Category Archives: Articles

Cleaning Up After Trump

Voting Trump out of office stopped the bleeding, but the Republic isn’t out of danger yet.

The Boston Globe ran an important series this week: “Future-proofing the Presidency“. Over four years, the Trump administration shredded the laws, institutional norms, and political norms that we had previously trusted to protect the Republic from a corrupt or power-hungry president.

The fact that the voters managed to throw Trump out after four years should only comfort us up to a point. Because of the Trump precedents and the roadmap his administration provides, the next unscrupulous president — who could be Trump himself in 2025 — will begin his assault on democracy with a head start.

The Globe series proposes reforms to turn norms into laws and give teeth to the laws Trump ignored. The specific problems it diagnoses are: financial conflicts of interest, nepotism, immunity from prosecution, ability to shield co-conspirators, and power to obstruct congressional investigations. And the reforms it recommends are

  • require presidents to divest from all businesses and investments that could pose a conflict of interest
  • require presidents to publish their tax returns
  • require an explicit congressional waiver before a president can appoint a relative to office — even if that relative foregoes a salary
  • strengthen protections for government whistle-blowers, and extend those protections to political appointees
  • root congressional subpoena power in legislation, so that subpoenas served to the executive branch can be enforced more easily and quickly
  • allow a president to be indicted while in office, but delay the trial until the presidency ends
  • pass a constitutional amendment voiding a president’s power to pardon personal associates

The series concludes with “The Case for Prosecuting Donald Trump“. Congress’ impeachment power is broken, and can no longer be trusted to hold presidents accountable.

If Congress had played the role the Founders envisioned, by removing Trump from the presidency after his criminality became clear in the Ukraine affair, that might have been enough of a deterrent to scare future presidents straight. But lawmakers didn’t.

So now there is only one way left to restore deterrence and convey to future presidents that the rule of law applies to them. The Justice Department must abandon two centuries of tradition by indicting and prosecuting Donald Trump for his conduct in office. …

The reluctance to prosecute presidents is deep-rooted, and extreme caution does make sense. (The last thing that the country needs is for Trump to be charged, tried, and then acquitted.) But it cannot be the case that there is no line — no hypothetical act of presidential criminality that would not rise to the level of seriousness that merits setting aside our qualms. And if one accepts that there is a line, it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump didn’t cross it.

Two other of this weeks’ news stories underlined the importance of The Globe’s proposed reforms: We found out that the Trump administration subpoenaed the phone metadata of two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, and the transcript of Don McGahn’s testimony to Congress was released.

The two lawmakers in question — Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell — were outspoken administration critics that Trump frequently attacked on Twitter. (“Shifty Schiff” was one of his playground insult names.) Swalwell became a Democratic presidential candidate. At the time, the Intelligence Committee was engaged in an investigation of Trump’s collusion with Russia.

Not only were they targeted, but so were their family members, including their children. What’s more, a gag order has kept Apple from revealing its cooperation until recently, so the congressmen did not know they were under this kind of scrutiny, and neither did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“President Trump repeatedly and flagrantly demanded that the Department of Justice carry out his political will and tried to use the Department as a cudgel against his political opponents and members of the media,” Rep. Schiff told Recode in a statement. “It is increasingly apparent that those demands did not fall on deaf ears.”

The transcript of Dan McGahn’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee on June 4 was released Wednesday, in accordance with the agreement that led to that testimony (after two years of legal wrangling that saw the courts refuse to back up congressional subpoenas). The transcript is 241 pages, and the main thing you can learn by reading large chunks of it is that McGahn was indeed a hostile witness. Releasing only a transcript (rather than video) means that his evasiveness will not be appreciated by the general public.

The pre-interview agreement limited questions to

one, information attributed to Mr. McGahn in the publicly available portions of the Mueller report and events that the publicly available portions of the Mueller report indicate involve Mr. McGahn; and, two, whether the Mueller report accurately reflected Mr. McGahn’s statements to the Special Counsel’s Office and whether those statements were truthful

In the early questioning, McGahn frequently claimed not to remember the events in question until his questioner noted a passage in the Mueller Report. McGahn would then respond with something like “what you’ve read in the report is accurate”. He tried hard not to introduce any new information. I also have to wonder if he used the interview’s ground rules to hide relevant conversations with Trump without perjuring himself. For example:

Q: Did you advise the President as to whether he personally could call Mr. Rosenstein about the investigation?
A: I may have at some point in time. Do you have anything in particular? I mean, I was on the job quite a while so —
Q: Understood. I’ll direct you to page 81, bottom of the paragraph.

Like Trump himself, and so many other people in his administration, McGahn seems not to recall a number of events that most other people would think of as memorable.

Q: On June 14, 2017 … The Washington Post reported for the first time that the special counsel was investigating President Trump personally for obstruction of justice. Do you recall your reaction to that reporting?
A: I don’t recall my reaction to it, no. No.
Q: You don’t recall your reaction, as a White House counsel, to learning that the press had reported that the President of the United States was under personal investigation by the special counsel?
A: I don’t recall my subjective impression on the evening of June 14th about a news report. No, I don’t.
Q: Do you recall speaking to the President that evening?
A: I do recall speaking to him, yes.
Q: Can you describe that conversation?
A: I don’t have a crisp recollection of it.

Again and again, McGahn claimed that his memory had been fresher when Mueller questioned him, so he yielded to whatever description was in the Mueller report. That raises an obvious question: Instead of questioning McGahn about Mueller’s summary of McGahn’s testimony, why doesn’t the Judiciary Committee just look at the transcripts of those interviews? And the answer is that they can’t, at least not yet. Like the McGahn subpoena itself, this was the subject of a long legal wrangle, which the Supreme Court put off deciding until after the election. So at the moment, Congress doesn’t even have access to the still-redacted portions of the Mueller report.

After Trump lost the election, the grounds for releasing grand jury records to Congress changed completely, so Congress suspended its pursuit to coordinate with the new Biden administration. In part, McGahn’s appearance was supposed to be a substitute for the grand jury material.

So that’s where the House investigation into Trump’s obstruction of justice has led: McGahn finally appeared, but under rules that allowed him to do little more than point to quotes in the Mueller report and verify that he actually said that.

Meanwhile, Rachel Maddow has been waging an almost nightly campaign for Attorney General Merrick Garland to expose and reverse Trump administration abuses in the DoJ.

About the Schiff/Swalwell subpoenas, she commented:

Given that those officials that knew about this are still in the Department right now, why did it take a New York Time article about this abominable behavior to spark an inspector general investigation today? I mean, this scandal wasn’t known to any of us in the public, but it was known to multiple officials inside the Justice Department. None of them thought to peep about it? …

It is clear that the Justice Department under President Biden does not want the job of investigating and rooting around what went rotten inside their own department under the previous president. But even if they don’t want that job, that is the job they have now. … Wake up, you guys! You’re going to work in an active crime scene, and there’s no other cops to call.

You have to fix this. You’re the only ones who can.

Trump and Bill Barr have provided the next would-be despot with a detailed plan for turning the Justice Department into a sword to attack enemies and a shield to protect corrupt friends. If there are no consequences for what they did, either to them or to the lower-level officials who went along, the danger has not passed.

Critical Race Theory is the New Boogeyman

Conservatives can’t tell you what it is, but they know it’s destroying America.

As I’ve explained at length before, conservatives regularly create boogeyman phrases — strings of words that never get defined, but are somehow the source of the current evil: political correctness, socialism, cultural Marxism, cancel culture, and now critical race theory. [1]

The purpose of imbuing these scapegoat phrases with demonic power isn’t to debate a point, it’s to create a label and give it a sinister aura. Such a phrase is supposed to invoke emotions — to cast shame on liberals, and raise outrage for conservatives — not point to an idea. Rather than contribute to discussions, these phrases end them. And so, there is no need to consider the wisdom or folly of Medicare for All; it is “socialism”, so it is evil. End of story.

If the labels were defined, the corresponding concepts could become two-edged swords. Conservatives might, for example, have to explain why it’s not “cancel culture” to drive Colin Kaepernick out of the NFL. But being undefined, the boogeyman phrases simply have usages: Kaepernick isn’t a victim of right-wing cancel culture, because that’s not how the phrase is used. The conservative faithful can simply laugh when “cancel culture” is turned back on them, the way native speakers of English might laugh when a foreigner misuses some common word.

Like the other boogeyman phrases, “critical race theory” started out as an actual thing, which Education Week described like this:

The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. … A good example is when, in the 1930s, government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas.

Many of those red-lined areas continue to be segregated ghettos today, as is well described in The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

The Washington Post has a similar account of the actual critical race theory.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history.

But in its boogeyman usage, CRT applies to any notion that White people might participate in racism without consciously hating Black people. Refusing to allow the word “racism” to have any systemic content, the conservative account of CRT has it casting individual moral blame on all Whites.

So, in Education Week’s example of red-lining, the boogeyman usage of CRT would interpret it as accusing all the White loan officers who applied the red-lining rules of consciously hating Black people — which would obviously be unfair, if anyone were actually making that accusation.

That’s how Republicans arrive at the anti-CRT laws they are passing in the red-state legislatures they control. Fortunately, laws have to at least pretend to define the things they are banning. So Oklahoma’s anti-CRT law, which was signed by Governor Kevin Stitt in May, bans any “teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school” from teaching that

an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, … an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex, … an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex, … any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex

All these ideas are either gross distortions of anti-racist teachings, or appeal to subjective responses White students or parents might have, especially after Fox News tells them they should feel that way. (What if teaching Oklahoma high school students about the Tulsa race massacre causes some White descendant of the rioters to feel “guilt, anguish, or … psychological distress”?)

But an obvious question to raise at this point is: If that isn’t really what anti-racists teach, what’s the problem? The law just won’t apply. After all, the legislature could ban teaching that the Moon is made of green cheese without affecting any actual astronomy classes. Josh Marshall shrugs the issue off like this:

I’ve now reviewed a wide body of articles, news reports and legislative debates and I can conclude that the public/political debate [about] critical race theory is quite stupid and laws banning it may be hard to enforce since no one has a clear idea of what it is.

He was immediately answered by Jeet Heer:

Surely the goal is not to have enforceable laws but to intimidate teachers from talking about racism. A chilling effect.

A historical model here would be Tennessee’s anti-Darwin law of the 1920s, which led to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. The law was indeed hard to enforce. (Scopes was found guilty, but the Tennessee Supreme Court set aside his fine on a technicality, and the state decided to drop the case.) But the sheer amount of hoopla that trial evoked — the fictionalized version Inherit the Wind is still streaming, and was remade for TV in 1999 — underlines Heer’s point: What teacher or school district is going to want to start something like that? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to leave out any racially charged interpretations of US history, and skip over historical events that might make White students uncomfortable? (Just about every state that is banning CRT has such an incident to sweep under the rug. Florida, for example, was the site of the Rosewood massacre in 1923. And lynchings, though concentrated in the South, happened almost everywhere.)

