No Time for Truth

We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he told.

Jake Tapper, hosting the wrap-up of Trump’s CNN town hall

This week’s featured posts are “Why the Carroll verdict might matter” and “Normalizing Trump normalizes political violence“.

This week everybody was talking about the border

Title 42 was always a pretext. At a time when Trump was denying the seriousness of the Covid epidemic, his administration invoked a public-health law from 1944 as an excuse to stop migrants from legally seeking asylum in the United States.

At the same time, our system for processing asylum seekers is swamped, and Congress has refused to fix it. So the Biden administration, believing it had no better option, continued the policy until Thursday night, when the government’s declaration of a Covid emergency officially lapsed.

Ending the policy resulted in a surge of people crossing the border from Mexico, though apparently not quite as large a surge as had been expected. Resources to deal with migrants have been strained, particularly in border communities like El Paso, but also in Northern cities like New York or Chicago, where migrants often end up while they wait for their asylum cases to be adjudicated.

and George Santos

George Santos leaped into the headlines after being elected to Congress in 2022, because his entire biography was almost comically false. Now he’s been indicted for a variety of crimes. One charge is that he created a false campaign PAC and got people to donate to it, then used the money for personal purposes. Another is that he falsely claimed unemployment payments while making a six-figure salary.

The indictment had the same comical quality as most Santos news. Reading it, you have to wonder why he thought he could get away with any of this.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy is refusing to ask Santos to resign from Congress, because he represents a swing district in New York that could easily go for a Democrat in a special election.

If you’re not following North Carolina Rep. Jeff Jackson, you should be. He blogs and posts a video on Twitter every week, describing what’s going on in Congress in a very down-to-Earth way. Here’s what he says about the Santos situation:

Normally, if one of your co-workers gets arrested for a bunch of felonies related to their job, they don’t get to just come back to the office the next day. But he did, and it was really weird.

and the Carroll verdict

A jury in New York federal court found Donald Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation. It awarded his accuser E. Jean Carroll, $5 million in damages. I discuss the implications of that verdict in one of the featured posts.

Trump’s attempt to spin the verdict focused on two things: The jury did not rule that Carroll had proved Trump raped her, and “you can’t get a fair trial” in New York City.

As he did with Russian collusion in the Mueller report, Trump is claiming vindication when in reality there just wasn’t enough evidence to condemn him. The jury did not say Trump hadn’t raped Carroll, just that she hadn’t proved it. The sexual assault was enough to invoke the damage claim, so I imagine there was not a big effort to reach unanimity on the rape claim.

The verdict makes a certain amount of sense when you consider the evidence presented. On the Access Hollywood tape, Trump confessed to a pattern of sexual assault — grabbing women “by the pussy” — but didn’t confess to rape. And the two witnesses who described being attacked by Trump told about attacks that were interrupted. So the rape claim was a purer he-said/she-said case, while sexual assault had more support.

Still, as I talk about in the featured post, being guilty of sexual assault is nothing to brag about.

Trump is appealing to federal appellate court. (The case was already in the federal court system, because the two parties were from different states.) But an appeal is not an automatic do-over. He’ll have to convince the appellate court that the original judge’s rulings were illegal in some way.

and CNN’s Trump town hall

The day after being found liable for sexual assault and defamation, Trump appeared on CNN with an audience of New Hampshire voters who had been pre-selected to be favorable to him. I discuss that in one of the featured posts.

For the most part, Republicans haven’t been willing to go after Trump, despite all the material lying around in plain sight. But Liz Cheney narrates this anti-Trump ad.

and you also might be interested in …

The Ukrainian spring offensive may be starting, as Ukrainian forces gain territory around Bakhmut. But so far it’s slow going.

The House Oversight Committee released a 65-page memo about its investigations of the Biden family, which so far have been a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The House GOP accused Joe Biden and his family on Wednesday of engaging in business with foreign entities—but were unable to provide any actual evidence linking the president to any wrongdoing.

House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer released a 65-page memo detailing a sprawling investigation into Biden and some of his relatives, particularly his son Hunter Biden. Nowhere in the massive document was there a specific allegation of a crime committed by Biden or any of his relatives. During a press conference explaining the investigation, Comer was asked if he had evidence directly linking Biden to corruption. The Kentucky Republican hemmed and hawed but ultimately admitted he didn’t.

[As a commenter pointed out below, I have confused two cases: Daniel Penny is the guy who killed Jordan Neely in New York. Daniel Perry is the guy in Texas who killed a protester during a Black Lives Matter protest. Both cases are discussed in Jamelle Bouie’s NYT column Tuesday.]

Conservatives are defending Daniel Penny (the guy who killed homeless man Jordan Neely on the New York subway) as a “Good Samaritan”. (Examples: Ron DeSantis, National Police Association.)

It’s one more example of making the Bible say whatever you want. Anyone who knows and respects the Bible ought to respond similarly to David Roberts:

No way to exaggerate how fucked up and dystopian it is that the reactionaries are transmuting the parable of the Good Samaritan from “he helps the person having problems” to “he kills the person having problems but who’s making everyone else uncomfortable.”

Penny has been charged with manslaughter. Here’s the background on the story.

At this point there’s no way to quantify what race might have had to do with this incident and people’s reactions to it. (Neely was Black, Penny is White.) But if anybody is wondering what “Black Lives Matter” is supposed to mean, this is it: OK, Neely was creating an incident on the subway, though he had not actually attacked anybody. There’s an argument to be made for someone stepping in to restrain Neely until some authority takes charge of the situation. But restraining Neely with a chokehold until he dies is only a “solution” if Neely’s life doesn’t matter.

Maybe Neely being Black had nothing to do with why his life didn’t matter. Maybe it was because his behavior was outside normal subway behavior, or some other reason. But if Neely’s life did matter to Perry, he’d have handled the situation differently.

Turkey had an election yesterday. President Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, has been accused of instituting one-man rule. But it looks like Turkey is not so far gone towards autocracy that he can’t be voted out.

The upshot seems to be that no one got a majority of the vote, so Erdogan will face a runoff later this month.

A sidebar to the Turkish election is Twitter giving in to the Erdogan government’s demands to censor opposition tweets.

In response to legal process and to ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey, we have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today.

Elon Musk defended the decision by making a lesser-evil argument:

The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales answered that question:

What Wikipedia did: we stood strong for our principles and fought to the Supreme Court of Turkey and won. This is what it means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan.

And Matt Binder points out:

Twitter used to routinely challenge Turkey’s takedown requests. Erdogan actually had Twitter banned in Turkey in 2014 for refusing to comply. (the courts later ended the ban.) but that was on the “censorship” version of Twitter, not this new “free speech” one

I’ll add this: An authoritarian government can always use its power to manipulate lesser-evil thinking. No matter what it wants you to do, it can make something worse happen if you refuse.

And maybe it’s just a coincidence that another Musk company, SpaceX, has a business relationship with Erdogan’s government.

Are you conservative? Do you think America has gotten too “woke” to be livable? Good news: Russia wants you!

In general, Grist is a good source for environmental news. Here’s an interesting article about green steel, i.e., steel produced without fossil fuels.

Relating to the normalization issues discussed above: Joe Biden should not debate unless and until a more legitimate challenger emerges. Currently, only RFK Jr. and Marianne Williamson have announced their candidacy. RFK Jr., in particular, is someone who should not be normalized. He is an endless font of anti-vax misinformation, from his vaccines-cause-autism days to more recent lies about Covid vaccines. He shamelessly repeats stuff that has been authoritatively debunked, and keeps misquoting scientists after they’ve asked him to stop. Watch SkepChick’s RFK Jr. takedown.

In general, sitting presidents running for re-election don’t participate in debates. There’s an argument for Biden breaking that tradition in order to challenge the perception that age has addled him. And I could see that if it meant sharing a stage with candidates of stature, like say, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, California Governor Gavin Newsom, or maybe Elizabeth Warren. But he shouldn’t give a platform to RFK Jr at all, and I don’t see what he gains by debating Williamson.

From the MAGA translation of the New Testament:

and let’s close with something adorable

An animal rescue shelter found Nibi when she was a week old. She’s never seen another beaver, but she seems to know how to build dams.

Normalizing Trump normalizes political violence

In search of ratings, CNN is enabling the next Trump coup.

Wednesday, CNN aired a townhall meeting in which an audience of New Hampshire Trump supporters got to address questions to their hero/demigod. The outcome was easily predictable: Trump spewed one lie after another, while he ignored and insulted the “nasty” woman the network had assigned to moderate. Meanwhile, the crowd cheered.

Disinformation. In the post-event discussion, Jake Tapper summed up:

We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he told.

