The Monday Morning Teaser

Tuesday edition

I’ve never been sure what to do with the Sift on a week with a Monday holiday. This time, given that my weekend plans had me driving all day yesterday, I thought about cancelling. But I already knew I’d be cancelling next week’s Sift because I’ll be on vacation. So rather than cancel two in a row, I thought I’d try the experiment of a Tuesday edition.

Anyway, it was 4th of July weekend, so chances are you either heard a lot about the Founding Fathers or made an intentional decision not to hear a lot about them. (If any of you got in to see Hamilton, I’m envious.) On the Right, it seems like preserve-the-Founder’s-vision rhetoric gets more and more intense every year. And since the Right’s version of the Founders is so disconnected from actual history, it’s hard for progressives not to respond with our own Founders rhetoric. (I mean, if you start quoting Thomas Jefferson in support of a fundamentalist Christian point, or make an ideologue out of George Washington, you clearly don’t know these guys.)

We rarely have a conversation about whether this partisan battle to claim the Founders is healthy for America. So the featured post this week is a discussion of David Sehat’s book The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible. His main point is that once you start invoking the Founders as prophets, you turn political arguments into religious arguments, and cast your enemies as infidels rather than just people with different political philosophies. That’s not good for democracy, and historically it seldom has led to good outcomes. We ought to be debating about what we the living want to do with our country, not what the honored dead wanted us to do with it.

That should be out sometime between 9 and 10 EDT.

The weekly summary has a lot to cover: several terrorist attacks overseas, the last whimper of the Benghazi pseudo-scandal and possibly the home stretch of the Clinton email pseudo-scandal, a stunning victory for abortion rights at the Supreme Court, new gun control laws in California, and the death of Elie Wiesel. And I’ll close with a stunning Hubble telescope photo of a massive aurora on Jupiter. Let’s say that comes out before noon.

No Island is an Island

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.

– John Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

The next Sift is on a Tuesday. I’m going to try something new, and adjust to the July 4th holiday by putting the Sift out on Tuesday the 5th. It’s an experiment.

This week’s featured post is “What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?

This week everybody was talking about Brexit

I confess to not giving Brexit the attention it merited, because I just didn’t believe it would happen. Like a lot of people, I expected a replay of the Scottish independence vote of 2014: a lot of angst, followed by, “Well, never mind then.”

But they really did it: Thursday the UK voted to leave the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron had staked his government on the outcome, so Friday morning he announced his resignation, to take effect before the Conservative Party conference in October that will choose his successor. (The British prime minister is sort of a cross between president and speaker of the house. As when Paul Ryan replaced John Boehner as speaker, Conservatives can choose a new prime minister without consulting the voters, because they hold 330 of the 650 seats in Parliament. Elections happen every five years, with the next one set for 2020. One could happen sooner if a vote of no confidence succeeded in Parliament, but that isn’t currently in the works.)

Legally, the Brexit vote was an advisory referendum, so the government has the option to ignore it, though Cameron has said: “for a Prime Minister to ignore the express will of the British people to leave the EU would not just be wrong, it would be undemocratic.”

Officially, nothing happens until the UK informs the EU that it is invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. That sets a two-year clock running: Either the two parties negotiate an official exit agreement or the UK’s membership dissolves automatically when the clock runs out.

Cameron apparently has decided he doesn’t want to be the PM who starts that clock, leaving the Article 50 notification to his still-to-be-chosen successor. So we’re probably looking at an exit date of October, 2018 or later.

Or maybe even never, if this analysis holds: Maybe nobody who promises to invoke Article 50 can replace Cameron as prime minister. Your guess on that is as good as mine.


English Brexit supporters may not have thought they were voting to disunite the United Kingdom. But as we saw in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, disintegration has its own momentum: If you don’t want to be a regional minority in a larger superstate, what makes you think the regional minorities in your smaller state will be content to stay?

So other dominoes are starting to fall. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, fairly large majorities voted against the referendum. And now many are wondering if the England-for-the-English movement behind Brexit is going to create a country that the Scots and Irish want to stay in. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called a new independence referendum “highly likely”.


Then we get to Northern Ireland, where things really get messy. Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said:

All of us who believe in Europe and want to be part of Europe will be deeply disappointed that, effectively, English votes have dragged us out of Europe. … I think that our case for a border poll [i.e., a vote to leave the UK and rejoin Ireland] has also strengthened by the outcome of this vote.

McGuinness represents Sinn Féin, the party that wants to unite with Ireland, i.e., the largely Catholic party that used to have links with the IRA. The other major party in Northern Ireland is the largely Protestant Unionists, which First Minister Arlene Foster belongs to. They want to stay in the UK and strongly oppose joining Ireland. She says: “I don’t believe [a border poll] will happen.”

It’s important to remember that people were killing each other over this issue until less than 20 years ago. Fintan O’Toole writes in The Guardian about all the ways Brexit screws up the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace.

I never imagined then that I would ever feel bitter about England again. But I do feel bitter now, because England has done a very bad day’s work for Ireland. It is dragging Irish history along in its triumphal wake, like tin cans tied to a wedding car.

All but a few diehards had learned to live with the partition of the island of Ireland. Why? Because the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic had become so soft as to be barely noticeable. If you crossed it, you had to change currencies, and if you were driving you had to remember that the speed limits were changing from kilometres per hour to miles. But these are just banal details. They do not impinge on the simple, ordinary experience of people sharing an island without having to be deeply conscious of division.

But if the whole point of Brexit is for the UK to control immigration, then the Ireland/Northern Ireland border has to harden, and other provisions of the peace agreement become more tenuous as well.

Northern Ireland desperately needed a generation of relative political boredom, in which ordinary issues such as taxation and the health service – rather than the unanswerable questions of national identity – could become the stuff of partisan debate. Brexit has made that impossible.


Things may get complicated in Gibraltar as well, where Brexit threatens two major local industries with a largely EU customer base: tourism and financial services.


London’s role as a world financial capital is also threatened. That, together with a cosmopolitan culture and a comparatively large non-white population has motivated 100,000 people to sign a petition calling for London’s independence. That seems extremely unlikely, but is a measure of the general upset. London voted against Brexit, about 60%-40%.


Joseph Harker, deputy opinion editor of The Guardian describes how this looks to Britain’s ethnic minorities. The explicit target of the Leave campaign may have been the low-wage workers coming in from poorer EU countries like Poland and Bulgaria, but the implications are larger.

This morning, knowing these despicable tactics have won over the nation, it feels like a “First they came for the Poles” moment. It seems only a matter of time before the intolerance that has been unleashed, reinforced and normalised, looks for the old, easy targets of people who look different. People like me.

“I want my country back,” the leavers said. Right now, I don’t feel part of that country.

and what it implies for American politics

Too many people to list have made the connection between the pro-Brexit voters in the UK and the Trump voters in the US. One of them was Trump. In an email to supporters (I suppose I should tell them I’m not one) he wrote:

Voters in the United Kingdom chose to leave the flawed and failing European Union and reassert control over their borders, politics and economy, taking a brave stand for freedom and independence. … These voters stood up for their nation – they put the United Kingdom first, and they took their country back.  With your help, we’re going to do the exact same thing on Election Day 2016 here in the United States of America.

The comparison works in some ways but not others. Obviously, Trump and Brexit both appeal to the same kind of nativist, anti-globalist, anti-immigrant sentiment. On his MSNBC show Friday, Chris Hayes expressed another parallel: the sense among non-supporters that this just couldn’t happen.

I think a lot of people felt like there was some kind of guard rail on the road. … And the realization was: There’s no guard rail, there’s just the outcome of the election. People say to me at barbecues, “He can’t really win.” No, he could! If he gets enough votes he will be the president.

The main way the Brexit/Trump analogy doesn’t work is that the UK has a much whiter electorate than the US. Also, the mistake a lot of us made about Brexit was ignoring polls that said the referendum was a toss-up. (Republicans made a similar mistake about Trump in the primaries; they were slow to take him seriously even though he led in the polls.) By contrast, the current RCP polling average has Clinton with a solid-but-not-overwhelming 6.8% lead. Republicans would do well to watch their own this-can’t-happen thinking: A new poll has Clinton winning Arizona by 4 points.


While the Brexit vote might inspire Trump supporters, the subsequent chaos might cut the other way: The pound immediately dropped by 9% and stock markets around the world started falling like stones. (That fall has continued this morning.) The uncertainty around Brexit might tip Europe into a recession. I can easily imagine Clinton supporters in October saying, “Don’t do to America what Brexit did to the British.”

A lot of 50-something potential Trump voters just took a big loss in their IRAs while listening to Trump (from his revamped Scottish golf course) tell them what a great thing that was, and how much money he is going to make from the fall of the pound. I doubt that went over well. Politics is all fun and games until you have to start delaying your retirement.


You know which other presidential candidate was thrilled by the Brexit vote? Jill Stein. Her motivation is that the EU is pro-corporate, but to me she seems way too sanguine about making common cause with bigots.


Best response to Trump’s Scotland trip. @DavidStroup tweeted: “We should probably not let Trump back to the U.S. until we figure out what’s going on.”

and the Supreme Court

Every year, the end of the term in June produces a flurry of decisions. This year the Court faced the additional complication of having an empty chair: The Senate has refused to take any action on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Justice Scalia. That created some 4-4 ties, which makes for weird law: The decision of the lower court stands, and serves as a precedent for any court further down its ladder, but is not a precedent for the country as a whole. So if, say, an appeals court in a different circuit ruled the opposite way, that ruling might stand also, and a law might just mean different things in different parts of the country.

