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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.)

https://theweek.com/cartoons/966255/political-cartoon-trump-impeachment-constitution

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”.

https://www.cicero.de/el-paso-duff-moses-donald-trump-cartoon-hate

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?

https://theweek.com/cartoons/964993/political-cartoon-kaepernick-gop-cancel-culture

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.

https://jensorensen.com/2015/07/28/advice-conservatives-never-give-themselves/

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

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/01/29/civil-war-soul-of-gop-over-trump-won/

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.

https://theweek.com/cartoons/963651/political-cartoon-gop-right-wing-romney

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.

https://theweek.com/cartoons/963405/political-cartoon-biden-executive-orders-bigotry

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.

Immigration

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.

Other

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.

To Save Democracy, End the Filibuster

American democracy only works if the Senate works.


At the moment the two biggest stories in American politics are the impeachment of Donald Trump and the long-anticipated inauguration of Joe Biden. Both stories, at their root, are about the continuance of democracy.

Biden’s inauguration may be sparsely attended, socially distanced, and observed by enough troops to conquer a medium-sized country, but fundamentally it will be a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power. In spite of a long list of bad-faith challenges, culminating in a right-wing mob attacking the Capitol itself, the American People will get the president they elected.

Trump’s impeachment is in some sense the flip side of that same coin. When a president tries to hang on to power in spite of the People, even to the point of inciting violence against the government he supposedly heads, there must be consequences. One lesson of history is that democracies must be willing to defend themselves. Letting would-be authoritarians walk away and try again only validates anti-democracy propaganda: that democracies are fundamentally weak, and that advocates of democracy secretly admire and envy the self-styled Leader and his followers for their love of country and the courage of their convictions. “If we got away with this,” the anti-democratic forces wonder, “what else can we get away with?”

So count me among those who approve of both these stories. But at the same time, I recognize that each offers our constitutional republic only a short-term salvation. The longer-term problem is the widespread perception that our system is not working, and that it grows more dysfunctional year by year. If Trump is convicted, American fascism might be stuffed back into its box for a few years. And if Biden uses his powers wisely, he may spark a short-term rise in the nation’s self-confidence. Certainly, he should be able to quickly reverse the corrosive effect of the last year, when our president appeared to have lost interest in a plague that killed (and continues to kill) thousands of Americans each day.

But long-term, the health of any democracy relies on public faith in one simple idea: The most effective and most legitimate way to seek change is to convince other citizens to agree with you, so that the public will elect a government that will achieve the changes you seek. Conversely, a democracy is in trouble if its citizens begin to see elections as empty spectacles that change nothing.

Now it only takes 60 votes, but the same principle applies.

Legislative failure. In the past several cycles, Democrats and Republicans have each won wave elections that left the party in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. But neither produced an FDR- or LBJ-like list of legislative accomplishments. Instead, each managed only one big thing: ObamaCare for the Democrats and the Trump tax cut for the Republicans.

In spite of broad support from their voters, the Democrats couldn’t pass cap-and-trade to fight climate change, ObamaCare’s public option, any significant gun control, or immigration reform. Republicans couldn’t repeal ObamaCare, pass an infrastructure program, or fund Trump’s wall.

Voters on both sides were left wondering: What was all that for?

Admittedly, both parties faced obstacles beyond the Senate filibuster. Obama thought he had more time: His filibuster-proof 60-Democrat Senate didn’t last two years, but only half a year; Republican lawsuits delayed Al Franken’s arrival in the Senate until July, and the next January the Democrats unexpectedly lost the Massachusetts seat vacated when Ted Kennedy died. (Only a parliamentary maneuver allowed ObamaCare to become law.)

Trump’s GOP suffered from a lack of real programs to pass. “Repeal and replace ObamaCare” turned out to be an empty slogan; neither Trump nor any other Republican had a replacement plan, and three Republican senators wouldn’t vote for repeal without one. Trump eventually announced an infrastructure plan, but couldn’t get his own party to buy into it.

Each party suffered from the implacable opposition of the other. It is striking to look back at big legislation of the past. Medicare got 70 votes in the Senate, including 13 Republicans. Social Security got 77 votes (16 Republicans), and the Voting Rights Act got 77 (30 Republicans; the main opposition came from Southern Democrats). The National Environmental Protection Act (which, among other things, established the EPA) passed unanimously. But both ObamaCare and the Trump tax cut were party-line votes.

In part, the polarization of the Senate is due to the polarization of the voters. But the polarization of each party’s special interests is also an important factor. Polls show considerable bipartisan support for giving some kind of legal status to the Dreamers (undocumented immigrants brought into the US as children, many of whom remember no other country), for simple gun-control measures like universal background checks, for limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, and a number of other measures. But base voters oppose them, and so do organizations like the NRA or the National Trial Lawyers. So they don’t pass, to the great frustration of the majority of Americans.

Issues that used to be negotiable have now been cast as matters of principle. Republicans cannot support any tax increase, no matter what concession they might get in exchange. Many Democrats draw a line in the sand on entitlement reform. As recently as 2013, the Senate could pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill. But today that bill (which might also have passed the House if Speaker Boehner had allowed a vote) seems like a relic from a bygone era.

But all these factors come back to how easy it is to block things in the Senate. In a polarized environment with powerful special interests, it’s hard to get 60 votes for even the most popular bills. One of the levers that previously induced senators to compromise was the argument: “This bill is going to pass anyway. You might as well get on board and see if you can win any concessions in exchange for your support.” (This still works for must-pass bills like the ones that keep the government open.) But if the bill is likely not going to pass, why risk the attack ads that a yes-vote might generate?

Filibusters have become the rule, not the exception. The filibuster has existed since a rule change in 1806, which is sometimes blamed on the villainous Aaron Burr. It is not in the Constitution. On the contrary, the Constitution explicitly requires Congress to have supermajorities only for a few highly significant actions: removing a President or other official via impeachment, passing a constitutional amendment, and ratifying a treaty. But the Founders never intended a supermajority requirement to apply to ordinary legislation. In Federalist #22, Alexander Hamilton railed against those who would ask for a supermajority provision:

The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

… When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely TO BE DONE, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods.

Filibusters were purely theoretical until the 1830s, and fairly rare thereafter. The Senate tended to think of itself as a gentlemen’s club; grinding business to a halt was ungentlemanly behavior. For years, filibusters were reserved for only the most important issues. For example, Southern senators used them to stifle civil-rights legislation, which they saw as a direct threat to the white supremacist society of the Jim Crow states. (Filibustering was, in essence, an alternative to seceding again.) But then the frequency of filibusters took off.

https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/11/charts-explain-why-democrats-went-nuclear-filibuster/

Today, the press simply takes for granted that everything will be filibustered, and routinely reports that it takes 60 votes to get anything through the Senate. For example, the post-Sandy-Hook-massacre effort to get background checks through the Senate failed 54-46, with the 54 voting for it. This was reported as if it were business as usual. Effectively, the Senate now has the supermajority requirement that Hamilton so opposed, with exactly the unfortunate results he predicted.