In a nutshell, that’s why fact-checking fails against a determined liar who is not shamed by having his lies exposed: Outrageous falsehoods can be entertaining, but reasserting the truth is boring. If he just keeps going, who’s going to stick around to hear you correct it all? And even if some do, the bell can’t be unrung; the people who heard the lie can’t unhear it. (For what it’s worth, you can read fact-checks of the evening here, here, and here.)

So the net result of the evening was to promote disinformation. People who watched are probably less well informed now than before they tuned in. When it scheduled the town hall, CNN had to know that would happen.

The justification given by CNN boss Chris Licht was that the broadcast “made a lot of news”, which he described as “our job”. “America was served very well.”

I’ll let The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols answer that one:

To be clear, I am not taking issue with CNN offering Trump time on the network. Trump is far and away the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Neither CNN nor any other network can refuse to cover him; as I’ve said, it would be a disservice to let him spread his toxic slurry out of the public eye. But “covering” Trump does not mean packing an audience with supporters and then setting the resolutely misogynist Trump against a young female reporter in a situation that practically could have been designed by the Trump campaign itself.

January 6. But I want to focus on something else about the event: Trump doubled down on his endorsement of the violence on January 6.

It started right away, when moderator Kaitlin Collins asked if (should he become president again) he intended to pardon those convicted of crimes committed during the January 6 riot. Trump admitted that he might not pardon all of them, because “a couple of them, probably, they got out of control”. But most of them did “nothing”, and are “living in Hell” now.

They’re policemen, and they’re firemen, and they’re soldiers, and they’re carpenters and electricians and they’re great people. Many of them are just great people.

The rioters were prosecuted for specific crimes (including assaulting policemen), and a jury of their peers unanimously found them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But that doesn’t matter because

In Washington, D.C., you cannot get a fair trial, you cannot. Just like in New York City, you can’t get a fair trial either.

He doesn’t explain why that is, but apparently he believes you can just write off any verdict from a DC or NYC jury. Maybe those people don’t count as Americans, or even as people. He doesn’t say.

Collins zeroed in on the Proud Boys, who were just convicted (again: unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt, by a jury) of seditious conspiracy. Think about what that means: Seditious conspiracy is one step short of treason. They didn’t just throw a tantrum because their candidate lost the election; they actively conspired against the United States of America. But Trump might be OK with that.

I don’t know. I’ll have to look at their case.

He described January 6 as a “beautiful day” and said that his supporters “had love in their hearts”. When Collins pointed out his supporters injured 140 police officers, Trump offered no sympathy, but instead focused on one of the rioters, Ashli Babbitt, who was killed while trying to break down the only remaining door protecting members of Congress from the violent mob.

There was no reason to shoot her at blank range. Cold, blank range, they shot her. And she was a good person. She was a patriot.

She was shot by a “thug”, i.e. Lt. Michael Byrd, a Black police officer with 28 years of experience, who has been hounded by Trump’s supporters ever since.

For Byrd, who is Black, the incident turned his life upside down. He has been in hiding for months after he received a flood of death threats and racist attacks that started when his name leaked onto right-wing websites.

Months later, Byrd was interviewed by Lester Holt and had the audacity to defend his actions. Trump characterized this as “he went on television to brag about the fact that he killed her.” (You can watch the interview and judge for yourself.)

In short, Trump paints a picture of January 6 in which the rioters are the heroes and the police are the villains.

But what about his own vice president, Mike Pence? The mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence”, and his Secret Service protectors, fearing for their lives, made good-bye calls to loved ones. But Trump knows better:

I don’t think he was in any danger.

And he owes Pence no apology

because he did something wrong. He should have put the votes back to the state legislatures and I think we would have had a different outcome. I really do.

Pence deserved to be threatened, in other words, because he refused to play his part in the overthrow of American democracy.

How democracy survived Trump’s first term. In other reporting this week, Rolling Stone revealed some of Trump’s plans for his second administration: He wants to bring back Michael Flynn, who advocated declaring martial law to hang onto power. Also Jeffrey Clark, who pushed for the Justice Department to lie to the State of Georgia about “various irregularities in the 2020 election” to justify the legislature replacing the legitimate members of the Electoral College with Trump supporters.

Both efforts were blocked by people within the government who were still loyal to the Constitution.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Trump’s attempt to hang on to the presidency after losing the election by 7 million votes: Plots to overturn the election didn’t end because Trump decided he wouldn’t go that far. They ended when people inside his administration refused to participate.

We still have no idea how far Trump himself was willing to go to stay in power.

What we do know is that he wants his second administration to pick up where the first one left off. His first administration began with appointees who were typical conservative Republicans, like Jeff Sessions and John Kelly. They saw the world through right-wing lenses, but they were loyal to America as they understood it.

As the term went on, more and more of those people were kicked out in favor of people who were loyal to Trump first and America a distant second. Trump’s coup attempt failed because he hadn’t completed his purge of American loyalists.

What becomes clear as you listen to Trump is that he understands that mistake now. So his second term will begin with the appointment of true Trumpists to all major positions. When it comes time to throttle democracy again, no one will say no to him.

What are we normalizing? CNN’s critics talk about the problem of “normalizing” Trump, i.e. of treating him as we would any other front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination.

Different people use that term for different reasons, because Trump is abnormal in all sorts of ways. No impeached president, much less the only president to be impeached twice, has ever been nominated again. No candidate for the presidency has ever brushed off a jury verdict holding him liable for sexual assault. It’s been a century since a candidate ran for the presidency while under indictment or in prison. No major American politician of any sort has kept up such a steady stream of lies. No presidential candidate since George Wallace has been so blatantly racist.

Those — and many others — are plausible reasons to refuse to give Trump a platform, much less construct such a favorable platform as CNN offered Trump. But they all pale before the most serious reason to treat him differently: He’s running to finish his coup.

The debate about whether to end democracy cannot be treated as a normal democratic issue. We can’t have a “reasonable” discussion about whether an attempt to overturn an election by violence is or isn’t legitimate.

Trump has very recently threatened to unleash political violence again. He warned of “death and destruction” if he were indicted, and mocked pleas for his supporters to stay peaceful.


Does anyone doubt that he will incite violence again, if he thinks it will help him regain the White House in 2024?

That’s the kind of “issue” that should never be normalized. No candidate of any party should be given a platform to make promises to past violent supporters, and to offer implicit concessions to people who do violence for him in the future.

That needs to be a red line. Wednesday, CNN crossed it.

Why the Carroll verdict might matter

Immediately after a jury in a New York federal court found that Donald Trump had sexually assaulted and then defamed E. Jean Carroll, two reactions popped up everywhere:

  • The verdict constitutes personal vindication for Carroll and vicarious vindication for any woman who has ever felt powerless after being mistreated by a man. While there’s still a long way to go, men — even powerful men — no longer have complete impunity.
  • Politically, it will mean nothing. Members of Trump’s personality cult will double- and triple-down on his “witch hunt” and “persecution by the Deep State” narratives.

That first response seems obviously true to me. But I want to call the second into question. Politically, this might matter, even to people deep inside the right-wing echo chamber. But you’ll only see the effects if you know where to look.

A jury verdict is different. First, let’s talk about why the verdict should matter: As of now, the conclusion that Trump sexually assaulted Carroll and then aggressively lied about it “with actual malice” isn’t just an accusation liberals toss around on Facebook or discuss on left-leaning MSNBC shows. It’s not coming from a blue-state prosecutor looking for votes. It’s the verdict of a jury.

Think about what that means: If you sit nine ordinary people down, impress on them that they have a serious job to do, and then make them consider the evidence in detail, they will unanimously conclude that Carroll’s accusations against Trump are true.

That’s something that never happens on social media or within the information bubbles of either side. In those settings, you can’t make people listen to anything they don’t want to hear. You can’t put together a detailed argument without being pulled down the what-about-Hunter-Biden or it’s-all-a-witch-hunt rabbit holes. If someone answers an accusation with a biting-but-vacuous remark, a Trump-favoring host can end the discussion there, as if there were no conceivable counter-response.

But that’s not how things work in court. In court, the jury had to focus on this case, rather than something Bill Clinton did or didn’t get away with. Both sides had a chance to produce evidence and arguments at whatever length they felt necessary. Jurors had to evaluate witnesses as individual people — not with a general brush-off like “women lie all the time”, but here are Carroll, the two friends she told about the attack, and two other women who say Trump attacked them in similar ways. Listen to their voices, look them in the eye — is this particular woman lying to you right now?

The jury — all six men and three women of them — decided those women were telling the truth, and that Trump (who could have testified in person but didn’t, and was present only through a taped deposition) was lying.

That’s hard to brush off. It should matter. But will it?

Digging in deeper. People who think it won’t point to two reactions: First, Trump’s rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination aren’t jumping on it. Asa Hutchinson said “The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump.” But he was the exception. Mike Pence (who styles himself as a defender of Christian moral values) characterized Trump’s sexual assault as “just one more story focusing on my former running mate that I know is a great fascination to members of the national media, but I just don’t think is where the American people are focused.”

