What Did Virginia Teach Us?

For weeks on this blog, I’d been fretting about the Virginia governor’s race. If we were really in the midst of a Democratic surge that might turn 2018 into a wave election, Virginia shouldn’t have been this tense. Hillary had won there last year (by 5%, aided by a Virginian VP) and Democrats already held the governorship (thanks to Terry McAuliffe’s 2.6% win in 2013). Maybe that didn’t point to a landslide, but surely we couldn’t lose.

Or maybe we could, or at least it looked that way for a while. Polls were averaging out to a 3% Northam advantage, with some showing Gillespie ahead. And Gillespie had been closing with a disturbingly Trumpish message: Northam was going to let Hispanic criminal gangs run wild in Virginia, while Gillespie would protect the monuments celebrating all those heroic Confederate defenders of slavery. And kneeling athletes were relevant somehow.

If he pulled off the upset, Gillespie’s campaign seemed likely to become a model for Republican candidates to keep on Trumping in 2018: Count on fear and race-baiting to bring the base out to vote, and hope Democrats stay home.

It didn’t work out that way. Northam won by 9%. That’s a big enough win to keep the 2018-wave narrative intact: Northam didn’t just repeat Hillary’s showing, he nearly doubled her margin, and more than tripled McAuliffe’s.

But beyond the horse-race aspect, what did we learn?

White identity politics isn’t enough. The clearest lesson is for Republicans: In 2016, Trumpism had two pieces, not just one. Yes, white Christian identity politics was a big chunk of it, but economic populism was another big chunk.

It wasn’t all just building a wall and banning Muslims and winking at the alt-Right. Trump was also going to bring factory and mining jobs back to America’s small towns. He had a healthcare plan that was going to “take care of everybody … the government’s going to pay for it”. He was going to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He would get tough with China and Mexico — not because the Chinese and Mexicans aren’t white, but because they had perpetrated “the greatest jobs theft in the history of the world“.

Trump voters who were attracted to his white Christian identity politics should still be happy with him. He put Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, he’s got ICE out terrorizing Hispanic immigrants, and he never misses a chance to stand up to ungrateful blacks, defend the Confederacy, or blame Muslims or immigrants (or best of all, Muslim immigrants) for America’s problems.

But the economic-populist side of Trumpism hasn’t been seen since the election.

Health care bills he endorsed would cut billions in Medicaid funding over the years, his tax plan is a bonanza for the wealthy, the budget the GOP passed to facilitate that tax plan cuts Medicare by billions, and Trump’s own budget proposal included billions in Social Security cuts.

Buy American, hire American” has proven to be an empty slogan, and the executive order that supposedly implements it has no real substance. (Not even Trump’s own companies live by it.) Tough on China? Not so much. In April he broke his promise to label China a currency manipulator, and when he went there this week.

Mr. Trump projected an air of deference to China that was almost unheard-of for a visiting American president. Far from attacking Mr. Xi on trade, Mr. Trump saluted him for leading a country that he said had left the United States “so far behind.” He said he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of weak American trade policy.

This is, in part, a consequence of his saber-rattling against North Korea: He needs China’s cooperation there, so he’ll have to give in to them on trade.

And Mexico? Let’s just say that they’re not paying for the Wall. Renegotiating NAFTA is proving to be a lot more difficult than just “getting tough” and making bigger demands. If the agreement winds up getting scrapped, the big loser will be American farmers and precisely those rural communities that were counting on Trump for help.

Given that Trump himself has abandoned economic populism, the only “Trumpism” left for Gillespie to adopt was the white Christian identity part. And while that stuff is really powerful for some Americans, those people aren’t a majority. Not in Virginia and not in America as a whole.

I’m not sure how Republicans running in 2018 can deal with this problem. What the Republican majority in Congress has been all about (with Trump’s blessing, for the most part) is traditional Republican trickle-down economics. 2016 Trumpism was unified by an I’m-going-to-protect-you theme, protecting his voters on the one hand from a future where white Christians are a minority, and on the other from a convergence of foreign competition, corporations who have no loyalty to their workers, and economic trends moving against them. A 2018 of message of “I protected you from Mexicans and Muslims and transgender people in your bathroom, but I tried to take away your health insurance and gave your boss a big tax cut” doesn’t hang together nearly as well.

Unity, calmness, confidence. On the Democratic side, the lesson is fuzzier, but I think there’s still something to learn.

The progressive/centrist split in the national party tried to project itself onto the primary, but it never really took. Superficially, the Bernie-backed progressive (Tom Perrillo) lost to the establishment candidate (Northam), but the divide between them was never that large, and Perrillo supported Northam in the general election seemingly without reservations. Northam, in turn, endorsed a number of progressive causes: $15 minimum wage, free community college, restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time, and Medicaid expansion.

Northam took advantage of his comforting image as a pediatrician, and talked calmly about jobs, healthcare, and education. He appealed to traditional Virginia gentility, saying of Trump “We’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”, and (on just about every issue) talking about all Virginians working together to find solutions. That, of course, is a traditional political bromide, but it contrasts nicely with scare-mongering about immigrants.

In part, Northam did that because he had to — it’s hard to picture him shouting and rabble-rousing. But I wonder if that isn’t the right approach: progressive positions on issues, expressed calmly in terms of traditional American values like justice and fairness, rather than in a way that makes them sound radical. Northam’s manner projected confidence that our problems are solvable if we work together — and not solvable if we let people take advantage of our worst instincts and turn us against each other.

Whatever approach Democratic candidates take in 2018, it needs to take advantage of the hole in the Republican message: The vague economic populism of 2016 was a mirage. Republicans have been telling white Christians who to blame for their problems, but not offering viable solutions.

Where it shows up, and where it doesn’t. The exit polls can be sliced and diced all sorts of ways, but here’s what jumped out at me: Gillespie slightly exceeded Trump’s totals among low-income households (under $50K annually) and high-income households (over $100K), but Northam clobbered him among middle-income households. In the $50-$100K bracket, Trump edged Clinton 49%-47% in 2016, but Northam beat Gillespie 57%-41% Tuesday. That’s what turned an overall 5% Clinton margin into a 9% Northam margin.

So I went back and looked at the 2013 exit polls: The Republican candidate won the $50K-$99K households 51%-43%, almost the exact mirror image of the 2017 result. So maybe this is a trend.

I could imagine a lot of reasons: Maybe the middle-income people who changed their minds have health insurance, but aren’t sure they can keep it. They value education, but have to depend on the public schools. They plan to send their kids to college, but aren’t sure they’ll be able afford it. They’re not angry and looking for someone to blame, but they are worried and looking for a reason to hope.

I don’t have a good explanation for why the low-income households haven’t shifted. Clinton carried them 53%-41%, and Northam’s margin was about the same: 56%-43%. Maybe a more dramatic message would have helped Northam here; I don’t know.

RCP’s Ross Baird found another interesting way to look at the results: He examined Virginia’s five “pivot counties”, counties that went Obama-Obama-Trump in the last three presidential elections: They were dead heats Tuesday. What most pivot counties have in common, he says, is that “more businesses have died there than have been born … despite a net increase in entrepreneurial activity across the country since the end of the Great Recession.”

That suggests that Democrats still haven’t completed the sale. Trump may have lost his shine, but there are still Obama voters Democrats aren’t reaching.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It was a big relief to me when Ralph Northam won the Virginia governor’s race by a wide margin. His opponent had been making a Trumpish white-identity-politics push, running against sanctuary cities (which Virginia doesn’t have) and Hispanic gangs, and in favor of continuing to celebrate the Confederacy. Some polls indicated that it was working, which said something I didn’t want to believe about Virginia and America and democracy in general. If Ed Gillespie had won, we’d see similarly ugly campaigns across the country in 2018, and maybe they’d work too.

It didn’t work. Northam won by a clear 9%, and Democrats held a similar margin in elections for Virginia’s lower house — though gerrymandering might allow Republicans to maintain control anyway. I’ll do a post mortem of the campaign and the exit polls in the featured post “What Did Virginia Teach Us?” That should be out by 10 EST.

