Republic was just “Trump Derangement Syndrome”, a particular form of craziness induced by an irrational hatred of a man most of us didn’t care about one way or the other before he began running for president.

Closing ranks. This week we got some additional information: For the majority of the GOP, physically attacking Congress and trying to end democracy isn’t over the line either.

Tuesday, 45 of the 50 Republican senators signaled their unwillingness to hold Trump accountable for inciting the Capitol lnsurrection by voting not to hold an impeachment trial at all, on the grounds that the Constitution doesn’t allow impeachments of former officials. (That’s not a credible position, as explained in the Appendix.) Among the 45 was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously had seemed open to conviction.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to get back in Trump’s good graces. In the wake of running for his life, McCarthy had said Trump “bears responsibility” for the insurrection. But Thursday he needed to kiss the ring.

Purging anti-Trumpists. Instead, the party has decided to punish those Republicans who showed some loyalty to America’s constitutional system of government. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida), went to Wyoming to raise ire against Rep. Liz Cheney, who said “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution” than Trump inciting a mob to attack Congress, and then voted for impeachment. Don Jr. spoke to the anti-Cheney rally by phone. A state senator has already announced a primary challenge.

The Arizona Republican Party has censured Governor Ducey, ostensibly for taking action against Covid, but the fact that he refused to misreport Trump’s electoral loss was probably also a factor. South Carolina’s Republican Party has censured Rep. Tom Rice for his pro-impeachment vote. Trump is calling for Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to face a primary challenger, again because he refused to overrule the voters and give Georgia’s electoral votes to Trump.

Defending extremism. Simultaneously, the GOP is doing little to distance itself from Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Trump-supporting freshman Congresswoman from Georgia who has brought a new level of insanity to the Capitol. Here’s one good summary of the full range of Greene’s unhinged-ness and here’s another one.

But if you prefer to see for yourself and make your own judgments, Greene posted a 40-minute rant to YouTube in 2018. (Warning: that’s 40 minutes of your life you’ll never get back. I recommend skipping the first half, which is mainly about how Facebook is censoring her — by applying the same community standards it applies to everybody.) If you’re looking for a point to it all, she never really gets around to making one. But along the way you’ll learn such fascinating things as

  1. Hillary Clinton had JFK Jr. murdered to clear the field for her Senate race in 2000. It was “another one of those Clinton murders”.
  2. No plane actually hit the Pentagon in the 9/11 attack.
  3. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was part of an intentional plan to destabilize the Middle East, so that the US could be “invaded” by Muslim refugees. “And that happened under Barack Obama’s presidency.” George W. Bush barely comes up in the entire 40 minutes.
  4. Obama was also responsible for the immigration lottery (which goes back to 1989) and chain migration (back to 1924 and expanded in 1965).
  5. White liberals who voted for Obama are “really the racists”.
  6. MS-13 gangsters were “the henchmen of the Obama administration” who did “the dirty work” like murdering Seth Rich.

The GOP House leadership has appointed Greene to the House Committee on Education and Labor. McCarthy intends to have a talk with her this week, but it’s hard to imagine that talk leading to any discipline, since Trump is backing her. (AOC to Chris Hayes: “What is [McCarthy] going to tell [Greene]? Keep it up?”)

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) is introducing a resolution to expel Greene from Congress, but without some Republican support it won’t get the 2/3s majority needed to pass.

Prague Spring. The best analysis of the GOP I’ve seen came from New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who used a Soviet analogy. While the post-insurrection openness to criticizing Trump may at first have looked like Glasnost, it was actually a Prague Spring, “a brief flowering of dissent and questioning of dogma quickly suppressed by a remorseless crackdown.”

Chait breaks the Party into three factions:

  • Never Trumpers. Flake, Romney, Kasich, and a bunch of mainstream-media columnists.
  • Violent authoritarians. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, QAnon, the Proud Boys. They’re sorry Trump’s insurrection failed to keep him in power, but have no other regrets about it.
  • Soft authoritarians. McConnell, McCarthy, Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. (To my mind, these folks are equivalent to the Hindenburg conservatives of the Weimar Republic.)

The heady predictions that the party would break free of the Trumpist grip already seem fanciful. If anybody is suffering repercussions for their response to Trump’s autogolpe, it is the Republicans who criticized it. Conservative Republicans are threatening to strip Liz Cheney of her leadership post after she voted to impeach Trump. … Adam Kinzinger, another pro-impeachment Republican, is facing censure. The Michigan Republican member of the state board of canvassers, who broke with his party to certify the state’s election results, is losing his job as a result of his refusal to go along with Trump’s lie. Fox News is firing journalists associated with its election call that Biden won Arizona. …

The path of least resistance for the soft authoritarianism will be to oppose Trump’s conviction on technical grounds, and then hope he fades away quietly.