The Washington Post quotes sixth-grade teacher Monique Cottman from Iowa, where an anti-CRT law goes into effect on July 1.

I will say it’s already playing out. The White teachers who started doing a little bit more teaching about race and racism are now going back to their old way of teaching. I’ve had conversations with teachers who said things like, “I’m getting so much pushback for teaching Alice Walker, I’m going to go back to teaching what I used to teach.” So all the teachers who would have done a little bit of what I was doing — anti-racism work and culturally responsive teaching — they’re not going to do anything next year. They’re already declaring, “I’m not doing nothing,” or “It’s not safe,” or “I don’t want to lose my job.”

Nonetheless, some teachers are resisting. The Zinn Education Project organized a National Day of Action on Saturday, when

thousands of educators and others gathered virtually and in person at historic locations in more than 20 cities to make clear that they would resist efforts in at least 15 Republican-led states to restrict what teachers can say in class about racism, sexism and oppression in America. … Several thousand teachers have signed a pledge that says: “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events — regardless of the law.”

The military is a second front in the Critical Race Theory war. Here CRT stands in for any form of diversity training. [2] The conservative Heritage Foundation is a source of rhetoric for both fronts, having published 17 articles on the topic since Biden took office.

The theme of military anti-CRT arguments is that the US military has been a paradise of racial harmony until now, when CRT-influenced diversity training has begun to stir up racial conflict.

Senior Research Fellow Dakota Wood, for example, is a White male who served in the Marines for 20 years. He didn’t notice any racism or sexism during that time, so obviously there wasn’t any.

The beauty of military service is that the uniform and common objective supplants grouping by individual identities of color, class, gender, or religion. …

What united everyone with whom I served was the singular identity of being a U.S. Marine committed to defending our country, a country comprising every sort of person from countless different backgrounds.

It didn’t matter where you came from. All that really mattered among Marines was whether you were competent in your job, committed to the mission, and were someone your fellow Marines could depend on.

Military service truly is the best example of America as the proverbial great melting pot.

And he repeats the standard conservative slander of what diversity training tries to accomplish.

Programs that emphasize differences among service members, that impose a demand for people to feel guilty about their identity and background, that elevate one group over another, or that seek to subordinate a group relative to another generate resentment, or a sense of aggrieved victimization, or entitlement to special handling.

Such initiatives destroy the fabric of military service that otherwise unites an extraordinarily diverse population in common purpose and identity. Identity politics is a cancer that corrodes good order and discipline and the necessary authorities inherent in a chain of command.

Senator Tom Cotton echoed these sentiments to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday:

Mr. Secretary: We’re hearing reports of plummeting morale, growing mistrust between the races and sexes where none existed just six months ago

Racism and sexism in the military! Who ever heard of such a thing before the Biden administration? Jeff Schogol, writing for the military-focused site Task and Purpose, answered that question.

Dog whistles aside, there is plenty of evidence that racism and sexism within the ranks actually predates the Biden administration. Task & Purpose has documented 40 cases since 2016 of service members and veterans participating in extremist organizations, such as white supremacist groups.

The Pentagon tried to bury a 2017 survey that found nearly one-third of Black service members who responded said they had experienced racism. Moreover, 30% of Black respondents and 22% of Asian respondents felt their chances for promotion would be harmed if they reported the racial harassment and discrimination that they endured. …

As for sexism within the military, there are many examples from before Biden took office in January of commands failing to protect female service members from sexual harassment. A review following the April 2020 murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén also showed that female soldiers at Fort Hood faced an environment so toxic that they constantly lived in “survival mode” 

But clearly, if the armed services just refuse to talk about these problems, they will go away. Diversity training is the problem, not racism or sexism.

So Cotton has proposed a bill to block such training. The press release announcing the bill cites two horrifying recent developments:

Last month, the Navy released a recommended reading list to facilitate the “growth and development” of sailors. One of the books on this list is Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller [How to be an Antiracist] advocating Critical Race Theory and discrimination on the basis of race.

Separately, the Navy’s Second Fleet created a book club for sailors to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, a book that claims white people are inherently racist, whether consciously or subconsciously, and that race is the insidious subtext for virtually all human interactions.

Cotton would end such outrages.

This bill would prevent the military from including such theories in trainings or other professional settings, if their inclusion would reasonably appear as an endorsement. It also would prohibit the military from hiring consultants to teach such theories

His ban would extend to any notion that “The United States is a fundamentally racist country” or that “The Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution are fundamentally racist documents.”

As with high school history courses, you have to wonder about the chilling effect of such a law. What instructor would dare to point out, say, the implications of the Constitution counting a slave as three-fifths of a person?

Having given so much time to falsehood, I feel that I have to end by coming back to truth: What is it that anti-racist books and diversity trainings are trying to accomplish? If they’re not trying to convince us that “America is an evil, oppressive place” (as Cotton’s press release puts it), what ideas are they trying to communicate?

Having read a number of the books CRT critics object to, I would boil anti-racism down to a few points (which apply to sexism as well):

  • A culture’s fundamental assumptions get baked into institutions, laws, economic structures, and traditions that live on, even after those assumptions are no longer explicitly taught. [3]
  • For centuries, American culture explicitly promoted race-based rules and racial stereotypes that marginalized non-Whites, and made it either difficult or impossible for them to achieve positions of authority and influence, or even of equality with White Americans.
  • The structures created during those centuries are still with us, and participating in them maintains the effects of historical racism. Present-day Americans need not consciously hold racist beliefs to uphold a racist system.
  • Because their personal experiences do not confront them with the injustices of systemic racism, White Americans have a hard time noticing these injustices, which simply seem like “normal life” to them.
  • Unless systemic racism is brought to conscious awareness and actively countered, it will endure.

Put together, these points explain why the conservative notion of color-blindness, even if put forward in good faith (which it often is not), is inadequate for overcoming America’s racist heritage. None of this implies that “America is evil” or “Whites are inherently racist” or any of the other canards the Tom Cottons are pushing. But neither can we simply ignore racism and hope that it will go away.

[1] Something similar happens with people, who are demonized to the point that anything they might say is already discounted, and conspiracy theories targeting them need no evidence. Hillary Clinton is the longest-standing example. During the Trump administration, large numbers of FBI agents and officials were similarly demonized: Jim Comey, Andy McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. Simply mentioning their names evoked a dark conspiracy whose details never really came into focus. So far, Kamala Harris is the most prominent demon of the Biden administration. How dare she tell the country to “enjoy” the Memorial Day weekend!

[2] Trump ordered diversity training ended across the government, and even in corporations with government contracts, but a federal judge blocked his order, and Biden reversed it.

[3] In assembling these points, I have to note that racist ideas are still being taught in many places. The US has an active white supremacist movement, which many conservative politicians and media figures wink-and-nod at, even while professing color-blindness in public.

Manchin Deserts the Fight for Democracy

Yesterday he came out against the For the People Act and for the filibuster, which dooms the John Lewis Voting Rights Act as well.

At the state level, Republicans have been assaulting democracy in every state where they have power. They have been restricting opportunities to vote, taking special aim at those methods frequently used by non-Whites (like ending Sunday early voting, around which Black churches have traditionally organized souls-to-the-polls drives). They support partisan gerrymandering, and hope to construct districts in ways that will give them majorities in legislative bodies, even if their voter-suppression tactics don’t deliver them a majority of votes cast. (See Max Boot’s column for details.)

Democrats have two bills aimed at protecting democracy: the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Both have passed the House, but will likely face a Republican filibuster in the Senate. This has been widely seen as Democrats’ most justifiable reason to eliminate or significantly alter the filibuster: When anti-majority tactics are used to strengthen minority rule, we are on a slippery slope towards some new form of government that does not answer to the People. (Boot concludes: “Senate Democrats have to choose between saving the filibuster and saving democracy. They can’t do both.”)

The likelihood of passing either bill took a huge blow yesterday when 50th Democratic Senate vote Joe Manchin published an op-ed “Why I’m voting against the For the People Act“.

Unfortunately, we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized. Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage. Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it.

As such, congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials.

It’s true that passing the For the People Act will give Democrats a partisan advantage, compared to not passing it: More people voting tends to be good for Democrats. Creating a mechanism for candidates to depend on many small donors rather than a few big ones is good for Democrats. But both of those features are good for democracy, not just for Democrats. They only work against Republicans because the GOP has stopped trying to appeal to the majority of Americans.

Republicans have attacked democracy, so I suppose that makes defending democracy “partisan”. But what is the alternative?

Our founders were wise to see the temptation of absolute power and built in specific checks and balances to force compromise that serves to preserve our fragile democracy. … Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants?

I would edit Manchin’s question by replacing “one party” with “the People”. And then I would answer: “Yes, subject to the limitations of the Constitution.” The People elect representatives to the House and Senate, who then carry out the People’s will by passing laws under the umbrella of the Constitution, which mentions neither parties nor the filibuster. “Party” is a red herring, particularly when we are talking about the vision of the Founders, who hoped parties would not develop.

Manchin holds out hope that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act will be sufficient to protect democracy, and that it can pass.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would update the formula states and localities must use to ensure proposed voting laws do not restrict the rights of any particular group or population. My Republican colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has joined me in urging Senate leadership to update and pass this bill through regular order. I continue to engage with my Republican and Democratic colleagues about the value of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and I am encouraged by the desire from both sides to transcend partisan politics and strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights.

It will be wonderful if a Republican like Murkowski can find a way to vote for the Lewis Act without gutting it first. Maybe Mitt Romney or Susan Collins could vote for it too. But Mitch McConnell will not support it and there will not be 10 Republican votes to override a filibuster, which Manchin continues to support. (“I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”)

So despite his intention to vote for the Lewis Act, Manchin’s support of the filibuster guarantees its demise as well. Democrats control both houses of Congress, but they will do nothing to protect their voters.

Manchin had similar bipartisan fantasies about the January 6 Commission, which got six Republican votes and failed. He fantasizes about a bipartisan infrastructure bill, when Republicans have yet to make a serious proposal.

At this point we have to wonder if he will ever face reality.

The two-votes-per-state structure of the Senate already penalizes large cities and gives Republicans more power than their rural voters should be able to command. If we further empower them with the filibuster, then any progressive change becomes impossible, unless something like 70% of the country supports it. (Gun control shows that even larger majorities aren’t enough sometimes.)

When a party wins the presidency and both houses of Congress, it should be able to implement its agenda, as long as it leaves voters the option to change their minds at the next election. Otherwise, Emma Goldman‘s observation applies: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

Trump’s Next Coup

As in January, Trump is encouraging his followers to expect an outcome no constitutional process can deliver.

The Trumpist underground has been discussing another coup attempt for some while, but that prospect didn’t draw the attention of the larger public until Memorial Day weekend. General Mike Flynn, a convicted felon who is out of jail thanks to a Trump pardon, was a headline speaker at the “For God and Country Patriot Roundup”, a convention of QAnon cultists in Dallas.

when he was asked why can’t a Myanmar-style coup happen here to get Trump back in the White House. Flynn replied, “It should happen here.”