The week’s other big story was Roy Moore. I still haven’t decided whether to leave my Moore observations in the weekly summary or pull them out into their own post. Then there was Senate Republicans’ tax-reform bill, which — even though they plan to pass it by Christmas — still isn’t a serious proposal, because it doesn’t fulfill the reconciliation rules they’ll need to get it through. They’re continuing to set up a replay of ObamaCare repeal, where no one will know what the bill really says until it’s time to vote. Then there were Trump’s comments siding with Putin over the “political hacks” who run the U.S. intelligence services, the sexual abuse scandals that continue to erupt everywhere you look, and some really bad theology. The summary will cover all that before closing with an animoji version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. That should be out by noon.

French Revolution Levels

There is this small group of people who are not equally subject to the laws as the rest of us, and that’s on purpose. … It won’t be lost on wealth managers and those in the offshore industry that we are reaching sort of French Revolution levels of inequality and injustice.

– Brooke Harrington, quoted in “Offshore Trove Exposes Trump-Russia Links and Piggy Banks of the Wealthiest 1%

This week’s featured post is “Rigged?“, my reaction to that Donna Brazile book excerpt.

This week everybody was talking about indictments

Eight days ago, all we knew was that somebody was going to be indicted. Last Monday, we found out it was Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who are accused of a long list of crimes, mostly involving money-laundering and schemes to either avoid taxes or defraud banks. The striking thing about the indictment is that it rests entirely on documents like vendor receipts, tax returns, and records of wire transfers. It will be hard to fight in court because it doesn’t depend on witnesses that a jury might be induced to distrust.

Also, some of the contents of the receipts would probably disgust a jury, even if the purchases are quite legal in themselves. For example, Manafort used wire transfers from foreign banks (which he didn’t report as income) to pay for more than $800K of purchases at a “men’s clothing store in New York” and another $500K at a similar store in Beverly Hills. I can imagine a middle-class juror wondering why anybody needs to dress that well.

A few hours later, Mueller released a sealed plea agreement with a Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, in which Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI. Papadopoulos was arrested July 27, and may have been working with the Mueller investigation since then. Some speculation has him wearing a wire. In the plea agreement, Papadopoulos admits to trying to arrange meetings between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, so that the campaign could obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

In other developments, House Democrats released a few of the 3000 targeted social-media ads through which Russian bots and trolls tried to influence the election.

Trump defenders rightfully pointed out that the Manafort/Gates indictment is about their own shenanigans and didn’t directly implicate the Trump campaign (though it does say something about Trump’s judgment in hiring a crook to run his campaign). So it’s worth considering exactly where we are in the investigation.

  • At this point it’s pretty clear that the Russians were working to help Trump win. They hacked the Democrats and released damaging emails. They used social media to get around election-law restrictions against foreign campaign ads. They created and promoted fake news stories to help Trump and damage Clinton. No one can say precisely how effective all this was, but given Trump’s razor-thin margin, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that Putin made the difference in the election.
  • Russia wanted to get involved with the Trump campaign directly, and made at least two overtures promising “dirt” on Clinton. At least some members of the campaign were interested, but we don’t know yet whether or to what extent the Trump campaign actively cooperated with the Russian interference or even knew the scope of it.
  • Members of the Trump campaign and administration, including Trump himself, have repeatedly lied about Russia, the Russia investigation, and the campaign’s contacts with Russia. (Papadopoulos places Trump and Sessions at a meeting where he talked about his Russian contacts and their desire for a meeting. Both have denied knowing that the campaign had any contact with Russians.) Those lies do not by themselves prove that Trump or his people did anything wrong (other than lie), but it’s reasonable to assume that they lied for some reason.

The question in the minds of a lot of people now is: What about Mike Flynn? Flynn is another top Trump advisor who would be easy to indict. Is that indictment coming? Does the fact that it hasn’t come indicate that Flynn is working with the investigation? Those questions have got to be keeping a lot of Trump aides awake at night.


The scariest question was raised by Vox‘s David Roberts: What if Mueller proves Trump is guilty, and nothing happens? What if the Republican base just refuses to believe it, and Republicans in Congress refuse to challenge their base?


If you need a more amusing way to take in this information, let John Oliver tell you. Or, here’s a song.

and mass killings

Yesterday, at least 26 people were killed in a mass shooting at a Baptist church in rural Texas. That knocked Tuesday’s New York City bikepath killer out of the public mind, and made the Las Vegas shooting, just over a month ago, seem like ancient history.

The apparent killer is white and no one has found a Muslim connection yet, so he is a “loner” whose violent tendencies don’t imply anything about our society or its problems. President Trump made sure we all realize that this isn’t a gun problem. Quite the opposite:

We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries, but this isn’t a “guns” situation. I mean we could go into it, but it’s a little bit soon to go into it but fortunately, somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, it would have been as bad as it was, it would have been much worse.

Back in those simpler times of the Las Vegas shooting, it was disrespectful to the families of the dead to “politicize” the tragedy by discussing gun control only a day or two afterward. But after the NYC attack, Trump started talking about immigration and “political correctness” within three-and-a-half hours. Within 13 hours, he had blamed the attack on Chuck Schumer and Democrats in general. After 29 hours, he called for the death penalty against the presumed perpetrator. Previously, he had said he would consider sending him to Guantanamo and denounced the U.S. justice system:

We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock.

It’s kind of amusing, in a macabre way, to look back at the things conservatives wrote after Las Vegas, like this Marc Thiessen column:

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if, in his Monday statement on the Las Vegas shooting, President Donald Trump had praised the police who ran toward the gunfire and saved so many lives, and then said: “And for all those who have been taking a knee to protest the police, shame on you. On Sunday, you slander them, but then on Monday, you need them. The police deserve our respect every day.”

Heads would have exploded — and rightly so. His critics would have pointed out that workers still had not removed all the bodies from the crime scene, and yet he was already injecting politics into this tragedy. The president’s job is to unite the country, they would have said, not divide us.

Of course, Trump did not say anything of the sort.

No, he was just waiting for a better opportunity.


Wednesday, another white guy in Colorado killed three three people at a Wal-Mart for no apparent reason. His apartment contained “a stack of Bibles and virtually no furniture”. If they’d been Qurans, it might have been a terrorism story. But Bibles? Never mind.

and the Republican tax proposal

It was supposed to come out Wednesday, but they couldn’t get it together in time, so it came out Thursday, sort of. Vox summarizes the provisions, and lists the winners: corporations, the ultra-wealthy, people making high-six-figure incomes, pass-through companies like the Trump Organization, and heirs to large fortunes. (I lack the gumption to read the whole 429-page bill. But have at it, if you’ve got the cycles to spare.)

But to me the most interesting part of the Vox article is the “Where the Bill Goes from Here” section near the end. In order to qualify for reconciliation in the Senate (i.e., avoiding a Democratic filibuster), the bill can’t increase the long-term deficit.

it’s hard to imagine the bill not raising the deficit after 10 years. Some provisions phase out, presumably to lower the long-run deficit effects for scoring purposes, but that’s unlikely to be enough. And so long as the legislation still increases the long-run deficit, it’s a nonstarter in the Senate.

What’s likely, then, is that this is an opening entry designed to pass the House and then be worked over, and shrunk in scale, in the Senate.

In other words, this is the kind of process I predicted: We still haven’t seen the real bill, the one they hope becomes law. That will probably come out at the last possible minute, when the CBO can’t analyze it in time for the vote, and the public can’t mobilize its opposition. As I wrote last week:

The strange process we keep seeing in Congress is an effort to stay inside the [conservative] fantasy bubble until the last possible minute, then to sprint across the open ground between fantasy-world debates and real-world decisions as fast as possible.


The bill also has some other culture-war poison pills that I suspect will have to come out before the Senate can apply reconciliation. For example, it partially repeals the Johnson amendment that prevents churches from endorsing candidates.

There are two versions of Johnson-amendment repeal. One seems fairly narrowly tailored to prevent a church from losing its tax-exempt status because of political statements made from the pulpit, and the other abandons all limits on church-sponsored political activity. This seems like the narrowly-tailored one (see page 427 of the 429-page bill), which is mostly just unnecessary, since ministers ignore the restriction now and the IRS doesn’t enforce it.

