The Monday Morning Teaser

I really resent that Trump continues to force me to pay attention to him. I would like to look to the future beyond January 20, and start thinking about all the issues that Trump’s attack on democracy and his incompetent handling of the pandemic have pushed onto the back burner: climate change, wealth inequality, health care, policing, reforming the presidency in the wake of Trump’s abuses, controlling disinformation, and figuring out how we should think about federal budget deficits, just to name the most important ones.

I actually had a post outlined where I would take a few paragraphs to reset the stage on each of those topics and provide links to review what’s been happening while our attention has been elsewhere. Then the section about deficits got out of hand, and I considered just doing a post on that, and saving the survey post for another week.

And then all hell started breaking loose. Saturday, Ted Cruz and ten other fascists in the Senate (there’s no point trying to be polite about it) announced that they would join Louie Gohmert and his pro-autocracy faction in the House to challenge several slates of Biden electors. The challenge won’t go anywhere, and should be resolved within a few hours, but when so many of our elected officials make such a blatant attempt to overrule the voters, it can’t be ignored.

Then yesterday, the Washington Post released a recording of a call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, pressuring him to “find” enough votes for Trump to win the state. If there were time, Trump should be impeached all over again just for this extortion attempt, because it’s exactly the kind of abuse of power I outlined in 2018 in “What Is Impeachment For?

So anyway, looking past the inauguration will have to wait another week. The featured post will cover the Republican attack on democracy. It should be out around 10 EST.

The weekly summary will cover “lesser” news, like the thousands of Americans who continue to die every day of Covid, and the problems in distributing the vaccine. Tomorrow, two elections in Georgia will determine who controls the Senate for the next two years. And Nancy Pelosi got re-elected as Speaker yesterday. Little stuff like that.

Let’s imagine that gets out around noon.

The Long December

It’s been a long December
And there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last.

Counting Crows

This week’s featured posts are my end-of-the-year summaries: “The Yearly Sift 2020: State of the Sift” and “The Yearly Sift 2020: Themes of the Year“.

But it’s 2020, so the news didn’t slow down for the holiday week. Here’s what’s been happening.

This week everybody was talking about vetoes

Trump threatened to veto the $2.3 trillion package that includes $900 billion of Covid relief and money to keep the government open past today. Then he did nothing for several days. Then yesterday he finally signed it. The enhanced unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act ended Saturday, so his delay means that states won’t be able to restart the benefits until the first week of January.

The announcement that he had signed the bill was quickly followed by a bizarre statement that makes the signing sound like something other than a capitulation. Trump’s statement invoked the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, as if he believes this law does the opposite of what it really does.

Congress passed the ICA in response to President Nixon’s executive overreach – his Administration refused to release Congressionally appropriated funds for certain programs he opposed. While the U.S. Constitution broadly grants Congress the power of the purse, the President – through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and executive agencies – is responsible for the actual spending of funds. The ICA created a process the President must follow if he or she seeks to delay or cancel funding that Congress has provided.

The process is for the President to make a list of the desired cuts and then send it back to Congress, which can just ignore the criticism — as it certainly will in this case. The President then must spend the money appropriated in the original bill. So the list of rescissions Trump announced (which may or may not ever appear; remember all the times he has said that a health care plan was coming) is just symbolic. Even Fox News says

with only a few days left in this Congress, such a request is nearly out of the question

In addition to “demanding” and “insisting on” changes in the bill he signed, Trump’s statement falsely claims Congress has agreed to change Section 230 of Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects social media companies from certain lawsuits. (Trump would like to sue Twitter for continuing to flag his lying tweets about the election as “disputed”.) Congress has also, the statement falsely asserts, “agreed to focus strongly on the very substantial voter fraud which took place in the November 3 Presidential election”.

It is unclear whether Trump issued this toothless statement to fool his supporters, or if his staff fooled him into thinking the statement somehow continues the fight. It does not. He surrendered.

On Wednesday, he did veto the National Defense Authorization Act, which is one of those must-pass bills that allows the government to do things like buy weapons and pay the troops. A vote to override is scheduled for this afternoon in the House, though Senate procedures may delay their vote until Sunday. The ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee sent out a carefully phrased note to his colleagues.

Your decision should be based on what is actually in the bill rather than distortions or misrepresentations. … Your decision should be based upon the oath we all took, which was to the Constitution rather than any person or organization

You mean, some “person” is demanding loyalty to himself rather than to the Constitution, and is spreading “distortions or misrepresentations” about the contents of the NDAA? Whoever could that be?

Trump’s stated objections to the bill are tangential, to say the least.

Trump vetoed the bill after Democrats and Republicans refused to include his last-minute demand to repeal legal protections for social media companies [Section 230 again], which is unrelated to the defense legislation. He also objected to provisions that would remove the names of Confederate leaders from Army bases and place limits on his plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Europe.

Trump describes the bill as “a gift to Beijing”, which might be one of the “misrepresentations” Rep. Thornberry had in mind. The bill also funds a new cybersecurity effort, which probably is not going down well with Trump’s handler in Moscow.