Spreading effects of Congressional dysfunction. People from both parties (or neither) frequently complain about two other unfortunate trends in American governance: the imperial presidency and the ever-expanding reach of the Supreme Court. Both of these developments are promoted by the dysfunction of Congress.

Increasingly, presidents push the boundaries of executive orders. It’s easy to criticize Trump’s excesses, like the phony emergency he declared in order to redirect money to his border wall. But it’s also instructive to note Obama’s overreaches, like DACA, which protected the Dreamers from deportation and allowed them to work legally, and the DAPA program that would have covered parents of American citizens if the Supreme Court had allowed it.

In Obama’s remarks announcing DACA, he pleaded for Congress to turn a popular cause into a law.

Now, let’s be clear — this is not amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. … Precisely because this is temporary, Congress needs to act. There is still time for Congress to pass the DREAM Act this year, because these kids deserve to plan their lives in more than two-year increments. And we still need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our 21st century economic and security needs.

He stretched the power of executive orders because the American people supported something that Congress refused to do, or even bring to a vote. This is a common pattern in executive orders: Something needs to happen and Congress is log-jammed, so the president just does it on dubious authority.

Trump’s trade wars followed the same pattern. Tariffs are supposed to be set by Congress, but an obscure and seldom-used clause of a law delegated that power to the president under extreme circumstances. Trump decided those conditions were met and abused this power. But getting tougher on foreign imports was popular, so Congress did nothing to reclaim its prerogatives.

Much judicial overreach is similar. Take, for example, John Roberts’ rewrite of the Affordable Care Act. He was part of a conservative majority that ruled (wrongly, in my opinion) that the law’s insurance mandate couldn’t be justified by previous Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. Roberts, however, recognized that Congress has sweeping constitutional power to tax, so he reinterpreted the mandate’s penalty as a tax, allowing ObamaCare to stand.

In earlier eras, the Court might simply have voided the law, but delayed the implementation of its ruling to allow Congress to adjust. After a simple legislative fix — change the word “penalty” to “tax” — the program would have gone forward. But Roberts knew that in the current era, legislation only passes when the planets align. Voiding ObamaCare for any reason would have meant ending it for the foreseeable future. He wasn’t willing to be the reason why tens of millions of Americans lost their health insurance, so instead he rewrote the law himself.

A similar pattern accounts for the various administrative changes Obama made during the implementation of the ACA. It is common for big new programs to need fine tuning, because nothing complicated ever works exactly as its designers expect. In past eras, Congress would quickly pass such changes, recognizing that they improved an ongoing program. But ObamaCare’s opposition wanted to see it crash, and would not allow any legislative fine tuning. So Obama stretched his executive power to make the program work.

In the Founders’ vision, Congress is the vehicle for channeling public opinion into action. But that channel is blocked, so the other branches of government expand their power to compensate. This is not healthy for democracy: The expanding power of the president tilts us in the direction of an elected dictatorship, while the the Supreme Court’s extended range of action removes power from the political system entirely. But complete inaction in the face of well-recognized problems is also not healthy for democracy.

Stop the decay. The danger in this process should be obvious, because we see it happening all around us: People are becoming more cynical, and losing faith in the power of their vote. If passing, say, Medicare for All requires electing 60 Democratic senators, what’s the point of trying? Even expanding ObamaCare is more likely to happen via a Biden executive order than by an act of Congress. And if you oppose that executive power grab, you will look to the Supreme Court to save you, not Congress.

The filibuster is far from the only anti-democratic provision in our system. The Senate itself allows a collection of small states that represent far fewer than half the country to gain control. The Electoral College makes it possible for a minority to elect the president. Gerrymandering and voter suppression make the House undemocratic.

But the simplest and most direct way to restore the vitality of Congress is to end the filibuster. If you can convince enough people to agree with you to elect majorities in both houses, you should be able to get legislation passed. If that legislation turns out badly, a new majority should be able to get it repealed. That’s what makes elections meaningful.

If elections stop being meaningful, people will not stop seeking change. They’ll just have to promote it through undemocratic means. Eventually, a Caesar will come and sweep the whole jammed system aside. And the People will probably cheer, just as the People cheered Caesar.

The Orwellian Misuse of “Orwellian”

TrumpSpeak sends the word’s original meanings down the memory hole.


A theme I return to now and then is how the Right takes a word that has been effectively used against it and breaks that word through repeated misuse. I’m not sure when this practice began. Probably it had already been going on for some while before I noticed it; I was reading Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, a 2008 book whose apparent purpose is to destroy any notion a reader might have of real fascism. (Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? Take that, liberals!)

Word-breaking doesn’t always work — the Bush administration and its apologists never did completely break the word “torture” — but far too often it does. One of the great recent successes of conservative word-breaking is “fake news“, a once-useful term that originally referred to serious-looking links invented to be social-media clickbait and attributed to websites that purported to be newspaper sites, but weren’t. (For example, there is no Denver Guardian.)

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was a major beneficiary of viral fake news, like the Denver Guardian’s “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment murder-suicide” which was shared on Facebook more than half a million times, in spite of being a complete fiction that had been reported by no actual news organizations. Promoting fake news was, in fact, one of the primary ways Russia supported Trump. Obviously, this wasn’t something Trump wanted people to talk about, or even think about. Something had to be done.

So by repeated misuse, Trump captured “fake news” and redirected it to refer to accurate news stories he didn’t like. As a result, “the fake-news media” no longer brings the Denver Guardian to mind. Instead, it now encompasses The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN.

Today, if you use “fake news” in its original sense, no one will know what you mean. Mission accomplished.

https://www.centralmaine.com/2019/12/18/todays-editorial-carton-5/

We’re currently witnessing a multi-year campaign to break “socialism“, a word George Orwell sometimes used to describe his own political philosophy. But in a world where Joe Biden and Jon Ossoff are “radical socialists”, how can you even start a conversation about public ownership of the means of production? Such a thoughtcrime is not yet impossible, but it is becoming increasingly difficult.

https://www.laprogressive.com/socialism-stigma/

“Religious freedom” and “religious liberty” are likewise broken. Now they primarily refer to Christian privilege. So Christians can ignore anti-discrimination laws because they have “religious liberty”. Meanwhile, the rest of us only have “religious liberty” in situations where conservative Christians agree with us. For example: A Christian pharmacist’s “religious liberty” is violated if he has to fill a birth-control prescription, and so a pharmacist of some other religion might claim a similar privilege. On the other hand, a Hindu waitress who doesn’t want to serve steaks should just find another job; firing her would not create any kind of religious-liberty issue.