The broader version of Johnson-amendment repeal would be a disaster, since it would turn every American church into a potential pathway for tax-deductible anonymous contributions to enter a political campaign. Some critics are reporting that’s the version in the tax bill, but I don’t think it is.

Other culture-war provisions:

  • 529 accounts, tax-favored savings accounts through which families save for their children’s education, can begin while the child is in utero. It is the first use of the pro-life-movement term unborn child in the tax code.
  • immigrant parents without citizenship or green cards will lose access to the refundable tax credit for their children, even if those children are citizens. This affects about three million children.

One of the most outrageous tax loopholes — the “carried interest” break that allows hedge fund managers to report their fees as capital gains, saving one billionaire as much as $100 million a year — is untouched. #BillionairesFirst

and the Democrats

Donna Brazile’s new book is ripping the band-aid off the 2016 Democratic primary wound. I talked about this in the featured post.

and the Civil War

I hesitate to comment on John Kelly’s Civil-War opinions, because it looks to me like an intentional political maneuver. Many members of the Trump base, particularly in the South, are attached to a false account of the Civil War. They feel persecuted by anybody who tries to make them face reality, and insulted by experts who make them feel stupid for believing false things. By inducing the same people to attack him in the same way, Kelly gets the base to identify with him, and reassures them that he’s on their side.

His treatment of Rep. Frederica Wilson — lying about her and then refusing to acknowledge the lie or apologize for it, even after he’s been caught red-handed — is similar. The Trump base is full of folks who have insulted black people at one time or another, but they don’t want to apologize for it either. In standing by his lie, Kelly is standing up for all of them.

So anyway, Kelly sat for an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on Monday evening, hours after the Mueller investigation unsealed its first indictments against officials of the Trump campaign. Shifting the narrative to the Civil War probably seemed like a good idea, and maybe it even was. It’s worth pointing out that Ingraham set up Kelly’s comments (beginning at the 18:20 mark) with a misleading premise:

A prominent church in Alexandria, Virginia, where George Washington worshiped — it’s historic, of course, and Robert E. Lee — they decided to pull the plaques memorializing both George Washington and Robert E. Lee because they want the church to be “inclusive” and be considered more tolerant. What is your reaction to that type of attempt to pull down little markers of history?

During Kelly’s answer, she injects: “They’ll be pulling down the Washington Monument at some point, or renaming it.” And Kelly jokes that it will be renamed after some “cult hero … Andy Warhol or someone like that”.

Actually, the church decided to move the plaques (which currently flank each side of the altar). But, according to the rector,

the plaques will remain in place until a new location for them is identified some time next year. A committee will be formed to deliberate on a new place of “respectful prominence.”

In other words, Washington and Lee are not being denied or hidden by the church, but it wants to be defined by Jesus rather than by Washington and Lee. (I can also imagine fans of Washington not wanting him to see him equated with Lee.) So Ingraham’s whole political-correctness-vs.-history angle is bogus.

Anyway, Kelly goes on to lecture about the inappropriateness of applying current standards of right-and-wrong to historical figures (which is valid in the abstract, up to a point), and brings up Columbus (who is maybe not the best example). He goes on to praise Lee as an “honorable man” and to repeat the Lost Cause narrative of the war:

The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their consciences had them make their stand.

So let’s not bicker about trivia like who enslaved who. Whether your ancestors were slaves, slave-drivers, or liberators of slaves — let’s just agree that they were all good people doing the best they could.

I guess I do have to comment: It’s one thing to look back at some relatively peaceful time, when social practices that we abhor today were barely challenged, and fault individuals for not rising above their community and its worldview. It’s hard to be significantly better than your era. I can imagine, for example, that a century from now everyone will be vegetarian. But it will wrong, I believe, for those people to dismiss some great person of our era by saying, “he was a barbaric animal-eater”.

It’s something else entirely, though, to give people a pass for taking a stand against changing abhorrent practices, at a time when those practices were up for decision. In the 1790s, a Southern slave-owner might just have accepted slavery as the way things are, maybe vaguely wishing things could be different in the way that so many of us today wish poverty would go away. But by 1861, when everyone is picking sides in a war whose fundamental issue is slavery, deciding to lead the defenders of slavery is not something you get a pass for. That’s not just hindsight. Robert E. Lee’s era raised a moral question, and he got it wrong.

I’ll give W.E.B. DuBois the last word:

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right.

but be sure to pay attention to the Paradise Papers

Remember the Panama Papers? Well, there’s more: The same group (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) has released another massive trove of leaked documents it calls the Paradise Papers. The international press hasn’t had time to absorb it all yet, but here’s the NYT’s description:

The core of the leak, totaling more than 13.4 million documents, focuses on the Bermudan law firm Appleby, a 119-year old company that caters to blue chip corporations and very wealthy people. Appleby helps clients reduce their tax burden; obscure their ownership of assets like companies, private aircraft, real estate and yachts; and set up huge offshore trusts that in some cases hold billions of dollars.

The files relate to a number of tax-haven islands (i.e. paradises, hence the name) where assets can change hands without government attention. The sheer number of scandals that will spin out of this is hard to estimate at this point, but here’s one:

After becoming commerce secretary, Wilbur L. Ross Jr. retained investments in a shipping firm he once controlled that has significant business ties to a Russian oligarch subject to American sanctions and President Vladimir V. Putin’s son-in-law, according to newly disclosed documents.

The shipper, Navigator Holdings, earns millions of dollars a year transporting gas for one of its top clients, a giant Russian energy company called Sibur, whose owners include the oligarch and Mr. Putin’s family member. …

In the wake of reports of Russian interference in the United States presidential election, multiple investigations have explored potential business ties between Russia and members of the Trump administration. While several Trump campaign and business associates have come under scrutiny, until now no business connections have been reported between senior administration officials and members of Mr. Putin’s family or inner circle.

and there are elections tomorrow — don’t forget about them

Governorships in Virginia and New Jersey are the headliners, but lots local issues will be on the ballot as well. (Here in Nashua, NH, we’re deciding whether to build a performing arts center.)

and you also might be interested in …

The presidential commission headed by Chris Christie has released its report on the opioid problem. Vox summarizes its recommendations, which have an all-of-the-above flavor: they range from making treatment more accessible to changing doctors’ prescribing habits to law enforcement to a media campaign.

It looks like the commission took its job seriously, but it didn’t put price tags on its recommendations. It’s still unclear whether anyone will put up real money to deal with the problem.


The Pentagon just disappointed anybody who wanted to hear that a quick-and-easy series of air strikes could knock out North Korea’s nuclear capability. In response to questions from two Democratic congressmen, Ted Lieu of California and Ruben Gallego of Arizona, Rear Admiral Michael J. Dumont, the vice director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, wrote a letter whose full text has not been released. But apparently the congressmen have shared parts of it with The Washington Post.

The only way to locate and secure all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites “with complete certainty” is through an invasion of ground forces, and in the event of conflict, Pyongyang could use biological and chemical weapons, the Pentagon told lawmakers in a new, blunt assessment of what war on the Korean Peninsula might look like.

Given Trump’s statement last month that “only one thing will work” in dealing with North Korea — we all assumed he meant force, but who really knows what Trump ever means? — I have to wonder if the Pentagon is telling him the same thing, and if he’s listening.


So what did you do in the civil war that Antifa started Saturday? Nothing? Didn’t even notice? Conservative media wouldn’t lie to you, would it?

Maybe it would: The Alex Jones Show is telling its listeners that Hitler is still alive — at age 128. [After an objection in the comments, I feel obligated to add this: The guest-host on Alex Jones does say “The JFK files being declassified, Hitler still alive. All the history textbooks lied to us. I was lied to my entire life about JFK, knowingly, by my government. I was lied to my entire life about Hitler, knowingly, by my government.” But the kernel of truth in there comes from an actual story about the CIA investigating reports that Hitler was still alive in the 1950s.]