Least resistance. The sad thing is that the soft authoritarians could get their wish if they weren’t such cowards. They have the power to push Trump off the stage, if they would only use it. But they won’t.

McConnell, McCarthy, and the rest need to ask themselves where this going. Trump’s behavior is not going to improve. The domestic terrorist movement he has allied with isn’t going to stop. Next-generation Trumps like Greene aren’t going to tone it down. The soft authoritarians are tying themselves to people whose actions they can neither control nor predict.

This is how bad it’s gotten: Eric Cantor is the voice of reason. The GOP’s problems didn’t start with Trump, he writes. They started when Republican politicians started pandering to their base voters’ fantasies rather than telling them what is and isn’t true or possible.

For Cantor, the government shutdown of 2013 was a key moment. Ted Cruz and some other leaders told the base that the party could defund ObamaCare, if only its leaders fought hard enough. They couldn’t and didn’t, but pretending that they could put the nation through a pointless crisis. Here’s how Cantor sees the path forward:

In many ways, it is the classic prisoner’s dilemma. If the majority of Republican elected officials work together to confront the false narratives in our body politic — that the election was stolen (it wasn’t), that there is a QAnon-style conspiracy to uproot pedophiles at the heart of American government (there isn’t), that a Democratic-controlled government means the end of America (it doesn’t; it may produce worse policy, but the republic has survived 88 years of Democrats occupying the White House) — all Republicans will be better off. If instead most elected Republicans decide to protect themselves against a primary challenge through their silence or even their affirmation, then like the two prisoners acting only in their own interests, we will all be worse off.

Trump’s impeachment trial is a golden opportunity to start rooting out those false narratives. But for that to happen, Mitch McConnell will have to provide leadership. That seems unlikely.

Appendix: The Constitutionality of Impeaching Former Officials

Slate does a good job explaining why former officials can be impeached. It’s not even a close call.

Let’s start with the Constitution, which never directly addresses the question. Article I says that the House “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment” and the Senate “shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments”. It limits the punishments for the convicted to “removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States”, leaving any further punishment to the courts. Article II stipulates that convicted officials “shall be removed from office” after conviction, but it is silent about whether former officials can be disqualified from future office.

That’s all the guidance it gives. The implication of these sparse instructions is that people at the time of the founding already knew what impeachment meant. (Similarly, the Constitution also doesn’t define “Money” or “credit” when it gives Congress power “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States”.)

What everyone would have known was how Great Britain handled impeachments. (In Federalist #65, Alexander Hamilton said the Constitution’s notion of impeachment derived from Great Britain’s.) They also would have known how the already-existing state governments did it. Slate spells it out:

Indeed, the British impeachment that most informed the Framers’ thinking about the impeachment power was the impeachment of Warren Hastings for improprieties as the governor-general of Bengal. Hastings had been out of this office for two years before his impeachment by the House of Commons. Moreover, at least two states—Virginia and Delaware—had established that their impeachment power extended to former officers.

Also, Congress has faced this issue before, and resolved it during the Grant administration:

Congress has also expressly addressed this question and resolved it in favor of the original understanding. In 1876, the House drafted articles of impeachment against President Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of War, William Belknap, but Belknap resigned before the House could vote on the articles. The House debated whether Belknap’s resignation deprived the House of jurisdiction. After the debate, the House voted to impeach Belknap, implicitly rejecting the argument that it lacked jurisdiction. The Senate also took up the issue and voted 37–29 that Belknap’s resignation did not deprive it of jurisdiction.

So the question has an obvious answer, for those who are willing to know it: Trying Trump after he has left office is entirely constitutional. Claiming it isn’t is just an excuse to let Trump off the hook without considering the evidence against him.

The Biden Blitz

What the new president’s flurry of executive orders do and don’t do.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, all the issues facing the Biden administration have a background theme: proving democracy still works. Beating Trump at the ballot box and thwarting his attempted coup didn’t end the threat of authoritarianism in America. (That’s clear from the way Republicans are circling the wagons around Trump now, even after he launched an insurrection to try to hold on to power.) Most likely, Biden is going to wind up resembling one of two political leaders from the 1930s: Franklin Roosevelt, who held the line against a global wave of authoritarianism by leading the US through a major transformation without abandoning democracy; or Fritz Von Papen, the German chancellor whose floundering induced President Hindenburg to bring Adolf Hitler into the government (in spite of Hitler having previously led an insurrection).