In other words: Sure, Trump violently attacked a woman — probably several women — and then lied about it, but shit happens. No big deal. Do you know what eggs cost these days?

And second, consider Trump’s indictment in Manhattan for falsifying business records, which caused his most ardent supporters to dig in deeper. Trump voters from Sarah Longwell’s focus groups said things like this:

When I convened a group of GOP voters the day after Trump’s indictment, their assessment was nearly unanimous: “It’s a complete distraction and it’s a waste of time.” “It’s being blown out of proportion.” “Just ridiculous and a terrible direction for us to go.”

We asked one group whether they had donated to Trump before the indictment. Only three out of nine had, but after the indictment, all nine said they would. None said another indictment or arrest would change their minds. And none thought Trump should drop out.

“As far as a mug shot goes, he’s going to market the hell out of that,” said Chris, a two-time Trump voter from Illinois, imagining a future arrest. “Every one of us is going to buy one of those shirts.” Most hands went up when I asked who would buy one.

How conservatives change their minds. I know what Democrats and Lincoln-Project Republicans would like to see: former Trump voters being confronted by the Carroll verdict and announcing that it has changed their minds. “I used to believe X about Trump, but now that I’ve heard this I have to believe Y.”

Almost no one is saying that, so commentators think the verdict makes no difference.

But that’s not how conservatives change their minds. On the Right, humility is a sign of weakness. (Jesus must have been misquoted about the meek.) So you never admit you were wrong and you never apologize.

And yet, conservative opinions do change occasionally. Sometimes they even reverse.

Think about George W. Bush. In the early days of the Iraq invasion, conservatives were ready to put him on Mount Rushmore. But by 2010 they were complaining that he had never really been a conservative at all. Or Ronald Reagan. For decades after he left office, Reagan was the defining Republican, and his core principles — including an expansive view of American power and free trade — were the core principles of the party. Now, “globalism” and “free trade” are dirty words, and Reagan hardly ever comes up as an example to emulate.

And yet, there was never a come-to-Jesus moment when conservatives repented their previous views and pledged to go a different way. Instead, a conservative sea change happens like this: People who used to be zealots for a particular view go silent for a while. And when they start talking again, they have the opposite view, which they put forward as if they had always believed it.

Segregation. That’s what happened with Jim Crow. From the 1950s through the 1970s, White Evangelicals were staunch opponents of civil rights. Jerry Falwell, for example, responded to the Supreme Court’s decision to integrate public schools like this:

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. … The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

In the 1960s, he railed against Martin Luther King:

In a 1964 sermon, “Ministers and Marchers,” Falwell attacked King as a Communist subversive. After questioning “the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations,” Falwell declared, “It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”

The true origin of the Religious Right as a political force was not Roe v Wade, as they will tell you now, but the government’s denial of tax-exempt status to the segregated religious schools that had sprung up to offer White parents an all-White option for their children’s education.

Today, however, you will hear none of that from the vast majority of Evangelical preachers. Falwell’s pro-segregation sermons have vanished from his online archives. MLK is revered as an advocate of color-blindness. No one talks about segregated academies any more.

But you will search in vain to find a turning point. There never was a Jeremiah who called out White Evangelical segregationism and convinced the movement to change its ways. Do you know when the Southern Baptist Convention repented for its support of slavery? Not 1866, but 1995, long after all the slave-owners and slave-traders were dead.

Where to look. So if you’re expecting the scales to fall from right-wing eyes, for MAGA followers to suddenly start looking at the evidence and say, “Hey, I was wrong about Trump”, you’re expecting something that never happens. That’s not how conservatives change their minds.

What could happen, though, is that people who have been loud Trump supporters might start talking about other things. Maybe people who have been traveling the country to attend Trump rallies (as if they were Grateful Dead concerts) will realize they have other things to do. Without much fanfare, their Trump flags might come down. (Not because anyone changed their minds about him, of course, but because they got some other flag that they need to find a place for.) And then, some months hence, they will never have been Trump supporters — just as they were never George W. Bush supporters, their fathers never yelled obscenities at Black children integrating the schools, their grandfathers never participated in lynchings, and their more distant ancestors never owned slaves.

“I always knew there was something off about that guy,” they will tell you.

I’m not guaranteeing that such things are happening, but they could be. It is true that Trump’s crowds are shrinking (and have been for a while). Despite all the hoopla, ratings on his CNN town hall were high (3.3 million viewers), but not off the charts. (Joe Biden’s CNN town hall in 2020 had 3.4 million.)

So if you’re wondering about whether your MAGA cousin is reevaluating Trump, don’t ask him. Just listen for the silence.

The Monday Morning Teaser

One measure of how busy a week has been is how distant Tuesday’s news seems by the next Monday. Last Tuesday is when the E. Jean Carroll verdict was announced: The jury refused to say definitively that Trump had raped Carroll, but it did rule that he sexually assaulted her and then maliciously lied about her when she went public.

Seems like a while ago, doesn’t it?

Immediately after the verdict, this conventional wisdom seemed to be everywhere: Satisfying as it is to see that Trump’s lies don’t fly in a court of law, the verdict won’t actually mean anything politically. If anything, Trump’s personality cult will just double down on the Deep-State-persecution narrative and support him more than ever.

In this week’s first featured post, I’m going to challenge that view. The Carroll verdict might matter, even to dyed-in-the-wool Trumpists. But if you’re waiting for one of them to announce their re-evaluation of Trump on television, you’ll wait in vain. That’s not how sea changes happen on the Right. But they do happen sometimes. So in “Why the Carroll Verdict Might Matter”, I’ll describe how conservatives actually change their minds, and what you should be listening for. That’s ready to go and should be out shortly.

The second featured post concerns the Trump town hall that CNN aired Wednesday. I’ll let other people correct all the lies Trump told and lament how he mistreated the “nasty” moderator. (It’s amazing how many Trump lines sound like they could come from Gollum. Somebody needs to redub Trump clips with Gollum’s voice.) In “Normalizing Trump normalizes political violence” I’ll focus on his unapologetic embrace of January 6. Can we really debate a violent attempt to overturn an election as if it were an ordinary political issue? That should be out between 10 and 11 EDT.

The weekly summary will cover the end of Title 42 on the southern border, the start of Ukraine’s spring offensive, Turkey’s election, Elon bending his knee to Erdogan’s demands for censorship, and a few other things. That should appear sometime around noon.

What They Rule

What we’re really talking about is this plan to capture the U.S. Supreme Court, to install people on it who are sure things. Not to choose people because they have reputations for being fair (or we think they might be fair), but because the people who are at the decision-making table — Leonard Leo, who chose the judges that Trump chose from — believes that they will be sure votes. … We are seeing this revolution that Leonard Leo has put in place. It is one that the American people didn’t ask for, didn’t give consent to, weren’t informed that this is why these judges were chosen. In fact, they were said to be judges who were “rule of law judges”. … Their definition of “rule of law” is not the same as most people’s, which is following precedent, respecting those rules. Instead, their definition of “rule of law” appears to be to change the law to be what they rule.

Lisa Graves, interviewed by Dahlia Lithwick

This week’s featured post is “Does the US have a spending problem?

This week everybody was talking about the debt ceiling

When House Republicans began threatening a debt-ceiling showdown shortly after winning a majority last November, most commentators (and most voters who were paying attention) assumed it would lead to the usual dance: a lot of posturing leading up to the deadline (which might come as early as June 1), then a temporary increase to give negotiations more time, and then a deal seconds before the extra time ran out.

As the date of the catastrophe gets closer, more and more people are warning that we could really go over the cliff this time.

This week’s featured post is the third in my debt-ceiling series.

Speculation about ways to circumvent the debt ceiling is getting more serious. Lawrence Tribe explains why he believes the debt ceiling is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment:

The right question is whether Congress — after passing the spending bills that created these debts in the first place — can invoke an arbitrary dollar limit to force the president and his administration to do its bidding.

There is only one right answer to that question, and it is no.

And Eric Levitz describes how consol bonds get around the debt ceiling:

In simple terms, a consol bond is one that never matures. A normal bond commits a borrower to paying back the principal on their loan plus interest at a set date. A consol bond, by contrast, requires the borrower to make annual interest payments forever but does not require them to pay off the loan’s full value at any particular point in time.

This is handy since the legislation establishing the U.S. debt limit defines the federal debt as the amount of principal that the government is obligated to repay. Thus, while a normal U.S. Treasury bond increases the national debt as defined by the debt ceiling, a consol bond does not. If the government borrows money via bonds that have no principal — only interest-payment obligations — then it can continue funding its operations indefinitely, even in the absence of a debt-ceiling hike.