Amanda Marcotte has an interesting theory: Trump’s vetoes and veto threats are intended to pressure Mitch McConnell into helping him steal the election.

To be clear, this isn’t 11th level chess. It’s actually Trump employing junior high school bully logic: McConnell wants a thing (this paltry coronavirus relief bill), and so Trump is threatening to take it away unless Trump gets what he wants (a successful coup). Trump, being very dumb, has not considered the possibility that McConnell couldn’t give in to the extortion if he tried because there’s actually no secret file in McConnell’s office labeled “How To Steal Any Election.”

and pardons

Three weeks ago in “Pardons and Their Limits” I talked in general about the issues involved in the pardons Trump might issue. Now we have some actual pardons to discuss.

The Washington Post sums up what’s wrong with them:

Larry Kupers, the former acting head of the Justice Department Office of the Pardon Attorney, who served in the Trump administration until he left in mid-2019, said in an interview that the president has been abusive in failing to go through the normal channels to review requests for clemency.

Normally, such requests go through his former office and recommendations are eventually sent to the White House. Most of Trump’s actions have been made on requests that did not go through the office. “It is abusive in the sense that very few of his grants, commutations or pardons really went to any legitimate purpose,” Kupers said.

“The purpose of the pardon power set out by Alexander Hamilton — that is mercy and reconciliation and I would add to that forgiveness. I can’t think about any of his grants that come under those categories. They are all grants to cronies or are partisan in the sense that he wants to excite and please his base.”

One striking thing that you might miss or misunderstand: Writers trying to be fair to Trump are sure to mention the dubious pardons of previous presidents — Ford pardoned Nixon; Clinton pardoned Marc Rich; Bush the First pardoned the Iran-Contra conspirators; and so on. What’s important to notice is that the worst examples from America’s past are the run of the mill now. Just about all of Trump’s pardons are self-serving, corrupt, or otherwise damaging to America.

The latest batch included the pardon everyone expected: Paul Manafort, who gets his reward for keeping quiet about the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. His pardon ties a nice bow on Trump’s obstruction of the Mueller investigation.

Among the partisan pardons are three corrupt Republican congressmen: Duncan Hunter, who was convicted of stealing campaign funds for personal use; Chris Collins (insider trading); and Steve Stockman (charity fraud). All three were clearly guilty of money crimes that served no political purpose; they were just greedy, and grabbed the money because they could. They all deserved their punishment, and could be poster boys for the swamp that Trump promised to drain. It is impossible to imagine a corrupt Democratic congressman — or even a never-Trump Republican — getting a similar pardon. The message this sends to corrupt Republican politicians everywhere is: Go for it. Even if you’re caught, eventually a Republican president will pardon you.

But probably the least deserving beneficiaries of Trump’s largesse are the four Blackwater mercenaries convicted of the Nisour Square Massacre. They killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including two children. There is no doubt they are guilty, or that their crime is heinous. I reconstruct Trump’s thinking like this: They’re Americans and they killed non-white foreigners, so who cares?

This is reminiscent of Trump’s pardon in 2019 of convicted murderer Major Matt Golsteyn, of whom Trump tweeted:

We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!

It is hard to overstate how much damage these pardons (and Trump’s overall attitude towards murderers in uniform) do to the reputation of the United States and the morale of our armed forces. What must our soldiers think, when they hear their Commander in Chief call them “killing machines”? Former head of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey tweeted in response to the first talk of such pardons:

Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.

The Blackwater pardons go beyond simple corruption. They are evil for evil’s sake.

Josh Marshall’s take on the pardons as obstruction is interesting: He doesn’t think they matter that much. More important than sending people to jail is figuring out what happened, and he expects that to come out of the documents that will be available to the Biden administration.

A new President not invested in the cover up changes the equation dramatically. Everything that has been bottled up at the DOJ, in the intelligence services, in the President’s tax returns, in the voluminous records of the US government have been bottled up because of the President’s slow-rolling, mostly spurious claims of executive privilege or simple non-compliance. All that power disappears on January 20th and translates into the hands of Joe Biden. An ex-President has no privileges to claim whatsoever. In the past, incumbent Presidents have deferred to former President’s on claims of privilege. But that is purely a courtesy. All of these documents and records are the property of the United States government and they are under the control of the incumbent President, who will be Joe Biden in 26 days.

What Biden will do with this power, I can’t tell you. But it will be up to him. And there is quite a lot that remained hidden during Trump’s presidency that can now be uncovered.

In general, I’m against a tit-for-tat view of democratic norms. We believe in democracy and Republicans don’t, so we have a different obligation to maintain its norms. It’s frustrating, but necessary.

In this case, though, I think a exception is called for: Trump has violated so many norms that I think his claims of privilege deserve no deference from his successor. Give him his legal rights and nothing more.

and the Nashville bombing

A car-bomb rocked Nashville at around 6:30 on Christmas morning. It was placed in a touristy area of downtown, but at a time when tourists wouldn’t be there. Police have identified the bomber and believe he died in the bombing, possibly intentionally. Officials are being careful not to assign motives before they have clear evidence. The bomber seems to have been a loner who purchased and assembled the bomb components himself.