The best way to prove democracy still works is to get major legislation through Congress. We’ll see how that goes, but even if it works, it will take time. To his credit, though, Biden has grasped the need to demonstrate quickly that his election matters. The people voted, so things will change.

What he can do quickly is issue executive orders — 22 in his first week, as opposed to Trump’s four and Obama’s five. ABC News has listed 33.

This is a tricky business, because a government that runs by executive order is not a democracy, even if the executive was elected. So it’s important that Biden’s orders have three qualities: They need to be popular, so that he is seen to be speaking for the American people rather than dictating to them. (Maybe a few could be unpopular, but the broad sweep of his orders needs to garner public support.) They also need to effective, because orders that sound like something but turn out to be nothing will just erode trust in democracy even more.

But most of all they need to be legal, so that he’s not furthering the authoritarian drift of the last four years. That legality needs to be bulletproof, because the judicial branch is now full of Trump appointees who would be happy to find a reason to block Biden’s efforts. So he can’t appropriate money (as Trump did for his wall), or change laws.

He is even limited in the ways he can alter or revoke regulations, once an agency has officially announced them in the Federal Register. Congress has specified a procedure for promulgating new regulations, which may require official studies, reports, or public hearings — all of which take time. (Most of the Trump executive orders that got hung up in court suffered from failures of process.) That’s why many of Biden’s orders instruct some department or agency to begin a process, rather than implement some change immediately.

But that doesn’t mean the new president is powerless, as we’ve seen. Let’s take the Biden EOs by subject.

Covid and public health

Executive orders can’t appropriate money; that’s what Biden’s Covid-relief plan in Congress is for. But the Trump administration often worked at cross purposes with itself: one department saying one thing, a different department something else, and the White House pushing some other point of view entirely, which might change from one day to the next. As a result, the country was denied something only the federal government is in a position to provide: a coherent plan for moving forward, based on the kind of data only the federal government is in a position to collect.

The US is rejoining the World Health Organization. Quitting it was one of Trump’s dumber ideas, which this letter undoes.

Mask-wearing and social distancing have been mandated in federal buildings.

to protect the Federal workforce and individuals interacting with the Federal workforce, and to ensure the continuity of Government services and activities, on-duty or on-site Federal employees, on-site Federal contractors, and other individuals in Federal buildings and on Federal lands should all wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to other public health measures, as provided in CDC guidelines.

A separate order mandates masks in airports, airplanes, trains, intercity buses, ferries, and all other forms of public transportation. This takes the onus off private companies like the airlines, who can now tell recalcitrant customers: “We may not like it either, but it’s not our call. Those are the rules.”

School reopening. The legislation Biden has proposed would appropriate money to pay the expenses associated with schools reopening safely, something he can’t do by himself. But he has ordered his administration to produce a single coherent set of guidelines and practices for safe in-person schooling.

Creating a White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator. This sounds a lot like what Mike Pence was supposed to be doing in the Trump administration. We can hope that Biden’s team — a Coordinator (Jeff Zients) who knows how government works and a Deputy Coordinator (Vivek Murthy) who knows public health — will be allowed to do their jobs without so much political interference.

OSHA will make guidelines for Covid-safe workplaces.

A Pandemic Testing Board will produce and coordinate a national strategy for Covid testing.

The government will also take responsibility for organizing the supply chain of material needed to fight the pandemic, invoking the Defense Production Act as necessary. There will be a plan for helping local hospitals, including using the National Guard where appropriate.

Climate and the Environment

The US rejoins the Paris Climate Agreement. By itself, this announcement doesn’t change US greenhouse gas emissions. But it is a powerful symbolic step.

The permit to construct the Keystone XL Pipeline is revoked. This is part of a long order with many parts. It also put a halt on oil leases in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. Trump had announced a leasing program last August; a lease sale was held on January 6; and the first leases were announced publicly on Trump’s last day in office.

It’s not clear how much of that Biden can undo. He can certainly prevent any new leases. Whether he can undo the ones already granted probably depends on how serious the “legal deficiencies” in Trump’s program are.

In light of the alleged legal deficiencies underlying the program, including the inadequacy of the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Secretary of the Interior shall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, place a temporary moratorium on all activities of the Federal Government relating to the implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, as established by the Record of Decision signed August 17, 2020, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Secretary shall review the program and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.