Flynn later tried to walk back that treasonous statement.

There is NO reason whatsoever for any coup in America, and I do not and have not at any time called for any action of that sort. Any reporting of any other belief by me is a boldface fabrication based on twisted reporting at a lively panel at a conference of Patriotic Americans who love this country, just as I do.
I am no stranger to media manipulating my words and therefore let me repeat my response to a question asked at the conference: There is no reason it (a coup) should happen here (in America).

However, his denial falls under the heading of “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.” There is video, after all. We know what he said.

Something else you can notice in the video: When the questioner asks about a Myanmar-style coup happening in the US, the crowd cheers. They know what he is talking about and why he would suggest it: The plotters in Myanmar ran the same play Trump tried (and failed) to pull off here: They made phony claims of election fraud to justify overthrowing their elected leaders.

Myanmar-as-model has been a popular trope for some while among the QAnoners and other Trump cultists, who (like a millennial sect repeatedly predicting the Day of Judgment) have been telling each other since November that President Biden’s election would soon be overturned. At first, Republican election officials were going to undo Biden’s victory. Then the courts were. Then Congress. After the January 6 insurrection failed, Trump was supposed to declare martial law and initiate “the Storm” in time to avoid Biden’s inauguration on January 20. After that prediction also came to nothing, one widespread narrative picked March 4 as the day for Trump’s restoration, because that had been Inauguration Day prior to the 20th Amendment, which the conspiracy theory says is invalid for some reason.

And now it’s supposed to happen in August.

At the same Dallas conference, former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell said Trump could just be “reinstated“.

A new inauguration date is set, and Biden is told to move out of the White House, and President Trump should be moved back in. I’m sure there’s not going to be credit for time lost, unfortunately, because the Constitution itself sets the date for inauguration, but he should definitely get the remainder of his term and make the best of it.

No provision in the Constitution allows for such a scenario. Even if Trump’s fanciful claims about a “stolen election” turned out to be true, the only remedy the Constitution offers is impeachment. And even after Biden and Harris were removed from office, the presidency would pass to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, not a private citizen like Trump.

Powell — who is a lawyer, after all — must realize that. So she could only be assuming some outside-the-Constitution means for changing leaders, i.e., a coup. It wouldn’t be the first time Flynn and Powell have proposed political violence: Last December, they tried to convince Trump to declare martial law in order to “rerun” the election under military supervision — another path disconnected from the Constitution.

You might be imagining that Flynn, Powell, and the other QAnon celebrities are just hucksters exploiting crazy people, and maybe they are. But this talk is dangerous because Trump is playing along. Tuesday, the NYT’s Maggie Haberman responded to reports of Flynn’s coup suggestion with this report:

Trump has been telling a number of people he’s in contact with that he expects he will get reinstated by August (no that isn’t how it works but simply sharing the information).

If you don’t trust a New York Times reporter’s account, National Review’s Charles W. Cooke has corroborated it:

Haberman’s reporting was correct. I can attest, from speaking to an array of different sources, that Donald Trump does indeed believe quite genuinely that he — along with former senators David Perdue and Martha McSally — will be “reinstated” to office this summer, after audits of the 2020 elections in Arizona, Georgia, and a handful of other states have been completed.

I can attest that Trump is trying hard to recruit journalists, politicians, and other influential figures to promulgate this belief — not as a fund-raising tool or an infantile bit of trolling or a trial balloon, but as a fact.

The media and the general public have gotten used to applying different standards to Trump than to anyone else, so it’s usually worth taking a moment to back up and ask how any other public figure would be expected to respond to such reports. Imagine, for example, that it’s 2017, and various people loosely associated with Hillary Clinton are predicting that she will somehow take power, possibly by violence. (After all, she did win the popular vote by 2.9 million in 2016, rather than getting stomped by more than 7 million, as Trump did in 2020. There would have been a lot more justification for a 2017 Clinton coup than a 2021 Trump coup.)

The answer’s obvious, right? There would be a national outcry for her to make a definitive statement: “Are you encouraging your followers to overthrow the government or not?”

Seth Abramson elaborates in a tweetstorm:

As anyone who has ever read a book or watched a movie or taken a history course knows, the most important element of a coup is the agreement of the individual who’ll be installed as a nation’s new president to participate in the installation. Without that there can be no coup. …

By confirming his willingness to participate in a coup, Trump allows the coup plotters to continue in their activities—but it’s much more than that. If/when the plotters reach out to individuals in the military, any soldier’s first question will be, “Is Donald Trump on board?” … No one plotting to participate in the first attempted U.S. coup since the Civil War is going to accept Powell’s word on what Trump is willing to do. Or Lindell’s. Or perhaps even Flynn’s. People in a position to aid the coup are *going to need to hear from Trump themselves*.

It’s in this context—having already achieved a meeting of the minds with the coup plotters—that Trump picks up a phone and makes a phone call to DC people who are well-connected and tells them that he’s willing to accept the U.S. presidency again if it can be secured for him.

If you find this confusing, as clearly Haberman does, consider an alternative scenario: Trump learns that his top advisers are planning and advocating for a coup and he immediately goes to his blog and declares that he’ll under no circumstances accept the presidency pre-2025. If Trump does that—I literally mean if he types about 10 words on his blog, which he could do in the next 5 minutes—the coup plot is officially dead. Over. Impossible. Irrelevant. A non-starter. There’s literally no longer a fear of a coup in the United States in that moment.

Instead, Trump is allowed to equivocate: He’s not actually saying the word “coup”, but how else does he get “reinstated”?

Compare to his January 6 speech that incited the takeover of the Capitol and delayed the counting of electoral votes. He never explicitly instructed his followers to do anything illegal. But he also clearly expected them to “stop the steal”, which they had no legal power to do.

As we know from Michael Cohen, this is how Trump operates. “He doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in a code.” Like a Mafia Don, that’s how he avoids conspiracy charges.

We saw in January how this code works when it comes to violent insurrection: He doesn’t tell people what to do, he just raises their expectations about what will happen. Then, at some point along the line, his followers come to understand that it’s not up to him to make his predictions come true, it’s up to them. It’s up to Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes for Trump to win Georgia. It’s up to the Cyber Ninjas to invent a reason to believe he really won Arizona. It’s up to Republican legislators in Pennsylvania to set up a similarly biased “audit” in their state. And then, after he has “audited” enough states to flip the Electoral College (which has already voted for 2020 and gone out of existence until 2024), somebody has to restore him to office.

Who? The people that he’s sold the dream to. If you’re counting on Trump being president again soon, nobody but you is going to make that happen.

He’s not telling you to upend the Constitution. But he’s also not giving you any other way to do it.

The Bipartisanship Charade is Almost Over

If only six Republican senators will support a bipartisan January 6 commission, while one Republican Congressperson openly calls for new violence and another trivializes the Holocaust, what hope is there for reasonable compromise on anything?

Friday, the Senate voted on the filibuster of a bill (already passed by the House) that would authorize a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 riot. Thirty-five senators voted to continue the filibuster, while 54 voted to end it.

That means it continued and the bill was blocked. By the rules of the Senate, the 35 outvoted the 54.

That’s how the Senate works, or rather, doesn’t work. If some senator wants to prevent a bill to come to a vote, it takes 60 senators to break that filibuster. Even though 54 is 61% of the 89 senators voting; 54 isn’t 60, so the 1-6 commission is blocked indefinitely.

That raises the whole end-the-filibuster discussion, which we’ll get to further down the page. But it’s important not to jump over the even more outrageous part of this story: Given that both American democracy and their own safety was endangered, how could 35 Republican senators possibly oppose an investigation of the storming of the Capitol?

What happened. On January 6, rioters tore down barricades, assaulted police, broke into the Capitol itself, and forced the temporary adjournment of a joint session of Congress that is mandated by the Constitution: Once every four years, the House and Senate meet together to count the electoral votes and officially announce the winner of the presidential election.

That joint session is arguably the most sacred, most essential ceremony of American democracy. It lies at the heart of our most prized tradition: the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to the next, in accordance with the will of the People, as expressed (imperfectly) by the Electoral College. Congress has carried out this duty in an uninterrupted sequence going back to the certification of George Washington’s election on April 6, 1789.

That’s what the rioters were trying to stop. They chanted “Hang Mike Pence”, invaded the chambers of the Senate, and broke into offices looking for members of Congress, hoping to disrupt the transfer of power so that the loser of the election, Donald Trump, could remain president.

They failed. In the end, the certification process was delayed by about six hours, but it reached a conclusion and Joe Biden’s victory was officially recognized.

What could have happened. Despite all the things that went wrong on that day, it’s easy to imagine how January 6 could have gone worse if the rioters had been luckier or better organized, or if Congress had been slower to react. Rioters (some of whom brought zip-ties) might have captured Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi, or other key figures, leading to a hostage situation. Who can say how President Trump might have responded to that chaos? If the stand-off had continued past January 20, when Trump’s term expired, the United States would have reached a constitutional crisis unforeseen by the Founders.

Questions that need answers. The rioters themselves are being handled by the justice system, as is appropriate. Courts and juries will decide who broke in and what laws they violated. But the crimes of rioters are not the only things that need investigation. We also need to answer questions like these:

  • Why was the Capitol so poorly defended? What needs to be changed to prevent similar security failures in the future?
  • Did the riot have a larger structure? In other words, did a mob simply get out of hand? Or was there a plan? If it was planned, who planned it?
  • Were the rioters simply the Trump supporters they appeared to be? Or were they egged on by anti-Trump provocateurs, as many Republicans believe?
  • How well did the various security forces — Capitol police, D.C. police, National Guard — perform? Are the procedures for coordinating their efforts adequate?
  • Did members of Congress help the rioters prepare, say, by giving them “reconnaissance tours” of the Capitol, as many Democrats believe?
  • What was President Trump’s role? Did he intend the protests to turn violent? Did he respond appropriately once the violence started?

Some of these questions will come up in investigations that lead to prosecutions, but a court is not the right place to answer them. Maybe, for example, the larger plan behind the riot will never be nailed down well enough that particular people can be prosecuted for it. If that turns out to be the case, no one will be indicted and the public might never learn — at least not through the justice system — whatever evidence points in that direction.

Ditto for Trump’s culpability. It’s possible that prosecutors will decide they can’t make incitement-to-riot or conspiracy charges stick, so his behavior will never be described in an indictment. But he seems to be angling to run for president again, so shouldn’t the public learn as much as possible about whether he tried to overthrow democracy during his first term?

In short, somebody should write a report that tells the whole story, from beginning to end, and from all points of view. Ideally, that report would be trusted by the great majority of Americans, rather than leaving the whole affair in a he-said/she-said state.

The commission proposal. With that in mind, the investigating body should be widely respected, have full investigatory powers, and rise above partisan bias. No way of setting up such an investigation is perfect, but the bipartisan commission is the best model we have. That’s how we handled 9-11, and it seemed to work pretty well.