A less extreme version could resemble a traditional bond but take advantage of the same loophole: Suppose a bond had a principle of $1,000, but paid $100 a year in interest? The Treasury could sell it for a lot more than $1,000, but it would only count $1,000 towards the debt limit.

and we’re still finding out more about Clarence Thomas’ corruption

Two new Thomas scandals broke this week: Harlan Crow (the billionaire who we already knew takes the Thomases on annual vacations that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for them to replicate on their own) paid the private-school tuition of Thomas’ grandnephew, whom Thomas was “raising as a son”.

And Leonard Leo (who is at the center of a network of dark-money groups whose purpose is to make our courts more conservative) directed groups he influences to pay at least $100K to Thomas’ wife’s consulting firm. Leo’s instructions say nothing about work to be done, but just to “give” Ginni Thomas money, with “no mention of Ginni, of course”.

Vox is keeping a running count of the revelations. Another good summary comes from New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz, who also sums up the problem they outline:

In a world where low-level civil servants get nervous about letting friends buy them lunch, it is not easy to explain why it is totally fine for a man entrusted with enormous, democratically unaccountable power to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from partisan political activists, let alone fail to disclose them.

Chris Hayes did a good job covering the Thomas scandals on his Friday show. His opening block reviewed the new developments and raised the question: “Just how much money has secretly flowed from right-wing donors and interests into the household of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas?” His conclusion is that we just don’t know, but that it’s clearly quite a lot.

A later block of that show felt validating to me personally. Last week, I presented my theory of what Crow has been doing: He is Thomas’ “minder”, and the point of showering Thomas with expensive favors is not to “buy his vote on any particular case”, but to “give him something to lose if he should start seeing the charms of liberal philosophy” — as previous Republican-appointed justices like David Souter and John Paul Stevens had.

That interpretation seemed obvious to me, so I was wondering why I wasn’t hearing it from other commentators. Well, Friday Chris made precisely that case. So did Levitz:

The claim that none of these payments actually influenced Thomas’s jurisprudence seems plausible. Thomas was a reactionary long before he met Harlan Crow. It is possible that Crow’s largesse was motivated by a desire to insure against the risk of Thomas converting to liberalism à la David Souter.

Senator Whitehouse tells the Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas’ acceptance of luxurious unreported vacations has a precedent: Justice Scalia took more than 70 free vacations at expensive resorts, and declared none of them.

If you want to dig deeper into the dark-money network that is pushing the courts to the right in ways that undermine democracy, listen to the “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaires” episode of Dahlia Lithwick’s Amicus podcast. That’s where the quote at the top of the page comes from.

and the case(s) against Trump

Closing arguments are happening today in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against Trump. The case, which hangs on whether Trump raped Carroll in the 1990s, will then go to the jury.

The Trump team mounted no defense, while Carroll not only described the rape under oath, but presented supporting evidence:

  • Two women testified that Carroll told them about the rape soon after it happened.
  • Two other women testified that Trump attacked them in similar fashion.
  • The jury saw the Access Hollywood tape from 2003 in which Trump bragged about assaulting women.
  • The jury also saw a Trump deposition from October. In the course of that testimony, Trump said that Carroll was “not my type”, but also mistook a photo of Carroll for his second wife, Marla Maples. (He also told Carroll’s lesbian lawyer that she wasn’t his type either. The lawyer was unfailingly polite during questioning, but I would have loved to hear her say, “With all due respect, you’re a fat old man. Nobody cares whether they’re your type.”)

The weakness of Carroll’s case is that

  • No third person saw the rape happen.
  • Carroll can’t say when it happened any more precisely than late 1995 or early 1996.

The standard of proof in a civil case is more-likely-than-not. So while I can imagine deciding that Carroll hasn’t proved her case beyond a reasonable doubt, given the vagueness of the timeframe, it’s hard for me to see how Trump’s non-defense can seem more likely than what Carroll has presented. (Trump’s lawyer is portraying the whole case as a conspiracy of Trump-hating women. But the judge will undoubtedly remind jurors that what either lawyer says is not evidence.) The defense has to be hoping that the jury contains at least one die-hard Trump cultist.

Whichever way it goes, we’re likely to get a verdict this week. It will be the first time a jury has ruled on Trump’s behavior.

If Joe Biden gave a deposition like Trump’s, Fox News would be replaying it 24/7 as evidence of dementia. Trump not only misidentified his second wife Marla Maples in a photo, but also says he can’t remember whether his affair with her started before or after his divorce from Ivana. In fact that affair was headline news at the time.

But nobody worries about that second thing being dementia, because we all — even his supporters — assume he’s lying under oath.

Ditto for his previous written responses to Robert Mueller’s questions. His answer to almost every question was that he didn’t remember.

Four members of the Proud Boys, including their former leader Enrique Tarrio, were convicted of seditious conspiracy Thursday. This is the third trial in which the Justice Department has gotten seditious conspiracy convictions against people involved in January 6. (Two previous trials convicted members of the Oath Keepers, including their founder Stewart Rhodes.)

Tarrio was convicted despite spending January 6 in Baltimore. He is the first person to be convicted of conspiring to organize the attack without directly participating in it. This suggests that DoJ is finally moving up the chain, and could eventually get to Trump.

Collectively, the three trials demonstrate that DoJ has gotten good at proving that there indeed was a seditious conspiracy on January 6. The question now is just: Who were the conspirators?

None of the convicted conspirators have been sentenced yet, but the DoJ just made its sentencing recommendation for Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes: 25 years in prison. We’ll see if the judge agrees. Meanwhile, a man convicted of attacking police with a chair and bear spray was sentenced to 14 years, the most any January 6 defendant has received so far. Prosecutors had asked for 24 years.

Sentences like that increase pressure on conspirators to flip on someone higher up the chain.

Speaking of flipping, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that at least eight of the 16 fake electors Trump lined up to cast Georgia’s electoral votes for him (in spite of the fact that he lost the state to Joe Biden) have accepted immunity deals from Fulton County DA Fani Willis.

It’s not immediately clear what they’re going to testify to or who they’re going to testify against, but it is an indication that Willis will be seeking indictments against people higher in the fake-elector conspiracy. Willis has already warned local officials to be ready for indictments to come down (with possible violent responses from protesters) during the July 11 to September 1 grand jury term.

She hasn’t said whether she plans to indict Trump, but it’s hard to see why indictments against John Eastman or Rudy Giuliani would provoke violence.

and you also might be interested in …

King Charles III was crowned in England Saturday. I’m not sure why anybody cares about this, but a lot of people seem to.

President Biden did not attend, because no American president has ever attended an English coronation. (No offense, but kings just aren’t our thing.) He was represented by the First Lady.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center gives a 62% chance of El Nino developing by July. If so, that will likely mean record global temperatures.

My somewhat oversimplified understanding of El Nino and the climate is that the temperature measurements we usually see are air temperatures, but global warming also affects the oceans. El Nino releases ocean heat into the air.

Jordan Neely was a homeless man acting weird on the New York subway, until someone killed him. Everyone knows who did it, but the killer hasn’t been arrested or charged with anything. Some people regard him as a hero.

To me, this is the urban version of shooting a stranger who rings your doorbell. These days, everyone who exhibits unexpected behavior seems like a threat, and many seem to believe that potentially deadly force is a reasonable response, especially if the object of your fear fits into some easily dehumanized category.

Ted Cruz has a challenger in 2024: Congressman Colin Allred, who faced an interesting choice when he graduated from college. Allred hadn’t been drafted by the NFL, but he had gotten into law school. He took the risky path and went to an NFL training camp anyway. He made the squad, and had a four-year career as a Tennessee Titans linebacker. Then he returned to the law.

I wonder if Allred has read Josh Hawley’s book on manliness yet.

Ted is already rattled. His fund-raising text against Allred used a picture of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg instead of Allred. (Those Black people — they all look alike. Right?)

Another mass shooting in Texas and once again Republican officials are calling for prayer. They need to read the Book of Amos, which quotes God saying this:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In other words: “It pisses me off when you expect me to fix problems you caused and refuse to work on.”

Early indications can be misleading, but the mall shooter looks like a right-wing extremist.

Governor Abbott repeats the other popular meaningless response to our gun-violence problem:

The long-term solution here is to address the mental-health issue.

But of course he’s been cutting mental-health funding. Because he doesn’t actually care about mental health; he just wants to shift attention away from gun control.

This is a popular rhetorical tactic on the Right: minimize one problem by comparing it to another, when in fact you don’t want to address either one.

So if you want to talk about how many unarmed people of color are killed by police, they’ll ask why nobody on the Left cares about the much more serious problem of black-on-black crime. But their interest in black-on-black crime goes away as soon as you stop talking about the police. Or they’ll ask why we’re sending money to Ukraine when there are homeless veterans here in the US. “OK, then,” you say, “let’s do something about homeless veterans.” Never mind. They only cared about the veterans to argue against aiding Ukraine.