Yale School of the Environment website E360 outlines the difficulties Biden faces. Basically, it’s the same problem anybody might run into: Once the government signs a contract, it’s hard to back out.

The same order instructs departments to examine all Trump-era environmental regulations and see what can be rolled back. It mentions specifically Trump’s shrinking of several national monuments, including Bears Ears; allowing gas-drilling and gas-transporting companies to leak more methane; rolling back automobile fuel-economy standards; and rolling back energy standards on new appliances. (Looking at all those actions in one list makes me realize just what a force for evil the Trump administration was.)

Electric vehicles. In the comments he made Monday on his “Buy American” executive order, Biden announced his intention to phase fossil-fuel-burning vehicles out of the federal fleet. That provision didn’t actually appear until “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” came out on Wednesday.

The plan shall aim to use, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, all available procurement authorities to achieve or facilitate … clean and zero-emission vehicles for Federal, State, local, and Tribal government fleets, including vehicles of the United States Postal Service.

This is both a great idea and a big deal.

It’s a great idea because much of what the federal fleet does is a perfect job for electric vehicles. Think postal trucks, for example (225,000 of them): They don’t take long trips that would expose EVs’ range problems, and they return to the same depots every night, so they’re not going to get stranded somewhere in Montana, far from any charging station.

It’s a big deal because the federal fleet is huge: 645,000 vehicles, of which only 3,215 were electric as of last July. Knowing that those purchases are coming would put a floor under the US electric vehicle industry, creating economies of scale that would make EVs more affordable for the general public.

This order is also a sweeping policy statement whose full implications are hard to predict. In general, the US pledges to use its international influence to fight climate change rather than sabotage that fight, as the Trump administration had been doing.

It’s hard to know whether to post this under climate or public health, but Biden also has elevated the role of science in this administration by establishing a President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, similar to the existing Council of Economic Advisors.


The easiest and most obviously legal changes Biden can make is to undo Trump’s executive orders, many of which were legally shaky to begin with.

Ending the Muslim ban. Probably the most egregiously bad of Trump’s immigration executive orders was his Muslim ban, which required several iterations even to become legal. Biden’s rescinding order calls the ban “a stain on our national conscience”, “inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all”, and “a moral blight that has dulled the power of our example the world over”.

He promises “a rigorous, individualized vetting system” for people applying to come to the US, and orders US embassies “resume visa processing in a manner consistent with the revocation of the Executive Order and Proclamations specified in section 1 of this proclamation”.

The countries that had been subject to the ban were: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and Tanzania.

DACA deportations halted (maybe). By itself, Biden’s executive order on DACA doesn’t appear to do much; it simply instructs DHS to “take all actions [deemed legal and appropriate] to preserve and fortify DACA”. Trump frequently used such language to appear to be doing something when he really wasn’t.

But Biden’s order led to a memo from the acting secretary of DHS ordering “a 100-day pause on certain removals”. The Texas attorney general filed suit to invalidate the 100-day pause, which led to a temporary restraining order from a Trump-appointed judge. It’s not clear how this will play out.

The phony border emergency is over. When Congress refused to fund Trump’s border wall, even after he forced a government shutdown, he declared a state of emergency and moved funds from the Defense budget into wall construction. Congress passed a resolution canceling the emergency, but Trump vetoed it and Congress was unable to muster the 2/3 vote to override his veto. In effect, this meant that the President plus 1/3 of one house of Congress can appropriate money.

Biden has terminated the emergency and paused border-wall construction while his administration looks into legal options for canceling the existing construction contracts.

[B]uilding a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution. It is a waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security. … It shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall.

Trump’s Executive Order 13768 is rescinded. The EO-13768 tried to do a variety of things. It restricted “sanctuary cities” from getting certain kinds of federal grants; increased the number of immigrants defined as “priorities for removal”; attempted to raise public ire against undocumented immigrants by publishing a weekly list of crimes they had committed; and tried to deputize local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law. A lot of that had already been blocked by the courts, but Biden’s order ends it.

Liberian refugees can stay a while longer. In 1991, President Bush the First granted temporary protected status to refugees form the Liberian civil war. (In this context, it’s worth noting the historical connection between the US and Liberia, a country established by freed American slaves.) Their legal situation has been complicated ever since, and then Trump targeted them for repatriation in 2018. Various obstacles have prevented their expulsion, which Biden has now blocked.

The census will count undocumented immigrants. Trump tried to change the census so that the population figures used to apportion representation in the House of Representatives (and consequently, electoral votes of the states) would only count US citizens and documented immigrants, rather than all inhabitants. This was counter to the 14th Amendment:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.