I’m going to defend a conservative judge: The Senate just confirmed Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. She’s not someone I want to see on the bench, but some of the attacks on her are unfair. Most are based on a report by Alliance for Justice, which says:

As a judge, Barrett could be expected to put her personal beliefs ahead of the law. She wrote specifically about the duty of judges to put their faith above the law in an article entitled “Catholic Judges in Capital Cases.” Among other things, she strongly criticized Justice William Brennan’s statement about faith, in which he said that he took an oath to uphold the law, and that “there isn’t any obligation of our faith superior” to that oath. In response, Barrett wrote: “We do not defend this position as the proper response for a Catholic judge to take with respect to abortion or the death penalty.”

That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But if you actually read “Catholic Judges in Capital Cases“, it’s not what you think. She doesn’t say that a judge should rule based on her faith, even if the law says something different.

The article is about circumstances where a correct interpretation of the law requires a judge to give an order that a Catholic judge like Barrett might consider immoral: for example, to order the execution of a convicted murderer when church doctrine opposes the death penalty. If a judge applied Brennan’s opinion, she’d ignore her faith and order the execution anyway. But Barrett argues that if the conflict between the law and religious doctrine is really irresolvable — she puts some thought into ways it might be resolved, allowing the judge to sign the order with a clear conscience — the judge should recuse herself. In other words: Don’t put faith over the law, just get out of the conflicted situation.

I imagine that any judge with a moral code occasionally imagines laws he or she wouldn’t be willing to enforce. Recusal seems like the honorable choice.

There might have been all kinds of good reasons to oppose Barrett’s nomination, but in my mind this wasn’t one of them.

and let’s close with a guilty pleasure

Papa John’s pizza was in the news this week, because Papa himself blamed the chain’s falling sales on kneeling football players. The logic goes like this: Papa John’s strongly identifies itself with the NFL. (Peyton Manning is its most recognizable endorser.) So the Trump-invoked ambivalent feelings that eaters-of-mass-market-pizza are having about the NFL is causing them to buy less Papa John’s.

The Atlantic targets itself more at the haute cuisine crowd, people who would only enter a Papa John’s wearing sunglasses and a hat pulled low to hide their faces. But, in the same spirit of inquiry that sometimes motivated the Mythbusters to get drunk for science, the Atlantic staff decided that “investigative journalism” required them to explore the most likely alternate explanation: “that Papa John’s … is simply not very good.” In other words, they had to consume mass quantities of cheese and tomato sauce at the magazine’s expense — purely in the interest of the People’s right to know, of course.

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, walked by the kitchen as the taste-test was going on. He looked upon his gathered employees, congratulated them on their dogged commitment to truth, gave a rousing speech about pizza and the American idea, told them that Ralph Waldo Emerson would be proud. The editor was offered a piece of pizza; he declined; he was informed that the spinach Alfredo pizza wasn’t actually as gross as it looked; he backed away.

What bad reviews are all about, and why people love to read them, is art of the Victorian insult: launching barbs at inferior beings without compromising your own superior dignity. The Atlantic does pretty well.

Rigged?

The relationship between the Clinton campaign and the DNC was more incestuous than we thought. Does it follow that the primaries were rigged and the nomination was stolen?


Thursday, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile rocked the Democratic Party when an excerpt from her upcoming book was released by Politico. It begins shortly after the 2016 Convention, with Brazile taking the DNC’s acting chairmanship and promising Bernie Sanders that she’ll “get to the bottom of whether Hillary Clinton’s team had rigged the nomination process”. Though the excerpt never again uses the word rigged (and Brazile herself denied Sunday that the primaries were rigged), her strong implication is that the answer is Yes:

By September 7, the day I called Bernie, I had found my proof and it broke my heart.

The basic story she tells is that in 2015 the DNC was deep in debt, the Clinton campaign bailed it out, and in return it got control over many DNC decisions, like who the communications director would be, and veto power over a few other appointments. The memo outlining this agreement has since come out. As Brazile says, it outlines a surprising and ethically questionable degree of incest between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. However, it also includes this paragraph, which Brazile didn’t mention:

Nothing in this agreement shall be construed to violate the DNC’s obligation of impartiality and neutrality through the Nominating process. All activities performed under this agreement will be focused exclusively on preparations for the General Election and not the Democratic Primary.

So the big questions are: In spite of that paragraph, did the DNC violate its obligation of impartiality and neutrality? If so, did it do so in ways that made a material difference? And does this validate the claims Sanders supporters have been making all along, that the nomination was stolen away from Bernie?

How it looked at the time. During the campaign, claims from Sanders supporters that Clinton was rigging the primaries would periodically show up in my social-media feeds, and I’d check them out as well as an ordinary person with access to the internet reasonably could. I never found anything that held up, or that went beyond what I considered normal politics, where candidates are always jockeying for some kind of advantage.

It was clear to me that people at the DNC were rooting for Hillary to win, but I didn’t consider that shocking. If you’re in politics, you have political opinions; nobody is neutral in their hearts. Folks at the RNC were obviously rooting against Trump, too, and would have been much happier nominating Bush or Rubio. (I’m sure if you bugged the umpire’s locker room at a baseball stadium, you’d occasionally hear them talking about players they like and don’t like, because they were all baseball fans before they became umpires.) The question isn’t what DNC officials thought, or even the opinions that they traded with each other in emails they didn’t expect anyone else to see. The question what they did.

Brazile comments on that:

I had tried to search out any other evidence of internal corruption that would show that the DNC was rigging the system to throw the primary to Hillary, but I could not find any in party affairs or among the staff. I had gone department by department, investigating individual conduct for evidence of skewed decisions, and I was happy to see that I had found none.

Most of the theories I kept seeing went far beyond what the DNC would be able to do, even if it was completely suborned. Anything to do with polling places and vote-counting, for example, was way outside their capabilities. State and local election boards run primaries, not party national committees. But any voting irregularity in the Democratic primaries — even if it seemed just as likely to target Clinton voters — became part of the Clinton-is-stealing-Bernie’s-votes lore.

The mainstream press went through the same process I did, which is why only two specific DNC-related actions are getting mentioned in the articles about Brazile’s book:

  • the schedule of Democratic debates seemed tilted toward the candidate who didn’t need debates to get voters’ attention,
  • Hillary’s campaign pushed the legal limits of its DNC  joint-fund-raising agreement, while Bernie’s campaign ignored theirs.

What’s new? Apparently, the Clinton campaign had more control over the DNC’s side of the joint-fund-raising money than we previously knew. That money was supposed to benefit the eventual nominee and the Party’s general-election effort as a whole. For the Clinton campaign to be in control of it was not right, but there are two very different possible levels of not-rightness here.

One possibility, the less toxic one, is that Clinton wanted the general-election machinery (data collection, polling, etc.) set up in a particular way, and didn’t want to wait until September to start doing it. This would be presumptuous, treating the nomination process as a foregone conclusion. But it would not have compromised the primary campaign. If Bernie had won, he would have found general-election machinery in place, ready for his use, but designed according to Hillary’s specifications.

The more toxic possibility is that the DNC’s money got funneled back into Clinton’s primary campaign, and was used against Bernie. If that’s true, that’s a very serious thing and heads should roll. Investigators should start looking for broken laws and start prosecuting people if they find any.

However, there was no evidence at the time that the second possibility was happening, and as far as I know there still isn’t. Brazile does not make that claim, and the documents she points to would seem to ban that, if they were followed. Anyone who wants to investigate that claim should have at it, and I’m willing to be convinced if any actual evidence shows up. But so far I haven’t seen any.

A spark in the gunpowder factory. People who write books often lead with something provocative and maybe a little overstated. It gets people talking about the book and makes it a must-read for anybody who wants to stay on top of the controversy. What Brazile has done in this excerpt, then, is not that unusual. (She does something similar elsewhere, telling a very unlikely story about the possibility of replacing Clinton with Biden after the convention. Throughout, Brazile portrays herself as being uniquely prescient about the coming debacle, despite the times when Clinton had double-digit leads in the polls.)

The problem is that her book isn’t coming out in a vacuum. In addition to debate schedules and other relatively minor things that appear to have actually happened, the pro-Bernie silo on the internet is still passing around charges of pro-Clinton vote-rigging and voter suppression that the evidence just does not support. It is an article of faith in certain circles that Bernie was the true choice of the voters, who had Clinton imposed on them by nefarious means.