But the latest word the Trump and his allies are trying to break is particularly ironic: “orwellian”. Vox explains:

When Josh Hawley and Trump Jr. use the term “Orwellian,” they are indulging in precisely the kind of lazy and dishonest obfuscation Orwell railed against. They are taking the haze of imprecise associations that have accumulated around the word — bad, dystopian, someone somewhere overreaching probably? — and trying to attach them to such urgent issues for human rights as a politician losing his book contract after a scandal and the most powerful man in the world getting kicked off a social media platform. They are, to put it in terms of which Orwell would approve, lying. They are pretending that very reasonable actions from private corporations are the same as the government kidnapping citizens and shoving their faces into cages full of rats to brainwash them. And they are trying to convince their followers to pretend the same thing, until the pretense becomes real and everyone agrees to believe the lie. [links added]

Originally, “orwellian” had a variety of related meanings, all of which derived directly from George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. The word might, for example, refer to a bold lie that completely inverts the truth, like the 1984 party slogans: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

Rudy Giuliani’s statement “Truth isn’t truth” — which supposedly explained how an honest man like Trump might commit perjury if he testified under oath — is orwellian in this sense. But so is Trump’s claim that Democrats are stealing the 2020 election, because that claim is itself the center of Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election. The related lie that Democratic “election fraud” centered in majority-Black cities like Detroit, Atlanta, and Milwaukee is similarly orwellian, because inner-city Blacks are precisely the people most likely to be disenfranchised by Republican tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression.

“Orwellian” might also legitimately refer to an authority’s demand that you believe what you are told rather than what you can see for yourself. That usage derives from this 1984 quote:

The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

So Trump was being orwellian when he told a VFW convention: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

But probably the purest meaning of “orwellian” would apply to the process I’m describing here: breaking a word so that the idea it once captured so well becomes inexpressible. As Orwell wrote in “The Principles of Newspeak“:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

If Trump and his allies succeed in breaking “orwellian”, they will have gone a long way towards removing this thought from the public mind. Then “orwellian” will have lost all substantive content, and will simply become a way to cast shade: “You said something I don’t like.”

And we will have lost any term that expresses what just happened.

The Capitol Invasion is Both an End and a Beginning

Naive Trumpism is dead, but the right-wing insurrection is just getting started.


A history of violence. Of course the Trump administration would end in violence.

Trump’s brand of populism has had a violent undercurrent from the beginning, and Trump himself has done little to reject that tendency or even tone it down. Only a couple months after he descended the escalator in 2015, he made excuses for two of his fans beating a homeless Hispanic man with a metal pole, describing his supporters as “very passionate … They love this country and want it to be great again.” When neo-Nazis chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans in Charlottesville, and one of them murdered a counter-protester, he talked about the “very fine people on both sides“. He gave a presidential shout-out to Kyle Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim, ignoring the fact that people were chasing Rittenhouse because he had already killed someone.

I won’t attempt a more complete accounting of Trumpist violence — the guy who mailed all the pipe bombs, the guy who took Trump’s “invasion” rhetoric so literally that he murdered Hispanics in an El Paso mall, the plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor — because Vox already did that.

Of course, politicians never have complete control over their followers. But there are responsible and irresponsible ways to react when your people cross the line. Bernie Sanders, for example, said this in 2017:

I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign. I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.

You will search in vain for a similarly unequivocal rejection by Trump of pro-Trump violence. After a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was foiled, Trump muddied his denunciation of the plot with criticism of Whitmer and an endorsement of the plotters’ political goals.

I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence. Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President! Governor Whitmer — open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!

Occasionally, handlers have pressured the President into putting some kind of distance between himself and the most thuggish elements of the MAGAverse. But his heart has never been in it — such statements became known as Trump’s “hostage videos” — and he would quickly walk them back with much more fervor, lest any of his brownshirts feel unappreciated.

And then he lost the election.

It wasn’t close. Biden’s 7-million vote victory wasn’t quite as big as Obama’s 2008 landslide, but before that you have to go back to Bill Clinton in 1996 to find a similar margin. The Electoral College rigs presidential elections in Republicans’ favor, but even that outcome was convincing: 306-232. The media’s delay in calling the election was due to the Covid pandemic and the number of mail-in votes, not any narrowness in the results.

Trump has long threatened violence if he didn’t get what he wanted. In March of 2016 he warned that “you’d have riots” if the Republican Party found a way to deny him the nomination. That fall, he would only commit to accepting the election results “if I win“. Asked in September of 2020 if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power in case he lost, Trump replied “We’ll have to see what happens.” When challenged to break with the violent white-supremacist Proud Boys, Trump told them to “stand back and stand by“.

Stand by for what? Wednesday we found out.

https://theweek.com/cartoons/958759/political-cartoon-trump-georgia-call

The Big Lie. Even more pronounced than his affinity with violence has been Trump’s habit of saying things because he wants them to be true, a self-serving exaggeration of the power-of-positive-thinking religion he was raised in.

Some of his self-flattering fictions have been petty and inconsequential, like his insistence that his inaugural crowd was larger than Barack Obama’s. Others have been more significant, like his claim that 3-5 million non-citizens voted illegally in 2016, a total that conveniently accounted for Hillary Clinton’s margin in the popular vote. He wanted the Mueller report to “totally exonerate” him, but it did not. And we will never know exactly how many additional Americans died because of Trump’s lies about the coronavirus — that it was just the flu, that doctors inflated the death statistics, that it was under control, that masks don’t work, that business closures aren’t necessary, that hydroxychloroquine is a miracle cure — but it’s probably in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Among his tens of thousands of lies since taking office, his claim that he won “by a landslide” in the election that he actually lost by a wide margin, but that his victory was “stolen” from him by Democratic fraud, was Trump’s Big Lie, the kind of lie Hitler described in Mein Kampf.

in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

Historian Timothy Snyder made the connection to the current situation:

The force of a big lie resides in its demand that many other things must be believed or disbelieved. To make sense of a world in which the 2020 presidential election was stolen requires distrust not only of reporters and of experts but also of local, state and federal government institutions, from poll workers to elected officials, Homeland Security and all the way to the Supreme Court. It brings with it, of necessity, a conspiracy theory: Imagine all the people who must have been in on such a plot and all the people who would have had to work on the cover-up.

Trump’s electoral fiction floats free of verifiable reality. It is defended not so much by facts as by claims that someone else has made some claims. The sensibility is that something must be wrong because I feel it to be wrong, and I know others feel the same way. When political leaders such as Ted Cruz or Jim Jordan spoke like this, what they meant was: You believe my lies, which compels me to repeat them.

Trump was already setting up this lie before the election even happened, telling his supporters that he could only lose by fraud, and that voting by mail was inherently rife with fraud. On election night, he falsely claimed victory, and subsequently, as recounts, hand recounts, signature audits, and every other kind of verification knocked down his baseless allegations, his claims just got wilder. In the January 6 speech that sent the mob heading towards the Capitol, he told lies already long refuted: that in Pennsylvania “You had 205,000 more ballots than you had voters.” In Detroit, “174,000 ballots were counted without being tied to an actual registered voter.”

The conspiracy to deny him a second term grew and grew: It now had to include not just Biden’s people, not just Democrats, but his own appointees like Christopher Krebs and Bill Barr, Republican election commissioners, Republican secretaries of state and governors, and ultimately even Mike Pence.