Affirmative action. The Court upheld the University of Texas’ affirmative action program. Justice Kagan didn’t vote, but Justice Kennedy joined the other three liberals for a 4-3 decision. Kennedy wrote for the majority, with Alito penning a dissent about twice as long.

The gist of the argument seems to be that Alito thought he had set a perfect trap for UT, and Kennedy let them out. The Court had previously sent the case back to a lower court to be considered under “strict scrutiny”, in which the good faith of UT could not be assumed. (In other words, this affirmative action plan might be a sinister plot to discriminate against whites, rather than an attempt to create a more diverse educational environment for everyone, as UT claimed.)

Alito’s interpretation of strict scrutiny meant that UT had to quantify just how much diversity its educational environment needs, and how this plan achieves it with as little anti-white discrimination as possible. Of course, that would basically be a quota, which is also illegal. Kennedy brushed off the quantification demand, which is probably the just outcome, though I’m not sure it’s correct legally.

Immigration. Here we see the impact of the Senate’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland. As to whether President Obama’s executive orders allowing about four million undocumented immigrants to stop worrying about deportation are or are not within his constitutional power, the Court said only this:

The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.

In other words, the appellate court’s decision blocking Obama’s order stands, because the Supreme Court can’t agree. Slate‘s Walter Dellinger responded:

Seldom have so many hopes been crushed by so few words.

If a lawsuit gets filed in a different part of the country and gets a different result from a different appellate court, then we really go down the rabbit hole.

Anyway, let’s recap: The Senate passed an immigration reform bill, which the House refused to vote on. President Obama tried to step in and solve part of the problem without new legislation, and the Senate’s refusal to vote on Garland’s nomination means that the Supreme Court deadlocked on the legality of Obama’s action.

So everybody agrees we have an immigration problem, but no action can be taken on it. Conservatives love to invoke the Founders, so let me do the same now: I’m sure this kind of dysfunction isn’t what they had in mind.

and the House sit-in for gun control

I cover this in “What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?

If you want to jump ahead of the current gun-control debate and consider what changes we should hope for, I recommend this Guardian article. It points out that “the gun problem” is actually several different problems — gang violence, domestic violence, suicide, and mass shootings — that require their own solutions.

As long as we’re in the nothing-can-be-done mood, though, this kind of thinking can be counter-productive, because whatever you propose in one area can be criticized for doing little to help in the other areas. “See? This doesn’t address the real problem.”

and the Trump campaign’s finances

The June report the Trump campaign filed with the FEC showed two interesting things: First, the campaign did very little fund-raising in May and entered June with only $1.3 million in the bank, which is a ridiculously low number compared to either the McCain and Romney campaigns or the Clinton campaign, which had over $42 million (similar to what Obama had in 2008).

But the more interesting story was deeper in the FEC report: The whole campaign looked oddly like a money-making scheme. AP reported:

Through the end of May, his campaign had plowed about $6 million back into Trump corporate products and services, a review of federal filings shows. That’s nearly 10 percent of his expenditures.

Trump’s “self financing” had consisted mainly of loaning money to his campaign rather than giving it, opening up the possibility that new donations could go mainly to Trump, both to pay back the loans and for new payments to his companies. The pressure from this story forced Trump to announce that he would forgive $50 million worth of loans to his campaign, effectively donating $50 million that he previously had reserved the right to get back.

I know this sounds cynical, but we’ll have to check the July FEC report to see if he actually did forgive the loans.


In other Trump news, he has found Jesus — just in time to justify Evangelical Christians voting for him. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

and you may also be interested in

I’m becoming more optimistic that there will ultimately be Democratic unity. While I think too much was made of Bernie Sanders’ statement about voting for Clinton “in all likelihood”, which wasn’t anything like an endorsement, the statement he made about the draft Democratic platform, while critical, sounded to me like the kind of targeted, substantive criticism that people make when they want to see a process work. I would be more worried if he were continuing to make general criticisms about the Party not representing working people, rather than pointing to a few specific issues like a moratorium on fracking.


One of the joys of YouTube is that you can be a fly on the wall for conversations you never would have been involved in otherwise. Here, George Will discusses authoritarianism and libertarianism with two guys from Reason magazine. This happened back in March, when Trump’s nomination seemed likely but not inevitable yet. I’m never going to be a fan of either Will or Reason, but I feel like I understand them both better now.

and let’s close with John Oliver

Every international disaster is more enjoyable when John Oliver covers it.

What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?

Extreme tactics draw attention to the real source of our government’s dysfunction.


Few 70-somethings get to relive their youth with as much fanfare as Congressman John Lewis did this week. Back before he was a Freedom Rider or one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, Lewis got his start as an activist in 1960 by participating in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Nashville. And Wednesday, he was sitting in again, not as a 20-year-old student, but as a 76-year-old congressman. Led by Lewis, Democratic congresspeople occupied the well of the House chamber for about 24 hours, when the House adjourned until July 5. About 170 participated at one time or another, while Democratic senators cheered them on, and Elizabeth Warren stopped by with donuts.

In essence this was a continuation in the House of what Chris Murphy started last week in the Senate, when he held the Senate floor for 15 hours while demanding the Senate vote on two gun-control measures: One would have barred people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, and the other would close the gun-show loophole that allows people to buy guns without the background check they would need to pass if they bought from licensed gun dealers. [1]

Murphy was maneuvering within the complex Senate rules governing filibusters — the only time I can remember a filibuster being used to demand a vote rather than prevent one. But the House is stricter and control of the floor is tightly timed, so the only way to do something similar there was to break the rules. Good thing the Democratic delegation included an experienced rule-breaker. Lewis tweeted:

We got in trouble. We got in the way. Good trouble. Necessary Trouble. By sitting-in, we were really standing up.

So far, the sit-in has not accomplished its goal: Speaker Paul Ryan still has no plans to allow any gun-control votes. But Lewis is not giving up yet. “This is not over,” he says. “We must keep the faith. We must come back here on July 5 more determined than ever before.”

Getting attention. Ryan’s dismissal of the sit-in as a “publicity stunt” demonstrates some basic cluelessness: Sit-ins are always publicity stunts. They are a way for otherwise powerless people to call public attention to the bad behavior of powerful people.

Ryan says: “This is not about a solution to a problem. This is about trying to get attention.” But discussion is stalled and the public is on your side, getting their attention is key to solving the problem.

The famous civil-rights sit-ins, like Greensboro, could not by themselves change any laws or corporate policies. But before the demonstrations began, whites could obliviously use all-white public spaces without thinking about segregation at all, or imagine blacks happily using their own separate-but-equal all-black spaces somewhere else. The civil rights movement’s nonviolent tactics drew publicity to the reality of segregation, and once the nation was paying attention those practices could not stand.

Something similar could happen here: The public staggers from one gun massacre to the next, numbed by the belief that nothing can be done. Politicians call for prayer, and Congress holds moments of silence. Other countries somehow avoid getting 30,000 of their citizens killed by guns each year, and do it without being overrun by criminals or taken over by tyrants. But of course we couldn’t, because … because we just can’t.

The immediate point of Lewis’ sit-in and Murphy’s filibuster is to shake that fatalism and put responsibility where it belongs: There are things to do, but the people in a position to do them refuse to act.

Why this? While generally encouraged by the fact that Democratic congresspeople are finally showing some backbone, lots of liberals are complaining that the headline proposal  — stopping people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns — would be a bad law because of civil-liberty concerns. You can wind up on a terrorist-suspect list for all kinds of reasons, not even realize it until you are told you can’t do something (like get on a plane), and have no good way to face your accusers or clear your name. Worse, the lists are constructed entirely within the executive branch, so the process would be open to abuse by some future tyrannical administration.

That is all true, but it also misses an important point: We’re nowhere near passing a law. I am reminded of something Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Garry Kasparov said about uniting behind a somewhat unsavory challenger to Putin:

You have to work with the people who live here. We’re not trying to win elections yet. It’s all about having elections.

When we’re actually in a position to pass a gun control law, we can worry about whether that law is good policy. Now we’re just trying to vote on gun control. Right now, the no-guns-for-terrorism-suspects proposal polls at ridiculous numbers [2], but not even that proposal can reach the floor of the House. That’s what we have to work with, and the situation we need to expose to public attention.

Right now, we’re trying to turn the perception that nothing can be done into an expectation that Congress will debate and vote on changes to our gun laws. Given where we are, just that much would constitute progress.

The larger implications. If sit-ins are a way for the powerless to call the powerful to public account, the House sit-in contains a powerful meta-message: The class of powerless people now includes members of Congress. 

With bipartisanship dead and the Republican majority living by the Hastert Rule — nothing comes to the floor unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it — the normal procedures of the House offer Democratic representatives nothing. But that in turn invokes the Bobby McGee principle: There’s no reason to keep living by their rules if they’ve already taken everything away from you.

“This is not a way to bring up legislation,” Ryan scolded. But for House Democrats there is no way to bring up legislation. [3] So why pay any attention to Ryan’s rules, when the only way to win is to circumvent the Republican majority by appealing directly to the public? [4]

When “publicity stunts” work. One progressive complaint about the sit-in is: Why wouldn’t Democrats go to the mat like this for other progressive causes, like single-payer healthcare or free college?