Who in 1967 suspected that the unknown young Cat Stevens was writing an anthem for the 2020s, “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun“?

Also in Texas: A car plowed into a crowd of people outside a shelter serving migrants and homeless people in Brownsville, while the driver shouted anti-migrant obscenities. Seven dead, ten injured.

Deborah Fallows borrows her husband’s Substack blog to tell her story of long Covid.

Brexit was the UK’s version of Trump’s America First policy: The rest of the world has been taking advantage of us and we’re going to put a stop to it.

Well, it’s now pretty clear that was a huge mistake, and the British economy is in bad shape.

and let’s close with something retro

The next big thing in transportation might be a ship with sails. Not big cloth ones like the old clipper ships, but huge vertical wings. Cargo ships may never against be completely wind-powered, but what if wind assistance could cut fuel use by 30% or so?

Does the US have a spending problem?

Compared to other countries, no. But if you think the US should be “exceptional” and that climate change is a hoax, maybe.

As House Republicans get closer and closer to forcing a debt-ceiling crisis that could result in the United States defaulting on commitments it has already written into law, American citizens need to raise their understanding of how all this works. Previously, I’ve written two posts on this theme: The first explained what the debt ceiling is and why we shouldn’t have one at all. (Only the US and Denmark have debt ceilings, and Denmark doesn’t play chicken with theirs. No other country inflicts these kinds of fiscal crises on itself.) The second looked at the history of the US national debt and how it accumulated.

Now it’s time to address the main argument House Republicans are making to justify playing chicken with an economic catastrophe: Sure, the US defaulting on its commitments would be bad, but it’s worse to do nothing, because our ever-increasing spending and debt is pushing us towards an even greater catastrophe.

In other words, a self-inflicted debt-ceiling crisis is the lesser evil. Steve Moore, the Club for Growth founder that Trump tried to appoint to the Federal Reserve Board, puts it like this:

The nation’s good credit standing in the global capital markets isn’t imperiled by not passing a debt ceiling. The much-bigger danger is that Congress does extend the debt ceiling, but without any reforms in the way Congress grossly overspends.

The first part of that claim is obvious nonsense: Not passing a debt ceiling certainly does imperil the US standing in credit markets. But let’s examine the second claim: Not just that the government spends more money than some people would like, but that doing so is pushing us towards a national catastrophe.

Spending. It’s a matter of simple fact that government spending and debt have gone up considerably — both in absolute terms and as a percentage of our annual GDP — in the late Trump years and since Biden took office. Basically, the Covid pandemic both cut revenue and required enormous government spending to avoid great public suffering while the private sector was largely shut down. The necessity of that deficit spending was a bipartisan conclusion; it happened under both Trump and Biden and was supported in Congress by members of both parties.

(Notice that the extreme right of the graph above is a projection to 2050, not something that has already happened.)

That increase in the debt built on a previous run-up during the Great Recession that started in 2007. Again, the stimulus spending and tax-cutting was bipartisan; it began under Bush and continued under Obama.

But looking forward, the US faces challenges that the two parties see differently. Democrats want the government to spend money on them, while Republicans don’t.

  • Democrats see climate change as a problem that requires a major restructuring of the economy, moving away from fossil fuels and towards energy from sustainable sources. However, climate change is a classic externality — a real cost that falls neither on the producer nor the consumer of fossil fuels — so the market will not make this shift without government intervention. Republicans deny that climate change is a problem.
  • Democrats want to shift healthcare — nearly 1/7th of the economy — from the private sector to the public sector. Medicare began this shift in the 1960s. ObamaCare continued it, and progressives like Bernie Sanders would like to complete it. Republicans would like to stop this shift, if not roll it back.

Abstract debates about “spending” are really about these two issues, plus the perennial question of how good a safety net the US should provide for its poor: Is it enough to keep people from starving in the streets, or should the government guarantee every American a decent life, whether they can find a job or not?

It’s worth noting that the other big government expenditure — defense — is largely bipartisan. In general, progressive Democrats would like to spend less on defense and MAGA Republicans more, but neither party has a consensus for major changes in our military posture in the world.

The politics of spending. The bill House Republicans recently passed reflected these priorities: It agreed to raise the debt ceiling for about a year (at which point we’d go through the same ordeal again), in exchange for

  • capping “discretionary spending” — basically everything but Social Security and Medicare — at FY 2022 levels and letting them increase by only 1% per year.
  • rolling back provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act to subsidize sustainable energy, while increasing production of fossil fuels

plus a few other things. The discretionary spending cap isn’t across-the-board, but also doesn’t specify the cuts. This allows Republicans to dodge when Democrats say they’ve voted to cut some popular program like veterans’ benefits. And of course, every program that gets exempted from the cuts means that deeper cuts will be needed elsewhere.

The White House has been attacking Republicans for proposing cuts to veterans’ care. Republicans in House leadership have responded that no cuts are intended. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has promised he will protect the military from reductions, though the bill as written does not exclude them. And Kay Granger, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, has said border security remains a top priority.

This is a feature of our politics that I’ve noted before: The American people don’t really understand where government spending goes, so they support spending cuts in the abstract, while rejecting any specific list of significant cuts.

The two parties maneuver around that phenomenon: Republicans support vague spending “caps” that don’t specifically cut anything in particular, while Democrats try to pin them down. Do they want to cut defense? Veterans benefits? Health care? Education? No, of course not. They just want to cut “spending”.

Is government spending a problem? For Republicans, this is an article of faith, but it’s really not obvious. For example, look at Wikipedia’s list of countries by government spending as a percentage of GDP. (The US total accounts not just for federal spending, but state and local as well.)

As of 2022, the US was not an outlier in either direction, spending about 38% of GDP via government. That’s less that most comparable countries: the UK (45%), Germany (50%), Canada (41%), and France (58%) for example. But it’s also more than Switzerland (34%) and Israel (37%), and almost exactly the same as Australia.

And while government spending has been generally rising over the decades — it was less than 20% of GDP a century ago — the increase doesn’t look precipitous or out of control.

In short, if you argue that the US has a spending problem, what you’re implicitly saying is that we shouldn’t be like other nations. If you regard Germany or France as cautionary tales, then we need to cut spending before we wind up like them. On the other hand, if you envy countries like Denmark (49%), the Netherlands (45%), and Finland (54%) — Finland regularly comes out on top of polls about public happiness — then you can only shake your head at this “out-of-control spending” talk.

The ledger has two sides. So while the “spending problem” is debatable, it is obvious that the national debt is growing. Intuitively this seems bad (though I’ll push discussing how bad it really is off to a later post). But jumping immediately from a debt problem to a spending problem is sleight-of-hand. Spending 38% of GDP (or 50% or even more) through the public sector doesn’t necessarily create debt if we’re willing to pay taxes at that level.

Our debt problem (from the same Wikipedia list) comes from the fact that we’re only paying 33% of GDP in taxes. This is not high by comparison with other countries. South Korea pays 27% and Ireland 23%, but just about every other country we might compare ourselves to pays more: Germany 47%, Canada 41%, the United Kingdom 39%, and so on.

So it’s disingenuous to frame the debt as a national crisis, but take taxes off the table. In particular, the Trump tax cuts went mainly to corporations and the very rich, while adding trillions to the debt over a ten-year period. Most spending cuts are unpopular in themselves, but they’re particularly unpopular when you pair them with tax cuts, as in “We have to kick your cousin off Medicaid so that billionaires can keep the tax cuts Trump gave them.”

The private sector isn’t magic. Much of the debate about government spending is really about whether some necessary expense winds up in the public or private sector. We could, for example, cut government spending overnight just by closing all the public schools. Kids would still need to be educated, and most middle-class-and-above families would find some way to send their own kids to private schools (maybe with help from grandparents). Taxes could go down, but private expenses would go up.

Ditto for Social Security. We could end it an save everybody taxes. But you’d also have to worry about whether your parents or grandparents were starving, and maybe they’d have to move in with you.

All our highways could be toll roads run by private corporations. Taxes could go down, but you’d have to pay tolls.

The point I’m making here is that nothing magic happens when we move an expenditure from the public to the private sector or vice versa. Somebody still has to teach the kids, take care of the sick, and pave the highways. You don’t necessarily save anything just by paying those people out of a different piggy bank.

That observation is going to be important the next time we consider expanding national health care. Conservatives are going to freak out about the massive increase in government spending. “OMG! We can’t afford this!” But if the net effect is that taxes replace health-insurance premiums, we can. That’s the main reason government spending (and taxation) is higher in places like France and Germany: They’re buying stuff through the public sector that we buy through the private sector. People still wind up paying doctors and nurses to take care of them, but the money traverses a different route.

Spending and democracy. Finally, we need to recognize that the current situation results largely from what the American people want: The particular programs the government spends money are popular, while taxes are unpopular. The current spending and taxing levels were passed by the Congress the people elected.