The bomber clearly was trying to destroy property rather than kill people. Gunfire apparently was intended to draw police to the area, but the bomb-carrying RV warned people away by blaring a recorded warning that counted down to the explosion. He has been described as “a hermit”, and there are reports that he had been giving away major possessions, as if he expected to die soon.

The bomb was next to an AT&T hub and knocked out some services, but no one knows yet whether that was the purpose. Unconfirmed speculation says that the bomber was paranoid about 5G. You may have seen a photo purporting to be the bomber wearing a Trump hat, but International Business Times claims the photo is a hoax. A scraggly beard makes the Trump-hat photo hard to compare to the clean-shaven photo released by police.

Trump spent the weekend golfing, with no comment on any of the news. Bryan Tyler Cohen makes a sage observation:

Just so we’re clear, Trump is staying silent on Nashville until he finds out whether the person responsible supports him or not.

His concern with “terrorism” and “law and order” never includes violent acts by his supporters.

and you also might be interested in …

Brexit finally got done, more or less.

WaPo’s editorial board reviews the state of Trump’s wall as he leaves office: $15 billion spent, environmental damage, and no benefit to speak of. Oh, and Mexico never paid a dime.

Here’s the New Hampshire I remember:

In Concord on Monday December 21st of 2020 at ten a.m., a group of over one hundred people from across New Hampshire gathered at the now-closed state house steps to invoke their Right of Revolution as specified in Article Ten of the Bill of Rights of the NH Constitution.

The maskless gathering seemed to be motivated by the fairly meager emergency orders of Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who was described as “hiding in his home on Christmas Eve” like that was a strange thing to do.

The Trump claims of electoral fraud all fall apart when looked at in any detail. They rely on their bulk, not on their quality. Here, WaPo’s Phillip Bump focuses on one. And Sidney Powell’s secret “expert” witness isn’t particularly expert.

and let’s close with something judgmental

On bad days, I agree with Eileen McGann’s “I Think We’re Just Too Stupid for Democracy“. Unfortunately, as she observes, “All of the alternatives are worse.”

The Yearly Sift 2020: Themes of the Year

The Primary Theme of 2020: Survival

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

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

The news in re-runs

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

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

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

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

And this observation came on April 13:

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

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

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

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

Democracy‘s survival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survival with Sanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My election-eve commentary was confident but apprehensive:

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

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

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

Surviving Covid

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

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

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

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

Secondary Theme: Democratic Identity

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

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

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

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

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

The Yearly Sift 2020: State of the Sift

One annual tradition of this blog is to take a look back at the numbers and assess the Weekly Sift’s popularity. It’s sort of a compromise with myself: I avoid the tendency to focus week-by-week on how the posts perform, as well as the temptation to pander to a wider audience at the expense of my regular readers. But at the same time, the point of doing a blog is to have readers, so I need to notice what does or doesn’t get a response.

One event that pulls this question into focus happened in 2011, when “Six True Things Politicians Can’t Say” suddenly hit it big with over 50,000 page views in a single day — still a Sift record. For a long time, it was the blog’s most popular post, with more than double the number of hits of posts I thought were more substantial. (No doubt one-hit-wonder bands feel the same way.) Not that there was anything wrong with “Six True Things”, but I had the hunch that its popularity had more to do with its formulaic clickbait title than with its content. For months afterward, I resisted the temptation to come up with “Six More True Things Politicians Can’t Say”. (I still use the X-things format when appropriate, like this year’s “The Four Big Lies of the Republican Convention“.)

So anyway, I think about these things once a year.

As I’ve explained in previous years, various measures of this blog’s popularity have been in contradictory trends for several years: Year after year it has more regular readers but fewer (and less explosive) viral posts. I think the lack of viral posts is largely the result of changes in Facebook’s algorithms, which make it harder for a link to spread without paying Facebook to promote it (which I never do). That certainly is a factor that has been felt across the blogosphere, but it’s hard to say if that’s the whole explanation. Maybe I just don’t write ’em like I used to.

So anyway, if you look at total hits on the site, as measured by WordPress, that statistic peaked at 782K in 2015, and then declined each year until it hit 188K in 2019. 2019’s numbers would have been even lower without “How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?“, which got 17K hits because a Google algorithm called it to the attention of people interested in the Second Amendment, who positively hated it. It picked up 303 comments, almost all of them negative. (“Take this article, crumble it up nice and tight and shove it up your ass.”) I believe this is my only post that ever went negatively viral, by spreading from one hater to another. (Though 2011’s “Why I Am Not a Libertarian“, with 28K hits and 283 far more mixed comments, was arguably another one.) I picture gun-nuts all over the country sending each other the link with a comment like: “Look at this! Can you believe this shit?”

This year, driven by the election and the amount of quarantine time we all spent browsing the internet, total hits rebounded to over 200K, and should wind up around 205K. Comparisons to 2015 tell a clear story: Over 400K of 2015’s hits came from two viral posts: “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” (which posted in 2014, but got most of its hits in 2015) and “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot“. “The Distress of the Privileged“, which came out in 2012, chipped in another 50K.