The attack on the Capitol. Even the most talented liar sometimes faces a confrontation with reality that can’t be explained away. A key part of Trump’s Big Lie wasn’t just that he should have won, or that the Democrats had stolen the election, but that they would not get away with it. The fraud would be exposed, the election results reversed, and a Trump second term inaugurated on January 20.

Something had to give eventually, because on January 20 Trump either would or wouldn’t start a second term. For two months, the date of MAGA salvation kept getting pushed back and the mechanism changing. At first, the story was that Trump’s election-night lead in key states would hold. When that didn’t happen, he claimed that the states would refuse to certify Biden’s win. When they did — even the ones like Georgia and Arizona with Republican officials — he said the courts would intervene, culminating in a showdown before a Supreme Court with three Trump appointees and a 6-3 Republican majority. When the Supreme Court wanted no part of his scheme, he told his followers that Republican state legislatures would throw out the elections and appoint Trump electors. But on December 14, Biden’s 306 certified electors voted, and there was only one remaining possibility to overturn the People’s will: when Congress counted the electoral votes on January 6.

At that point, new elements of the fantasy emerged: Congress had the power to throw out a state’s certified electoral votes, in spite of the 12th Amendment, which empowers it only to “open” and “count” the votes sent by the states. As the official presiding over this opening and counting, Vice President Pence had the power to recognize alternative slates of Trump-supporting electors — a power that, if it existed, would guarantee that no party in power ever lost the White House. In 2001, Al Gore could have recognized the Democratic electors from Florida and declared himself president. Joe Biden could have tossed Trump’s slates in 2017 and appointed Hillary Clinton.

Imagine that you believed all this nonsense, and think about how your anger might have risen as you heard that Mike Pence was refusing to exercise his power to count the votes however he wanted, and Mitch McConnell would not rally Republican senators to “stop the steal” of Trump’s landslide. Cowardly Republicans refused to seize this moment, and instead would let Joe Biden’s radical socialism destroy America.

Unless the People rose up.

From the beginning, Trump’s January 6 “Save America” rally had violence written all over it. When Trump promoted it in a December 19 tweet, he said “Be there, will be wild!” After Trump stooge Louie Gohmert lost his insane lawsuit to disenfranchise millions of Americans, he said the court’s message was “You have to go to the streets and be as violent as antifa, BLM.” Violent pro-Trump groups plotted openly on social media platforms.

More than 80% of the top posts on TheDonald on Wednesday about the Electoral College certification featured calls for violence in the top five responses, according to research from Advance Democracy, an independent, nonpartisan organization. And it wasn’t just fringe websites. On Twitter, Advance Democracy found more than 1,480 posts from QAnon-related accounts about Jan. 6 that contained terms of violence since Jan. 1. On TikTok, videos promoting violence garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

Trump certainly could or should have known all this when he spoke to the crowd he had assembled and instructed it to march on the Capitol. Quite likely he did know. But he spoke to rile the crowd up, not to keep it under control. After the violence began, he resisted for hours requests that he call the mob off. When he did ask them to go home, he did not denounce what they had done, but repeated the Big Lie that motivated them.

We now know that the incident could have been far worse than it actually was. A scaffold was set up, and some of the invaders chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” They killed a Capitol policeman. What might they have done if they’d gotten hold of people Trump frequently has demonized, like Speaker Pelosi or Rep. Adam Schiff?

They went into the Capitol, as Congress was counting electoral votes, equipped to take hostages—to physically seize officials, and presumably to take lives. … If the rioters had been a little quicker through the doors; if senators and representatives hadn’t just moved from their joint session into separate chambers to debate the Arizona challenge and had instead still been packed into one harder-to-evacuate room; if any number of things had happened differently, the three people next in the line of succession for the presidency might have been face to face with those zip-tie guys. And then: Who knows.

The Republican divide. The overt violence at the Capitol, putting the lives of even Republican members of Congress at risk, means that it is no longer possible to ignore what Trumpism is. “Naive Trumpism”, the idea that Trump throws a lot of red meat to his base, but that traditional Reagan/Bush Republicans can work with him within the constitutional order to cut taxes and appoint judges, is dead now. If you’re still a Trumpist today, you support ending democracy and overthrowing the constitutional order.

Historian Timothy Snyder divides the GOP into “gamers” (like Mitch McConnell) and “breakers” (like Trump).

Right now, the Republican Party is a coalition of two types of people: those who would game the system (most of the politicians, some of the voters) and those who dream of breaking it (a few of the politicians, many of the voters). In January 2021, this was visible as the difference between those Republicans who defended the present system on the grounds that it favored them and those who tried to upend it.

Until Wednesday, opportunists like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley could blur that distinction and appear to be on both sides. Going forward, such a position will no longer be tenable. The people who invaded the Capitol are either freedom fighters or traitors. There is no middle ground.

Democracies have to defend themselves. This is one of the lessons I glean from my reading about Hitler’s rise to power. The Weimar Republic fell, at least in part, because it lacked the will to defend itself, or to defend the government’s monopoly on the use of force. Hitler himself first drew national attention by leading the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923. It was his first attempt to take power, and it earned him a five-year sentence for treason. He was released after nine months, having learned that treason against the democratic government was just not that big a deal.

In subsequent years, brownshirt violence was often winked at by German law enforcement, which tended to be conservative and to dislike the same people the Nazis were beating up. Similarly Wednesday, while most police at the Capitol risked their lives to defend Congress, at least a few policemen seemed to be on friendly terms with the invaders.

The Capitol Insurrection may mark the end of naive Trumpism, and split the GOP into gamers and breakers. But it also marks the beginning of a darker campaign of right-wing violence that the Biden administration will have to confront. We don’t know what further violence may erupt on Inauguration Day, or between then and now. But the end of Trump will not be the end of the movement. The Whitmer kidnapping plot may be a model for future actions, and I’m sure others have noticed that a 50-50 Senate can be flipped back to Republican control with a single bullet.

Paul Krugman’s first column after Wednesday’s riot didn’t invoke Hitler or the Nazis by name, but warned:

if history teaches us one lesson about dealing with fascists, it is the futility of appeasement. Giving in to fascists doesn’t pacify them, it just encourages them to go further.

I hope Joe Biden has learned that lesson.

Sedition and Free Speech

Conservatives are claiming that companies like Amazon and Twitter are violating their First Amendment rights. They’re wrong, but their situation points to a deeper problem in our public discourse.


The First Amendment says that the government can’t punish you for speaking your mind. It doesn’t say that anyone in the private sector has to maintain their relationships with you if you say something they don’t want to be associated with. I find this analogy useful: Free speech is like a bar you can drink at. But no one has to sit next to you, listen to what you say, or join in when you start singing.

In particular, a number of US corporations have decided that their brands would be damaged by association with the invasion of the US Capitol and the attempt to maintain Trump in office by force.