The answer is that appealing to the general public only works if you can be certain of their overwhelming support. That’s just not true for most progressive causes. [5]

Tea Party Republicans ran into the same problem when they threatened to breach the debt ceiling if President Obama wouldn’t agree to massive spending cuts. Since no one really wanted to breach the debt ceiling, the showdown was mainly a publicity stunt, meant to rally public support for lower government spending.

But once the public started paying attention, it was horrified by the risk-to-benefit proposition the Tea Partiers were putting forward. The incident backfired on Republicans because the support for their position was neither as wide nor as deep as they had imagined.

However, there is at least one additional progressive issue where publicity-stunt politics would work: voting rights. Congress refuses to fix the hole that the Supreme Court blasted in the Voting Rights Act. If the public were paying attention to this, it would clearly be on the Democrats’ side.

Who is the obstacle to change? Independent of the issue, the optics of extreme tactics by congressional Democrats draws public attention to a meta-issue: In spite of holding the White House for the last two terms, Democrats are the party of change. The obstacle to change isn’t President Obama, it’s the Republican Congress.

This point is in danger of being lost in the 2016 campaign, as a large segment of the dissatisfied public thinks of change in terms of changing the president. Donald Trump gets credit for being the candidate who would “shake things up”, while Hillary Clinton is said to represent “more of the same” and “Obama’s third term”.

But on issue after issue — climate change, healthcare, voting rights, guns, rebuilding infrastructure, immigration reform, and on and on — Obama has been the one pushing for change and being frustrated by a Congress that does nothing. The way to get change isn’t to replace Obama with somebody very different, it’s to get a president who will keep pushing the way Obama has, and elect a more cooperative Congress. [6]

Republicans have no agenda. If Republicans actually had a change agenda of any sort and Obama were the obstacle to this change, Congress would be passing laws right and left and forcing Obama to veto them.

But that hasn’t happened. Even with Republicans in control of both houses, there has been no attempt to replace ObamaCare with a Republican alternative, no reform of the tax system, no plan for repairing the “bankrupt” systems of Social Security and Medicare, no plan for balancing the budget, or for much of anything else.

President Obama has had to cast only eight vetoes since the current Congress was seated a year and a half ago. None of vetoed bills embodied some grand new conservative solution, and most were attempts to undo some change the Obama administration had implemented: One repealed ObamaCare without replacing it, and most of the rest negated rules issued by the EPA, the NLRB, or the Labor Department. In each case, it was Obama who was trying to change something (like lowering greenhouse gas emissions or preventing financial advisers from cheating their customers), and Republicans who were trying to block change.

The best evidence of Republicans being stuck in the mud is in Speaker Ryan’s series of white papers, the ones that are supposed to promote a Republican agenda for the future. Independent of what they say, their very existence indicts Ryan for a simple reason: Speakers of the House aren’t supposed to write white papers, they’re supposed to write laws.

If Ryan had bills he wanted to pass, his caucus has the power to pass them. And yet, it doesn’t.

The Spirit of 48. Harry Truman faced an even worse version of this situation in 1948. In essence, he was running for FDR’s 5th term. And yet, he did not run as the more-of-the-same candidate. Instead, he ran the give-’em-Hell campaign against the do-nothing Republican Congress. He didn’t just hold on to the presidency, but Democrats regained control of Congress as well.

That should be the blueprint for 2016: Don’t just run against Trump, run against the do-nothing Republican Congress. Make the public realize where the real obstacle to change is. Anybody who wants to shake things up needs to shake up Congress.

It’s tempting to try to tie Republican congressional candidates to Trump, but it’s important to tie him to them as well: Where, specifically, does Trump disagree with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? Aren’t they all climate change deniers who are in the pocket of the NRA? Aren’t they all trying to cut rich people’s taxes and give corporations more power to do as they please? Don’t they all want to repeal campaign finance laws and the Dodd-Frank restrictions on the big banks?

The more attention Democrats can draw to the logjam in Congress, the better. So give ’em Hell, Hillary. Give ’em Hell, John Lewis. The American people need to understand where the real obstacle is.


[1] He got his votes, but lost. A subsequent bipartisan compromise put together by Republican Susan Collins of Maine looks doomed as well.

[2] According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 85% support barring gun sales to people on the terrorist watch list, while 92% support universal background checks. Anecdotally, the watch-list proposal seems to generate more fervent support than background checks. Picturing someone buying a gun without being checked doesn’t raise as much ire as picturing a terrorist buying a gun.

[3] The clearest example of this is immigration reform. In 2013 a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Numerous sources estimated that the bill would pass the House if it came to a vote, but since it didn’t have majority support within the Republican caucus, no vote has been held. In fact, in three years no House alternative proposal has come up for a vote either.

[4] I have an off-the-wall suggestion to circumvent the Hastert Rule. Democratic congressmen should all declare themselves Republicans and attend the Republican caucus. If that’s where the important votes happen, why not go there?

I’m sure the Republicans would find a way to prevent this, but it would be another way to dramatize the anti-democratic nature of the House.

[5] The polling on single-payer varies wildly depending on how the question is phrased. In one recent AP poll, 63% had positive feelings about “Medicare-for-all”, while only 44% felt positively about a “single-payer health insurance system”, and a mere 38% supported “socialized medicine”.  They didn’t ask about a “government takeover of the healthcare system”, but I doubt it would be popular.

[6] Those who criticize how little got done during Obama’s first two years not only underestimate how much accomplishment there was, they also usually overestimate the amount of time Obama was free from Republican obstruction.

Al Franken’s election in Minnesota was close enough that Republicans managed to drag a series of vote-counting challenges through the courts. Early on, they might really have thought they could get the outcome reversed, but eventually delay became its own goal:  They kept Franken from taking his seat in the Senate until July 7, 2009.

By then, Ted Kennedy was in the final stages of the cancer that killed him on August 25. (Already by July 9, it was headline news when he came to the Senate to cast a vote. No 60-vote plan could rely on pulling him off his deathbed.) Another legal challenge prevented Kennedy’s temporary replacement, Paul Kirk, from taking office until September 24. And then in the special election on January 19, 2010, Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory, taking his seat February 4.

So effectively, Obama had a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority for slightly more than four months. Since it ended by surprise, no one realized that everything had to be passed at once.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The big news this week was Brexit, which I had barely covered in the Sift because I didn’t expect Leave to win. (If Remain had won, the story would have been “OK, never mind.”) So the consequences of Brexit — the worst of it being the strain it puts on the Northern Ireland peace agreement — take up most of the weekly summary, which also discusses whether Brexit should change our views of the likelihood of a Trump presidency. (I come down with a definitive “yes and no”.)

But the featured post is about the odd and (from my point of view) welcome change of tone among the Democrats in Congress. Suddenly senators are giving 15-hour speeches and representatives are holding sit-ins in the well of the House. If nothing else, such actions are breaking the nothing-to-see-here fatalism of a Congress that can barely keep the government open and can’t hope to accomplish anything positive.

But what’s all that about, why now, and where might it go from here? That’s the topic of a featured post that still needs work and doesn’t even have a title yet. So figure that to appear around 10 or 11 EDT.

Beyond Brexit and the congressional sit-in, the weekly summary discusses the end-of-term barrage of Supreme Court decisions, the odd finances of the Trump campaign, and the continuing signs of a thaw on the Bernie/Hillary front. I’m still looking for a closing, so let’s predict that to appear around noon.

Stopping Power

Give me three 100 round drum magazines and I could hold my whole block hostage for a day. Give me thirty 10 round magazines and someone will be able to stop me.

– Daniel Hayes, “I Am an AR-15 Owner And I’ve Had Enough

This week’s featured post is “Our gun problem IS a terrorism problem“.

This week everybody was talking about Orlando

Much of the airtime related to Orlando was a simple outpouring of grief, as might happen whenever a large number of people die — in a medium-sized plane crash, say, or the collapse of an auditorium. The fact that so many of the victims were part of a very specific community — Latino LGBT in Orlando — made the story particularly poignant. If you are part of that community, you might know many of the victims, rather than just one or two. So in that sense it’s like when a plane crashes while carrying a high school French club to Paris, or when most of the Marshall football team was killed.

A second major angle on the story was to examine the killer himself and his motives. This is where the story starts to bifurcate depending on how people of different political views want to frame it. (I believe it shouldn’t bifurcate, as I explain in “Our gun problem IS a terrorism problem“.) You can tell this as a pure Muslim terrorism story: Omar Mateen came from a Muslim family, and his parents are Afghan immigrants. He has been to Saudi Arabia (apparently to do the hajj in Mecca) and the United Arab Emirates. In a 911 call made during the attack, he dedicated his killings to ISIS. (However, ISIS appeared to play no role in the attack, other than in the killer’s mind. The FBI had investigated his trips to the Middle East and found no indication that he received terrorist training.)

You can tell it as a violence-begets-violence story: Mateen was bullied as a youngster, and was a violent man before his attack on the Pulse nightclub. He abused his wives, and sought out a profession — security guard — that allowed him to carry a gun.

You can portray Mateen as a man struggling to deny his sexuality. Pulse was not a random choice. He apparently had attended the nightclub many times, and participated on gay dating web sites. The massacre can be presented as Mateen’s ultimate attempt to declare to the world that he found homosexuality abhorrent rather than tempting. A unique perspective on this interpretation is in two segments (here and here) where Rachel Maddow interviews Sohail Ahmed, a British gay Muslim who once contemplated terrorist acts and now campaigns against violent Islamism.