Those kind of single-post numbers have been out of reach for a long time. “Not a Tea Party” and “Distress” garnered an additional 14K hits in 2020 — I have no idea what sets them on new runs — but the most popular new posts of 2020 had far more modest numbers: “Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)” (6.6K), “The Underlying Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives” (5.9K), and “In the Land of ‘No We Can’t’” (3.7K). “Opening Thoughts About the Trump Voter” (2.9K) came out two weeks ago and hasn’t finished its run yet, so it should go over 3K in the next day or two.

On the other hand, WordPress also tells me that 6032 people now follow the blog. I have no idea exactly what that number includes, how often those six thousand folks read the posts WordPress emails them, whether they forward those emails to their friends, or how many people read the Sift through some other blog-following service. But the apples-to-apples on that 6032 is 3820 in 2015. I started noticing Facebook numbers in 2018, when the Sift’s page had 978 follows; it now has 1166.

A mixed measure of readership is hits on the homepage, Those hits are of two types: (1) regular readers who have the blog bookmarked so they can check it regularly, and (2) people who come across some viral post and then look at the homepage to see what else the blog does. I have no idea how to separate the two. That number peaked at 101K in 2016, then declined each year to 66K last year before rebounding somewhat this year to around 69-70K.

Hits on the weekly summaries — which again are mainly read by regulars — are up significantly. Years ago, 300 hits was a good number for a summary, but much higher numbers are common now: April 20’s “Off the Table” got nearly a thousand views.

Finally, the number — and I would argue, the quality — of the comments has been going up for some while. The Sift now has what I said I wanted several years ago: a commenting community. There are now discussions I don’t feel I need to get involved in, because I had my say already and you guys are doing fine. A few years ago, I felt like I had to respond whenever a commenter pushed a false right-wing talking point, because otherwise the blog would be a vehicle for disinformation. But these days, there are regular commenters who take care of that.

There were 1407 comments in 2015 (again, most of them responding to the small number of viral posts). This year had somewhat more: 1540 with a week to go; 1570 if you count the last week of 2019 to make a full year. So a smaller number of hits on the website is leading to more comments. Substance is hard to quantify, but my impression is that in the past more comments were pretty simple agreements or disagreements. If you look at “Opening Thoughts About the Trump Voter” from two weeks ago, the comments are almost more interesting than the post.

Next year, I’m going to face the same problem as all political media: How do I draw attention without the five-alarm dumpster fire of the Trump presidency? I’m thinking about it. Maybe it’s finally time for “Six More True Things”.

The Monday Morning Teaser

After a one-year hiatus, the Yearly Sift is back. The featured post this week will take a yearly look at things rather than my usual weekly focus. It will also review the most popular posts of the year, the statistics on the blog’s readership, and so on.

In compensation for staying home rather than visiting friends in Florida, I’ve been giving myself more of a holiday week this year, so I’m a little behind on the research for that post. Let’s say it gets out by noon, eastern time.

This being 2020, the news didn’t slow down for the holidays, so the weekly summary also has a lot to cover: Trump’s veto of the NDAA and veto-fake on Covid relief, the next round of corrupt pardons, the Nashville bombing, and a few other things. Let’s tentatively slot that in for 1 p.m. A collection of everybody else’s year-in-review links will come next week.

Keeping Faith

Nothing good can come of the confrontation between good faith and bad faith engagement.Indeed, pursuing good faith engagement with bad faith actors only enables and fuels this corrosive, anti-civic behavior.

Josh Marshall

This week’s featured post is “Beware of Bad Faith“. Next week I’ll resume the tradition of the Yearly Sift and announce a theme of the year.

This week everybody was talking about the Russian hack

Ars Technica describes the hack like this:

SolarWinds is the maker of a nearly ubiquitous network management tool called Orion. A surprisingly large percentage of the world’s enterprise networks run it. Hackers backed by a nation-state—two US senators who received private briefings say it was Russia—managed to take over SolarWinds’ software build system and push a security update infused with a backdoor. SolarWinds said about 18,000 users downloaded the malicious update.

So basically, major corporations and government agencies were hacked via an organization that they trusted to keep them safe from hackers. Wired summed up:

Any customer that installed an Orion patch released between March and June inadvertently planted a Russian backdoor on their own network.

So, ironically, IT departments that fell months behind on installing patches — a lot of them, according to Wired — escaped. Not all of the 18K users who installed the back door were the targets, though. Ars Technica:

the tiniest of slivers—possibly as small as 0.2 percent—received a follow-on hack that used the backdoor to install a second-stage payload. The largest populations receiving stage two were, in order, tech companies, government agencies, and think tanks/NGOs. The vast majority—80 percent—of these 40 chosen ones were located in the US.

Again, Wired puts this in simple terms:

This means there are really three subgroups within the potential victims of these attacks: Orion users who installed the backdoor but were never otherwise exploited; victims who had some malicious activity on their networks, but who ultimately weren’t appealing targets for attackers; and victims who were actually deeply compromised because they held valuable data.