The point of using the debt ceiling as a hostage-taking tactic is to circumvent democracy. Yes, the people did narrowly elect a House Republican majority in 2022, but Republican candidates ran on issues that have largely vanished from the House Republican agenda, like crime. They certainly did not run on a list of spending cuts, and in fact they still have not produced such a list, because they know it would be unpopular.

The American people have also elected a Democratic Senate majority and a Democratic President. (Both of those happened in spite of structural factors that allow Republicans to win without representing a majority of voters, like the small-state bias in the Senate and the Electoral College.) The Republican House should not get to control the agenda simply because they are apparently willing to push the economy’s self-destruct button unless they get their way.

So what should happen? The debt ceiling should play no role, and Congress should work out a budget for next year, adjusting both the taxing and spending sides of the ledger. Republicans should have a bigger say in the next budget than the last one, because they won the House majority. But both parties should publish their budget priorities and see how the American people like them.

So is there a spending problem? Not really. Not by international standards and not compared to what the people want. What the government spends money on may or may not be what you want it to spend money on. But that’s why we have elections.

The Monday Morning Teaser

As we rush ever closer towards a debt-ceiling disaster, I’ll continue my series on the national debt with “Does the US have a spending problem?” That should be out maybe around 10 EDT.

The weekly summary will catch you up on the latest Clarence Thomas scandals, which have turned into a regular feature of a typical week’s news. The various cases against Trump have continued to advance, with the E. Jean Carroll lawsuit going to the jury this week, and eight of the fake Georgia electors from 2020 taking immunity deals from the Fulton County DA. Proud Boy leaders were convicted of seditious conspiracy for January 6. There was another mass shooting and a mass homicide-by-car in Texas. A new El Nino cycle points to new global temperature records later this year. And a few other things happened. That should be out around noon.

Are We Still America?

In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.

Disney v DeSantis

This week’s featured post is “Laboratories of Autocracy“.

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court’s ethics problem

If you don’t recognize it, the cartoon refers to the taunting French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a fairly apt summary of John Roberts’ response to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s request for Roberts to come testify about the need (or absence of need) for the Court to have an enforceable ethics policy, as every other institution of government does.

Roberts observes that chief justices have seldom testified before committees (though it has happened), and that these appearances are about “mundane” matters. Presumably, he means that showing up to answer criticism would create “separation of powers concerns”. Roberts attached a “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” which says nothing about how justices might be held to these standards.

Vox’ Ian Milhiser characterized the response as “tone-deaf”. In Roberts’ vision, “separation of powers” makes the Court the unique institution of government to which checks and balances do not apply.

Meanwhile, questions continue to mount up. In addition to the original Clarence Thomas bribery concerns, issues related to Neal Gorsuch and Roberts himself have surfaced. In addition, we discovered more details about the cover-up that passed for an investigation of Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings.

Meanwhile, in a Wall Street Journal interview, Samuel Alito doubled down on tone-deafness.

We are being hammered daily, and I think quite unfairly in a lot of instances. And nobody, practically nobody, is defending us.

Like Roberts, he worries about the legitimacy of the Court, but sees it as everybody’s problem but his own. The onus is not on the Court to be more transparent and circumspect; it’s on the rest of us to stop criticizing them. David Roberts (no relation to John) comments:

Alito is really the conservative’s conservative: in a position of near-absolute power, free from any accountability, yet possessed by an endless sense of grievance. A whole interview about how awful it is that people criticize him!

Through all the revelations of Clarence Thomas’ apparent corruption — the millions of dollars worth of free vacations, the unreported real estate transactions, Clarence’s mom getting her home fixed up and living rent-free, and who knows what else we don’t know about yet — the most convincing defense of his innocence has gone something like this: Nobody had to bribe Clarence Thomas to be conservative; he was always conservative.

Here’s my theory on that: Harlan Crow is Thomas’ minder.

To understand what that means, you have to think back to what conservatives were worried about in the 1990s. When the first President Bush appointed Thomas to the Court in 1991, Republicans had won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections, going back to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. They also had been lucky with the timing of Supreme Court vacancies, so when Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall, the Court had only one justice appointed by a Democrat: JFK appointee Byron White.

The rest of the Court looked like this: The Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, had been nominated by Richard Nixon and elevated to Chief Justice by Ronald Reagan. Reagan had also appointed Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy. President Ford had appointed John Paul Stevens, and Nixon appointed Harry Blackmun. Bush appointed both Thomas and David Souter.

With an 8-1 Republican majority, conservatives felt entitled to a very conservative court. And yet, judges appointed by Republicans had a (to them) disconcerting way of moving left after they were seated. So the precedents of the liberal Warren Court of the 1960s continued to stand, and in 1992 the Court (mostly) reaffirmed Roe v Wade in Casey. Bush’s previous pick, Souter, became a particular irritation for the Right, and by Bush v Gore in 2000, everyone was lumping him with the liberals.

So when Thomas took his seat in 1991, the question among conservatives wasn’t just “Is he really a conservative?”, but “How can we keep him from doing a Souter on us?”

That’s where I think Harlan Crow comes in. The point of introducing Thomas and his wife to the joys of billionaire society wasn’t to buy his vote on any particular case. It was to give him something to lose if he should start seeing the charms of liberal philosophy.

So Thomas may well believe that his relationship with Crow is a genuine friendship with no unsavory aspect. After all, what’s not to like about a guy who gives you a chance to live in a lavish world you otherwise could never approach? Thomas and Crow may not talk politics any more than friends typically do, and they probably mostly agree. Quite likely, Thomas has never changed a vote because Crow pressured him. The thought that all this luxury could go poof if he steps off the conservative path may not even be a conscious consideration.

But that’s how corruption often works. As Upton Sinclair once put it, “It is hard to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” A mega-church pastor may genuinely believe in God, but he also recognizes that any atheistic thought crossing his mind threatens his entire career. If all your friends think X, it’s hard for not-X to get a fair hearing in your mind.

So Clarence Thomas probably has no awareness of being bribed. He just lives an enviable lifestyle that could go away if he ever changes his mind.

and Tucker Carlson

Last week, Tucker Carlson’s departure from Fox News was being announced just as I was ready to post. It wasn’t even clear yet whose decision it was; the announcement just described a parting of the ways.

By now it’s clear that Tucker was fired, though it’s still not clear why. Lots of explanations present themselves — something to do with the Dominion lawsuit or its settlement, something to do with Abby Grossberg’s lawsuit, friction with the Murdochs … — but none of the theories have accounted for the timing: Tucker signed off on Friday expecting to be back on Monday, and then he wasn’t.

One thing we know for sure is that he wasn’t cancelled for saying racist or sexist stuff. That’s been going on for years.

And that brings up the other big point of debate: whether his firing is something to celebrate. Clearly, Tucker was a force for evil in the world. But maybe that’s just the role he has been playing, and whoever takes his place will be just as bad. Or maybe he himself will be just as malignant somewhere else.

Maybe. But personally, I’m celebrating. Yes, all Fox hosts are right-wing propagandists. (That’s the clearest lesson the Dominion lawsuit established.) And no, there is no reason to think that the Murdochs are interested in seeing the network turn over a new leaf. So there’s every reason to believe that the new 8 p.m. host will be another Hannity or Ingraham.

But Tucker was worse than that. He didn’t just amplify whatever Republican talking points were making the rounds. He had become a conduit for bringing rhetoric from the White supremacist fringe into the conservative mainstream. Sure, the next 8 p.m. host will claim that tax cuts pay for themselves and Joe Biden has dementia. But s/he may not be a gateway for young men to find the nazis.

Speaking of Fox’s propaganda, Chris Hayes presents the other half of a story Fox has been hyping: The network again and again played video of a former San Francisco official being beaten by a homeless man, as if this were the kind of random violence that is rife in cities run by Democrats. (That’s a constant Fox theme: Blue-state cities are “hellholes”, a conclusion crime statistics don’t bear out. In reality, red states like Tennessee and Missouri have violent crime rates far higher than California or New York.)

But it turns out that somebody who looks a lot like the former official has been trying to chase homeless people out of the neighborhood by attacking them with bear spray. In other words, this isn’t a random-urban-violence story, it’s a fuck-around-and-find-out story. If you attack homeless people often enough, eventually one will fight back.

and the debt ceiling

The big question this week was whether Speaker McCarthy could pass his ransom demand for raising the debt ceiling. It was a close call, but he did.

What McCarthy hasn’t passed, and almost certainly can’t pass, is a Republican budget. The bill he passed would raise the debt ceiling until March while making substantial spending cuts. But the cuts are to overall spending levels, and what the government does less of is not specified.

Biden’s reelection bid

Tuesday, President Biden officially announced what he’s been hinting at for months: He’s running for reelection in 2024.