And finally, the Pulse massacre can be framed as just another mass killing, like Columbine or San Bernadino or Aurora or Sandy Hook. In some sense we don’t care why shooters keep doing these things; we just want it to stop.


If we’re going to profile Muslims, why not profile men?

and guns

Paul Ryan called for a moment of silence in Congress to honor the dead in Orlando, but Democrats decided that Congress’ silence on the mass-shooting issue was part of the problem.

In the Senate, Chris Murphy of Connecticut pulled off something remarkable: He used a filibuster to push an issue forward rather than shut it down. He held the floor for 15 hours until he got an agreement to hold two votes:

One would bar those on a terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms and the other would expand background checks.

It’s important to understand why this worked. An old-fashioned stand-up-and-talk filibuster is limited by individual stamina, so opponents can always wait you out. So as a forcing tactic, it can’t accomplish much by itself. What it does, though, is create drama and draw national attention. If that attention results in national outrage, then the Senate leadership may have to respond.

That’s what happened here. Murphy got a concession because he drew attention to an issue where the public is overwhelmingly on his side. (A PPP poll in Virginia shows an incredible 86%-7% split in favor of keeping people on the no-fly list from buying guns and an even larger majority in favor of universal background checks.) But apparently even that kind of majority will ultimately fail in the face of the NRA: Both measures are expected to lose today when the Senate votes. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine is trying to stitch together a compromise, but even if it passes, the House will probably not vote on it.


An AR-15 owner explains why limiting magazines to ten bullets would make mass killings much harder.


MarketWatch columnist Brett Arends goes back to The Federalist to explain what the Founders meant by “a well-regulated militia”: a citizen army resembling today’s National Guard, which they hoped would avoid (or at least minimize) the need for a professional permanent standing army. The militia is “necessary to the security of a free State” because the Founders feared that a professional army might develop its own interests independent of the People, and so establish tyranny.

Today we have a professional army, anyway. Military matters have become so complex that no part-time soldiers could do it all. So you could argue that makes the Second Amendment null and void, like the parts in the Constitution about slaves and Indians being counted as “three-fifths” of a person in the Census.

But even if you still want to defend the Second Amendment, it should apply only to those who volunteer to join the “select corps” of their National Guard, undergo rigorous training to attain “proficiency in military functions” and perform the “operations of an army,” serve as ordered under the ultimate command of the president and be subject to military discipline.

and Trump

My intuition was telling me that Trump’s reaction to Orlando was disastrous, but my Trump intuition hasn’t been that good, so I was still worried. Fortunately, recent polls seem to bear me out: both the ones that ask specific questions about Orlando and the head-to-head match-ups, where Clinton’s lead keeps growing. (One poll that showed Clinton’s lead shrinking was comparing to a previous poll that I consider an outlier: Reuters has Clinton’s lead down from 14% to a mere 10.3%, which is still above her margin in most other polls.)


Republicans are still talking about getting rid of Trump at the convention, but I’ll believe it when I see it. One thing I’m not hearing so far is some large number of Trump delegates wanting to be free of their commitment to vote for him.


By far the best response to Trump’s banning The Washington Post from his campaign comes from the tiny York Dispatch of York County, PA. In an editorial “Ban us, you big baby“, they ask why they don’t deserve the honor of being banned too.

The Dispatch might be small by comparison, but our commitment to asking tough questions, pointing out inconsistencies, flagging outright lies, simply holding candidates accountable for their words and actions is second to none. … Now, we understand sitting out your campaign events means we might miss a serious, coherent policy speech. Let’s just say, we like our odds. … No, we’re pretty sure we can cover that circus just fine from outside the tent, with the rest of the journalists who refuse to be silenced.


Josh Marshall makes two points about Trump’s recent troubles:

Every candidate is dependent on good poll numbers for morale, fundraising and more. But Trump’s platform isn’t abolishing Obamacare or lowering taxes or kicking more ass in the Middle East. His platform is “winning.” So if he’s clearly not winning, it’s uniquely debilitating.

and

[T]he general election puts a bullshit based candidacy in direct contact with the reality based world. That creates not only turbulence but turbulence that builds on itself because the interaction gets in the spokes of each of these two, fundamentally different idea systems. You’re seeing the most telling signs of that with the growing number of Republicans who, having already endorsed Trump, are now literally refusing to discuss him or simply walking away when his name is mentioned.

Paul Krugman makes a related point: Republicans like Bush and Rubio fell so easily before Trump because (like Soviet leaders before the collapse), they can’t believe what they have to say. A bullshit-based system requires a master bullshitter, which is why the choice came down to Trump or Cruz.



The New Republic attends a Trump rally in North Carolina, where vendors hawk t-shirts saying “Trump That Bitch!” and “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica!”. Things must have gotten worse since I stood in line (unsuccessfully) for a Trump rally in January. The worst I noticed then was “Hillary For Jail”.


AJ+ interviews a woman who was an undercover CIA agent in the Muslim world.

If I learned one lesson from my time with the CIA, it is this: Everybody believes they are the good guy.


Media Matters traces how years of anti-immigrant propaganda on Fox News and right-wing talk radio laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s candidacy.

and Bernie Sanders

Sanders addressed his supporters online Thursday [video, transcript]. He has stopped talking about flipping superdelegates and winning the nomination, but is also not dropping out or endorsing Clinton. Apparently he will go to the convention seeking changes in the primary rules for future elections and in the Democratic platform.

However, when I imagine Clinton strategists watching this speech, I picture them totally confused about what they can offer Bernie, because his demands are not sharpening. Instead, he repeated virtually his entire stump speech. The implied answer to “What do you want?” is “Everything.”

Losing candidates don’t get everything. If they did, elections would be pointless.

If Sanders identifies parts of his agenda that are broadly popular among Democrats — the $15 minimum wage comes to mind — he might win those votes at the convention. But he can’t expect the convention even to debate a broad replacement of Clinton’s positions with his, much less to win such a vote. So where is he going with this?


Pundits are debating about Sanders’ “leverage”, and whether it is shrinking as former supporters like Senator Merkley and Congressman Grijalva defect to Clinton and progressive heroes like Senator Warren get enthusiastic about the Clinton/Trump match-up. Sanders’ intransigence is becoming an Andy Borowitz punch line:

Sanders acknowledged that continuing to fight for the nomination after Clinton is elected President would represent a “steep challenge,” but added, “When we started this race we were only at three per cent in the polls. Anything is possible.”

According to Vox, the Sanders campaign believes their leverage vanishes as soon as they endorse Clinton. But I don’t see it that way: What Clinton really wants from Sanders is an enthusiastic convention speech that tells his supporters they have a place in the Democratic Party and an interest in seeing Clinton beat Trump. They want him campaigning for the Democratic ticket in the fall on college campuses and other places where he is more popular than she is. That leverage stays in place until election day, unless he dissipates it himself, as he might be doing.


I’ve seen a lot of angst about whether the Democratic establishment will learn the right lessons from the surprising success of the Sanders campaign. I wish I saw more angst about whether progressives will learn from Bernie’s failure to win over blacks and Latinos. There’s not going to be any progressive revolution unless people of color believe it’s their revolution. They didn’t this time. What’s going to be different next time?

but you may have missed the good news on net neutrality

Two years ago, in what was widely reported as a defeat for net neutrality, the D.C. Court of Appeals threw out the FCC’s net neutrality rules, but for an interesting reason: It wasn’t that the FCC lacked the power to make such rules, but that the FCC’s power worked differently than the rules implied.

The gist of the court ruling is that the FCC has classified cable companies as information-services providers, but that its net-neutrality rules regulate them like telecommunications carriers. So the FCC’s net-neutrality rules can’t stand. But — and this is the observation that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat — it’s totally within the FCC’s current powers and mandate to just reclassify the cable companies.

It did that, and then re-issued its net neutrality rules. The re-issued rules came back to the same court, which approved them this time. Doubtlessly this will go to the Supreme Court, but so far the good guys are winning.

This is one of many issues that points out the importance of winning the White House: Obama appointed the FCC commissioners whose votes made the difference, and the ultimate decision may hang on which party gets to replace Justice Scalia.

Clinton and Trump have sharp differences here. Trump has tweeted:

Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target the conservative media

while Clinton supported the FCC’s decision.

and you might also be interested in

Yesterday was Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when the abolition of slavery was announced in the last holdout state, Texas. As I’ve discussed before, that was far from the end of slavery, and abolition often only applied within the reach of occupying Union soldiers. But abolition deserves a holiday somewhere in the calendar, and this one is as good as any.


This week at its annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Conference (the U.S.’s largest Protestant denomination) passed a resolution against flying the Confederate flag:

We call our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters.

Like many American denominations, the Baptists split over slavery during the years leading up to the Civil War. The Southern Baptists descend from the pro-slavery side of that split, but have moderated considerably since.

The resolution was originally proposed by a black pastor from Texas, and then sharpened by a white former president of the conference, who wrote:

I asked my brothers and sisters to strike the resolution’s language claiming that some people fly this divisive symbol out of a fond memory of their fallen ancestors, rather than hate. … At our denomination’s beginning, we took the wrong stand on the issue of slavery. We cannot undo what our ancestors did, but I felt we had a historic opportunity to show that we have repented of these ungodly attitudes. The SBC has officially and publicly apologized for our racist past, but words without action are cheap and hollow.