This particular implementation of the 9-11 model was negotiated between the leading members of each party in the House Homeland Security Committee, Bennie Thompson for the Democrats and John Katko for the Republicans. Democrats did not use their majority-party status to drive a hard bargain: Each party appoints five members of the 10-person commission. Speaker Pelosi appoints the chair and Minority Leader McCarthy the vice-chair, but there is little the chair can do unilaterally.

Rep. Katko thought he had done a good job of achieving McCarthy’s goals. “I encourage all members, Republicans and Democrats alike,” he said, “to put down their swords for once, just for once, and support this bill.”

But Trump didn’t like the proposal, so McCarthy opposed it. So did Mitch McConnell in the Senate. And that’s how we got here.

Trump’s motive. It’s important to understand what Trump gains by blocking the commission. He isn’t preventing an investigation, because Democrats can set up a select committee in the same way that Republicans did after the first nine investigations of Benghazi failed to find evidence for their conspiracy theories. That’s just one of the options, but Democrats will certainly investigate somehow.

So all that Trump is preventing is a bipartisan investigation. Whatever the select committee comes up with, he can brand a “partisan witch hunt”. The Trump Insurrection will continue to be a he-said/she-said thing, without any common truth both parties agree on.

That’s bad for democracy and for America, but apparently it’s good for Trump.

One thing this tells us, though, is that neither Trump nor any other Republican in Congress really believes the antifa-did-it theory that they occasionally promote, and that nearly 3/4ths of Republicans claim to believe. If there were any chance of uncovering an antifa conspiracy, Republicans would begging for a bipartisan commission to expose it.

Bipartisanship? Let’s sum up: A proposal that should be a slam dunk, that should get 35-40 Republican votes in the Senate, instead got only six. One of the Republicans who left town early to start his Memorial Day weekend, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, says he would have voted for it, bringing the total to seven. So if all 100 senators had stayed in town and all 50 Democrats voted to establish the commission, it would still have been three votes short of breaking the filibuster.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said the obvious:

We just can’t pretend that nothing bad happened or that people just got too excited. Something bad happened. And it’s important to lay that out. I think there’s more to be learned. I want to know and I don’t want to know … but I need to. And I think it’s important to the country that there be an independent evaluation.

The commission filibuster is ominous for two reasons:

  • A lot of important legislation has been working through the legislative process and is due for a Senate vote soon.
  • The GOP is tolerating (and sometimes promoting) increasingly crazy rhetoric.

The Joe Manchin theory that Republicans can be sane negotiating partners, and that compromises can be reached that will be good for the country, is looking increasingly unlikely.

What’s on the docket. President Biden’s honeymoon of popularity with the voters is based on two accomplishments:

  • The wave of executive orders that he issued shortly after he took office.
  • The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (i.e., Covid relief) that Congress passed and Biden signed on March 11.

Together with his administration’s good management of the vaccination effort, and the optimism about the end of the pandemic that has accompanied that success, Biden has successfully projected an image of a president who takes action and does the things he says he will do.

But time is running out on those trends. The executive orders were a one-time thing: Presidents do not typically get fresh supplies of executive power (which is a good thing; otherwise we’d drift towards autocracy). So almost everything Biden can do without Congress is already done. And Covid relief was an example of the Democrats going it alone: In spite of their subsequent attempts to take credit for its good features, not a single Republican voted to pass it.

A lot of stuff Biden has said he will do is now sitting in the Senate’s queue:

If none of that passes, or if the bills get watered down to the point that nothing really changes, Biden becomes a nice guy who talks a good game, but doesn’t accomplish much. And Democrats go into the 2022 midterms not having delivered the change they promised, while facing increasing Republican efforts to restrict voting in states around the country. It will be harder to voter, and the voters Democrats need to target will be discouraged.

All these pending bills are popular. Some are popular by name, while others are popular if people are told what they do. (Even Republican voters want to end partisan gerrymandering, for example, which is why an anti-gerrymandering ballot initiative can pass even in a red state like Utah — where the Republican legislature promptly undercut it.)

So far, Biden and the Democrats are trying to use that popularity with the voters to move Republicans in Congress. Negotiations are underway, but the infrastructure negotiations are typical. Grist sums up the Republican counterproposal as “all bridges, no climate” and observes:

It certainly looks like Republicans and Democrats are engaging in some honest-to-god political compromise: Biden started out with a big number and made it smaller, Republicans started with a small number and made it bigger. But closer investigation reveals that Republicans haven’t compromised very much at all. 

Nearly $1 trillion in spending sounds like a lot, but the lion’s share of the money Republicans want to spend on infrastructure isn’t new — it’s money that already gets budgeted out by Congress for infrastructure improvements every year and “leftover” money from previous COVID-19 relief bills. The assumption that there are wads of coronavirus money languishing in federal and state coffers is flawed, experts say. There is a lot of relief money that hasn’t been spent, but much of it will be spent in the coming years on Medicaid, federal lending programs, and state and local relief programs.

Without robbing Peter to pay Paul “[Senator Shelley Moore] Capito and company are proposing just $257 billion in new federal spending.” That’s over ten years. In particular, the GOP wants nothing to do with electric vehicles, reducing Biden’s $174 billion proposal to $4 billion.

Worse, as we just saw with John Katko and the 1-6 Commission fiasco, getting Capito to agree to something doesn’t mean the GOP caucus will support it. Biden could reach an agreement with Capito and still see the bill blocked by a filibuster when Capito brings less than ten colleagues with her. Ditto for Tim Scott and police reform.

This is a pattern we should all remember from the Obama years. Repeatedly, President Obama would seem to reach a “grand bargain” with Speaker Boehner, only to discover that Boehner could not deliver his caucus’ support.

The GOP’s ever-expanding grass-roots lunacy. While Tim Scott and Shelley Moore Capito play the role of reasonable Republicans in D.C., something else is happening out in the Trumpist countryside, where Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are on an America First tour.

While the rest of us are waiting to see exactly what he gets indicted for, Gaetz is out there opening calling for violence. Thursday in Dalton, Georgia he said:

The Internet’s hall monitors out in Silicon Valley, they think they can suppress us, discourage us. Maybe if you’re just a little less patriotic, maybe if you just conform to their way of thinking a little more, then you’ll be allowed to participate in the digital world. Well you know what? Silicon Valley can’t cancel this movement, or this rally, or this congressman. We have a Second Amendment in this country, and I think we have an obligation to use it.

In case there’s any doubt about what he means by that, here’s another clip from the same speech:

The Second Amendment is not about hunting, it’s not about recreation, it’s not about sports. The Second Amendment is about maintaining within the citizenry the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government, if that becomes necessary.

As far as I know, Gaetz did not identify by name anyone his audience should shoot. So I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg will be fine. It’s not like anybody ever listens to Trumpist rhetoric and then literally guns people down or mails bombs to them.

Meanwhile, Marjorie Taylor Greene has been trivializing the Holocaust. On several occasions, she has compared the public-health guideline that unvaccinated people continue to wear masks — and in particular, Speaker Pelosi’s insistence on maintaining the House’s mask mandate until all members are vaccinated — to the yellow stars that the Nazis required Jews to wear.

You know, we can look back at a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star, and they were definitely treated like second-class citizens, so much so that they were put on trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany, and this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.

The House GOP leadership has been unwilling to exert any real pressure to control Gaetz or Greene. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has not commented on Gaetz’ call for violence, and his response to Greene was late and weak. Tuesday, he released a statement that did not even hint at consequences for Greene, should she not back down. (She hasn’t.) McCarthy tacitly excused Greene’s anti-Semitism by invoking both-sides-ism, saying Greene’s comments come “At a time when the Jewish people face increased violence and threats, anti-Semitism is on the rise in the Democrat Party and is completely ignored by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”

So criticism of Israeli policy by Democrats like Rep. Rashida Tlaib is held up as comparable to Greene’s diminishment of the Holocaust, which can’t be disconnected from her earlier endorsement of a QAnon conspiracy theory that blamed California wildfires on “Jewish space lasers”.

In case you’ve lost your anti-Semitism scorecard, it wasn’t left-wingers who marched through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and it wasn’t Joe Biden who said there were “very fine people” on both sides of that demonstration. Democratic rhetoric about the border did not lead violent extremists to massacre 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue or target George Soros.

And there’s an audience out there for this stuff. The hatWRKS shop in Nashville backed up Greene’s Holocaust rhetoric by selling a “not vaccinated” yellow six-pointed star. (Yesterday’s NYT covered the backlash the store is facing: protesters have gathered outside, and the Stetson company will stop selling hats there. Eventually, the store apologized.)

The analogy between the unvaccinated and Jews in Nazi Germany makes perfect sense if you believe the following:

  • Jews in the Third Reich were spreading diseases that endangered other Germans.
  • The Nazis were trying to save Jewish lives.
  • Jews could have opted out of Nazi oppression at any time by taking a shot that would improve their health and make them less dangerous to others.
  • Over the next few years, the rest of us are planning to herd the unvaccinated into camps and exterminate them.

If you do believe those things, you and your family have my sympathies, and I hope you reestablish contact with reality soon. But if you don’t, and you wear the yellow star anyway, you’re just being an asshole.

Finally, there’s the continued unwillingness of Trump or his cultists to admit that he lost the election. (Mitch McConnell may say he wants to “move on” from January 6, but his party is unwilling to move on from November 3.) The bizarre Maricopa County “audit” continues, and just in case the Trump-biased auditors can’t find the fraud they are looking for, the Arizona Senate is already looking ahead to another audit. It’s like Benghazi: If one investigation can’t find the evidence you are looking for, just start another one.

Bringing all this back to Congress: There’s no one Democrats can negotiate with in good faith. If Biden should happen to reach an acceptable compromise with some Republican, we know what will happen: Trump will denounce the agreement, and before long any Republican who stands by it will be accused of being in league with the Rothschilds and their space lasers. Any compromising Republican who resists Trump’s pressure will have to keep looking over his shoulder for people “exercising their Second Amendment rights”.

The filibuster. Which brings us back to the filibuster. I already made my case for ending the filibuster back in January, so I won’t repeat it. The Democrats have the power to end the filibuster, but only if they all agree. So far, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are holding out.

Manchin in particular has been vocal about the importance of bipartisanship, and nostalgia for a time when relationships across party lines were more cordial.

Generations of senators who came before us put their heads down and their pride aside to solve the complex issues facing our country. We must do the same. The issues facing our democracy today are not insurmountable if we choose to tackle them together.

One point he makes in that op-ed is legitimate: If Congress could pass legislation through bipartisan compromise, the United States would have more stable laws and policies; flipping a couple seats in the Senate wouldn’t completely reverse the direction of country.

The problem is in the “if”. The reality is that the Senate can’t pass legislation through bipartisan compromise, and when Republicans have control, they have no reservations about pushing controversial proposals through without Democrats, as they pushed through Trump’s tax cuts and Supreme Court nominees. They would have repealed ObamaCare that way, but a handful of Republicans realized that the party had no replacement plan. None of the defecting Republicans seemed to be worrying about leaving Democrats out of the process.