Biden is changing it back.

At no point since our Nation’s Founding has a person’s immigration status alone served as a basis for excluding that person from the total population count used in apportionment. … [T]he Secretary [of Commerce] shall report the tabulation of total population by State that reflects the whole number of persons whose usual residence was in each State as of the designated census date in section 141(a) of title 13, United States Code, without regard to immigration status.

Discrimination and Racial Equity

Phasing out federal contracts with private prisons. The order is self-explanatory:

The Attorney General shall not renew Department of Justice contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities, as consistent with applicable law.

This is not an explicitly racial issue, but is deeply intertwined with mass incarceration of people of color. NPR interviews the ACLU’s David Fathi:

[T]he order to the Justice Department to end its contracts with private prisons is a very important step. It will not by itself end mass incarceration, but it will curb an industry that has a financial interest in perpetuating mass incarceration.

Letting these contracts run to the end of their term will take years, and the order doesn’t apply to the private prisons holding detained immigrants. Reportedly, Biden is considering such an order, but some sources don’t expect it to happen. I’ll take a wild guess about the obstacle: So many immigrants are detained that no existing federal facilities can hold them, and Biden still doesn’t know exactly how many such immigrants he wants to continue detaining. Releasing just one guy who turns out to be dangerous — think Mike Dukakis and Willie Horton — could be a political disaster.

The “gag rule” is on its way out. Current law doesn’t allow federal money to pay for abortions or to be used in family-planning clinics that also perform abortions. Biden can’t change that by himself. But HHS regulations go further, and stipulate that a federally-funded family planning clinic can’t even tell a woman how to get an abortion or refer her to a clinic that does them. Similarly, regulations deny federal funding abroad to organizations that have anything to do with abortion, even if they use non-US-federal money to do those things.

To the extent those policies are enshrined in regulations, Biden can just ask the regulating agencies to review their policies and start a regulation-altering process. To the extent he can order more than that directly, he is.

Trump’s order banning diversity training is revoked. In September, Trump issued an executive order that labeled diversity training — basically, any program that mentions “white privilege” or “male privilege” — as “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating”, and banned federal agencies and contractors from spending money on it. Biden’s order rescinds Trump’s order.

The same order revokes Trump’s order establishing his 1776 Commission, which produced a very shoddy report telling a whitewashed story of American history in which racism barely figures, and “progressivism” is covered in the same chapter as fascism and communism. Trump had hoped that report would form the center of an American history curriculum counteracting the NYT’s 1619 Project. No federal money will now go towards that purpose, though of course the report exists and can still be adopted by local school districts that want to propagandize their children.

The order includes more abstract things that could turn out to be important, like this policy statement.

Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government. Because advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes, executive departments and agencies (agencies) must recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.

So we can hope that we’ve seen the last of roomfuls of white men discussing women’s health or racial discrimination.

Transgender troops can serve in the military again.

Therefore, it shall be the policy of the United States to ensure that all transgender individuals who wish to serve in the United States military and can meet the appropriate standards shall be able to do so openly and free from discrimination.

The order instructs the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security (which covers the Coast Guard) to “immediately prohibit involuntary separations, discharges, and denials of reenlistment or continuation of service on the basis of gender identity or under circumstances relating to their gender identity”. People already drummed out of service will have their service records “corrected”, presumably to eliminate any less-than-honorable discharge associated with their gender identity.

Where appropriate, the department concerned shall offer such individuals an opportunity to rejoin the military should they wish to do so and meet the current entry standards.

A different order denounces discrimination on the basis of gender identification or sexual orientation and instructs all agencies to review their regulations with that in mind, but it’s not clear what the practical effects will be.

Respecting tribal sovereignty. This is more of a policy-and-process announcement than an immediate change. It should give Native American tribes more weight when they protest against actions (like the Keystone XL pipeline) that threaten the environment on tribal lands.

It is a priority of my Administration to make respect for Tribal sovereignty and self-governance, commitment to fulfilling Federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, and regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations cornerstones of Federal Indian policy. The United States has made solemn promises to Tribal Nations for more than two centuries. Honoring those commitments is particularly vital now, as our Nation faces crises related to health, the economy, racial justice, and climate change — all of which disproportionately harm Native Americans.


Another order freezes changes to federal regulations that had not been finalized by the end of the Trump administration, and advises departments to delay implementation of changes that got in under the wire for 60 days, so that they can be reviewed.

Biden extended a Trump order to stop collecting on federal student loans and temporarily stop charging interest on the outstanding balance.