I’ve written about the flag before, and here’s where I come down on the fallen-ancestor thing: If you want to put an appropriately-sized Confederate battle flag on the grave of your great-grandfather who died at Vicksburg, I’m fine with it. But flying that flag from a flagpole, where the general public can see it, says something different: that the masters weren’t wrong when they revolted against the United States in order to defend their right to keep black people in slavery.

If that’s the message you want to send, well, it’s a free country. But don’t kid yourself that you’re really saying something else.


Governor Brownback’s huge tax cuts and other conservative policies were supposed to bring jobs to Kansas. Well, in this particular case, they’ve caused jobs to leave Kansas. The CEO of Pathfinder Health Innovations writes:

In the end, I believe the goals of the Brownback administration are going exactly to plan – starve the state of resources to the point where it just makes sense to turn over critical government functions to for-profit entities.

I can’t, in good conscience, continue to give our tax money to a government that actively works against the needs of its citizens; a state that is systematically targeting the citizens in most need, denying them critical care and reducing their cost of life as if they’re simply a tax burden that should be ignored.

It’s because of these moves that I have decided to deny Kansas revenue from Pathfinder’s taxes by moving our company to Missouri.


Paul Ryan is trying to provide a non-Trump policy center for Republicans to coalesce around. His web site at speaker.gov is putting out a series of issue papers under the heading “A Better Way“. Its healthcare proposal is supposed to appear Wednesday, but The Hill reports that once again Republicans will fall short of offering an actual, ready-to-vote-on plan that the CBO can analyze for costs and benefits.

House Republicans’ ObamaCare replacement plan will not include specific dollar figures on some of its core provisions, and will instead be more of a broad outline, according to lobbyists and aides.

Jonathan Chait explains why this is not surprising.

The Republican health-care stance combines rhetorical opposition to all of the cruel features of the old health-care system with denunciations of every practical measure in Obamacare required to fix them. The unspecified alternative allows them to promise that nobody will suffer from lack of access to insurance, but without committing to any sacrifices needed to make this happen.

So, seven years into the debate about ObamaCare, there is still no real alternative other than a return to the system that was bad and still getting worse in 2009.


The prospect of another Clinton administration should have us re-examining the good and bad of the last one. A budget surplus, low unemployment, and low inflation can make the late 90s sound like the Good Old Days, but Nicholas Kristof observes that welfare reform didn’t work out as well as he had hoped at the time.

Welfare reform has failed, but the solution is not a reversion to the old program. Rather, let’s build new programs targeting children in particular and drawing from the growing base of evidence of what works.

That starts with free long-acting birth control for young women who want it (70 percent of pregnancies among young single women are unplanned). Follow that with high-quality early-childhood programs and prekindergarten, drug treatment, parenting coaching and financial literacy training, and a much greater emphasis on jobs programs to usher the poor into the labor force and bring them income.

and let’s close with some intellectual humor

Our gun problem IS a terrorism problem

ISIS has found the biggest hole in America’s defenses: our lax gun laws.


When Democrats in Congress responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting by renewing calls for gun control, Ted Cruz made a sharp distinction:

This is not a gun control issue; it’s a terrorism issue.

In other words, if it’s one it can’t be the other. Gallup implicitly endorsed that framing by making its respondents choose. The result was the usual partisan polarization: 79% of Republicans described the Pulse attack as “Islamic terrorism”, while 60% of Democrats called it “domestic gun violence”. [1]

But following just half a year after the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando shooting makes the guns-or-terrorism argument obsolete. It’s all one issue now. ISIS is actively encouraging lone-wolf attacks, and the easy availability of AR-15s and other military-style weapons makes the United States uniquely vulnerable to lone-wolf terrorism. Our political inability to control or track even the most destructive guns keeps that hole in our defenses open.

I’m amazed it took Islamic State strategists so long to figure that out. About a year after 9-11, the Washington metro area was terrorized by someone the press called “the D.C. sniper“. Over a three-week period he shot 13 people apparently at random, ten of whom died. Rather than a mass killing, these were individual attacks that seemed completely unpatterned and unpredictable: one victim was sitting at a bus stop reading a book, another was pumping gas at a self-service station, and a third was walking down a street.

That’s what made the attacks so terrifying: Wherever you were in the D.C. area and whatever you happened to be doing, if you were out in public you had to consider the possibility that you might suddenly be killed.

The press speculated about Al Qaeda, but the killers turned out to have no connection to international terrorism. They were just two guys with a rifle who had drilled a barrel-hole into the trunk of a rusty old car. Their plan was breathtakingly simple: They found obscure spots with clear views of public places and parked there, with the middle-aged sniper hidden in the trunk until a target appeared. After the shots were fired, his 17-year-old accomplice drove them away.

By comparison, 9-11 had been such a complex operation: It was planned in Afghanistan, then communicated to conspirators in Germany, America, and who knows how many other places. The attackers had to gain entry the U.S., where they spent months training in skills like flying a plane. On the designated day, they assembled in airports to play their roles in the plan.

Because 9-11 had so many moving parts and involved so many people, it had many possible points of failure: Communications could be intercepted. Conspirators might raise suspicion while entering the country or during training, then crack under interrogation. They might lose their nerve and defect. They might look suspicious at the airport. The other passengers might fight for control of the plane.

Those failure-points allowed the U.S. government to respond quickly, closing down many of the vulnerabilities that let 9-11 happen. Changes were made in cockpits, in airports, in our screening of people entering the country, and in how we track terrorism suspects. Nobody has succeeded in pulling off a 9-11-style attack since.

But effective as they had been in terrorizing a major urban area, the D.C. sniper duo changed nothing. If Osama bin Laden had realized the significance of that, he and his successors could have kept Americans far more frightened than we have been these last 14 years.

Which is not to say we haven’t been frightened, but more by each other than by foreign terrorists. The years since the D. C. sniper have seen a series of ever-more-horrific mass shootings. Each time, Congress took no action to reduce our vulnerability.

Terrorist plotters may be slow, but eventually they catch on. By now, as Pulse and San Bernadino make clear, ISIS understands very well: One disgruntled, alienated, or insane American (or permanent resident [2]) can easily kill dozens, without breaking any laws until the moment he or she opens fire. A tourist could be equally deadly; the only additional point of legal danger in that plan would be a black-market gun purchase [3], which is made simpler by the fact that we have no system for keeping track of guns, even military-style weapons. [4]

Carrying out such an attack requires little planning or training, so such plans have very few points where they are vulnerable to detection or interruption. Omar Mateen, Rizwan Farook, and Tashfeen Malik did not have to spend weeks at some terrorist camp in Syria or Libya. They didn’t need to smuggle anything into the country or coordinate their plans with some handler from ISIS central command. [5] They just had to buy guns, practice shooting them, and then go kill people.

Best of all (from ISIS’ point of view) the Islamic State didn’t even need to think this up for themselves. All they had to do was observe how defenseless we are against mass shootings (as Sandy Hook made obvious) and how dysfunctional our political system has been in responding to that weakness (as Congress’ complete lack of response to Sandy Hook made obvious). Even after two wildly successful attacks, ISIS doesn’t have to worry all that much about the government shutting down points of vulnerability. With the NRA on the case, no pro-terrorism lobby is needed. [6]

So it may have taken them a while, but the terrorists have adapted. The question is whether we will adapt, overcome the NRA’s resistance, and force our representatives to face the new reality. Will we find ways to reduce the number of the most lethal guns and make the existing ones easier to track? Will we limit guns’ mass-killing potential by banning high-capacity magazines? Will we allow authorities to track suspicious guns-and-ammunition purchasing patterns?

That isn’t just a gun-control agenda any more. It’s an anti-terrorism agenda. Given what we’ve seen, any purported anti-terrorism agenda that does not include such gun-control measures is just not serious.


[1] A third option of “both equally” was offered and drew only 6%. But that choice still paints a picture of two distinct factors that just happen to be present in equal quantities. “Both equally” does not express what I’m claiming here: that mass shootings are our primary terrorism vulnerability.

[2] Guns laws are stricter for non-citizens than for citizens, but permanent residents have all the same second-amendment rights citizens do.

[3] A black-market purchase might not even be necessary, because existing gun laws are so poorly enforced at gun shows, and many laws don’t even apply there. Here, for example, a 13-year-old boy buys a rifle.

[4] The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 forbids the federal government to compile a list or database of gun owners and the guns they own. Paperwork related to background checks on gun buyers is supposed to be thrown away within 24 hours. Jacob Paulsen of usaFirearmTraining.com writes: “Generally speaking for the majority of American gun owners there is no system, database, or registry that ties us to any of our firearms.”

By contrast, we have very tight controls on military weapons like machine guns, bazookas, and hand grenades. Those controls work: Such weapons have not been used in our series of mass killings.

[5] By contrast, the Paris attack was a complex plot involving multiple coordinated actions by experienced operatives, some of whom had fought in Syria. It required ISIS to use resources that authorities could then take off the board. Killing large numbers of Americans is much simpler.

[6] The fact that after Orlando and San Bernardino, the Senate is having so much trouble taking the simplest step — preventing already-identified terrorism suspects from buying more guns — does not bode well. Even if the two parties do manage water something down enough to pass it, the House is unlikely to go along.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Last week I punted a discussion of the Orlando shooting. But the diverse reactions to it continued to dominate the news this week: It was a human tragedy; it was an ISIS attack; it was a hate crime against the LGBT community; it was yet another mass shooting to restart the gun control debate.