So far, Biden and Chuck Schumer have been giving Manchin a chance to prove his case. He and Sinema worked hard to find 10 Republicans willing to back a 1-6 commission, and they came up short. He’s trying to put together an infrastructure compromise, which is also looking like a failure. In his op-ed, Manchin also cited voting rights as an issue that “should” have bipartisan support.

But it doesn’t.

Increasingly, it feels like these hopeless negotiations are intended to prove a point rather than reach a solution. But who is the demonstration for? Is it for Manchin, so that he can see that his vision of bipartisanship doesn’t work? Is if for the voters of West Virginia, so that they see that Manchin tried everything before giving in to reconciliation and filibuster reform? Is it for the American people, who are supposed to give Democrats credit for trying hard to make life better, even if they didn’t actually accomplish much?

I can’t figure it out.

But whoever the demonstration is for, it has to be coming to a conclusion. The Biden presidency and the Democratic control of Congress will succeed or fail in the next few months. Either Democrats will rig a way to pass popular high-priority bills without Republicans (either by creative use of reconciliation or by changing the filibuster), or they will throw up their hands and admit that America is ungovernable; it doesn’t matter what the People want, Congress can’t give it to them.

The Problem With Bitcoin

Sure, it doesn’t make sense, but no form of money does. The more serious problem is that it’s an environmental disaster.

The value of the digital currency Bitcoin, which has skyrocketed since its introduction in 2009, fell 30% in one day on Wednesday. Should that worry anybody?

The mystery of money. I’ve barely said a word about Bitcoin and its rival cryptocurrencies on this blog, mostly because I know I don’t completely understand them. In some sense, though, that’s neither their fault nor mine. Money in general is mysterious: Dollars only have value because we all think they do. If everyone else in the world decided your dollars were worthless, you’d have a tough time convincing them otherwise.

The reasons dollars should continue to have value are a bit circular: All over the world, people owe dollars, so they’re going to have to obtain them to pay their debts. Also, the US government wants you to pay your taxes in dollars, so you’re going to need a few at some point. (Though, if you lived entirely by barter or by trading some untraceable currency like Bitcoin, what would the government tax?)

The Federal Reserve can create dollars at will just by entering a credit on its balance sheet, and that’s hard to square with the idea of intrinsic value. After all, farmers can’t increase the grain supply by manipulating their accounting. If GM wants to produce more cars, it has to buy components, pay workers, and build them in physical reality; it can’t just change some numbers on a spreadsheet and announce a million new Chevy Malibus. Stuff of actual, usable value can’t be magicked into existence, but money can.

That mystery has been highlighted during the pandemic, when the government kept the economy going by giving people dollars, which it mostly borrowed from the Federal Reserve, which conjured those dollars out of nothing. But the food and whatnot people bought with that money couldn’t be conjured out of nothing, so common sense tells us there’s a piper to be paid somewhere. In response, the smartest economists in the world say, “Well, yeah. Maybe eventually.” (If they sound more like priests of the Money goddess than practitioners of a hard science, that makes historical sense: The word money derives from an aspect of the queen of the Roman gods. Roman money could only be coined in the Temple of Juno Moneta.)

Libertarians are quick to tell you that such government-conjured “fiat money” is all a bubble that will pop someday: Real money is gold, and any paper money not redeemable for gold is a sham. But gold is mysterious in its own way. We dig gold out of the ground, smelt it into purified ingots, and then bury those ingots again in bank vaults. Somehow this strange digging-up-and-reburying process is supposed to be the basis of the world economy.

I mean, gold actually does have a few uses in jewelry-making and dentistry and electronics. But every year the world produces about twice as much gold as it uses for any practical purpose, so there’s little prospect that we’ll need our vast accumulated hoards of gold anytime soon.

Alchemists used to dream of transmuting more common metals into gold, which, if you think about it, would be exactly like the Fed conjuring dollars. The quantity of usable goods in the world would not change at all, so how would this new gold represent new wealth? A similar precious-metal illusion is sometimes mentioned as a cause of the fall of the Spanish Empire. Spain’s economy came to revolve around extracting gold and silver from the New World, while England was leading the Industrial Revolution. So Spain acquired the appearance of wealth, while England built a modern economy.

Anyway, the purpose of this long preamble is to make sure you have the right context for thinking about Bitcoin. If you only know two things about Bitcoin, this is what you should know:

  • There is absolutely no reason why a bitcoin should be worth anything.
  • It shares that characteristic with all other forms of money.

The history of Bitcoin emphasizes both the potential and the insubstantiality of its value. Wired says that the first recorded Bitcoin transaction happened in 2009, when someone traded 10,000 bitcoins for two Papa John’s pizzas. Bitcoins peaked at over $64,000 each in April, and crashed down below $40,000 on Wednesday. But in spite of the crash, whoever sold the pizzas is still doing pretty well.

What a cryptocurrency does. Understanding what a bitcoin is involves you in all kinds of complicated cryptological mathematics, and is mostly unnecessary. (It’s like computers: You don’t have to know how they work to use one confidently.) As Paul Krugman put it Friday, “Money is a role, not a thing.” So we should start by thinking about what Bitcoin does rather than what it is.

In general, a currency is a means of exchange, and its purpose is to facilitate trade, so that you aren’t constantly negotiating how many chickens to give the dentist for Jennifer’s braces. Traditionally, currencies have involved some kind of physical token, like a coin or a bill. You spend the currency by giving someone the token, which allows them to spend it somewhere else. (That description itself represents a change that has happened in my lifetime. Decades ago, people would have said that the coin or bill is money. Now we realize that it’s a token representing money, which is inherently intangible.)

These days, most transactions are done digitally, through credit cards or interbank transfers. This allows you to order stuff from Taiwan without shipping coins or bills around the world. So I might buy an app from a game designer in Bangalore or a song from a K-pop band in Seoul without any tangible objects moving in either direction. That makes the transaction faster, cheaper, and more reliable.

This system works because there are parties we all trust who can vouch for us. The game designer has no reason to trust me, but he trusts Visa, which trusts me. Ultimately, stuff like Visa and PayPal and Venmo work because banks trust other banks, all the way up to the central repository of trust, the Federal Reserve.

The point of a cryptocurrency is to get the advantages of digital transactions, but to avoid trusting the Fed, some equivalent government entity like the Bank of Japan, or a giant corporation like Citibank or Apple. Corporations shouldn’t be trusted because they don’t even pretend to have a purpose higher than profit, and a government might have all kinds of reasons to debase its currency — arguably, the US has been doing that with these recent trillion-dollar deficits — so why not create a system that isn’t subject to such temptations?

Also, the Fed (or whoever) can keep track of transactions that go through its systems, which you might not like because you’re a drug dealer or a tax evader or just somebody who puts a high value on privacy. (Right now, Matt Gaetz is probably wishing he hadn’t used Venmo.) Central-bank-based digital transactions may be fast, cheap, and reliable, but you have to give up the anonymity of cash.

So that’s the hole a cryptocurrency is trying to fill: fast, cheap, and reliable transactions that are as anonymous as cash, and denominated in a medium not vulnerable to political debasement.

Disintegrating the Fed. Essentially, the banking system that centers on the Fed is a big ledger that keeps track of how much money each person has; dollars are just the units it uses. When I pay my electric bill (whether by check or electronically), I send a message to deduct dollars from my account and add them to the electric company’s. If we use the same bank, that bank changes the numbers on its ledger. If not, ultimately the Fed changes its ledger to deduct dollars from my bank and add them to the electric company’s bank; the two banks then figure it out from there.

Again, this involves trust. We all just assume that the ledger will be kept accurately. If the ledger couldn’t be trusted, we’d soon be back to exchanging physical tokens, or maybe even swapping chickens.

Similarly, Bitcoin has to function like a big ledger that keeps track of how many bitcoins people have. If I’m going to buy something with Bitcoin, the system has to verify

  • that I own the bitcoins I’m trying to spend
  • that after the transaction, I have fewer bitcoins and the seller I bought from has more.

Further, I need to have confidence that if I don’t spend my bitcoins, I will continue to own them. Also, that the system won’t suddenly create massive numbers of new bitcoins in other people’s accounts, which could flood the market and lower the value of my bitcoins.

Now, if that ledger were just a file somewhere, like a spreadsheet, it wouldn’t offer either of the advantages a cryptocurrency is supposed to provide: We’d still have to trust somebody to maintain and update the spreadsheet, and investigators could subpoena it to see what we’ve been buying and selling. So why not just let the Fed keep doing that?

Instead, the list of Bitcoin transactions is encrypted and public. You could download the data yourself, but you couldn’t make sense out of it. The list of transactions is constantly being updated and verified by thousands of independent “miners”, who earn bitcoins for their effort. Any one of them could try to insert a fake transaction, but the others would catch the discrepancy. So we’re not trusting them as individuals, we’re trusting the collective entity they form.

Advanced mathematics gets into the picture to guarantee anonymity. The algorithms that define the Bitcoin system are constructed in such a way that even the miners who verify the list of transactions don’t know what they mean. (A more complete — but still not really complete — explanation is at Investopedia.) The important thing is

  • With your key — like a password — you can prove that you own a bitcoin you want to spend.
  • Without your key, no one can generate a “balance” that says how many bitcoins you own.

The situation is summed up by a rhyme Neal Stephenson put into his futuristic fairy tale The Diamond Age in 1995.

Castles, gardens, gold, and jewels
contentment signify for fools
like Princess Nell. But those
who cultivate their wit,
like King Coyote and his crows,
compile their power bit by bit,
and hide it places no one knows.

What’s a bitcoin worth really? The reason the value of Bitcoin can fluctuate so much is precisely the fact that it’s untethered from physical reality. Other kinds of money are too, but there’s a difference: None of them were ever really new.

Think about it. Trading in precious metals evolved “naturally”. There was never a moment when some chieftain or pharaoh announced for the first time “OK, from now on, gold is going to be our means of exchange”.

Coins derived their value from the metals they were made of. Originally, a coin was just a standard unit of metal whose purity and weight was validated by the government that minted it. So when King Croessus minted his gold coins 2600 years ago, he didn’t have to tell people what they were worth; they were worth whatever that amount of gold was worth. If you didn’t believe that, you could melt it down.

Paper money piggybacked onto the coin system. A bank note signified that some bank had precious-metal coins in its vault, and they’d give them to you if you turned the note in. So (as long as everybody believed that promise) nobody had to answer the question “What’s a ten-pound note worth?”

By the time paper money stopped being redeemable for gold or silver — 90 years ago for the British pound — its value had a long tradition behind it. So while the currency of a stable government might inflate or deflate a few percent each year, it won’t swing up and down week by week the way Bitcoin does. (When I was growing up, before the inflation of the 1970s, the way to say that a person was financially sensible was that he or she “knows the value of a dollar.” Today, somebody who truly knew the value of a bitcoin would be a savant.)