My reaction is, I suspect, fairly typical among Democrats: Biden is not an inspirational figure in the mold of JFK or Barack Obama, but he’s been a very good president. Trump (after trying everything he could think of to break democracy and hang onto power) handed him a country in pretty bad shape: Covid was killing more than 3,000 Americans every week; vaccines existed but the government had no plan for distributing them; unemployment was at 6.3%; Trump’s final budget showed a $4.8 trillion deficit; the NATO alliance was in tatters; and respect for America had plunged around the world.

Biden took office with little margin for error. Democrats in the House held a slim 222-213 margin in the House, and Vice President Harris was the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate that required 60 votes to break a filibuster.

And yet, he accomplished a great deal, including things that Trump had long promised but never delivered, like an infrastructure bill to rebuild America. The Inflation Reduction Act began addressing climate change, really for the first time ever. (President Obama had taken executive actions, but had not gotten climate-change legislation passed. President Trump was more interested in undoing climate action.)

Without Biden, it’s doubtful NATO would have given Ukraine enough aid to stave off a Russian takeover. And while the US exit from Afghanistan was messy — perhaps needlessly so — nonetheless we are out of Afghanistan. That’s another thing Trump kept promising but never delivered.

And finally, it’s wonderful to have a president who actually believes in the Constitution. If, God forbid, Biden should happen to lose the 2024 election, I have no doubt that he will leave office peacefully. There will be no scheme to create fraudulent electors, or riots to intimidate Congress into keeping him in power.

Nikki Haley (who needs to say wild things to draw attention to her own presidential candidacy) immediately took the low road, announcing that Biden’s survival to the end of a second term “is not something I find likely”. (Biden’s Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates responded with, “Honestly, I forgot she was running”)

Just as a matter of statistics, Haley is wrong: An 80-year-old White American male has an average life expectancy of seven years. Biden appears to be fit and has the best medical care, so if anything, his odds should be better than average.

But Haley’s macabre comment points to something Republicans do need to think about: Biden’s age could be an issue if they nominate a younger candidate like Haley or DeSantis, but it will fall flat for Trump, who is 76, fat, eats a terrible diet, and resists exercise or medical advice.

Would Republicans really bet on Trump to outlive Biden? I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t make ridiculous claims about his superior mental competence either, as congressman and former White House doctor Ronny Jackson (a.k.a. “Candyman“) does:

Donald Trump can stand up unprompted without any teleprompter or anything else and he can talk for two hours

I think we all know old people who can drone on endlessly about their imaginary grievances. It’s not usually a sign of acuity.

Thursday was Take Your Child to Work Day at the White House.

and the Trump rape trial

Up until now, I’ve mostly been discounting E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against Trump. After all, it’s a civil case, so (unlike the January 6 or Mar-a-Lago documents or Georgia election interference investigations or the Stormy Daniels indictments) it can’t send him to jail. It probably won’t even result in a huge monetary settlement, like the $250 million New York is seeking in its fraud lawsuit.

But as the trial got underway this week, I finally realized what this case does: It brings Trump’s wrongdoing down to a human scale. The allegation here is not some complicated story about a larger-than-life historical figure trying overthrow our constitutional democracy. Instead, it’s very simple: Trump raped E. Jean Carroll, and when she told her story he said she was a liar who was too ugly to rape.

Fundamentally, this is the story of a man with the fame and money and power to do whatever he wants. As he bragged on the Access Hollywood tape:

When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Carroll’s lawsuit is raising the question: Is that true? Is that the kind of world we live in or want to live in? Can a man like Donald Trump really do anything and walk away unscathed?

This week, Carroll testified, and held up well under a badgering cross-examination by Trump’s lawyer. Trump himself is not going to testify or even attend. This is all beneath him, though he continues to attack Carroll on the social media platform he owns.

The Carroll trial is putting a face on a class of people we all know exist: Trump’s victims. They are real people, and at least one of them is willing to stand up to him.

but we need to keep our eyes on Republican state legislatures

That’s the subject of the featured post.

and you also might be interested in …

A family in Cleveland, Texas asked their neighbor to stop shooting his gun, so he killed them. He’s still at large

More life in Texas:

A Texas man on a date who paid $40 to park, only to learn inside a Houston burger joint that he was scammed, allegedly went back and fatally shot the man posing as an attendant and then returned for dinner, according to court records.

His date turned him in to police.

and let’s close with something self-referential

The Toronto Recursive History Project commemorates its own history of commemorating its own history.

Laboratories of Autocracy

The 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called the American states “laboratories of democracy”. But recently the red states have been experimenting with something else entirely.

In his 2018 book Reconstructing the Gospel, Christian minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reflected on one of the paradoxes of religious fervor.

Even as we feel guilty about doing the things we know we ought not to do, and strive to do more of the good we want to do, our very worst sins are almost always things we know to be our Christian duty.

He illustrated the point with examples: the Crusades, the high priests who condemned Jesus, and the Southern “Redeemer” movement, whose violent terrorism ended Reconstruction and inaugurated Jim Crow.

Over and over, Christians support and participate in atrocious evil, not because we choose to do wrong, but because we think we’re doing the right thing — the righteous thing, even.

Not wanting to pick on Christianity, I’ll add some secular examples: the Reign of Terror, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the Bush administration’s torture policy. Wilson-Hartgrove is pointing to a human thing, not a uniquely Christian thing. Cruelty is often practiced by people who imagine themselves to be heroes.

Seekins-Crowe. I recalled Wilson-Hartgrove’s observation this week, when Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe‘s moving and highly emotional speech went viral.

Seekins-Crowe gave the speech in March, during the debate over Montana’s new law banning gender-affirming care for minors. (The bill passed and was signed Friday by Governor Greg Gianforte.) The main argument against the bill was that it would cost lives. (We’ll get to Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s “blood on your hands” comment later on.) Teens struggling with their gender identity have a high suicide rate; gender-affirming care is often an attempt to save their lives. So banning it may well increase teen suicides.

Seekins-Crowe did not shy away from that argument. She did not scoff at it or trivialize it, but took the bull by the horns. She explained that she had lived for three years with a suicidal daughter, and so she knows that some things are more important than saving your child’s life.

That seems like a brutal summation of her words, so I feel obligated to quote her at length and provide a video.

One of the big issues that we have heard today and we’ve talked about lately is that without surgery the risk of suicide goes way up. Well, I am one of those parents who lived with a daughter who was suicidal for three years. Someone once asked me, “Wouldn’t I just do anything to help save her?” And I really had to think. And the answer was, “No.”

I was not going to give in to her emotional manipulation, because she was incapable of making those decisions and I had to make those decisions for her. I was not going to let her tear apart my family and I was not going to let her tear apart me, because I had to be strong for her. I had to have a vision for her life when she had none, when she was incapable of having [one].

I was lost. I was scared. I spent hours on the floor in prayer. Because I didn’t know that when I woke up if my daughter was going to be alive or not. But I knew that I had to make those right decisions for her so that she would have a precious, successful adulthood.

Monstrous as it is, I can’t watch that video without feeling Seekins-Crowe’s sincerity. She believes what she is saying, and believes that letting her daughter suffer for three years was the right thing to do. (I have no idea how that story came out. After three years, did the daughter stop being suicidal, or just reach adulthood?) And now, she believes that passing this law is the right thing to do. I have little doubt that she would describe it as her Christian duty.

That speech is, I think, an almost perfect distillation of the authoritarian mindset: People who see the world differently than I do are deluded, so I have to be strong enough to make their decisions for them, even if it kills them.

There is, of course, room for debate about when parents ought to overrule their children’s desires. Nearly every parent, at some time or another, has forced a toddler to go to bed, or refused to let one eat all the candy. Those calls get harder as children grow, and I don’t know any clear rule about when someone is old enough to make their own decisions about gender-affirming medical interventions.

But now Seekins-Crowe has taken the next step, and is making “right decisions” for all the parents in Montana, particularly those who might not be “strong” enough to ignore their children’s anguish, or sure enough of their own convictions to close their ears to whatever their children might say. Those “weak” parents need a strong government, full of strong people like Seekins-Crowe herself.

Providing that strength is her Christian duty.

Watching Seekins-Crowe’s speech makes me realize that conservative leaders like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have spoiled me, because their villainy is so direct and uncomplicated. I have no doubt that Trump knows he is a grifter, and that he is consciously taking advantage of the people who support him. Likewise, DeSantis knows that critical race theory is not a thing, and that Florida’s librarians and grade school teachers are not grooming children for pedophilia.

If everyone on the other side were like that, life would be simple. But instead the world is full of Abrahams whose willingness to sacrifice Isaac makes them feel closer to their God.

What can we do with them?

I don’t have an answer for that question, so I’m just going to continue talking about the Montana legislature, and red-state governments in Texas and Florida that also gave us insight into authoritarianism this week.