What struck me was the insistence that it had to be just one of these things, rather than all of them. Ted Cruz put it most sharply when he declared to the Senate: “This is not a gun control issue; it’s a terrorism issue.” Gallup more-or-less endorsed that idea when it made respondents choose: Democrats saw the Pulse nightclub massacre as a mass shooting, Republicans as a terrorist attack.

What I decided needed saying is that this distinction has become obsolete: Now that ISIS is actively encouraging lone-wolf attacks like Orlando and San Bernardino, gun control is a terrorism issue. The easy availability of military-grade hardware with near-limitless magazines makes us uniquely vulnerable to lone-wolf attacks, and the NRA’s stranglehold on Congress keeps that vulnerability in place.

So this week’s featured post is “Our gun problem IS a terrorism problem”. It should be out within the hour.

The weekly summary discusses some of the other ways the Pulse shooting is being interpreted, the surprising fact that the Senate will even vote on some gun-control measures today, the approach of Brexit, Juneteenth, net neutrality, and of course 2016 developments in both parties, before closing with a little intellectual humor.

Unthinkable

It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.

— George Orwell, “The Principles of Newspeak

This week’s featured posts are “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean? Part II” and “About Those Emails“.

The last two days, everyone has been talking about the Orlando shooting

It certainly deserves top billing. Looking at my Facebook news feed, it seems to be what’s on everybody’s mind, and it’s certainly on mine. I wish I had something comforting or hopeful or inspiring to say about it, or even something accusatory that directed blame to more appropriate places than it would otherwise go.

But I don’t. And I don’t want to cheapen the discussion by launching a canned rant about guns or terrorism or some other related issue. Maybe by next week I’ll have something more insightful to say.

One thing I have noticed, though: In previous mass killings, there has been a “We are all …” meme. “We are all Americans“, “Je suis Charlie“, and so on. But one measure of the power of LGBT prejudice is that nothing similar seems to be happening this time. There is no “We are all queer” meme.

I’m reminded of a criticism made by a character in the Richard Condon novel Winter Kills about a fictional president who resembles JFK: “He went to Germany and said ‘I am a Berliner’, but he never went to Mississippi and said ‘I am a nigger’.”

Until then, everybody had been talking about the first woman to clinch a major-party nomination

It was a good week for Hillary Clinton. Monday night AP’s and NBC’s running total of Clinton delegates (both pledged and super) went over the magic number of 2383, clinching the nomination for her. Tuesday she won four of the five primaries (and lost the North Dakota caucus), including getting a surprisingly large margin in California.

With the race decided, the heavyweight endorsements came in: Obama, Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren. Unlike what’s happening the Republican side, all her endorsers seem enthusiastic about getting out and campaigning for her.

Bernie Sanders still hasn’t quite come around yet, but I hope nobody’s pushing him too hard. Clinton would benefit more from a quality endorsement than a prompt one. Better if it takes him a few weeks to endorse Clinton, but it’s clear that he genuinely wants to reconcile his supporters to the Democratic nominee, than if he offers some quick gritted-teeth statement and then stomps off to Vermont until after the election.


The bad news about Clinton looks to be wildly exaggerated: The Clinton Foundation donor who got appointed to a national security board actually did have some reason to be there.


Sanders supporters have been making the point that, since superdelegates could still change their votes, Clinton hasn’t really clinched anything yet.

If you want to get into legalisms, though, no one has ever clinched a nomination before the convention actually voted. Because superdelegates aren’t the only issue: Every convention is a law unto itself, and can change its own rules. So the convention of either party could free its pledged delegates from any previous obligation. In an absolutely literal sense, then, neither Clinton nor Trump has clinched the nomination, and neither had Obama or Romney at this point four years ago.

The Atlantic took this a step further:

If the Sanders camp truly wants to reserve use of the term [presumptive nominee] until every doubt is gone, then it should advocate that people never use it. Even post-convention, a party could put forth a replacement if the nominee dropped out or died.

However, if you cover the 2016 Democratic race the way every race in history has been covered before now — i.e., counting pledged delegates and believing unpledged delegates when they say they are voting for a particular candidate — then Clinton clinched the nomination last Monday and is the presumptive nominee.


Long but interesting Facebook article on Clinton’s long-term popularity/unpopularity.

So what do we see in this data? What I see is that the public view of Hillary Clinton does not seem to be correlated to “scandals” or issues of character or whether she murdered Vince Foster. No, the one thing that seems to most negatively and consistently affect public perception of Hillary is any attempt by her to seek power. Once she actually has that power her polls go up again. But whenever she asks for it her numbers drop like a manhole cover.

I’ll probably talk about this article more in some future week, but the gist is that there is an underlying, usually unconscious, sexism at work: Patriarchal culture trains us to accept power-seeking in men, but to see power-seeking women as unattractive.

and Trump’s bad week

Before Orlando, outrage over Trump’s repeated anti-Hispanic comments against Judge Curiel had been dominating the news, sometimes overwhelming the history Clinton was making. Many statements from Republican leaders either denounced Trump or distanced themselves from him. I link to several in the featured post “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean? Part II.


The Clinton campaign’s mock Trump University ad is pretty funny.


A true factoid has been bouncing around Facebook since Obama’s endorsement of Clinton: Only five living people know what it’s like to be president. The three Democrats (Carter, Bill Clinton, Obama) have endorsed Clinton, but the two Republicans (Bush and Bush) have not endorsed Trump.


David Brooks has harsh words for Paul Ryan, who agrees that Trump says racist things, but urges the Republican Party to unite around him anyway.

Ryan’s argument … puts political positions first and character and morality second. Sure Trump’s a scoundrel, but he might agree with our tax proposal. Sure, he is a racist, but he might like our position on the defense budget. Policy agreement can paper over a moral chasm. Nobody calling themselves a conservative can agree to this hierarchy of values.


USA Today examined the 3500 lawsuits Trump and his companies have been involved in, and drew this conclusion:

The actions in total paint a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years. In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources. Some just give up the fight, or settle for less; some have ended up in bankruptcy or out of business altogether.

Republicans who are counting on President Trump to stand by his promises (like choosing Supreme Court nominees from his list) should bear this pattern in mind: Once Trump has gotten what he wants from you, he’ll try to negotiate about whether he should fulfill his side of the deal. He usually wants some additional concession in exchange for delivering what he already owes you.

The number of companies and others alleging he hasn’t paid suggests that either his companies have a poor track record hiring workers and assessing contractors, or that Trump businesses renege on contracts, refuse to pay, or consistently attempt to change payment terms after work is complete as is alleged in dozens of court cases.


The New York Times casts a similar light on Trump’s Atlantic City casinos, all of which are either bankrupt now or owned by somebody else.

But even as his companies did poorly, Mr. Trump did well. He put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen.

The same could be said about Trump Tower Tampa (where Trump made money while investors lost their deposits on condos that were never built) and several other Trump projects.

Those who invested early in the visions of businessmen like Sam Walton and Bill Gates got rich — sometimes very, very rich. But partnering with Trump has often meant that he winds up with your money.


One of my Facebook friends raised a question about why these stories are coming out now. Didn’t any of the 16 other Republican campaigns have opposition research departments that could feed reporters info about Trump’s shady record?

This illuminates an important difference between the Republican primaries and the general election. Inside the conservative bubble, it’s heresy to point out that some rich people are more deserving than others. They’re all job creators who should get more tax cuts. Attempting to portray any rich man negatively is just “class warfare” or “the politics of envy“.

But the general electorate understands well that, while some people get rich through talent and hard work and visionary ideas, others make money by being scoundrels.

and that rape case

Since there’s a sports angle, a really good summary is in Sports Illustrated. The details bear out the impression you’ve probably already gotten from the headlines: A handsome young athlete (Brock Turner) from an elite university (Stanford) becomes an object of a judge’s empathy, moreso than the woman he sexually assaulted. So Turner gets a 6-month sentence (which could be as little as 3 months if he doesn’t get into any trouble in jail).

Two heroes of the story are Swedish grad students, who happened to be biking past a frat house when they noticed that the female half of the couple apparently having sex by the dumpster was actually unconscious. Rather than decide it wasn’t their business, they asked what was going on, chased Turner down when he ran away, called police, and testified at the trial. I’d like to think young American men would have done the same, but I’m not sure.

At the trial, Turner claimed the woman consented, which seems hard to square with her being unconscious. That points out one of the weird things in the way we discuss rape: When we talk about sex, consent becomes a tricky concept. But in money discussions, consent is totally straightforward.

For example, imagine I ask you for money and you say no. If I then take your wallet, I’m a thief. It doesn’t matter at all whether you’ve given me money in the past, or if you’ve been giving money to lots of other guys. Maybe your jeans are so tight that the wallet in your pocket is totally obvious, leaving nothing to my imagination. Maybe hundred dollar bills are hanging out of your blouse pocket. Maybe we’re both drunk and you pass out before you get done turning me down. None of that matters. If you never said “Here, take my money” I’m a thief.

In discussions of rape, we use phrases like consensual sex. Try to imagine a similar phrase in the money example. It’s redundant to talk about a consensual gift or a consensual loan, because there is no gift or loan without consent; there’s just theft.

and you might also be interested in

Clinton’s charge that Trump is “temperamentally unfit” to be president — which looks like it’s going to be a major theme of her campaign — brings up some fascinating history I hadn’t known.