Digital dollars, euros, and yen are still convertible to paper currency. That’s what ATMs do.

So the units in the Fed’s database (i.e., dollars) may be just as theoretically meaningless as Bitcoin, but they have continuity of value that stretches back into prehistory.

Bitcoin doesn’t. That’s why 10,000 bitcoins might buy two pizzas, or a 600-foot luxury yacht, depending on what people happen to think that day.

A yacht worth slightly less than 10,000 pre-crash bitcoins.

What caused this week’s crash? Anything that booms is likely to bust at some point, so the search for a “cause” never has a clear answer. But one precipitating event was that Tesla announced it will no longer trade cars for bitcoins. This disrupted the story behind Bitcoin in two ways:

  • According to its boosters, Bitcoin is supposed to become more and more accepted with time, until it becomes the premier means of exchange.
  • The reason Elon Musk gave for Tesla’s decision: Bitcoin mining soaks up a lot of electric power, much of which comes from fossil fuels, including coal. If Tesla is promoting Bitcoin, it’s undoing the positive environmental effect of its cars.

Krugman comments on the first point:

And nowadays we use Bitcoin to buy houses and cars, pay our bills, make business investments, and more.

Oh, wait. We don’t do any of those things. Twelve years on, cryptocurrencies play almost no role in normal economic activity. Almost the only time we hear about them being used as a means of payment — as opposed to speculative trading — is in association with illegal activity, like money laundering or the Bitcoin ransom Colonial Pipeline paid to hackers who shut it down.

He goes on to point out that 12 years is a long time in tech: Bitcoin is the same age as Venmo, and older than the iPad or Zoom. The fact that it hasn’t caught on yet is a really bad sign.

One reason for that failure to catch on is habit, and the fact that most people are not nearly so desperate to get out of “fiat currencies” as Libertarians think they should be. (That might change if the current burst of inflation turns into more than the temporary blip economists like Krugman are predicting.) But a second good reason is the fluctuation in the dollar-value of Bitcoin itself.

Imagine, for example, that you’re a contractor negotiating a deal to spend the next two years building a bridge. You’d be crazy to take your payment in Bitcoin, because no one has any idea what Bitcoin will be worth in two years. Similarly, imagine if you’d taken out a mortgage in Bitcoin at the beginning of 2020, when a bitcoin was worth about $10,000. By this April, you’d have owed six times as much (in dollar terms). If your salary were denominated in Bitcoin, you’d have taken a 30% pay cut Wednesday.

The only way this makes sense is if you are living in a complete Bitcoin system, where you can pay your workers (or your rent) in the same currency that you’re earning, so that your income and expenses rise and fall together. Otherwise you’re gambling, not participating in a productive economy.

Now, it’s not unusual for new technology to face this kind of chicken-and-egg problem. (It made little sense to be an early adopter of the telephone, for example, because there were so few people you could call.) Tech that succeeds is compelling enough to overcome that problem.

But Bitcoin doesn’t seem to be that compelling. Maybe you weren’t planning to buy a Tesla with your bitcoins anyway. The fact that you can’t, though, is symbolic.

Bitcoin and global warming. The deeper problem is that Bitcoin mining eats up an enormous amount of computer power, which in turns eats up an enormous amount of electrical power. The Guardian reports:

Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finances estimates that bitcoin’s annualised electricity consumption hovers just above 115 terawatt-hours (TWh) while Digiconomist’s closely tracked index puts it closer to 80 TWh.

A single transaction of bitcoin has the same carbon footprint as 680,000 Visa transactions or 51,210 hours of watching YouTube, according to the site.

The same Centre for Alternative Finances claims that Bitcoin uses more energy than many countries.

That problem is likely to get worse, because the system is designed to require more computer power with time.

As more people learn about bitcoin and mining—and as the price of bitcoin increases—more are using their computers to mine bitcoins. As more people join the network and try to solve these math puzzles, you might expect each puzzle to be solved sooner, but bitcoin is not designed that way.

The software that mines bitcoin is designed so that it always will take 10 minutes for everyone on the network to solve the puzzle. It does that by scaling the difficulty of the puzzle, depending on how many people are trying to solve it.

Of course, the carbon footprint depends on how the electricity is being generated. And that brings up a different problem: No one knows exactly where the mining computers are, or how their electricity is generated. And because there is no central authority controlling Bitcoin — that’s part of the point, after all — no one can enforce environmental standards on the miners.

It seems likely, though, that miners are setting up in places where electricity is cheap. And at the moment, that is likely to be where it’s easy to burn coal.

Now, you could imagine setting up Bitcoin-mining supercomputers on the vast plains of Oklahoma, and powering them with fields of windmills. But even that plan is environmentally questionable. The growth in sustainable energy is supposed to replace fossil-fuel energy, not power some new need that didn’t exist 12 years ago.

Fatal wounds? For what it’s worth — notice that I’m putting it out for free — I think the environmental problem is a fatal wound for Bitcoin. Maybe in a not-too-distant future, computation requires much less electricity, which is generated by solar arrays in orbit, so nobody cares about the computational burden of their digital currencies. But maybe not.

In the meantime, we’re not there.

Right now, for Bitcoin to catch on and rival the dollar, the yen, and the euro, it needs the kind of early-adopter enthusiasm that comes from people believing that they’re doing something cool. Twelve years ago, those two Bitcoin-purchased Papa Johns were the coolest pizzas in the world.

Now they’re not, and even Elon Musk realizes it. Maybe at some point, your friends would have been awed if you’d said, “Like my new Tesla? I bought it with Bitcoin.”

But with every day that goes by, you’re less and less likely to get that reaction, and more and more likely to convince people that you’re willing to destroy the planet for your own vanity. “Oh, you’re that kind of asshole.” (At the moment, the world’s most famous Bitcoin miner is Joel Greenberg. That kind of asshole.)

That’s fatal. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon.

This all says nothing about the underlying argument for some kind of cryptocurrency. Maybe trillion-dollar deficits really are evidence that the world’s governments and central banks can’t be trusted to maintain our money. Maybe there is room in the world for — or even a need for — a crowd-sourced money based on cryptographic algorithms.

But that currency is going to need a high level of coolness to beat the chicken-and-egg problem and catch on. And eating up a nation-sized chunk of the world’s energy output is not cool.

Why Liz Cheney Matters

Wednesday, House Republicans did what they had been expected to do for a week or two: ousted Liz Cheney as chair of the Republican conference.

From one point of view, this is a fairly meaningless event: A month ago, how many Americans could even name the House GOP’s #3, much less describe the position’s responsibilities? Since Cathy McMorris Rodgers got the job in 2013, it has functioned primarily as the party’s see-we’re-not-all-white-males leadership post. (That’s why Elise Stefanik was the obvious choice to replace Cheney.)

But from another view, Cheney’s removal matters very much, because it defines the GOP as the pro-insurrection Party. Cheney’s unforgivable sin is that she has continued to say the kinds of things that Kevin McCarthy said shortly after January 6.

The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump. … [He should] accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-Elect Joe Biden is able to successfully begin his term. … Let’s be clear, Joe Biden will be sworn in as president of the United States in one week because he won the election.

But that was before McCarthy made his pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring. Now there is no place in Republican leadership for anyone who disputes Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election, or accurately describes the threat it poses, as Cheney did on on the House floor just before her ouster.

The Electoral College has voted. More than 60 state and federal courts, including multiple judges the former president appointed, have rejected [Trump’s] claims. The Trump Department of Justice investigated the former president’s claims of widespread fraud and found no evidence to support them. The election is over. That is the rule of law. That is our constitutional process. Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution. Our duty is clear. Every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to prevent the unraveling of our democracy.

This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. I will not participate in that. I will not sit back and watch in silence, while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.

Liz Cheney is just the most visible example of a much wider phenomenon: Republicans of integrity — the people at all levels who stopped Trump’s attempt to overturn the election and stay in power — are being purged. Michelle Goldberg lays out the details:

Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election revealed how much our democracy depends on officials at all levels of government acting honorably. Republicans on state boards of election, like Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan, had to certify the results correctly. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had to resist Trump’s entreaties to “find” enough missing votes to put him over the top. Republican state legislatures had to refuse Trump campaign pressure to substitute their own slate of electors for those chosen by the people. Congress had to do its job in the face of mob violence and count the Electoral College votes. Trump’s rolling coup attempt didn’t succeed, but it did reveal multiple points at which our system can fail.

Since the election, Republicans, driven by the lie that is now their party’s central ideology, have systematically attacked the safeguards that protected the last election. They have sent the message that vigorous defense of democracy is incompatible with a career in Republican politics. (Besides losing her leadership role, Cheney could easily lose her House seat.) Michigan Republicans declined to renominate Van Langevelde to the Board of State Canvassers. Raffensperger will most likely face a tough primary challenge in 2022.

And let’s not forget Mike Pence, who allowed the certification of Biden’s electoral votes to proceed. In his January 6 incitement-to-riot speech, Trump put the onus on him:

If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. … All Vice-President Pence has to do is send it back to the States to recertify, and we become president.

(Trump was assuming Republicans in the legislatures would participate in his coup, which might not have happened in 2020, but is more likely in 2024.) That’s why the insurrectionists were chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” Pence currently has no official position he can be purged from, but he is done in Republican politics, because he followed the Constitution and did his job rather than obey Trump.

It’s important to see what this means going forward. If Republicans succeed in this purge, and if gerrymandered districts continue to put a moat around their majorities in the legislatures of purplish-blue states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, then the voters may not get to decide the 2024 election at all. Or imagine Republicans controlling Congress after the 2022 elections, which is a real possibility. There will be no need for an insurrectionist mob to invade the Capitol and intimidate Congress into ignoring the voters, because the insurrectionists will already be inside the building.

Already at their 2020 convention, the GOP proclaimed that its platform was to support Trump. In other words, the party had a Leader, not a set of policies. Now the only duty of a GOP official is to bring Trump back to power. The “right” decision is not the one that follows the Constitution or the laws or respects the will of the voters. The only right decision is the one that returns Trump to power.

Admittedly, agreeing with Liz Cheney is a strange position for most Democrats to find themselves in. After all, Cheney is unabashedly carrying forward the legacy of her father, Dick Cheney, who was the primary villain of the Bush-43 administration. It’s weird to see her portrayed as a champion of Truth, when her father’s lies got so many Americans (and many more Iraqis) killed in the Iraq War.

But we need to recognize that the current debate is happening on a different level. The proper use of American military power — like tax rates and environmental regulations — is a decision for the American people to make through the political process. But what we’re talking about now is whether there’s going to be a political process at all, or whether Trumpists will simply seize power at the first opportunity, like the fascists they are.

Jonathan Chait writes:

When Cheney’s liberal critics place her support for democracy alongside her other positions, they implicitly endorse the same calculation made by her conservative opponents: that the rule of law is just another issue.