And so Josh Hawley, the Fascist senator from Missouri (F-MO), lost his book contract with Simon & Schuster after he raised his fist in support of the violent mob that was about to invade his workplace. His Twitter bio describes him as a “constitutional lawyer”, so he must understand that what he tweets here to “the woke mob at @SimonSchuster” — a metaphoric mob as opposed to the literal mob Hawley encouraged — is nonsense:

This could not be more Orwellian. Simon & Schuster is canceling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to redefine as sedition. Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment. Only approved speech can now be published. This is the Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of. I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.

The libertarian site Reason points out what should be obvious:

Hawley has no right to publish a book with Simon & Schuster, using Simon & Schuster’s resources, without Simon & Schuster’s consent. … In light of this, there is nothing Orwellian about any part of this episode. We all have a right to refuse to associate with those who are repugnant to us, and none of us have a right to associate with those who don’t want to associate with us.

In a similar but more significant case, Twitter decided it didn’t like seeing its platform used to foment insurrection against the United States, and so it removed Donald Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.

Trump tried to get his tweets out through other accounts, which Twitter shut down in whack-a-mole fashion. “If it is clear that another account is being used for the purposes of evading a ban, it is also subject to suspension.”

After Facebook decided that some conservative users were consistently violating its “community standards” (which I also occasionally run afoul of, for reasons that escape me), many of them emigrated to Parler, a social media platform more accepting of racism and incitement of violence. Much of the planning for the Capitol riot apparently happened over Parler, though much of the really violent stuff was discussed on sites like TheDonald.win, where people are still calling for Trump to declare martial law and stay in power by force. In a visit of less than a minute, I noticed this:

State legislatures failed, governors failed, secretary of states failed, judges failed, congress failed and the highest court in the land failed. If there was ever a time to use the Insurrection Act right now would be arguably the reason why we have it.

Again, major corporations don’t like being associated with fascist insurrection. So Google and Apple removed the Parler app from their app stores, making it hard for new users to join. But the big blow came when Amazon Web Services (AWS) decided to stop hosting Parler’s site.

AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we continue to respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow on its site. However, we cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others. Because Parler cannot comply with our terms of service and poses a very real risk to public safety, we plan to suspend Parler’s account.

As a result, Parler CEO John Matze estimates that the site could be offline for about a week, while it rebuilds its infrastructure. Like Hawley, he protests against censorship.

Concentration, not censorship. There actually is an issue here, but has nothing to do with the First Amendment. It’s antitrust and monopoly, a topic that fits badly inside a conservative worldview that makes a fetish of the “free” market.

The national discourse now depends on a fairly small number of corporations like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. If you look beyond the internet and social media, the number doesn’t get much bigger: Disney, Time-Warner, AT&T, Comcast, ViacomCBS, and a few others control the major TV networks and most of the major magazines. Local newspapers and TV stations have been gobbled up by chains like Gannett and Sinclair, and few newspapers beyond The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have national scope or a national readership.

The problem isn’t “censorship” or “media bias” however you interpret those terms. And it’s not targeted at conservatives, in spite of all their whining and howling. (I believe that if Biden ends his term by attempting a violent coup, Twitter will probably shut him off as well.) The problem is that we have allowed our media infrastructure to develop choke points, which are controlled by corporations or individuals whose interests are not necessarily the public interest, and whose decisions are beyond public appeal.

That’s a complex problem that can’t be solved by a lawsuit or a new interpretation of the First Amendment. It’s going to require some real thought and some wise public policy.

Democracy and free speech. The essence of the problem is that the relationship between democracy and free speech has changed in recent years. Rather than Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare of too little speech, where no one is in a position to contest the government’s narrative, we now arguably face too much speech. “The Truth is Out There” according to the poster in Fox Mulder’s office, but how will you find it, or recognize it when you do? Disinformation has replaced ignorance as the primary threat to democratic public discourse. Truth is not kept secret so much as buried under mountains of bullshit.

Thomas Edsall discusses the problems (but offers little in the way of solutions) in “Have Trump’s Lies Wrecked Free Speech?” My own view, which still needs a lot of work to flesh out, is that we are experiencing a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. (I believe this novel application of the term “market failure” comes from Richard Hasen, whose book Cheap Speech should be worth reading when it comes out.)

The original theory of free speech and its role in a democracy is that Truth eventually wins out in the marketplace of ideas, if it is allowed to compete. That seems to be in doubt now.

But the marketplace of ideas, like all markets, is a human construction, not something that occurs naturally. Markets work or don’t work depending on how they’re set up. The marketplace of ideas, as currently constituted, is not working. Edsall quotes Lawrence Lessig:

There’s a very particular reason why this more recent change in technology has become so particularly destructive: it is not just the technology, but also the changes in the business model of media that those changes have inspired. The essence is that the business model of advertising added to the editor-free world of the internet, means that it pays for them to make us crazy. Think about the comparison to the processed food industry: they, like the internet platforms, have a business that exploits a human weakness, they profit the more they exploit, the more they exploit, the sicker we are.

It’s still possible to imagine a world where Truth rises to the top and disinformation sinks out of sight — maybe by some crowdsourced method rather than by the decision of either a government bureaucrat or an officer of some corporate monopoly. It’s possible to imagine a world where people are encouraged to feed their minds a healthy diet of information with some relationship to facts and logic, rather than violence-inducing conspiracy theories. But such a model will need to be constructed, promoted, and consciously chosen. Simply wishing we had one will not be enough.

The Yearly Sift 2020: Themes of the Year

The Primary Theme of 2020: Survival

2020 was a year of too much news. Frequently in the Monday morning teasers, I’d complain that there was too much to cover; I could barely find space to mention important developments that ordinarily would be the most important things happening in a week.

But how could they make it to the top of the stack when we were impeaching the president, or choosing who would run against him, or wondering if we could trust the polls saying he would lose, or preparing for his predictable outside-the-law attempt to hang onto power even though he did lose? Sometimes even those stories couldn’t make it to the top, because day after day, thousands of Americans were dying of a plague, most the rest of us were huddled in our homes trying to figure out how not to catch it, and as a result, the economy was collapsing.

The news in re-runs

It was all terribly serious, and yet somehow it was also just more of the same, week after week. In the April 27 teaser I complained:

[N]ews keeps going into reruns: more people are dead, Trump said something stupid, yada yada yada. It would be easy to put out the same weekly summary week after week, just updating the links to the current instances of the continuing narratives.

Looking back, it is striking how early the patterns emerged. On March 9 I commented on the administration’s lack of interest in stopping the carnage:

Complicating matters, our President shows more concern about the short-term effect on his popularity than about the lives of the people he leads.

And this observation came on April 13:

Trump’s announcements are meant to sound good in the moment, not to stand up to a month of scrutiny. So it’s practically cheating that NPR took a one-month-later look at the promises made when Trump declared a national emergency. He followed through on a few things, but most of the promises are still hanging. Remember all the big retail chains that were going to offer drive-through testing? And test-yourself-at-home kits? And the Google website that was going to coordinate everything?