Zooey Zephyr. One thing authoritarians don’t do is tolerate dissent, particularly from people they deem inferior. A few weeks ago, the Tennessee House decided not to tolerate Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are Black. The Justins delayed the business of the House for an hour or so by encouraging pro-gun-control demonstrators in the gallery, so they were expelled from office. But the people of their districts put them right back.

This week, the Republican supermajority in the Montana House did something similar to Zooey Zephyr, a trans woman (whose adulthood, in Seekins-Crowe’s terms, must not be “precious” or “successful”). On April 18, during debate on the bill banning gender-affirming care for minors (and several other anti-trans bills), she was blunt:

This body should be ashamed. If you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.

In response, the ironically-named Freedom Caucus in the Montana House called for “his” censure because of that “threatening” comment. Majority Leader Sue Vinton responded directly (and self-righteously) to the “shame” comment:

We will not be shamed by anyone in this chamber. We are better than that.

The censure resolution was not immediately taken up, but the Speaker refused to recognize Rep. Zephyr when she rose to speak, and said that he would not do so until Zephyr apologized, which she refused to do.

Last Monday, hundreds of pro-Zephyr demonstrators came to the Capitol. When Zephyr rose and was ignored, they loudly chanted “Let her speak.” The Speaker still did not recognize Zephyr, and the House ground to a halt for half an hour until the demonstrators could be removed. On his way to jail, one demonstrator explained:

In this country you don’t get many rights but one of the things you do get is an elected representative, and 11,000 Montanans are waiting for Zooey Zephyr to speak for them, to represent the interest of trans people in the state who belong in the state as well. It’s not just … the old white men who run the show over here. It’s every single person. Montana is big enough for all of us, and I think it has space for all of us.

Republicans have since inaccurately described the demonstrations as “violent” and “an insurrection”. (I commented two weeks ago on the Right’s practice of breaking words that have been used against them. Ever since January 6 they have been trying to break insurrection through misuse. It falls flat to claim that January 6 was merely a “protest”, so they have been characterizing any liberal protest as an insurrection.)

Zephyr was blamed for this breech of “decorum” (the same offense charged against the Justins). So she was banned from the House floor for the remainder of the session (which ends May 5). The resolution banning her did not also bar her from serving on committees, but all the committees she serves on then had their remaining meetings cancelled.

Like the Justins, Zephyr returned home to a large rally of her supporters. (Remember: “Large” means something different in Montana, where each House district has only about 11,000 people.) Since the legislature only meets in odd-numbered years, her term is effectively over. But she’ll be running for reelection in 2024.

Universities. Another thing authoritarians do not tolerate is an alternative source of institutional authority. That’s why the current crop of red-state authoritarians is working so hard to bring the universities under control. Universities do not wield power directly, but they are recognized sources of authoritative opinion. So they cannot be allowed to remain independent.

A number of German words have already made it into the American vocabulary — zeitgeist, schadenfreude, realpolitik, gestalt, wanderlust. Well, it’s time to learn another one: gleichschaltung, whose root words mean “same circuit”. Originally an engineering term translated as “coordination” or “synchronization”, gleichschaltung was adapted in the 1930s to describe the process of unifying German society and culture under Nazi ideology. Simply controlling the national government wasn’t good enough; the kind of German renewal the Nazis promised could only be accomplished by a unified society whose institutions all pulled in the same direction. So local governments, corporations, unions, professional associations, universities, social clubs, and youth organizations all needed “coordination”.

This week, Texas took a step towards its own gleichschaltung when its Senate passed SB-18, which would eliminate tenure in the state’s universities.

An institution of higher education may not grant an employee of the institution tenure or any type of permanent employment status.

Current tenured faculty are grandfathered in, but no new tenured appointments would be made after September 1. The Texas Tribune claims that the bill “faces an uphill battle at the Texas House”, so perhaps Texas’ university system will be spared for another term or two.

The argument for the bill is primarily political, not educational.

[Lieutenant Governor Dan] Patrick’s push to end tenure in Texas started more than a year ago after some University of Texas at Austin professors passed a nonbinding resolution defending their academic freedom to teach about issues like racial justice. The resolution came as Republicans hinted that they wanted to extend restrictions on how race is discussed in K-12 classrooms, which were approved by the Texas Legislature in 2021, to the state’s public universities.

The resolution outraged Patrick, who accused university professors of “indoctrinating” students with leftist ideas and argued that the state must stop awarding tenure because faculty with the benefit don’t face any repercussions for it.

But that’s precisely the justification for tenure: It allows academics to do their jobs without worrying about offending the politicians currently in power. In a liberal democracy, universities are not supposed to be “coordinated” with the ruling party.

Florida is another state trying to synchronize its educational institutions with government ideology. Governor DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act created a list of ideas that cannot be taught in Florida public schools, including the state universities. The part affecting the universities has been blocked by a federal judge, whose ruling says:

The First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark.

But acts of the legislature are only one path to gleichschaltung. The governor also has executive power to appoint trustees to university boards. DeSantis’ new trustees are in the process of coordinating New College in Sarasota. At a recent meeting, all five faculty members up for tenure — including three in the supposedly apolitical hard sciences — were rejected, and the faculty chair (who had been broadly criticized for being too accommodating to the new regime) quit.

Disney. I mentioned corporations in the list of things that need to be synchronized with the ruling ideology. Well, after DeSantis passed his Don’t Say Gay law, Disney had the temerity to put out a statement saying that it opposed the law and would continue to work against it through the systems our constitution provides for reversing government actions:

Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.

All in all, it was pretty tepid stuff, but it marked Disney as a company not marching to the DeSantis drum. That led DeSantis to strike at Disney in ways that fell comically flat: A bill to dissolve the special taxing district around Disney World had to be undone when nearby counties noticed they might wind up responsible for about $1 billion in bonds the district had outstanding. Then DeSantis announced a takeover of the board that oversees the district, but was again outsmarted by an agreement Disney signed with the outgoing board.

Now DeSantis is trying to get the legislature to nullify that agreement, and Disney decided it had had enough: It filed a federal lawsuit claiming that DeSantis is illegally retaliating against Disney for speech protected by the First Amendment.

There is no room for disagreement about what happened here: Disney expressed its opinion on state legislation and was then punished by the State for doing so. … This is as clear a case of retaliation as this Court is ever likely to see. …

It is a clear violation of Disney’s federal constitutional rights—under the Contracts Clause, the Takings Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the First Amendment—for the State to inflict a concerted campaign of retaliation because the Company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed. … In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.

The reason there’s “no room for disagreement” is that DeSantis didn’t just announce in public that he was abusing state power to punish Disney for making a political statement, he wrote about it in his book. DeSantis clearly could have benefited from the class Stringer Bell taught in The Wire:

Is you taking notes on a criminal f**king conspiracy? What the f**k is you thinking, man?

DeSantis’ defense of his actions is that Disney’s control of the special taxing district around Disney World is an inappropriate merging of state and corporate power, so he is right to take it away. And in the abstract, that may even be true. But legal and even reasonable exercises of government power become unconstitutional when they are used to punish speech protected by the First Amendment, as these actions clearly were.

David French looked up the appropriate legal precedent: O’Hare Towing Service v City of Northlake (1996). Speaking for a 7-2 majority, Justice Kennedy wrote:

If the government could deny a benefit to a person because of his constitutionally protected speech or associations, his exercise of those freedoms would in effect be penalized and inhibited. Such interference with constitutional rights is impermissible.

But in spite of the governing precedent, French is still not entirely sure how the case will come out.

At the beginning of this piece, I said that DeSantis should lose, not that he will lose. Court outcomes are never completely certain, but this much is correct: A Disney defeat would represent a dangerous reversal in First Amendment jurisprudence and cast a pall of fear over private expression.

French is afraid, in other words, that gleichschaltung may already have reached the Supreme Court.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Most of the news that attracted my attention this week happened at the state level, where Republican majorities and supermajorities have gotten increasingly extreme. Separately, these are stories that might travel below your radar (like the Texas Senate passing a bill to eliminate tenure in the state universities), so I’ve pulled several of them together in a piece I’m calling “Laboratories of Autocracy”. Among other things, the post will explain why you need to learn the German word gleichschaltung. That should be out maybe around 10 EDT.

In another era, President Biden announcing his reelection bid would be the week’s lead story. But there are continuing scandals at the Supreme Court, everybody’s still speculating about the real reason Tucker Carlson was fired, and a civil trial just started that will hang on whether a jury believes the previous president committed rape. So Biden gets pushed well down the page. One of the things Biden promised was not to be in our face 24/7 like Trump was (and largely still is). That’s a promise he’s kept, but it must be frustrating not to be able to grab public attention when you really want it.

Oh, and there’s been another mass shooting. We still cover those, don’t we? They haven’t quite reached the dog-bites-man stage yet.

Anyway, I’ll aim to get the weekly summary out by noon.