It’s worth remembering the official vote totals. In the Democratic primaries as a whole, Clinton got 16.9 million votes, more than 55%. Her margin over Sanders was 3.7 million votes. Claiming that Sanders actually won requires believing in a fraud of the same scale as Trump’s claim that he actually won the popular vote in the general election.

In this environment, using the word rigged tells the conspiracy theorists that they were right all along. The claims Brazile is actually making may be fairly narrow, but the conclusions that people with prior opinions will draw from it are much broader.

The Trump parallel. It’s useful to compare Sanders’ situation on the Democratic side with Trump’s on the Republican side. Both were outsider candidates running against the party establishment, harnessing grass-roots discontent and anger. In each case, the party establishment believed it would be suicidal to nominate the outsider.

Going into the 2016 cycle, I think most observers would have claimed that the Republican establishment had more power than the Democratic. Democrats had a history of previously little-known candidates sweeping in: McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Obama. On the Republican side, nominations more typically went to the next guy in line. The power brokers of the GOP are more obvious and more powerful. No Democratic donor, for example, plays as large a role as the Koch brothers do on the Republican side.

And yet, Trump got nominated and Sanders didn’t. Trump’s path, I think, shows the overall weakness of party establishments in this era. Nobody at the RNC was able to marginalize Trump, or to force out minor candidates who were splitting the establishment vote. Throughout Trump’s rise, we kept hearing about the theory from The Party Decides, in which “invisible primaries” of insiders pick the nominee, and then insiders signal the voters, who ratify the insiders’ choice in primaries.

In 2016 that theory held on the Democratic side but not on the Republican, for the simple reason, I think, that Trump got the votes and Sanders didn’t. You may or may not like the fact that Democratic voters ratified Clinton as the nominee, but they did.

What should happen? To start with, Hillary Clinton has already told us that she’s not running for anything again, so unless laws were broken — and not even Brazile claims that — there’s really nothing to be done regarding her personally.

Obviously, the DNC will need to be extra transparent in the next cycle, and hopefully beyond. No one enters the 2020 cycle in the same commanding position Clinton had four years ago, though, so it’s hard to see how the same mistakes would be made anyway. But there needs to be some process by which we can all assure ourselves that no candidate is getting an unfair advantage from the Party.

Beyond that, there’s a bigger problem that affects the Republicans as well as the Democrats: Parties are open to being dominated by candidates like Clinton, or bullied by large donors like the Kochs, because they are inherently weak in this era. Bernie Sanders represents a different side of this problem: The Democratic Party isn’t something he belongs to (he doesn’t), it’s just a structure for seeking office.

Democrats suffer for this at the local level more than Republicans, because Republicans are more likely to be funded by state-level power brokers like North Carolina’s Art Pope, or by corporations who understand the power state government has to dole out favors. Democrats are more reliant on the star-power of national candidates like Obama or Clinton or Sanders, and the local parties correspondingly get short-changed.

It could be that we are in a transitional period, and parties will eventually go away, or come to mean something completely different. I wish I had something more to say about the coming structure, and whether it will be better or worse.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Just another week in Trump’s America: the New York City bikepath killing got shoved off the front pages by the Texas church shooting; the Republican tax reform bill came out, or at least a Republican tax-reform bill came out (this one doesn’t look like the bill the eventually intend to pass); we all tried to absorb the implications of the Manafort/Gates indictment and what Papadopoulos’ guilty plea told us about the Trump-Russia courtship and its cover-up; Donna Brazile yanked the band-aid off the wound of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign; and John Kelly gave us his theory of the Civil War.

And then this morning, the International Consortium of International Journalists unveiled the Paradise Papers, a huge leak of documents about how the rich and powerful hide their wealth, their deals, and their relationships by running them through tiny island nations. Just for starters, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has some explaining to do.

Whatever will I find to talk about?

What I plan to do is a featured post on the Donna Brazile story, which will appear around 10 EST, I think, and then cover the rest of it in an unusually long weekly summary, which I’ll target for noon.

Looking Behind the Tree

Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.

Senator Russell Long (1918-2003)

This week’s featured post is “The Real Reason Republicans Can’t Pass Major Legislation“.

This morning, we found out it’s Manafort

Friday night, several news organizations started reporting that the Mueller grand jury had sealed one or more indictments. The weekend was full of speculation, but the investigation’s security held, and nobody knew who the targets were.

This morning we found out: Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates. That just happened, so I don’t know anything yet that isn’t in the Washington Post article. I didn’t remember Gates, but he was also part of the Trump campaign and stayed on after Manafort left. Since the election, Gates worked on fund-raising for Trump’s inauguration, and other Trump-related fund-raising.

But before that, everybody was talking about opioids

Unlike voter fraud, kneeling football players, the Clinton uranium deal, and most of the other things Trump speaks out about, the opioid-addiction epidemic is a real problem that deserves a president’s attention.

Nothing much has changed since I wrote about it in April, when Trump appointed the commission whose report is due Wednesday. Drug overdoses kill more people than car accidents. The annual total of American drug-overdose deaths is over 50K — roughly the same as the death total for the entire Vietnam War. (Since April, the 2016 totals have come out: 64K overdose deaths.) About a third of those deaths are from legal prescription drugs, and many of the people who die from illegal-drug overdoses first got addicted to legal drugs.

More than two months ago, Trump seemed to be declaring opioids a national emergency, which would unlock large quantities of federal money to spend on the problem.

The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now, it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency.

That would have been an unorthodox move — a typical national emergency is sudden disaster like a hurricane or a flood, not a problem that has been building for decades, and FEMA is an odd agency to task with confronting drugs — but it would definitely have shaken things up.

But it was a false alarm. Trump seems not to have understood that the phrase national emergency has a specific meaning under the law, and is more than just another way of saying crisis or really bad problem. (This is like the difference between “making a federal case” out of something and actually filing charges in federal court.) So in spite of what he said, no national-emergency proclamation was ever signed. No FEMA. No new federal money.

Thursday, he announced something that sounds similar, but is actually very different: He proclaimed a “public health emergency”. That’s not nothing, but it doesn’t unlock any new funding. It allows some rules to be waived and some already-appropriated money to be moved around.

Most of the “actions” he mentioned in his speech were not new. For example,

We are requiring that a specific opioid, which is truly evil, be taken off the market immediately.

The opioid is Opana, and the FDA removed it from the market in June. It’s not clear whether the new administration had anything to do with that, or if it was just the career FDA people doing what they do. He also mentioned several ongoing efforts as if they were new initiatives: looking for non-addictive painkillers, asking the Chinese to crack down on fentanyl production, and so on.

It’s possible that something significant will be announced after the report comes out Wednesday, but Trump’s speech was a lot more flash than substance. USA Today quotes Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen:

The public health emergency raises awareness, which is important, but we had hoped for a national state-of-emergency declaration, because that would carry with it a commitment for funding. We don’t need more rhetoric. We need resources.


Any major government effort against drugs will have to be leaderless for the near future: Tom Marino’s nomination as drug czar had to be withdrawn after he became the primary villain of this 60 Minutes segment. He was the point man for the drug industry’s successful effort to stop the DEA from prosecuting distributors who knowingly fill suspicious orders for large quantities of prescription drugs. (Marino shows up in the second half of the video. He is the lead sponsor of a bill written by the industry to handcuff the DEA, and then he starts an investigation that sidelines an aggressive DEA investigator until he quits.) The entire thing is a great lesson on how big business influences government at all levels, to the detriment of the American people. (The Marino bill’s second sponsor, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, is currently running to replace Bob Corker in the Senate.)

In the absence of a drug czar, leadership might come from the department level. But HHS Secretary Tom Price had to resign after it came out that he wasted as much as a million dollars of the taxpayers’ money on his personal travel. His replacement has still not been nominated, but the rumored front-runner is a drug-company executive.


Trump’s speech used the opioid problem to score political points on other issues. For example:

An astonishing 90 percent of the heroin in America comes from south of the border, where we will be building a wall which will greatly help in this problem. (Applause.) It will have a great impact.