The eventual course of the election campaign (and its aftermath) was already clear by May 18:

The impatient spoiled child you see trying to make the virus go away by shutting his eyes and holding his breath until he turns blue — that’s the only Trump there is. He doesn’t turn into Lex Luthor or Victor von Doom as soon as the subject changes to his re-election. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about weird things happening later on, when he finally realizes that the electorate is going to vote (or already has voted) to throw him out. We have to be ready for the poorly planned tantrum he’ll throw then. But his screw-ups in the meantime are real screw-ups; they aren’t steps leading up to some final fiendish maneuver.

Eventually I realized that the two stories were really one big theme, which was survival: Would we, as individuals, survive the pandemic? Would our personal sanity survive it? And would American democracy survive Trump’s attempt to subvert it? When that thought came to me, and I started becoming confident that survival was in the cards both for me and for my country, I asked Jennifer Sheridan over at Democracy Tees to make me a “Democracy & I Survived 2020” t-shirt. (You can get one too. I don’t get any kickback from your order, but the ACLU does.)

Democracy‘s survival

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that democracy was at risk this year. Trump was impeached because he abused his power to cheat in the campaign, threatening to withhold aid from Ukraine unless it manufactured an investigation to justify Trump’s claims of wrongdoing against Biden.

The Senate’s acquittal of Trump along party lines (but for Mitt Romney), and its party-line refusal (but for Romney and Susan Collins) to investigate the charges, gave Trump a blank check to continue abusing power for political gain, which he did. Witnesses who told the truth to Congress were removed from their positions. Attorney General Barr stymied all attempts to investigate Trump for corruption, and interfered with the prosecutions of Trump conspirators Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, both of whom Trump eventually pardoned. A phony investigation-of-the-investigators sent a message to the FBI to stay away from Trump and his allies, lest they find themselves in the crosshairs. As the election approached, Trump made a long series of false claims about mail-in voting, in preparation for claiming the election was invalid. He even sabotaged the Post Office to keep ballots from arriving on time.

https://www.cagle.com/author/dave-whamond/

The extent of his disdain for democracy became even more apparent after the election, when he has falsely claimed victory, falsely sown doubt about the vote-counting process, pressured election officials at all levels to keep him in power in spite of the voters, tried to get the Supreme Court and Republican state legislatures to install him for a second term, floated the idea of declaring martial law, and encouraged (or at least has not discouraged) threats of violence against officials who insist on doing their jobs with integrity rather than giving him what he wants. Whether violence will result from his invitation for his supporters to descend on Washington as Congress counts the electoral votes on January 6 is still an open question.

Imagine if these efforts to disregard his defeat had actually worked — as they might have if Biden had won by a smaller margin. All future elections would be in doubt. Political speculation wouldn’t stop at whether the incumbent would lose, but would also have to consider whether he would allow himself to lose. Voters would no longer wield the power to remove a president from office; instead, we could only request that the president please leave.

https://jensorensen.com/2020/01/28/cartoon-impeachment-trump-show-trial/

In this context, it’s worth recalling the final featured post of 2019, “The Decade of Democracy’s Decline“, which puts Trump’s assault on the election in a larger context: For years, Republicans have been drifting away from democracy and embracing tricks for staying in power despite getting fewer votes than their opponents. In the most recent election cycles before 2020, Democrats got more votes than Republicans for the presidency, the House, and the Senate — but they only gained control of the House. (Republican control of the presidency and the Senate has also given them control of the Supreme Court.) Gerrymandering has made Republican majorities in some state legislatures (including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Trump tried to get the legislature to appoint his electors rather than the ones the voters chose) all but impervious to the public’s will.

That post also noted the GOP’s increasing tolerance for authoritarian measures, like Trump funding his wall by using emergency powers in defiance of Congress’ power of the purse. His unleashing masked federal police on Portland was still in the future, but would fit right in. “The Decade of Democracy’s Decline” warned:

It’s a mistake to brush off what Trump clearly says he wants to do. … What Trump tells us every day in his tweets and at his rallies is that people who oppose him should be punished. Hillary should be in jail; Adam Schiff should be handled the way they do in Guatemala; Rep. Omar should be sent back where she came from; the [Ukraine phone call] whistleblower and his sources are “spies” who should be subject to the death penalty.

2020 posts raising some of the same themes were “The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court“, “Accelerating Corruption and Autocracy“, and “What Makes Trump an Autocrat?“.

Survival with Sanity

Almost as important as staying alive and healthy during 2020 was staying sane. Trump was doing his best to make us crazy, and sometimes speculation from his opponents also raised unnecessary panic. The trickiest thing about being a citizen this year was maintaining the appropriate level of anxiety: alert and ready to act, but neither shivering in fear nor running around like a headless chicken.

Trump’s acquittal by the Senate was a moment that lent itself to panic, so I wrote “Let’s Talk Each Other Down“.

There’s been no lack of stuff to freak out about, if that’s what you feel inclined to do. You’re not wrong. I can’t tell you that all those horrors aren’t happening. But let me try to talk you down in a different way.

In general, people freak out for a very simple reason: They’ve been telling themselves “It’s all going to be OK” when they don’t really know that. When events start to crack that false sense of certainty, one natural reaction is to flip over completely to: “We’re all doomed.”

Allow me to point something out: You don’t really know that either.

… [T]ry to accept something: You don’t need to know that it’s going to be OK. … If you’re waiting for a guarantee, for a political almanac that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise and the tide will turn, you’ll keep waiting and you’ll do nothing. Don’t go that way.

Be hopeful. Throw your effort out there and see what happens. Because you never know.

I reprised those themes in September’s “Staying Sane in Anxious Time (without being useless)“, where I warned of the twin mistakes we could make in the election’s home stretch: burying our heads in the sand, or getting stuck in a high state of anxiety all the way to the election. My advice was to figure out what you were going to do about the election and then go do it. But when you weren’t in the middle of action, try to put the whole situation out of your mind. I also encouraged you not to enlarge Trump into a supervillain mastermind in May’s “Trump Has No Endgame“. In August, I evaluated disaster scenarios in “The Election: Worry or Don’t Worry?“. I think this quote holds up well:

Here’s something I have great faith in: If the joint session of Congress on January 6 recognizes that Joe Biden has received the majority of electoral votes, he will become president at noon on January 20 and the government will obey his orders. Where Donald Trump is at the time, and whatever he is claiming or tweeting, will be of no consequence. If Trump’s tweets bring a bunch of right-wing militiamen into the streets with their AR-15s, they can cause a lot of bloodshed, but they can’t keep Trump in office. They are no match for the Army, whose Commander-in-Chief will be Joe Biden. So if Trump wants to stay on as president, he has to screw the process up sooner; by January 6, it’s all in the bag, and probably it’s all in the bag by December 14.

My election-eve commentary was confident but apprehensive:

Since Democrats have promoted early voting and voting-by-mail more than Republicans — in part because they take the pandemic seriously and Republicans do not — most likely the election-night totals will favor Trump, who will then try to declare victory and prevent further vote-counting.