“If they didn’t exfiltrate data, it’s because they didn’t want it,” says Jake Williams, a former NSA hacker and founder of the security firm Rendition Infosec.

So the obvious question is: What did they want?

Identifying exactly what was taken is challenging and time consuming. For example, some reports have indicated that hackers breached critical systems of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for the US nuclear weapons arsenal. But DOE spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement late Thursday that while attackers did access DOE “business networks,” they did not breach “the mission-essential national security functions of the Department.”

Let me make a layman’s guess about what that means: They didn’t steal our nuclear secrets, but they got a lot personal information about people who could steal our nuclear secrets.

One thing the hackers wanted was an opportunity to hide their malware inside of other software companies’ products. Josephine Wolff writes in Slate:

Even more worrisome is the fact that the attackers apparently made use of their initial access to targeted organizations, such as FireEye and Microsoft, to steal tools and code that would then enable them to compromise even more targets. After Microsoft realized it was breached via the SolarWinds compromise, it then discovered its own products were then used “to further the attacks on others,” according to Reuters.

This means that the set of potential victims is not just (just!) the 18,000 SolarWinds customers who may have downloaded the compromised updates, but also all of those 18,000 organizations’ customers, and potentially the clients of those second-order organizations as well—and so on. So when I say the SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign will last years, I don’t just mean, as I usually do, that figuring out liability and settling costs and carrying out investigations will take years (though that is certainly true here). The actual, active theft of information from protected networks due to this breach will last years.

Ominously, the government’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warns that we might not know the full extent of the attack yet.

CISA has evidence that there are initial access vectors other than the SolarWinds Orion platform. … CISA will update this Alert as new information becomes available.

As for who did it, anonymous sources of The Washington Post blame the hack on:

Russian hackers, known by the nicknames APT29 or Cozy Bear, are part of that nation’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR

Predictably, Trump downplayed the hack and said that we don’t know it was Russia. In other words, he once again said exactly what Putin wants him to say. Incidents like this are why so many people believe Putin has something on Trump. There may or may not be a pee tape, but there’s clearly something. Ben Rhodes comments:

Trump stands down on hacking, says nothing about Navalny poisoning, downsizes US military presence in Germany, embraces Russian conspiracy theory about Ukraine and 2016 election, and debases US democracy into a corrupt grift for cronies. Those are Putin’s returns just this year.

Trump also incorporated the hack into a new conspiracy theory to deny that he lost the election by seven million votes: Maybe it was China. Maybe they also hit the voting machines.

An aside: On social media, I am now refusing to get into the details of Trump’s election conspiracy theories. Instead I simply say this: “There are numerous legitimate venues in which Trump made or could have made his claims: state and local election boards, secretaries of state, state and federal courts. In every case, those officials and judges — including Republican officials and Trump-appointed judges — found no reason to challenge Biden’s win. It’s time for Trump and his followers to accept the reality that he lost legitimately and by a wide margin.”

In a discussion of what Microsoft has discovered about the attack, Microsoft President Brad Smith made a oblique criticism of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

The new year creates an opportunity to turn a page on recent American unilateralism and focus on the collective action that is indispensable to cybersecurity protection.

Mike Pompeo, in contrast to his boss, said this:

This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.

In the middle of all this, the Pentagon has shut down transition briefings for Biden’s people. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller claimed it was a mutually agreed upon holiday break, but Biden transition director Yohannes Abraham denies that.

and the transition

The effort to keep Trump in power in spite of the voters gets more and more radical as its more legitimate efforts fail. Recounts didn’t work. There was no evidence of massive fraud to show to election boards or state or federal courts. Republican legislatures in swing states couldn’t be persuaded to back a Trump power grab. So what does that leave? Violence.

The latest buzz in MAGAland is that Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act to take over the swing states by military force and hold new elections. (In other words: to start an insurrection rather than put one down.) Two criminal allies who benefited from Trump’s pardon power, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, have both suggested this.

It’s not going to happen. The military doesn’t want that job, and I don’t think our generals have some deep personal loyalty to Trump that they’re looking for a way to express.

“When you’re talking about a group of conspiracy theorists, and others who lack any kind of legal knowledge, they’ll just pull that arrow out of their quiver when the rest don’t work,” said Brian Levin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Once you eliminate military violence, the remaining option is yahoos with guns.

“What is the heart of the Second Amendment, pro-militia, anti-government patriot movement? It’s the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment,” [Levin] said. “It says people can rise up against a tyrannical government. To me, this looks like the last exit on the Jersey Turnpike before we get to that spot.”

We’re still waiting on what might be Biden’s most important appointment: attorney general. That person is going to have to decide which of the Trump-era corruption cases is worth pursing and how to pursue them. What’s in the national interest? What can states like New York handle on their own? Stuff like that.

It’s getting lost in this Trump-centered moment, but the new AG is also going to be in the middle of efforts to redefine and reform American policing. There is going to be another George Floyd somewhere, and when there is, will the local community believe in the Biden Justice Department or not? Violence happens when the non-violent avenues for seeking justice seem closed.

and the virus

A second vaccine, this one from Moderna, has been OK’d for use.