No, actually it won’t. Sanjay Gupta has been reporting on this for CNN. The synthetic opioid causing the most deaths, fentanyl, comes in through legal entry points or through the U.S. mail. It isn’t usually smuggled across the open border.

For bulkier drugs that come across the border somewhere other than the ports of entry, there are other post-wall smuggling options: Dig tunnels under it or fly over it with drones. A wall is a fixed obstacle that takes years to build. Smugglers will adapt to it much faster than Homeland Security can alter it.


Here in America, we are once again enforcing the law; breaking up gangs and distribution networks; and arresting criminals who peddle dangerous drugs to our youth.

Obama wasn’t enforcing drug laws? Wasn’t breaking up gangs? Oh wait, I get it: You’re talking about deporting Mexicans (which Obama was also doing), because our drug problem is all their fault. It’s the immigrant-crime-wave lie from Trump’s convention speech.


This was an idea that I had, where if we can teach young people not to take drugs — just not to take them. … The fact is, if we can teach young people — and people, generally — not to start, it’s really, really easy not to take them. And I think that’s going to end up being our most important thing. Really tough, really big, really great advertising, so we get to people before they start, so they don’t have to go through the problems of what people are going through.

Tell young people not to start using drugs? That’s genius, Mr. President! Genius! When you say it so clearly, I have to wonder why no one ever thought of that before. I understand now why you so often need to remind us that you’re “a very intelligent person“.

Trump claims to know the importance of teaching the young to just say no, because his alcoholic brother Fred warned him never to drink or smoke or do drugs, so he never did. But Ana Marie Cox (self-describing as “a recovering addict and alcoholic”) notes the ineffectiveness of campaigns against “pleasurable but illicit behavior” in general and drugs in particular:

The federal government spent $10 million a year on DARE until 2002, when a surgeon general’s report stated that “numerous well-designed evaluations and meta-analyses that consistently show little or no deterrent effects on substance use.”

She also wonders whether “someone, somewhere once warned Donald Trump not to cheat on his wife.”


Here’s another thing that has started to annoy me: In talking about how bad the opioid problem is in West Virginia, he called it “a truly great state, great people”. He says stuff like that a lot, and it means something very specific: They voted for me. I haven’t done a comprehensive search, but I can’t recall Trump (as president) ever mentioning the “great people” of California or Illinois or Massachusetts.

Since Trump voters are overwhelmingly white, there’s also a racial subtext: The addicts of rural West Virginia aren’t like those low-life addicts in the black ghettos of Chicago or Baltimore. The West Virginia addicts are good Christian white people who deserve the compassion of other good Christian white people.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is not normal American political rhetoric. Previous presidents of both parties have understood that, once elected, they had become president of all the people, and not just of the people who voted for them. Trump doesn’t get this.

and tax reform

More about this in the featured post. The House passed the Senate’s budget resolution, so they’re set up to pass a tax reform bill that adds $1.5 trillion to the national debt without any Democratic votes. The basic problem: All but $1.5 trillion of the tax cuts Republicans want need to be cancelled out by eliminating “loopholes”. Unfortunately, everybody thinks loopholes are the deductions other people take advantage of, not the deductions they claim themselves. Hence the Long quote at the top.

and Jeff Flake

The speech he gave Tuesday on the Senate floor is worth reading.

There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.

It’s hard for someone as liberal as I am to know what to do with Flake and the handful of other Republicans like him, because the principles he wants to risk his career for are not my principles. To me, the moment for a principled exit came and went a long time ago. But Trump only falls if Republicans turn against him, so we need to make space for them to turn against him.

It’s complicated. So I’m thinking about this, and should have more to say in a week or two.

and the Russia investigation

In addition to the just-announced indictments, we learned a little more about the meeting in Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer and top Trump campaign people (Paul Manafort, Donald Jr., and Jared Kushner). Some of the information they were offered had previously been given to a Republican Congressman by a high Russian government official. This undermines the lawyer’s claim to be independent of Putin.


We also learned about the funding of the Steele dossier. It had been known since shortly after the dossier first became public that it had started as Republican-funded opposition research, but was dropped when Trump’s nomination became inevitable, and then was picked up by Democrats. Now we know more specifics: The first funder was the conservative web site Washington Free Beacon, and it was later picked up by the Clinton campaign. All of the research was conducted by the same firm: Fusion GPS.

On the right, the involvement of the Clinton campaign is being treated as some kind of scandal, one that discredits the dossier itself and perhaps even the whole Russia investigation. But I’m not seeing it. Opposition research is a normal part of American politics. (Much of what Bill Clinton got investigated for began as opposition research paid for by conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. I don’t recall Republicans having any problem with that.) Nothing in the Russia investigation is based on the authority of the dossier. We know that the FBI has been checking the claims in the dossier, but nothing is being accepted as true just because the dossier says so.

Let’s simplify things: Suppose opposition research had uncovered evidence that Trump robbed a bank, and a Justice Department investigation independently proved that conclusion. Would the big story be the opposition research, or the fact that Trump robbed a bank?

The main questions in the investigation are:

  • What did the Russian government do to try to influence our election?
  • Did anyone inside the Trump campaign know they were getting help from Russia, and did anyone actively cooperate?
  • Has the Russian government gotten anything from the Trump administration in exchange for its help?
  • Since the investigation started, has Trump or anybody else committed perjury or tried to obstruct justice?

Anything else is secondary. For example, I don’t particularly care about the sexual allegations in the dossier. I only care if Russian intelligence has something to hold over Trump’s head and has used it to influence him.


An old Republican conspiracy theory — that when she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton OK’d a Russian company’s deal to buy a North American uranium company in exchange for a big contributions to the Clinton Foundation — has surfaced again, and will be investigated by three different committees in the House. If Hillary didn’t exist, I think Republicans would need to invent her. Even after she eventually dies, I suspect Republicans will continue investigate her whenever they need to divert their base voters’ attention from their own scandals.

The WaPo’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, covers all the important points. The gist is that while the one-line description sounds scandalous, no details have ever emerged to back up any part of it. Treasury was the lead department on the approval, and “there is no evidence Clinton even was informed about this deal.” How the Russians are supposed to have bribed the other eight agencies involved the process is also unexplained.

and draining the swamp

Some recent stories demonstrate that the swamp has only gotten swampier since Trump took over.

  • A tool of the big drug companies got nominated to be drug czar. (Discussed above.) If not for 60 Minutes and The Washington Post, he’d probably have been confirmed. After the Tool (Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania) withdrew his nomination, President Trump tweeted that he is “a fine man and a great congressman”.
  • A tiny Montana company from the same town as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke got a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid. The local power company says FEMA approved the deal; FEMA denies it. A number of the details of the contract sound suspicious. The contract was canceled Sunday.
  • If you have a dispute with your bank, quite likely you can’t take it to court and can’t join other individuals in a class-action lawsuit, because the fine print of your contract says you have to submit to binding arbitration as an individual. (You could switch to another bank, but its fine print would say the same thing.) The Consumer Financial Protection Board nixed that process in June with a new regulation that allowed class-action lawsuits against banks in more circumstances. The House immediately voted to repeal that regulation, and the Senate followed suit Tuesday, passing what critics call the Wells Fargo Immunity Act. It was a 51-50 vote along party lines, with only two Republican defections. VP Pence broke the tie.

and anniversaries

Depending on how you count, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution was either October 25 (the date on Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time) or will be November 7 (the date on the Gregorian calendar that most to the rest of the world was using and Russia adopted in 1918). The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is tomorrow. (That’s also by the Julian calendar; nobody seems to worry much about the 10 days that were added when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582.)

but check out this article on the future of electricity

The old fantasy was to be off the grid. The new fantasy is to be on a grid designed for sustainability.

and you also might be interested in …

Most of Puerto Rico is still without electrical power. The governor tweeted this photo of surgery being performed using a phone as a flashlight. Nurses returning to the mainland from emergency work in Puerto Rico have been very critical of what’s going on there.

The nurses described doctors performing surgery in hospitals with light from their cellphones, children screaming from hunger, elderly residents suffering from severe dehydration, and black mold spreading throughout entire communities.