I don’t expect that strategy to work, because Biden’s ultimate margin will be too big, and neither election officials nor judges are as corrupt as the GOP’s plan requires.

Post-election, I recognized the psychological adjustment I still need to make in “Can I Get Over Donald Trump?

Surviving Covid

For the most part I covered the pandemic in the weekly summaries, tracking case numbers and deaths, rebutting Trump’s false claims, commenting on the strains of staying home, and so on.

https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/editorial-cartoons/joel-pett/article241799911.html

Occasionally, I devoted a featured post to taking apart the details of something, like pointing out that “Trump’s Guidelines Aren’t What He Says They Are“. The actual administration guidelines for reopening a state’s economy (that came out in April) were fairly sensible, but didn’t match the President’s rhetoric at all. As I noted in the April 20 teaser:

If you want to be catty about this (and I guess I do) the guidelines are for people who read, and the rhetoric is for people who watch Fox News.

I also collected good information to try to separate it from the bad information, as in “Things We’re Finding Out About the Pandemic“. And I talked about the pandemic/economy interaction in “Economies Aren’t Built to Stop and Restart” and “What’s Up With the Stock Market?

Secondary Theme: Democratic Identity

The year’s most popular posts all had something to do with Democratic identity. In the Trump Era, it has been easy to be against Trump, and during the Democratic primaries it was easy to focus on the differences between candidates and miss the similarities. But I think we all had a yearning to be for something, and to enunciate just what that was. That accounted for “Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)” being the new post with the most hits this year (6.6K), and also for the second-most-popular “The Underlying Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives” (5.9K).

I think part of what made these posts appealing was the combination of positivity, generality, and down-to-earthness. Democratic candidates tend to get lost in their detailed proposals and not get around to simple principles like “If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a job that pays a decent wage.” and “If you get sick, you should get the care you need, and your family shouldn’t have to go bankrupt paying for it.”

Statements like that are meaningless without some detailed plan to implement them. But at the same time, people need to understand what your fourteen-point-plan is trying to accomplish.

Identity issues were also key to the popularity of “In the Land of No We Can’t” and my attempt to understand the other side in “Opening Thoughts about the Trump Voter“.

As I look forward to the post-Trump era, I think we’re going to need to do a lot more of this kind of thinking, both about who we are and who the people on the other side are.

Beware of Bad Faith

Good-faith opposition has goals of its own, and is willing to give something up to achieve them. Bad-faith opposition has pretexts for saying No.


Back in 2009 … Twelve years ago, Americans unhappy with the recent election would soon begin organizing themselves to oppose the new Obama administration.

One of those organizations was a loose coalition of groups that eventually would call itself the Tea Party. It described itself as principled and politically independent: Neither Republicans nor Democrats, Tea Partiers were as upset with the excesses of the Bush administration as with Obama’s proposals. They opposed government spending and debt, supported liberty, revered the vision of the Founding Fathers, and wanted government to observe more strictly the limits on its power inherent in the Constitution. They viewed social-conservative wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage as distractions from their core mission: Stop the deficit spending that economists of the left and right alike said was necessary to get out of the Great Recession. Prevent the government takeover of healthcare Obama was proposing.

Another opposition group was the Oath Keepers. Ex-military folks, particularly those in law enforcement, recalled their oath to protect America “from all enemies foreign and domestic”. The new president, they implied (or sometimes said openly), was such an enemy, and they encouraged each other to resist gun confiscation and other unconstitutional orders that they were sure he would soon issue.

The media took groups like these at face value, but we now know their self-descriptions were bullshit. Some of the rank-and-file might have believed the hype, but at the top the Tea Party was a Republican rebranding effort coordinated nationally through FreedomWorks and funded by the Koch brothers. Once in office, the Tea Party Republicans (Ted Cruz and Mark Meadows, for example) became staunch culture warriors.

Eventually the movement morphed into the Trump campaign, and all its so-called “principles” were forgotten. If Trump wanted to keep the Obama economic expansion going by running a massive deficit, that was just dandy. When his masked federal police started scooping people up off the streets in Portland, the self-proclaimed defenders of liberty cheered. None of them, it turned out, really cared about the Emoluments Clause, or what the Founders would think about a President channeling millions of taxpayer dollars into his own businesses. If Trump wanted to usurp Congress’ power of the purse to build his wall, so be it.

Oath Keepers followed a similar trajectory. They continued to oppose Obama, even though the unconstitutional orders never came. And when Trump began to disregard laws of all sorts, they shrugged. If his effort to stay in office in defiance of the voters comes to armed revolt against the constitutional order, we know which side they’ll be on. Fundamentally, they’re not freedom fighters, they’re brownshirts.

Meanwhile in Congress, Republican leaders were already plotting their scorched-earth resistance to Obama on the night of his inauguration. Recall the situation: The economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month. The banks were insolvent. The auto industry was one of many headed for bankruptcy. No one could be sure whether this economic freefall would eventually turn out better or worse than the Great Depression. And in the midst of this unfolding disaster, their top priority was to prevent the new president from accomplishing anything. Talk-radio giant Rush Limbaugh said in public what Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy were saying behind closed doors: “I want him to fail.

As his administration unfolded, no compromise Obama could offer would ever be good enough. He based his healthcare plan on the one Mitt Romney passed when he was governor of Massachusetts — and Romney denounced it. John McCain voted against the McCain-Liebermann climate change bill. Obama offended large chunks of his own party by offering Social Security and Medicare cuts as part of a “grand bargain” to control the deficit Republicans were so worried about: They not only rejected it, but got rid of John Boehner for considering it.

Did we learn anything? So now here we are, 12 years later, nearing the start of a new Democratic administration. What should Joe Biden learn from this history? Josh Marshall suggests this:

This to me is the greatest negative lesson of the Obama era: the willing engagement of good faith with bad faith in which bad faith is, by definition, always the winner.

He points to ObamaCare, where

the White House spent about a year in a vain effort to convince some bipartisan senate “gang” to agree on a bipartisan plan. It was all one laborious, pitiful game of Lucy and her yanked away football, only played out with 60 and 70 and 80-something men. The actual bill was significantly watered down and enough time was wasted that Ted Kennedy’s illness, death and the subsequent special election to replace him in the Senate almost derailed the whole thing.

Republicans pocketed the time wasted and the concessions granted, walked away without providing any votes in support and then ran against Democrats for passing legislation on party line votes.

It’s already clear that Republicans are gearing up to run the same play again, this time against a smaller Democratic House majority and with either a Republican Senate majority or a 50/50 Senate. Suddenly, after a four-year bout of amnesia, Republicans have remembered that the national debt will bring down the Republic. After years of claiming that they hadn’t read the latest racist or fascist Trump tweet, they proclaim that Neera Tanden’s tweets disqualify her from being OMB director. Unmoved by video of Trump bragging about grabbing women by the pussy — and testimony from two dozen women that this was more than just talk — they are horrified that Biden’s Deputy Chief of Staff would say this:

The president-elect was able to connect with people over this sense of unity. In the primary, people would mock him, like, “You think you can work with Republicans?” I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of fuckers. Mitch McConnell is terrible. But this sense that you couldn’t wish for that, you couldn’t wish for this bipartisan ideal? He rejected that. From start to finish, he set out with this idea that unity was possible, that together we are stronger, that we, as a country, need healing, and our politics needs that too.