We’ve already hit a glitch in distribution of the Pfizer vaccine. States suddenly heard from the federal government, without explanation, that their expected allocation of doses would drop by 1/3 or more. It seems to be a bureaucratic issue and not a manufacturing problem.

The UK is reporting a new strain of Covid-19 that spreads even faster. It doesn’t seem to be any deadlier, though, and so far the belief is that the same vaccines will work.

It looks like a $900 billion Covid relief package will pass soon. I thank the voters of Georgia for forcing the two Senate runoffs on January 5. Mitch McConnell wants to sabotage the country as Biden takes office, but he needs to be able to argue that his Senate is not completely dysfunctional. So we’ll get a too-small package rather than none at all.

As we passed 300,000 deaths this week, the US continues to set records for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The Thanksgiving holiday gatherings proved to be every bit as dangerous as public-health officials predicted, and Christmas is shaping up to be even worse.

My best guess: The pandemic will peak in mid-January, and then fall off fairly quickly as spring arrives and the vaccines start to take hold. Some really horrible stuff will happen between then and now, though, because many communities’ hospital systems won’t be able to handle the strain. In the spring, when the outbreak was centered in New York City, help could be pulled in from elsewhere. This time, there is no “elsewhere”.

Whatever stories you have of bad behavior by covidiots, Texas wedding photographers can top you.

and you also might be interested in …

Believe it or not, Brexit is still a thing. Britain’s exit from the EU became official back in January, but there were still details to work out. Those details are still not worked out, and bad things start happening January 1 if they’re not.

New reasons to doubt trickle-down economics:

[A] new paper, by David Hope of the London School of Economics and Julian Limberg of King’s College London, examines 18 developed countries — from Australia to the United States — over a 50-year period from 1965 to 2015. The study compared countries that passed tax cuts in a specific year, such as the U.S. in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan slashed taxes on the wealthy, with those that didn’t, and then examined their economic outcomes.

The conclusion: The tax cuts had virtually no effect on economic growth, but they did increase the incomes of the rich.

An announcement from the United States Space Force:

Today, after a yearlong process that produced hundreds of submissions and research involving space professionals and members of the general public, we can finally share with you the name by which we will be known: Guardians.

Three words sum up everything that needs to be said about our space-faring guardians: I am Groot.

Benjamin Wittes’ look back on the Flynn pardon is worth reading. He puts the whole affair in context, notes the judge’s skepticism about the government’s actions since Barr became attorney general, and concludes:

I doubt, for reasons I won’t detail here, that it could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be an obstruction of justice. But I also have little doubt that it was one—that the whole story, taken together, describes a protracted pattern of conduct by the president that was specifically intended to influence the interactions of a key witness with both prosecutors and the courts. …

He notes Flynn’s subsequent airing of the notion that Trump could declare martial law in swing states so that the military could re-do the election, and comments:

The president, in other words, bought not merely Flynn’s non-cooperation with prosecutors. He appears to have bought as well the former intelligence officer’s vociferous and public support for his attempts to undermine the election he lost.

As we look toward the next rounds of pardons, this latter trade may be the fundamental one Trump is seeking to replicate.

I talked about the Dr. Jill controversy in the featured post, but I didn’t get around to mentioning this speculation: I’m sure that if she continues teaching English in a community college, it is only a matter of time before Project Veritas puts a student/provocatuer in her class to tape lectures that they can deceptively edit into something scandalous.

Trump’s takeover of conservative Christianity has not been completely unopposed. In this post, Pentacostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice collect 12 Trump-Christian leaders prophesying that Trump would win the election and serve a second term. These were not humble prayers that God might aid their favorite candidate, but proclamations that God had showed them the future.

Since Trump did not win the election and will not serve a second term, it’s worth considering the possibilities here.

  • God tricked them. Believing this would challenge standard Christian beliefs about God’s character and God’s relationship with humanity.
  • They fooled themselves. Maybe they interpreted their own wishful thinking as the voice of God, although the theory that some demon pretended to be God and told them what they wanted to hear is also consistent with many branches of Christian theology. Either way, followers should be leery of any future pronouncements these 12 might make.
  • They lied. In my opinion, this is the most likely option. But I’m cynical.

Most likely, though, these pastors’ sheep will not hold them accountable for their error in any way. The preachers will go on speaking in God’s name, the gullible will believe them, and the money will keep rolling in. Later, the followers of these charlatans will complain that people like me treat them like they’re stupid.

and let’s close with something adorable

As we deal with the pandemic and wait for the end of the Trump administration, it’s impossible to have too much cuteness in our lives. With that in mind, I offer a new species of greater gliders, who are related to koalas. They live in the Australian bush.

I think that if the new greater gliders handle their marketing rights wisely, they should never lack for eucalyptus again.

Beware of Bad Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He points to ObamaCare, where

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Josh Marshall sums up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monday Morning Teaser

The Electoral College has voted and a few Republicans are finally beginning to acknowledge the election that we had six weeks ago. Trump’s attempts to deny and subvert that election are getting wilder but less credible. Congress is not going to reject the vote of Electoral College. The military is not going to take over swing states and run a new election. One way or another, Joe Biden will be president at 12:01 p.m. on January 20.