“We cannot be silent while millions of people continue to endure these conditions,” said Bonnie Castillo, associate executive director of National Nurses United.


Normally, the Virginia governor’s race doesn’t have much predictive value nationally. Democrat Terry McAuliffe won in 2013, for example, and Democrats went on to get pounded in the 2014 mid-terms.

This year’s race might be different, though, because Republican Ed Gillespie is running in a very Trumpian style: His campaign has a not-very-veiled racial focus, with red-meat ads about rampaging Hispanic gangs and defending Confederate monuments. Polls show that this tactic has energized non-college white voters to support him. The question is whether it is turning off the educated white suburbanites a Republican also needs if he’s going to win in Virginia. A recent poll says that it is, and that Northam is winning. We’ll see if that prediction is verified on November 6.

If it isn’t, if Gillespie pulls out a last-minute win due to a heavy white turnout, then I think his campaign becomes the model for an ugly 2014: Republicans will try to make the election a racial referendum.


Like Trump, Gillespie treats the national media as enemies. Here, Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher posts a sad but also amusing video of his attempts to find and speak to Gillespie.


Ezra Klein on the implications of the Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier sexual harassment scandals:

We routinely underestimate what it means that our political system has been constructed and interpreted by men, that our expectations for politicians have been set by generations of male politicians and shaped by generations of male pundits.  … The most influential institutions in America have long had serial sexual abusers and deep misogynists at their apex. Those abusers didn’t just shape their workplaces or their industries; they shaped our politics, our culture, and our country.

During the campaign, for example, Halperin described women’s accusations against Trump as “nothing even kind of, like, beyond boorish or politically incorrect”.

One reason why this kind of thing has remained acceptable for so long is that so many of the people shaping public opinion were doing it themselves.


If the Harvey Weinstein case started you wondering about Trump again, let Sarah Huckabee Sanders set you straight: All of the 17 women who accused him of sexual harassment or assault were lying.

Vox’ Anna North and Ezra Klein note the similarities between Weinstein and Trump, and then draw this conclusion:

This is, perhaps, the depressing lesson of the Weinstein and Trump stories. The allegations are similar. The evidence is similar. But power still protects, and while Weinstein had lost enough power to imperil his protection, Trump has only amassed more.


Innuendo Studios has a series of videos about the tactics of the alt-Right. Here’s one related to the Trump groping issue:


Our new ambassador to Canada claims to believe “both sides of the science” about climate change, as if climate change were some sort of quantum wave/particle duality. The best response comes from the NASA-based Twitter account that claims to be the AI running the Mars rover.

On the one side you have evidence and data and research, and on the other side you have… oil money. Both equal.

and let’s close with some bad suggestions

Haven’t decided on your Halloween costume yet? Don’t do any of these.

The Real Reason Republicans Can’t Pass Major Legislation

It’s not Trump. It’s the fantasy-bubble that conservative voters live inside.


The most surprising thing about last summer’s many attempts to repeal ObamaCare wasn’t that they failed. It was the peculiar way that the legislation proceeded in both houses of Congress: without meaningful committee hearings, with minimal debate on the floor of either the House or Senate, sometimes without analysis from the CBO, and often without a even draft of a bill until the last possible moment. Again and again, Republicans were urged to vote Yes, not because the plan in front of them was good for American healthcare, but to “keep the process moving”. If McConnell and Ryan could have passed a healthcare bill in a sealed envelope, not to be opened until the White House signing ceremony, I think they would have.

The secret sauce that would make it all work was always going to be added later, by someone else: Moderates in the House supported the AHCA, believing the Senate would fix the aspects of it that President Trump later called “mean“. Senators offered to vote for the “skinny repeal” only if Paul Ryan could guarantee that the House would change it. Graham-Cassidy passed the buck to the states: Sure, it looked like less money that would give worse coverage to fewer people, but since all the details would be decided at the state level, senators could tell themselves the magic would happen there.

Republican governors, meanwhile, were mostly relieved the bill failed, because they had no magic either.

Gov. Brian Sandoval said Thursday that the flexibility fellow Republican Sen. Dean Heller promised will be good for Nevada in a health-care bill he’s sponsoring is a “false choice” because the legislation will also slash funding.

Because these efforts kept failing, Congress actually ended up spending a great deal of time on ObamaCare-repeal bills. The first one failed in the House in March, and Graham-Cassidy didn’t fail until the end of September. But it was more than half a year of breathless sprints, without any time to tell the public what they were doing.

All in all, it was no wonder the various ObamaCare-repeal bills polled badly. Literally no one was explaining to the people exactly what this particular bill did and why it would be good for them.

Go back, Jack, do it again. Now we’re on to tax reform, and the same strange process seems to be repeating. Republicans are absolutely in agreement that they are for tax reform. It’s going to cut corporate tax rates, but also give major benefits to the middle class. It will be “pro-growth”, and will avoid blowing up the deficit by “closing loopholes”, though no one can seem to agree on any particular loophole. Trump listed the “principles” tax reform will be based on, and then leaders from the House, Senate, and Trump administration agreed on a “framework“. Now the congressional leadership has even set a deadline: Thanksgiving.

But there’s no bill. It’s rumored a bill will appear in the House this week, maybe Wednesday, but no one seems to know what will be in it. They’re still announcing major changes (like property tax deductions), still negotiating on other significant details (401(k) deductions), and losing support over the few decisions they have announced (mortgage interest).

The framework says that individual income taxes will have three tax brackets (or maybe four), and names the rates for those brackets, but not the income levels where those rates kick in. 20% has been floated as a corporate tax rate, and maybe the deficit will be allowed to go up an additional $1.5 trillion over ten years, but that’s not set in stone either. Hardly anything is.

Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away, and the public is in the same situation it was with the various healthcare bills: Republicans can make lofty claims about what the tax-reform bill will ultimately deliver, but any hard analysis that refutes those claims can be hand-waved away, because the details aren’t set yet. [1]

Once again, Republicans are justifying their votes not on the content of what they’re voting for, but to move the process along. John McCain, for example, voted Yes on the Senate version of the budget resolution that sets up tax reform, but said: “At the end of the day, we all know that the Senate budget resolution will not impact final appropriations.” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) justified his Yes vote like this: “The budget that came back to us is a crap sandwich, but it happens to be the only thing on the menu.”

If the ObamaCare-repeal pattern continues to hold, the bill announced this week will debut to a hail of criticism and will go back into whatever secret negotiations produced it. This will happen as many times as is necessary to set up a last-minute, there’s-no-time-for-a-CBO-analysis vote. Wavering Republicans won’t be persuaded with facts and logic, they’ll be pressured with threats of mid-term disaster if the bill doesn’t pass. Whatever it actually says won’t be the point.

No one will claim this bill, but everyone will insist they have no choice but to pass it. Whether they do or not will come down to one or two votes.

Why does this keep happening? There’s no reason why Republicans couldn’t have introduced a tax-reform bill months ago, scheduled several weeks of hearings in all the appropriate committees, and tried to raise public support for their ideas in the usual way. They could argue that their bill is actually good, rather than claiming that they have no choice. They could have done the same on healthcare, and they could do the same on all the rest of their priorities: immigration, infrastructure, and so forth.

So why don’t they?

The answer is actually quite simple: Republican base voters live in a fantasy world that long predates Donald Trump. It has been carefully constructed over decades by politicians, Fox News, talk radio, and the rest of the conservative media establishment. Here are a few features of that fantasy world:

  • Tax cuts pay for themselves by creating economic growth.
  • Government spending is mostly waste, so it can be slashed without hurting anybody.
  • Climate change isn’t happening, or if it is, burning fossil fuels has nothing to do with it.
  • When the rich make money, everybody makes money.
  • The free market can solve all problems, including providing healthcare to the poor.
  • White Christians are the primary victims of discrimination.
  • The uninsured can get all the medical treatment they need in emergency rooms.
  • Elections at all levels are tainted by massive voter fraud, as millions of illegal immigrants cast ballots.
  • Big business wants what’s best for America, so there’s no need to stop them from polluting our air and water, or from making products that kill their workers or customers.

The fantasies are so extensive, and so divorced from reality, that there is literally no major issue that can be discussed in a rational way inside that bubble.