During the 1964 campaign Fact magazine asked 12,000 psychiatrists, whether Barry Goldwater was “psychologically fit” for the presidency. Most ignored the mailing, but 1189 responded that he wasn’t, and some added colorful comments that made for a sensational article.

It took a few years, but Goldwater won his lawsuit against Fact, and the American Psychiatric Association decided that the profession didn’t need this kind of publicity. So now the official code of ethics contains a “Goldwater Rule”.

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.


Samantha Bee explains how it came down to Trump.

and let’s close with the generic TED talk

John Barth once wrote a short story called “Title”, in which every element of the story — including the title — is a placeholder or a generic description. Pat Kelly has now done the same thing for TED talks.

 

About Those Emails

On the Right, it is an article of faith that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State involves her in crimes that deserve a jail term; either she will be indicted by the FBI or (if not) President Obama somehow is protecting her from indictment. Donald Trump has said “Hillary Clinton has to go to jail.” and “Anything Obama wants, she’s going forward with because you know why? She doesn’t want to go to jail.”

More recently, as it became clear that Clinton would be nominated, some Bernie Sanders supporters began expressing similar hopes: that legal troubles would take Clinton off the board, leaving the nomination for Sanders. Sanders himself has not gone that far, but has urged voters and delegates to “take a hard look” at the report of the State Department Inspector General.

One small place the Clinton/Sanders debate has been playing out is in the comments on this blog, and I have started getting criticism for ignoring or minimizing the issue, particularly the more recent developments. [1] So I thought I’d read the Office of the Inspector General’s report and other well-informed commentary on the Clinton’s emails and report.

What it’s all about. The OIG report says:

Secretary Clinton employed a personal email system to conduct business during her tenure in the United States Senate and her 2008 Presidential campaign. She continued to use personal email throughout her term as Secretary, relying on an account maintained on a private server, predominantly through mobile devices. Throughout Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the server was located in her New York residence.

Instead, she should have used a State Department email account for official business while she was Secretary of State. I don’t think anyone disputes that basic description of the situation. The entire argument is about how serious the issue is.

Separable concerns. The first thing to understand about Clinton’s emails is that there are two separate and more-or-less opposite concerns: security (i.e., keeping information in) and transparency (letting information out).

Most articles about the emails wander from one concern to the other, sometimes irresponsibly. But it makes no sense to jump from an OIG quote about Clinton breaking transparency rules to a charge that she has put the nation’s security at risk. Either, neither, or both might be true, but they are completely different issues.

We won’t know exactly what the FBI is investigating until they tell us, but indications are that they are focused on the security of classified information. If so, then the OIG report is almost a perfect complement: It focuses mainly on transparency; to the extent it discusses security at all, it talks about sensitive-but-unclassified information, which I assume includes things like personnel records.

Transparency. The OIG report is deadly dull to read, because it’s mainly a recent history of record-keeping at the State Department. Clinton is a central figure, but the sweep is much broader.

The report paints a picture of a common bureaucratic problem: The government has good intentions about keeping complete records. Some of those intentions have been written into laws like the Federal Records Act. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has issued government-wide regulations for meeting the legal requirements, and the State Department, like other departments and agencies, has created policies and procedures that (if followed) should fulfill the NARA regulations.

Unfortunately, though, State (like much of the government) never finds the money to create an up-to-date, usable record-keeping system, particularly with regard to modern forms of communication like email. So proper record-keeping is cumbersome, and employees are left with a conflict between following the proper procedures and getting their jobs done.

According to a 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, most agencies do not prioritize records management, as evidenced by lack of staff and budget resources, absence of up-to-date policies and procedures, lack of training, and lack of accountability. In its most recent annual assessment of records management, [the National Archives and Records Administration] identified similar weaknesses across the Federal Government with regard to electronic records in particular. NARA reported that 80 percent of agencies had an elevated risk for the improper management of electronic records, reflecting serious challenges handling vast amounts of email, integrating records management functionality into electronic systems, and adapting to the changing technological and regulatory environments.

You might think that just using the State Department email system would be enough to insure compliance, but no.

Several staff mentioned preserving emails by saving them in their Department email accounts. However, as previously noted, NARA regulations state that agencies may only use an electronic mail system to store the recordkeeping copy of electronic mail messages identified as Federal records if that system contains specific features; the current Department email system does not contain these features.

There’s a separate program for making sure emails get properly recorded, but most people don’t use it.

However, prior OIG reports have repeatedly found that Department employees enter relatively few of their emails into the SMART system and that compliance varies greatly across bureaus, in part because of perceptions by Department employees that SMART is not intuitive, is difficult to use, and has some technical problems.

So working around the system in one way or another has been common.

OIG also reviewed an S/ES-IRM report [don’t worry about the acronym, it looks to be State’s information technology office] prepared in 2010 showing that more than 9,200 emails were sent within one week from S/ES servers to 16 web-based email domains, including gmail.com, hotmail.com, and att.net. S/ES-IRM told OIG that it no longer has access to the tool used to generate this particular report. In another instance, in a June 3, 2011, email message to Secretary Clinton with the subject line “Google email hacking and woeful state of civilian technology,” a former Director of Policy Planning wrote: “State’s technology is so antiquated that NO ONE uses a State-issued laptop and even high officials routinely end up using their home email accounts to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively.”

Previous secretaries of state worked around the system in different ways. Colin Powell used a mixture of personal and official email, while Condoleezza Rice didn’t use email at all. (I’m having trouble imagining how you run a department without email, but somehow she managed it.) Clinton defenders who say that Powell did exactly the same thing as Clinton are exaggerating, but it’s true that no previous secretary had found a way to use email while fully complying with the official procedures.

Nobody worked around the system quite as completely as Secretary Clinton did, and in doing so she undoubtedly violated State Department policies. It’s possible she was in violation of a law against removing government records, though she claims the government still had all her correspondence because the people she was writing to were on government servers. (As we’ve seen, NARA wouldn’t consider that adequate.) She has since sent the government printed copies of her business emails, filtering them out from her personal emails, which were on the same server. (Though critics wonder if she filtered properly.)

But departmental policy is not the same as law, so it’s still iffy whether there’s a technical legal violation related to the FRA. Even if there is, prosecuting for it would be unheard of. The OIG report gives the example of an ambassador to Kenya:

the Ambassador continued to use unauthorized systems to conduct official business [after being told not to]. The Department subsequently initiated disciplinary proceedings against him for his failure to follow these directions and for several other infractions, but he resigned before any disciplinary measures were imposed.

That response — no legal charges, but internal discipline that vanishes when someone leaves State — seems to be how these things are typically handled.

Security. Another point that doesn’t get enough attention in the media is that the State Department’s email system does not have sufficient security to allow classified discussions. Classified discussions require use of a different messaging system, which can only be accessed from secure locations. (I’m wondering whether this system is the one whose messages Chelsea Manning released to the world, but I haven’t verified that.)

So, completely independent of whether Clinton’s email files were stored on her personal server or the State Department’s, those files are not supposed to contain classified information. If they do, there’s been a security violation before the email gets to the server.

In other words, if you’re worried about documents stamped TOP SECRET getting attached to emails and winding up on a hard drive in Clinton’s basement, stop. That’s not how State is supposed to operate or did operate.

The potential security violations we’re hearing about are almost all of the incidental or accidental variety: Somebody (usually not Clinton, but the person writing to her) should have known that certain information ought to be classified, but mentioned it in email anyway. [2] Or an email contained information that the State Department considered unclassified at the time, but was later classified by some other agency.

Politics and sources. Before going into detail about specific alleged violations, another thing to understand is that all our windows into the FBI investigation are distorted by politics. The FBI has not issued any official reports on Clinton’s emails and is not briefing the press directly. But it sometimes briefs members of Congress about what it has been finding, and that information sometimes gets leaked to the press.

So most of the news articles about the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails are based on leaks from Republican congressmen, who may slant their assessments or cherry-pick their quotes because they want to make Clinton look bad. Whenever a story mentions “congressional sources”, that generally means “Republicans”.

As a result, there has been a string of sensational “scoops” that subsequently had to be walked back as more accurate versions came out. (One report that 147 FBI agents were involved in the investigation — making it a Public Enemy #1 scale effort — eventually got reduced to less than 12.) As always, the sensational version sticks in the public mind even after it has been debunked. This is particularly true within the conservative echo chamber.

Recent revelations. This week the The Wall Street Journal published an article (sourced to anonymous “congressional and law-enforcement officials”) describing top-secret information allegedly found on Clinton’s server. These were email exchanges between lower-level State Department officials that got forwarded to Clinton. (I found no claim that Clinton participated in the exchanges.)

The circumstances are worth understanding: The U.S. regularly launches drone strikes in Pakistan without the official consent of the Pakistani government. This fact itself is considered top secret (even though everyone knows it), and plans for specific drone strikes are top secret, for obvious reasons. (If news about the strike got out beforehand, whoever we were trying to attack could get away.)

As you can imagine, the drone program is not popular inside Pakistan. Protests from Pakistani officials got more and more intense, and the State Department was the official channel for receiving these protests. So eventually, officials at State were given prior warning of drone strikes.

The CIA initially chafed at the idea of giving the State Department more of a voice in the process. Under a compromise reached around the year 2011, CIA officers would notify their embassy counterparts in Islamabad when a strike in Pakistan was planned, so then-U.S. ambassador Cameron Munter or another senior diplomat could decide whether to “concur” or “non-concur.” Mr. Munter declined to comment.