This moment in history has me flashing back to the early days of the Obama administration, and hoping that Biden has learned the appropriate lesson: As much as he wants to unify the country — and as much as that’s what America needs — he can’t do it by attempting to placate Republican leaders’ bad-faith opposition. If they have actual policy goals, compromise is possible. But if they just want Biden to fail, as they wanted Obama to fail, negotiating with them is pointless.

That will be the gist of this week’s featured post “Beware of Bad Faith”, which should be out around 10 EST.

The weekly summary covers the contrast between the ever-worsening pandemic and the glimmers of hope as one vaccine rolls out and another gets approved, the sweeping Russian hack of our computer systems and the Russian hack in the Oval Office who refuses to recognize it, the ongoing Biden transition and the resistance it faces, and a few other things. I’m aiming to get that out around noon.

Shared Understanding

He leaves behind a society in which the bonds of trust are degraded, in which his example licenses everyone to cheat on taxes and mock affliction. Many of his policies can be reversed or mitigated. It will be much harder to clear our minds of his lies and restore the shared understanding of reality—the agreement, however inconvenient, that A is A and not B—on which a democracy depends.

– George Packer “A Political Obituary for Donald Trump

This week’s featured posts are “Opening Thoughts About the Trump Voter” and “This Week in the Trump Coup“.

This week everybody was talking about the virus and the vaccines

The Pfizer vaccine got approval and is being administered starting today.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing the predicted effects of the traveling and gathering Americans did over Thanksgiving. Friday, we set a record with 237,000 new cases. More than 17,000 Americans died in the last week. That’s like a Vietnam War every month.

The new worry is that people won’t take the vaccine. It isn’t just the usual anti-vax folks, it’s also a Catholic thing and anti-abortion Protestant thing, because the vaccines were developed using stem cells retrieved from aborted fetuses in the 1960s. The Pope doesn’t seem to have this scruple, but he’s not Catholic enough for some folks.

And then there are the wackos, like this Florida megachurch pastor, who

has advised his congregants not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, urging them to “believe in divine immunity” instead.

After all, divine immunity worked so well during the Black Death.

and the GOP becoming the Autocratic Party

This got covered in one of the featured posts. One thing I left out of that post: the racist nature of much of this weekend’s violence. Black churches were targets, including a historic D.C. church whose Black Lives Matter banner was torn down and burned.

and you also might be interested in …

One thing Trump’s effort to overturn the election he lost (by over seven million votes) has pointed out is how the minority-rule bugs in our democracy can cascade.

  • The Electoral College allows a candidate to lose by millions of votes and still become president, as Trump did in 2016. If Biden’s win in 2020 had been only 1% narrower across the board — if he’d won by 5.5 million votes rather than 7 million — the Electoral College would have flipped the victory to Trump.
  • Gerrymandering allows a party to control the state legislature even if a majority of the voters supports the other party. This is the case in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
  • If the state legislature can ignore the vote totals and choose electors on its own — as Trump is trying to get them to do — then a candidate can lose the popular vote not just nationally, but also in states that represent a majority of electors, and still become president.
  • If no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, the election is decided by the House, with each state delegation getting one vote. If the minority-rule party controls — or manages to gerrymander majorities in — 26 state delegations, its candidate wins.

Currently, all these factors favor Republicans. So if they are put together, Republicans could hold the presidency with considerably less than the 46% of the vote Trump got in 2016. A Democrat could win a resounding landslide of votes, but lose the presidency.

John Le Carré, the author who rescued the spy genre from James Bond, died this weekend at 89. Critics are arguing over his greatest novel, and I admit to never having read A Perfect Spy, which tops many lists. But The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a novel writers (of fiction and nonfiction alike) should study as they learn their craft, because it is so perfectly tight. You couldn’t edit out a single sentence without losing something.

Le Carré’s most influential insight was that intelligence work requires intelligence more than derring-do, and is more about organizations than lone-wolf operatives. First and foremost, George Smiley was a guy who read the files better than you would.

The opening chapters of The Honorable Schoolboy are about picking up the pieces after catching the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The process involves finding patterns in what the mole had prevented British intelligence from doing or discovering — assembling the gaps in the Circus’ knowledge into a story of its own. James Bond would have been useless.

and let’s close with something awesome

Prize-winning photos of the aurora.

This Week in the Trump Coup

The big thing to note is that the Electoral College is voting today, and that none of the 306 electoral votes Biden won in the election has been taken away by Trump’s 50+ lawsuits.

During impeachment, Republicans argued that Congress would overstep if it removed Trump so close to an election, because that was for the voters to decide. But of course, now that the voters have decided by a wide margin to remove Trump themselves, Republicans hold that decision to be invalid too.

Remember how this started: Biden’s victory became clear the Saturday after the election. When Trump didn’t concede right away, as all other losing candidates in living memory have, Republicans said we should give him time to adjust to his loss. Then they argued that he had a right to pursue all his legal options until the states certified their votes. Then they pushed back the date until the electoral votes were cast.