The only way democracy survives is if both sides respect the outcome of a free and fair election as a precondition to all their other disagreements. Democracy is a system for maintaining domestic peace. You make peace with your enemies, not your friends.

I try to bear this in mind: In order to beat fascism the last time, FDR had to ally with Stalin. On the evil scale, Liz Cheney is nothing compared to Stalin.

What to make of Israel/Palestine?

The temperature of the fighting goes up and down, but there is no real prospect for peace. Two articles express two very different ways to look at this situation.

There are basically two truthful ways to cover the current wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians:

  • A pox on both your houses, because neither side seems to have any plan that involves making peace with the other. (See cartoon above.)
  • One side, Israel, bears more responsibility because it is far more powerful, is doing far more damage, and has far more ability to shape the course of events.

A good example of the first type is Vox’ “The Gaza doom loop” by Zack Beauchamp. Beauchamp does mention that the two sides are not equal, but focuses on the similarities between them.

It would seem as if the current round of violence emerged out of a complex series of events in Jerusalem, most notably heavy-handed actions by Israeli police and aggression by far-right Jewish nationalists. But in reality, these events were merely triggers for escalations made almost inevitable by the way the major parties have chosen to approach the conflict. … It’s clear that that this status quo produces horrors. The problem, though, is that these terrible costs are seen as basically tolerable by the political leadership of all the major parties.

Hamas continues to be able to rule Gaza and reaps the political benefits from being the party of armed resistance to Israeli occupation. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas appears cowed by Hamas’s power — most analysts believe he canceled the Palestinian election because he thought he would lose — and so is content to let Israel keep his rivals contained in Gaza.

Beauchamp similarly breaks Israeli politics into two factions: “annexationists … who want to formally seize large chunks of Palestinian land while either expelling its residents or denying them political rights — ethnic cleansing or apartheid” and “the control camp” who (rather than looking for a viable long-term solution) are just trying to minimize the damage that Palestinians can do to Israelis.

The status quo in Gaza serves both groups. From the annexationist view, keeping the Palestinians weak and divided allows Israeli settlements to keep expanding and the seizure of both the West Bank and East Jerusalem to continue apace. Lifting the blockade on Gaza, and working to promote some kind of renewed peace process involving both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, jeopardizes the agenda of “Greater Israel.”

… Meanwhile, the “control” camp sees this as the least bad option. Any easing of the Gaza blockade would risk Hamas breaking containment and expanding its presence in the West Bank, which would be far more dangerous than the rockets — a threat heavily mitigated by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. In this analysis, periodic flare-ups are a price that has to be paid to minimize the threat to Israeli lives — with heavy escalations like this one required to restore a basically tolerable status quo.

There used to be a third faction, the “equality” camp, which “believed that Palestinians deserved a political voice as a matter of principle — either in a single state or, more typically, through a two-state arrangement”, but it “collapsed after the failure of the peace process and the second intifada in the early 2000s.” Beauchamp estimates that the equality camp controls about 10% of the Knesset, and so has virtually no influence on policy.

The second type of coverage is exemplified by Branko Marcetic’s article in Jacobin: “On Palestine, the Media is Allergic to the Truth“. To Marcetic, putting the recent Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza “in context” would mean

explaining that the rockets came in the wake of a series of outrageous and criminal Israeli provocations in occupied East Jerusalem: a series of violent police raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam during its holiest month, that have damaged the sacred structure and injured hundreds, including worshippers; that Israeli forces were attacking Palestinians who were occupying Aqsa both to pray and to protect it from bands of far-right Israeli extremists who have been marching through East Jerusalem, attacking Palestinians, and trying to break into the compound; and that all of this sits in the shadow of protests against Israel’s most recent attempt to steal land from Palestinians in the city, and the ramping up of Israel’s theft of Palestinian land more broadly under Trump.

While you’re at it, you might at least make clear that the Israeli attacks on Gaza have been far more vicious and deadly than the rockets they’re supposedly “retaliating” against, having killed forty-three people so far [many more since the article was published], including thirteen children, and leveled an entire residential building. You might make clear that Hamas’s rockets are, owing to their own cheapness and Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, at this point closer to the lashing-out-in-impotent-frustration part of the spectrum (which, of course, is not to say they don’t do damage or occasionally take lives — they’ve killed six Israelis thus far). All of this would help people understand why what they’re seeing unfold on their screens is happening, and what might be done to stop it.

Marcetic skewers the even-handedness of most articles of the first type, which refer to “clashes” and “rising tensions” as if they were reporting storms at sea rather than intentional human actions. Israel doesn’t do things so much as stuff happens and a bunch of people wind up dead.

As for what American policy should be, I have no idea. I’m not sure President Biden does either. How exactly do you make peace between sides whose leaders — backed by a sizeable chunk of their constituents — don’t want to make peace?

That said, I’m glad to see the end of the Trump/Kushner policy, which I would sum up as “Fuck the Palestinians.” The Trumpists’ primary goal in the Middle East was to create an Israel/Sunni alliance against Shiite Iran. So they brokered agreements between Israel and four minor Sunni states: Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain, and the Emirates. If that spirit of cooperation could be extended to larger Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians would be left without any allies, and presumably would have to take whatever deal Israel feels like offering them.

In essence, the Palestinians were in the way of the strategic realignment Kushner wanted. So to hell with them.

The thing a pampered prat like Jared Kushner can never understand is the thought that Daredevil writer Frank Miller put into the mind of his villain the Kingpin: A man without hope is a man without fear.

No doubt Israel can create a situation where the Palestinians ought to give up. Arguably, it already has. The Kushners of the world, who have lots of non-hopeless options to choose from, certainly would give up and move on to Plan B, C, or D. But I don’t think the Palestinians will. They’ll keep throwing rocks at tanks until the Israelis either deal with them or kill them.

The Reagan Era is Finally Over

Biden’s speech and the response (or lack of response) from Republicans demonstrates that no one believes in the old nostrums any more.

The day Clinton surrendered. In the 1996 State of the Union, President Bill Clinton said, “The era of big government is over.” This has been widely marked as the moment when the Democratic Party surrendered to the Reagan revolution.

For the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, many Democrats in Congress had tried to hold the line. Then, after Clinton was elected in 1992, he set out to extend the legacy of FDR and LBJ by fulfilling the longstanding Democratic ambition to create some version of universal health care. After seeming popular at first, “HillaryCare” didn’t pass. Democrats were subsequently routed in the 1994 midterm elections, making Newt Gingrich the first Republican Speaker of the House since the legendary Sam Rayburn replaced the much-less-legendary Joseph W. Martin Jr. in 1955.

The lesson Clinton learned from that defeat was that Democrats needed to temper their ambitions. Subsequently, he worked with Gingrich to achieve goals that appealed to Republicans, like balancing the budget, ending “welfare as we know it”, passing NAFTA, and de-regulating the banking system (in ways that would blow up by 2008). There would be no more big-ticket proposals until ObamaCare in 2009. Democratic governance became little more than a kinder, more efficient version of Republican governance.

For most of the 20th century, Democrats had stood for an active government trying to solve people’s problems. FDR’s New Deal had given the country Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage. LBJ’s Great Society had added Medicare, the War on Poverty, and the Voting Rights Act. But all that was over now. Clinton was not just refusing to advance, he was actively capitulating: “Big government” was itself a Reaganite phrase that would have been anathema to Democrats just a few years before. (To make a present-day comparison: Imagine what it would mean if major Republicans started denouncing “white privilege”.)

Meanwhile, Republicans continued to worship at the shrine of the Great Communicator. For three decades, the philosophy of the Republican Party didn’t waver: low taxes, less regulation, free trade, more spending for defense but less for social programs, and “traditional family values” — which mainly meant opposing abortion and homosexuality.

This constancy gave Republican candidates a significant branding advantage in campaigns. If you saw an R next to a politician’s name, you immediately knew what he stood for — even if you had never heard of him before. Democrats, conversely, had to put considerable effort and money into introducing themselves to voters, and explaining why they weren’t the “tax-and-spend liberals” Reagan had so successfully vilified.

That was the Reagan Era. Even if you hadn’t been born yet when he left office in 1989, you have been living in his era. Until Wednesday, when President Biden announced the end of it.

Two cycles. The Reagan Era did not end all at once. It took two complete election cycles to bring it down.

When Republicans started campaigning for the presidency in 2015, Reaganite orthodoxy still seemed solidly in control. Marco Rubio, for example, might talk about “new ideas”, but what he really meant was “new faces”. After listening to his stump speech, I wrote:

What in that plan does he think Jeb Bush will disagree with? Less regulation, lower taxes on corporations and the rich, less government spending, traditional family values, strong defense, aggressive American leadership in the world. How is that different from what every Republican has been saying since Ronald Reagan?

Rubio’s “new leadership” plea just meant that the old Reagan program needed a fresh young Hispanic spokesman, and that nobody really wanted another Bush vs. Clinton election.

But Trump upended all that. Occasionally he would wave in the direction of tax cuts and strong defense, but his real applause lines appealed to a rising white nationalist anger that Bush or Rubio could not speak for. (“Build a wall.” “Lock her up.”) Jeb Bush was “low energy” compared to the violence-promoting Trump. “Little Marco” was too mousy and too brown to stand up for the oppressed white working class.

An undercurrent of the Trump campaign was that Republicans had sold out white workers just as much as Democrats had. (In the other primary, Bernie Sanders was saying that Democrats had sold out workers just as much as Republicans had.) It was never clear just what time period the “again” in “Make America Great Again” pointed back to, but it wasn’t the Reagan administration. Maybe it was the 1950s, or the 1920s, or the Confederacy.

Trump’s speeches had a scatter-shot approach that sometimes could invoke big government positively. He told 60 Minutes that he would replace ObamaCare with a “terrific” healthcare plan that would cover all Americans “much better”. “I’m going to take care of everybody” he claimed, and “the government’s going to pay for it.”

Free trade was out and tariffs were in. And while he professed to be against regulation in general, he often threatened to interfere with American business in ways far beyond what Obama or Clinton had done. If Ford threatened to move a plant to Mexico, Trump said he would tell Ford’s CEO

Let me give you the bad news: every car, every truck and every part manufactured in this plant that comes across the border, we’re going to charge you a 35 percent tax — OK? — and that tax is going to be paid simultaneously with the transaction.

By 2020, the GOP was not even pretending to be more than a Trump personality cult. Their convention didn’t bother to write a new platform, because why weigh down the Great Leader with a specific policy agenda? Republicans would support Trump in 2020 — that’s all voters needed to know.

Supply-side economics. The beating heart of Reaganism was supply-side economics, as crystalized in the not-at-all-funny Laffer Curve, which started out as a drawing on a napkin and never got much more precise than that. The idea was that as taxes rose, economic activity shrank, with the result that sometimes a higher tax rate produced less revenue than a lower one. (At the extreme, it makes sense: If the tax rate were 100%, nobody would bother to make money.)