Jen O’Malley Dillon’s realistic assessment of what Biden faces met with this response:

“Biden Campaign Manager called us “Fers” !!!” wrote White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Twitter. “She can try to walk back, but this says volumes about her boss who calls for “unity” while shouting that we are “assaulting democracy:” They think we are deplorable, irredeemable “Fers”. SICK!!”

Meanwhile, they’ve already started going after Biden’s family. Not just his son Hunter — that was predictable — but also his wife Jill, who has the audacity to be proud of the doctorate she earned. Not only did The Wall Street Journal attack her, but National Review followed up by calling her dissertation “garbage” — undoubtedly the first time NR has assessed an education dissertation. [1]

What passes as a “concession” from Republicans these days is when they choose to recognize reality. Mitch McConnell, for example, has finally conceded — after five weeks — that Joe Biden is the president-elect. Much of the GOP congressional delegation — including both senators facing runoffs in Georgia — isn’t willing to go that far yet. They are continuing to coddle Trump’s delusions of victory, even as he talks about holding onto power by declaring martial law and his supporters turn violent.

To sum up: Biden violates the “unity” he calls for if any of his people point out that Republicans have consistently operated in bad faith, or that Trump’s attempted coup is indeed an attack on democracy. The GOP’s side of the bargain seems to be that Republican congressional leaders have not personally committed any acts of violence yet. If sufficiently placated, they may eventually recognize that Biden is indeed president. It’s questionable whether they will provide the slightest help in digging the country out of the hole Trump has left it in.

Responses. How should Biden respond to this situation? On the one hand he is right when he says that the country needs to heal its partisan division and move forward together. On the other, if he accepts responsibility for Republicans’ refusal to play any part in that vision, they will keep moving the goalposts away as he approaches them.

As I wrote last week, Democrats should continue trying to understand the legitimate grievances and goals of Trump voters. There are 74 million of them, and many of them are having a tough time these days. In spite of what we’ve seen these last four years, Biden’s pledge to be the president of all the people is the minimum Americans should expect from their leader.

At the same time, he should not wait for GOP leaders to get on board, because they will keep him waiting merely for the sake of delay. David Roberts is right: Biden should do everything he can as fast as he can do it.

Biden’s best chance is to try to overwhelm the system the way Trump did, by doing so much that it’s impossible to make any one thing into a lasting story. He should launch so many simultaneous reforms that there’s no time for right-wing media to make up lies about all of them or for the Supreme Court to hear them all. He should ignore bad-faith attacks and stay relentlessly on message about what’s gotten done and what’s getting done next. He should, at every juncture, get caught trying to make government work better for ordinary people.

As Josh Marshall sums up:

Should Biden be open to bipartisan compromise? Absolutely. The door should be open. But it would be a grave mistake to spend any time coaxing anyone to come through it. We’ve played that game enough. Biden should always be willing to talk but not to delay. … The answer is for Democrats to use the political power they gain to make as much positive change as possible, using every legitimate lever at their disposal. Getting sucked into Republican mind games is time wasting and destructive.

Marshall asks the rest of us to “take the pledge” not to engage Republicans in bad-faith discussions or “treat them as meaningful or serious”. If John Cornyn wants to claim “transparency” as a non-negotiable ideal — after four years of backing Trump’s total obfuscation — let him. But in no way should anyone else treat this as a serious statement of principle.

What is good faith? This raises a significant question: How can we tell the difference between good-faith opposition and bad-faith opposition?

There’s a simple answer to that question: Good-faith opposition has policy goals of its own and makes credible counter-proposals. Bad-faith opposition tells you what it can’t support, but not what it can. When you drop something they can’t support, they shift their opposition to something else.

We should have seen that in the ObamaCare debate back in 2009-2010. Republicans frequently objected to something-or-other in the then-current version of the bill: They couldn’t support a public option, for example, or they wanted reform of malpractice torts to be part of the package. But through it all, no major Republican, not even the supposedly “moderate” senators like Susan Collins, ever said, “If you add this and take out that, I’ll vote for it.”

For years afterwards, pundits would claim that a deal was available if Obama had been willing to budge on tort reform or death panels or something else. But no one has ever been able to point to an actual Republican who made such an offer. The Republican “alternative” bill simply did not take the problem of the uninsured seriously: A CBO analysis of their plan predicted the number of uninsured Americans would continue to rise, to 52 million by 2019.

When Republicans did finally control all the levers of power, they never assembled a healthcare plan. Or a climate plan or an infrastructure plan or an immigration plan or much of anything else.

Something similar happened with Covid relief: The Democratic House passed the HEROES Act in May. Mitch McConnell not only didn’t bring that bill to the Senate floor, he didn’t bring any other bill either. If he had passed something, the differences might have been worked out months ago in a House/Senate conference committee, the way Congresses had dealt with disagreements for generations (until recent years). Instead, we have another last-minute deal that has to pass on an emergency basis.

As Steve Benen noted in his book The Imposters, Republicans are in a post-policy era. They want to hold power, and they want to do things that will help them hold power. But beyond that, there really is nothing they want. Biden can’t compromise with them on policy, because Republican policy positions are just placeholders that allow them to fight battles against liberal goals.

Republican voters, on the other hand, are living actual lives. They want to find jobs that pay a decent wage, survive temporary periods of joblessness, educate their children, retire when they get old, be cared for when they get sick, drive on roads, eat safe food, be protected from violence, and so on. Biden should absolutely reach out to them, because they’re Americans and he’ll be the American president.

As for Republican leaders, though, he should tell them what he wants to do, and see if they have a counter-proposal. If they don’t, to hell with them.


[1] As a Ph.D. myself, I have an opinion about this: The issue shouldn’t be whether or not you call yourself “doctor”, but when you do it. As a pure honorific title, as Dr. Jill Biden uses it, I have no objection. And in the context of the community college where she teaches, she has every right to distinguish herself from instructors who don’t have doctorates.

A far more important issue arises when people use their doctorates to claim expertise they don’t have, which I have never heard Dr. Biden do. I don’t call myself “Dr. Muder” on this blog, for example, because my doctorate in mathematics should not lend authority to my political views. I also don’t use my title when I speak in churches, because my religious opinions are not rooted in mathematics. (This practice annoyed my Dad, who was proud to have a doctor in the family and wanted everybody to know it.)

You know who has violated this principle most egregiously in recent months? Scott Atlas, when he abused his M.D. to claim authority for his crazy notions about the pandemic. His specialty is radiology, which has nothing to do with viruses or public health. So if you saw “Dr. Scott Atlas” and imagined that his opinions about the pandemic deserved more respect than any other interested citizen’s — he fooled you.

As far as I know, the WSJ and National Review have not objected to that example of credential abuse.