But of course this isn’t the end of it either. Now they’re talking about challenging the electoral votes when Congress meets to count them on January 6. That challenge will fail too, and then we’ll see what else they come up with, and how long they can keep this going.

In the meantime, it’s turning into a good scam for our conman-president. He has collected nearly a quarter billion dollars from his sheep to “fund” this challenge process, which costs only a fraction of that total. The longer he can tell supporters that he has a chance to win, the longer the cash keeps rolling in.

The downside, of course, is that people believe him. They believe Biden is stealing the election, but that Trump will still prevail. And as they catch on to the fact that Trump isn’t going to prevail, they’re going to become increasingly violent.

We saw that beginning to happen this weekend, with the Proud Boys and other Trump supporters rioting in D.C. and various other cities.

Police in Olympia, Wash., arrested an armed right-wing protester and charged him with shooting a counterdemonstrator during protests on Saturday night.

In the nation’s capital, at least four people were stabbed, including someone who is now in critical condition, and 33 more were arrested, after rallies supporting President Trump descended into chaos fueled by white nationalists. D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham estimates that as many as 700 Proud Boys and their confederates roamed downtown streets looking to start fights, clashing with about 200 anti-Trump protesters.

In Michigan

Michigan’s 16 electors will convene at 2 p.m. Eastern inside a heavily guarded state capitol in Lansing to cast their ballots for Joe Biden to become president and Kamala Harris to become vice president.

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) said in a statement overnight that the entire capitol complex will be closed to the public based on “recommendations from law enforcement” amid “credible threats of violence.” Police will escort each of the electors from their cars amid what’s expected to be a large “Stop the Steal” protest outside.

The week’s most horrifying story was also one of its most absurd: The lawsuit Texas filed asking the Supreme Court to overturn the presidential election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The suit itself was ridiculous, because how one state chooses its electors is not any other’s state’s business — which is what the Supreme Court said when it tossed the suit for lack of standing. The absurdity and insubstantiality of it didn’t stop 17 other state attorneys general from joining the suit or 126 Republican members of Congress from signing an amicus brief supporting it.

Let’s be clear about what would have happened if Texas had won: American democracy would be over. The voters could cast 81 million votes against a sitting president, defeat him by seven million votes, and even jump the hurdles of the archaic Electoral College — and he could hang onto power anyway. It is hard to imagine how future elections could proceed, once the Supreme Court had reduced them to an empty exercise. It’s also hard to imagine the Union hanging together. Why should blue states stay in a Union where their votes don’t count?

A barrage of other Trump suits got tossed in various state and federal courts, and I’m not going to go into them all. What it comes down to is that there is no court in any state that endorses Trump’s claim that Biden’s win is fraudulent. In most of the suits, Trump’s lawyers didn’t even really make that claim; the “evidence” they kept crowing about in public and social media wasn’t anything a court would recognize.

I agree with Amanda Marcotte’s interpretation: 2/3rds of Republicans don’t “believe” Trump really won the election any more than they believed President Obama was born in Kenya. The election-fraud conspiracy theory simply justifies a position they don’t want to state in so many words: To hell with democracy. Their side should be in power no matter what the majority of Americans want.

it’s important to see those who support Trump’s coup for who they are: People who have been radicalized, through racism, hateful propaganda, and a sense of perpetual grievance, against democracy. They aren’t going to change their minds because of new facts, because the underlying belief — which is that they deserve to be in power, no matter what — is the problem here. It’s a rising American authoritarianism, and we underestimate it at our peril.

This is a good time to revisit one of my favorite Jen Sorensen cartoons, which she drew in 2015.

Arguably the most disturbing thing about the Texas lawsuit was the 126 Republicans in Congress signed an amicus brief supporting the suit. New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell has proposed a hardball way to punish them:

Pascrell cites Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution in the letter, which “gives each chamber of Congress the ultimate authority to decide their membership.”

“Stated simply, men and women who would act to tear the United States government apart cannot serve as members of Congress,” Pascrell writes, adding that they were attempting to make President Trump “an unelected dictator” by endorsing the lawsuit.

Most Democrats don’t want to go that far, preferring to keep the moral high ground as the Party of Fair Play as opposed to the Party of Power At All Costs. And as a practical matter, the worst possible outcome would be for Speaker Pelosi to attempt something like this and fail for lack of a Democratic consensus.

However, I could get behind a halfway measure, which I would view as a shot across the Fascist bow: Make an example out of the 19 of those 126 Republicans who were elected from Wisconsin (1), Pennsylvania (7), Michigan (4), and Georgia (7). After all, they were on the same ballot as Biden and Trump, so the brief they signed alleges that the very election that qualifies them to sit in Congress was tainted by what the brief calls “unconstitutional ballots”. It would make perfect sense for the House to investigate this allegation before seating them. Coincidentally, this investigation should last until the Inauguration, at which point Speaker Pelosi could report that allegations of fraud were unsupported by evidence.