There was never a solid estimate of where the peak of the Laffer Curve was supposed to be, but Republicans uniformly believed that it was always at a lower rate than the current one. So tax cuts became the free lunch that economics wasn’t supposed to have: Cut taxes and the economy will grow so fast that the government will get more revenue. Everybody wins!

It didn’t work for Reagan or either of the times when Bush Jr. tried it. Lower taxes might goose the economy a little, but not enough to raise revenue beyond the previous projections. Invariably, tax cuts led to deficits.

So by the time Trump proposed a tax cut in 2017, supply-side economics had hit the same point Soviet Communism did during the Brezhnev Era: Everyone trotted out the old slogans, but no one really believed them. Trump cut rich people’s taxes because he was rich and wanted to pay less tax. McConnell and the other Republicans in Congress went along because their donors were rich and wanted to pay less tax. Mnunchin and various other hired experts might claim that it would be different this time, but soon Trump’s deficits began to approach $1 trillion a year, pre-Covid, at a time in the economic cycle when classic Keynesianism would call for a surplus. Obama had run trillion-dollar deficits to pull the economy out of the Great Recession. Trump was running them because … well, why not?

And the personality cultists in the GOP didn’t care.

When Covid hit, Trump realized that direct payments from the government were popular, and that no one cared about the deficit. So the deficit for fiscal 2020 (October, 2019 to October, 2020) clocked in at $3.1 trillion. During the fall campaign, Trump proposed another round of direct payments, plus infrastructure spending. The second round of payments passed after the election, at a lower level than either Trump or the Democrats wanted, but the infrastructure proposal never turned into a specific piece of legislation.

Biden. After Trump’s coup attempt failed and Biden took over, Republicans in Congress attempted to run the same play that had stymied Obama: Underfund and slow-roll everything, so that the economy will limp along and the new administration will be blamed.

On Covid relief, Biden decided not to play that game. He politely listened to a lowball Republican proposal that they probably would have backed away from anyway, and then pushed ahead with a reconciliation strategy (the same one Trump had used to pass his tax cut). The $2 trillion package passed quickly with only Democratic votes. It has been quite popular, and Republicans have at times tried to take credit for it, despite unanimously voting against it.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, the President promoted two additional proposals — the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, that together would spend over $4 trillion during the next ten years. The plans are funded by tax increases on corporations (rolling back part — but not all — of Trump cut in the corporate tax rate) and the rich (the top tax rate returns to its pre-Trump level, and capital gains are taxed as ordinary income for those making more than $1 million a year). Biden pledges not to raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year. The middle class, he said, “is already paying enough”.

This is all heresy against Reaganomics, which says that if taxes on the wealthy are kept low, they’ll invest their money more productively than government could, resulting in higher economic growth, more jobs, and increased wages. That was a formidable argument in the 1980s, and still had teeth even when it was used against Obama.

But no one believes it any more. Biden saw no need to give an elaborate justification for taxing the rich to build American infrastructure. Instead, he called supply-side economics by its liberal name, and brushed it off:

Trickle-down economics has never worked.

That simple statement is the bookend to Clinton’s “The era of big government is over.”

The true history of American infrastructure. It has now been more than two centuries since New York State began constructing the Erie Canal, which made Buffalo a boom town and promoted economic growth across the Great Lakes. Once cargoes from Lake Superior started floating down the Hudson, New York City soon replaced Philadelphia as the nation’s top port.

What the last two centuries have taught us is that the economy needs a mixture of public and private investment. The logic of that can get a little wonky, but the gist is that certain big investments, like the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, or rural electrification, create what economists call “positive externalities”. In other words, they promote a general growth that no private-sector entity is broad enough to capture. (Even New York State failed to capture the growth its canal promoted in Chicago and Detroit.) So the private sector either will not build them at all, or will build them much too small and too late.

One result of Reaganism has been an under-investment in the public sector. That’s what Biden is trying to reverse. By taxing the rich, he is taking money from a bloated private sector to catch up on the public-sector investments that have gone begging for decades. Biden is betting that this shift will increase growth and create jobs — the exact reverse of what Reaganomics predicts.

In the official Republican response to Biden’s speech, Senator Tim Scott invoked trickle-down when he described Biden’s tax plan as “job-killing”, and predicted “it would lower Americans’ wages and shrink our economy”. If the Trump tax cuts — or the Bush tax cuts before them — had actually created jobs and promoted growth, as they were supposed to do, then it would make sense to predict that reversing them would kill jobs and stifle growth. But none of the promised benefits of Trump’s plan actually happened, so the jobs that it didn’t create won’t be lost when Biden goes back to pre-Trump tax rates.

Where is the Tea Party? Writing in Politico, conservative Rich Lowry waxes nostalgic about 2009, when “President Barack Obama created a spontaneous, hugely influential conservative grassroots movement on the basis of an $800 billion stimulus bill and a health care plan estimated to cost less than a trillion.”

Once upon a time, Joe Biden’s spending proposals would have launched mass demonstrations in opposition.

Little else would have been talked about in conservative media, and ambitious Republican politicians would have competed with one another to demonstrate the most intense, comprehensive resistance, up to and perhaps including chaining themselves to the U.S. Treasury building in protest.

But now, he laments, Republicans just want to talk about the border and cancel culture. No one is defending the Reagan orthodoxy, because no one believes in it any more.

Perestroika has come.

Red States Crack Down on Protests

The GOP’s “freedom” rhetoric yields to its authoritarian agenda.

Standard conservative rhetoric treats the word freedom like partisan property: Republicans defend freedom, while Democrats are all Stalin-wannabees.

Usually, pro-gun rallies are where you see this trope in its purest form, but during the pandemic it has shown up in anti-public-health protests as well. Two weeks ago, we saw it in Congress, when Jim Jordan assailed Dr. Fauci with “When do Americans get their freedom back?” Occasionally, the two issues combine, as when armed protesters stormed the Oregon Capitol while the legislature debated anti-Covid measures.

Lately, though, we’ve been seeing how hollow the Right’s commitment to “freedom” is, at least when people use their freedom to support liberal causes. In previous weeks, I’ve talked at length about the anti-voting laws red-state legislatures have been passing in response to their dark-but-baseless fantasies about election fraud. But lately their focus has turned towards punishing liberal protest.

The latest push in red-state legislatures — Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Iowa so far — is for laws that criminalize protest and encourage vigilante action against protesters.

[Oklahoma] HB 1674, which Republican legislators passed earlier this week, grants civil and criminal immunity for drivers who “unintentionally” harm or kill protesters while “fleeing from a riot,” as long as there is a “reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary.”

Running over protesters is a long-standing conservative fantasy, which James Alex Fields Jr. carried out when he killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017. If I were a Democrat in one of these legislatures, I think I’d submit a motion to rename the bill “The Heather Heyer Had It Coming Act of 2021”.

At the end of last summer, USA Today reported:

There have been at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protests from May 27 through Sept. 5, including 96 by civilians and eight by police, according to Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats who spoke with USA TODAY this summer.

I have some sympathy for people who unexpectedly find themselves surrounded by protesters doing threatening things, like rocking the car or pounding on its roof. But I’m not sure how many cases, if any, fit that description. In this video, for example, the driver comes back for a second pass through the crowd.

“Unintentionally” sounds like it mitigates the harm, but it actually doesn’t, because intentionality is so hard to prove in court. And the “reasonable belief” standard in the Oklahoma law creates an opening for the same kind of racial bias we see in police-shooting and stand-your-ground cases: What if the driver’s impression of danger is based on the race of the protesters, rather than any threatening actions? Might a few white jurors sympathize with a driver who got scared simply because his car was surrounded by Black people?

These laws also give the government more power to clamp down on dissent. Florida’s law, which has already been signed by Gov. DeSantis, creates new crimes that you might commit just by showing up for what you believe to be a peaceful protest.

But opponents say it would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violence.

“The problem with this bill is that the language is so overbroad and vague … that it captures anybody who is peacefully protesting at a protest that turns violent through no fault of their own,” said Kara Gross, the legislative director at ACLU Florida. “Those individuals who do not engage in any violent conduct under this bill can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony and face up to five years in prison and loss of voting rights. The whole point of this is to instill fear in Floridians.”

In addition:

If a local government chooses to decrease its law enforcement budget — to “defund the police,” as Mr. DeSantis put it — the measure provides a new mechanism for a prosecutor or a city or county commissioner to appeal the reduction to the state.

The law also increases penalties for taking down monuments, including Confederate ones, making the offense a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

As with the anti-voting laws, the justification for the Florida law is largely imaginary.

Speakers including the governor said the law would protect law enforcement and private property against rioters, despite acknowledging there was little violent unrest in Florida during last year’s protests over Floyd’s death.

… Echoing DeSantis, Republican state House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Attorney General Ashley Moody vilified other states and cities for their handling of the protests last year, some of which did turn violent.

State CFO Jimmy Patronis claimed that Portland, New York and Seattle “burned to the ground” last summer.

I’m sure that’s news to the residents of those cities. If there were vast refugee camps in New Jersey, across the Hudson from burned-out New York, I’m sure I’d have heard about them. The main studios of Fox News are on Sixth Avenue, so they would just have to point a camera out the window to show us the devastation.

An interesting question is how this law interacts with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

In general, Floridians can defend themselves with deadly force if they believe they are in imminent danger or death — and not only when they are inside their homes. The person being threatened is not required to try to flee.

If I’m protesting peacefully, and a car is bearing down on me in a threatening way, can I just shoot the driver? If his fear justifies running over me, shouldn’t my fear justify shooting him?

Conservatives don’t ask these questions, because they know they are the ones who threaten deadly violence. In a relatively small number of cases, last summer’s George Floyd protests devolved into property damage and looting. But liberals didn’t get in their cars to mow down anti-lockdown protesters, and George Floyd marchers didn’t bring their AR-15s.

Another question conservatives like to avoid is: What if D.C. had such a law on January 6? Right now, the Justice Department expects to charge about 500 Trump cultists who trespassed into the Capitol after the crowd broke windows and pushed back police (injuring over 100 of them). But a law like Florida’s would justify felony charges against the many thousands of people from Trump’s rally who walked in the direction of the Capitol, not to mention Trump himself. By the new Florida standards, anyone who stood outside the Capitol with a Trump sign is a rioter, because they participated in a protest that had turned violent.

But for some reason, conservatives never imagine that the laws they support will ever aimed at them. Consider Thomas Webster, a retired NYPD cop who has been charged for his participation in the January 6 riot.

Prosecutors say that he “attacked a police officer with an aluminum pole and ripped off his protective gear and gas mask, causing the officer to choke.”

According to WaPo reporter Rachel Weiner:

Lawyer for Tommy Webster, retired NYPD cop accused of beating an MPD officer with flagpole on #J6, says his client is in a “dormitory setting” with people serving time for “inner-city crimes” – “for a middle aged guy whose never been arrested before this has been a shock for him”

Who could have guessed? You beat one cop with a flagpole, and suddenly people are treating you like you’re Black or something.