Diplomats in Islamabad would communicate the decision to their superiors in Washington. A main purpose was to give then-Secretary of State Clinton and her top aides a chance to consider whether she wanted to weigh in with the CIA director about a planned strike.

Drone strikes are time-sensitive events, because the terrorist leaders they target move around a lot. So if State was going to object, it had to do so quickly. And now we once again run into the limitations of State Department systems.

The time available to the State Department to weigh in on a planned strike varied widely, from several days to as little as 20 or 30 minutes. “If a strike was imminent, it was futile to use the high side, which no one would see for seven hours,” said one official. [3]

Adding to those communications hurdles, U.S. intelligence officials privately objected to the State Department even using its high-side system. They wanted diplomats to use a still-more-secure system called the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Community Systems, or JWICs. State Department officials don’t have ready access to that system, even in Washington. If drone-strike decisions were needed quickly, it wouldn’t be an option, officials said.

So once again, we see people facing a choice between following proper procedures and getting their jobs done. On at least a few occasions, then, discussions about drone strikes happened over insecure email channels.

One such exchange came just before Christmas in 2011, when the U.S. ambassador sent a short, cryptic note to his boss indicating a drone strike was planned. That sparked a back-and-forth among Mrs. Clinton’s senior advisers over the next few days, in which it was clear they were having the discussions in part because people were away from their offices for the holiday and didn’t have access to a classified computer, officials said.

I interpret “cryptic” to mean that the officials tried to be oblique in their references, so that anyone who might intercept the email wouldn’t immediately know what they were talking about. (I picture something like Tony Soprano’s phone conversations, or the ones KGB agents have on The Americans.) This is not considered an acceptable technique for securing classified information, but it seems to have worked.

U.S. officials said there is no evidence Pakistani intelligence officials intercepted any of the low-side State Department emails or used them to protect militants.

The WSJ article also notes that this kind of corner-cutting happens from time to time all over the government.

Several law-enforcement officials said they don’t expect any criminal charges to be filed as a result of the investigation, although a final review of the evidence will be made only after an expected FBI interview with Mrs. Clinton this summer.

One reason is that government workers at several agencies, including the departments of Defense, Justice and State, have occasionally resorted to the low-side system to give each other notice about sensitive but fast-moving events, according to one law-enforcement official.

So: Rules were broken, but not with malicious intent, and apparently without bad consequences. The most serious violations were not by Clinton, but the record of that rule-breaking is on her server and shouldn’t be. If the WSJ article is accurate, prosecuting anyone for these incidents would be highly unusual, and Clinton would not be at the top of the list.


[1] Here’s where I’m coming from: I voted for Sanders in the New Hampshire primary and have been raising many of his signature issues — inequality, campaign finance, etc. — for several years. But I have criticized the anti-Clinton turn in Sanders’ rhetoric. And I have been increasingly disenchanted with his campaign’s tendency to turn the ordinary politics of a presidential contest into a persecution narrative, one that unifies the media, the Democratic Party, election officials, and everybody else who isn’t 100% for Bernie into a sinister Clinton-supporting “Them”.

[2] If you’ve ever worked someplace that handles classified information (I used to and my wife still does), you know that such technical violations of security are not that unusual, because the boundary between what can and can’t be said in certain places to certain people can be hazy. (I’ve heard many face-to-face conversations end with: “But we probably shouldn’t be talking about this.”) Also, while any idiot should know not to mention the names of spies or technical details of weapons systems, a lot of stuff gets classified that really isn’t that important. That kind of information sometimes slides into conversations without anybody noticing.

[3] The article does not speculate about this, but I wonder if the CIA ever gamed the system: By picking particularly inconvenient moments to notify State and leaving very small time windows, they might make it harder for State to interfere with their plans.

What Should “Racism” Mean? Part II.

Republican leaders are disturbed by Trump’s racist comments. But two-thirds of Republican voters don’t think they’re racist at all.


In a week that saw Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to clinch a major-party nomination, probably more news-network air time got devoted to the effort of Republican leaders to distance themselves from Donald Trump. In the wake of his long series of attacks against the “Mexican” judge overseeing one of the Trump University fraud lawsuits, the word racist came up a lot, and few elected Republicans seemed willing to defend Trump from the charge that it applied to him.

Speaker Paul Ryan described a Trump statement as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Republican Senator Mark Kirk withdrew his endorsement of Trump, saying that in view of his recent statements “I cannot and will not support my party’s nominee for president”. Maine’s Senator Susan Collins refused to rule out voting for Clinton. Former senatorial candidate (and major Republican donor) Meg Whitman compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini. And on and on. The most blistering attack of all came from the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney:

I don’t want to see trickle-down racism. I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America. [1]

But if the primaries proved anything, it’s that the GOP’s leadership is out of tune with its voters, especially compared to Trump. So when YouGov asked whether Trump’s comments were racist, only 22% of Republicans were reading from Paul Ryan’s textbook, while almost 2/3rds said the comments weren’t racist. By a narrower 43%-39% margin, Republicans said that Trump was right to make those comments. [2]

What could they possibly be thinking?

Trump’s own explanation was far from convincing. In a prepared statement, he argued that his comments had been “misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage” when actually they were just targeted at Judge Curiel, who apparently had it coming because he didn’t dismiss the Trump U lawsuit.

To me, that’s like yelling “Nigger!” at a black driver who cuts you off in traffic, and then feeling misunderstood when the blacks in your carpool take offense. You didn’t launch a categorical attack on all blacks, you just used a racial insult against one guy who had it coming because he was in your way. Why can’t they see the difference?

I got a better clue from listening to Bill O’Reilly. Wednesday night, Bill challenged Congressman Bill Flores about the Texas Republican’s use of racist.

Do you believe that Donald Trump gets up in the morning and says, “You know what? I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.”? Do you believe that? … Don’t you think it was more about Trump being angry with the judge’s decision in a civil litigation rather than the judge’s ethnicity? … OK, I get your point, but I think you understand mine as well. That you don’t use the R-word unless you are [talking about] David Duke, unless you have got a history of trying to denigrate minorities or other people.

Trump isn’t ex-KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, so he’s not a racist. Even labeling specific quotes as racist (which is all Paul Ryan did; he didn’t call Trump a racist) is apparent going too far. The most O’Reilly would say was that they were “unwise”.

And now we’re back on a topic I covered two years ago in “What Should Racism Mean?“. At that time I reviewed a long list of pseudo-scandals that President Obama had started … by doing things that previous presidents had done without upsetting anybody: put his feet on a White House desk, let a Marine hold his umbrella, send secular Christmas cards, and so on. Similarly, the luxurious White House lifestyle — unchanged from previous administrations — suddenly began inspiring outrage when a black family moved in.

So I raised the question: Is that racist? And I allowed for the possibility that some might not want to call it that.

I sympathize with people who want to reserve racism for Adolf Hitler ordering the Final Solution to the Jewish problem or George Wallace standing in the door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The men who lynched Emmett Till or the grand jury that refused to indict them — those people were racists. I get that it doesn’t seem right to put them in the same category with the people who only just realized in 2009 that life in the White House is pretty sweet.

But a problem comes up: If you want to construe racist and racism very narrowly, then what words do you use for people who (for some reason other than conscious willful hatred) just can’t look at a black president or his family the same way they have always looked at white presidents and their families? It’s a thing; it really happens, and it has important political consequences. What do you call it?

The Trump/Curiel situation is similar. Trump is doing something morally objectionable here. He is taking advantage of his fans’ willingness to believe bad things about Mexican-Americans on flimsy or no evidence (just as, when he was pushing Birtherism, he was taking advantage of their willingness to believe bad things about a black president on flimsy or no evidence), in order to either put pressure on a federal judge or explain away why so many people are suing him for fraud.

In other words, once again he is looking at the public’s racial prejudices and saying, “I can make this work for me.” That doesn’t make him Hitler or David Duke, but it’s a despicable act that needs a name. What is it? O’Reilly’s suggestion of unwise doesn’t fill the bill, because there’s no moral component to unwise. Spending $35,000 on a Trump University course is unwise; Trump’s repeated and calculated abuse of Judge Curiel is something altogether different.

And if you are inside the conservative bubble, that “something” has no name. The word that the rest of the country uses — racism — has been declared off-limits and not replaced. And now that there is no way to talk about Trump’s offense, it doesn’t exist. Whatever is wrong with Trump’s statements can no longer be put into words, so they aren’t wrong — at least not to a plurality of Republicans.

George Orwell had this all figured out in the mid-20th century. As he wrote in “The Principles of Newspeak“:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. [my italics]

In today’s Newspeak, as spoken by devotees of AmCon, racism has been stripped of all meanings beyond getting up in the morning and saying “I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.” It applies to active white supremacists like David Duke, and no one else.

But if treating a black First Family differently from all white First Families isn’t racism, what is it? If citing a judge’s ethnicity as evidence of his unfitness isn’t racism, what is it?

Unless they’re trying to restrict the language to make these issues “literally unthinkable”, American conservatives owe us some new terminology.


[1] To flesh out what Romney might mean by “trickle-down racism”, look at this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center about how the bigotry in our presidential campaign is showing up in our schools and on our playgrounds.

[2] Among all voters, a 57%-20% majority said Trump was wrong, and a 51%-32% majority said the comments were racist. For some reason YouGov’s headline characterizes that majority as “thin”, but it really isn’t.

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