Any public debate Republican politicians participate in has to happen inside that bubble, because anyone who disputes any of those fantasies will be labeled a RINO and will likely face a primary opponent who sticks to the bubble orthodoxy.

That process worked great as long as they were out of power. The Ryans and McConnells and Cruzs and Gohmerts could have fantasy-world discussions that came to fantasy-world conclusions, and it was all fine, because none of it ever had to confront reality. They never accomplished what their voters wanted — nobody could have, since it’s impossible — but that was OK, because those horrible Democrats were blocking the way. It all would work, if only they were in charge.

So now they’re in power. All Republican public debate still has to happen inside the fantasy bubble, but now at some point the results of that debate have to transit over to the real world. There have to be actual pieces of legislation that do real things that can be analyzed by people who live in reality. And even if Republicans can discredit that analysis somehow, eventually there are still real events to deal with. Eventually, people pay taxes and drive on roads and send their kids to schools. They find (or don’t find) jobs and get (or lose) health insurance. The fantasies and rhetoric don’t help you then.

That’s what they found out in Kansas.

The strange process we keep seeing in Congress is an effort to stay inside the fantasy bubble until the last possible minute, then to sprint across the open ground between fantasy-world debates and real-world decisions as fast as possible.

So for a few more days, tax reform can be great and wonderful. It can give every worker a raise, set off an investment boom, and cut everybody’s taxes without losing revenue. Whatever tax break you’re worried about losing — don’t worry, the details aren’t set yet.

But soon they’ll have to publish a bill that the public can read. Then the sprint will start.


[1] For comparison, the first version of ObamaCare — the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act — was introduced in the House on July 14, 2009. The final version, the ACA, was passed on March 23, 2010, about 8 months later. Various things got changed during that time, but for every day of those 8 months, ObamaCare was a real proposal that could be authoritatively critiqued and analyzed.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The big news event today will probably happen a few seconds after I get done posting: Robert Mueller will announce his first indictment(s). I’m rooting for Michael Flynn to get the go-to-jail-free card, but it’s a credit to the investigation that nobody really knows. There’s a chance it’ll be somebody whose significance will only become apparent later.

But even without that story, it’s been a pretty eventful week: Jeff Flake denounced Trump on the Senate floor, and then announced he wasn’t running for re-election. Congress passed a budget resolution that sets up tax reform. Trump gave his opioid speech. We found out more about the Steele dossier and Don Jr.’s meeting with the Russians. The Puerto Rico crisis continued. There were a series of the-swamp-is-not-draining stories, beginning with Congress shielding the big banks from class-action lawsuits. The Catalonia-independence story got more contentious.

This week’s featured article will be about tax reform, sort of. I decided to take a step back and consider the larger question of: Why does every major bill the Republican majority tries to pass go through this weird process? You know what I mean: They are rush-rush about everything except writing the bill.

We saw it over and over again with the various versions of ObamaCare repeal — one of the Senate bills was a mystery until the day they voted on it — and now it’s happening again with tax reform. They have an ambitious schedule to pass tax reform by Thanksgiving, but they still don’t have a bill to pass. (By contrast, the first ObamaCare bill was introduced eight months before a later version passed.)

It’s not like the process worked so well with healthcare that they want to do it again, but they’re doing it again. Why? I’ll discuss that in “The Real Reason Republicans Can’t Pass Major Legislation”. That should be out before 10 EDT. The weekly summary should follow by 11 or 12.

Military Swagger

We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

This week’s featured posts are “The Billie Jean Republicans” — picture a GOP senator backed by a chorus of corporate donors, denying their responsibility for Trump — and something a little more serious: “Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military“.

In case “Billie Jean” has you trying to remember the Sift’s previous poetic posts, they’re: “Donnie in the Room” (based on “Casey at the Bat”) and “Fatherly Advice to Eric and Don Jr.” (based on “If”).

This week everybody was talking about the Niger operation, and the distracting controversy it launched

Mostly this is covered in one of the featured posts. But John Kelly has turned into his own issue. Vox’ Dara Lind compares his attitude to Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men.

But it’s not just that Kelly doesn’t respect the way that politics works within Washington — the time it takes to make a congressional deal, the way that embarrassing statements can get leaked to eager reporters. He actively thinks that they have America wrong, and that they will never understand it in the way those who serve it will.

Charles Pierce sees Kelly’s lying defense of Trump as

a terribly sad moment. Everything and everybody this president* touches goes bad from the inside out.

Matt Yglesias had another depressing thought.

Kelly’s performance today should be a wakeup call to anyone who still thinks there are “adults in the room” who’ll save us.

Occasionally the media speculates that Kelly will get tired of his thankless job and quit. I predict a different scenario: At some point Trump will have wrung all the credibility out of Kelly, and then he’ll toss the general away.


There’s one more part of Kelly’s remarks I can’t let go by:

You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor.

Kelly and I grew up in the same era. (He’s six years older.) So I can testify that he is totally full of crap on this. Women of our mothers’ generation were shown superficial respect — holding doors for them, etc. — as long as they lived narrowly scripted lives of service to men. But a woman was not honored if she spoke out in public, or entered the workplace, or sought an advanced degree, or decided not to get married, or did anything else outside the script. Quite the opposite.

and rebukes to Trump without naming him

George W. Bush spoke Thursday in New York. He addressed threats to democracy and said that “when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.” (In case you don’t recognize it, that’s a reference to the presidential oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution.)

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

He also contradicted Trump’s claim that the Russia story is “fake news”.

America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms.

He also said “white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

In a speech accepting the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center last Monday, John McCain said:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.

As much as I approve of Republicans giving other Republicans permission to criticize Trump, though, the country needs a lot more from Republican leaders. How do they propose to limit the damage being done by this unfit president, or to remove him?

and healthcare

It looks like the Murray-Alexander bill on healthcare — the bipartisan one that tries to fix some of the damage Trump has been doing to the health insurance markets — will get a vote in the Senate. It still seems unlikely to get a vote in the House, and no one — including Mitch McConnell — knows what Trump would be willing to sign.


More proof that Trump has no ideas for improving American healthcare: In an appearance with the Greek prime minister Tuesday, Trump took questions. He was asked “What is your healthcare plan, sir?”

He responded with a long ramble justifying what he had just done (cancel CSR payments that reimburse insurance companies for losses on cheap policies to the working poor), criticized insurance companies, pronounced ObamaCare dead, said something about block grants to the states, predicted that he would have the votes to repeal ObamaCare after Congress got done with tax reform, called Democrats “obstructionists” who “have no good policies”, bragged about how many judges he has appointed (while criticizing Democrats for slowing down Senate approval of nominees), and denounced insurance-premium increases under ObamaCare.

The reporter followed up: “So is Graham-Cassidy still the plan, sir?” And Trump said: “Yeah, essentially that would be the plan. Yes, block grants.”

He has a two-word-answer grasp of the subject, which he hides under mountains of meaningless self-serving verbiage. How should Americans who aren’t rich get the care they need and pay for it? He has no idea.

but I eventually got around to looking at the Values Voters Summit

It was last week’s news, but I fall behind sometimes.

Trump: “As long as we have pride in our country, confidence in our future, and faith in our God, then America will prevail.” The phrase “our God” bothers me. That didn’t just pop out of his mouth. This was a scripted teleprompter speech, so the words were chosen. He could have said “faith in God”, which would already be controversial in a few ways. But instead he said “faith in our God”.

Does America have a national god who is different from the gods of other countries or of the Universe? What about citizens of the United States who don’t don’t worship the American God? Do they count as “us”, as Americans? Is Trump their president too?


I haven’t been the only one writing song lyrics. Roy Moore’s speech included new lyrics that almost fit the tune of “America the Beautiful”, outlining all the ways that today’s America seems ugly and evil to him, and calling down God’s judgment on us.

Moore and his audience are white instead of black, and the sins he charges against America (abortion, drug abuse, abandoning the death penalty) are different than the ones Rev. Jeremiah Wright focused on (slavery, herding Native Americans onto reservations, putting Japanese Americans into detention camps during World War II, funneling black youth into low-paying jobs or prison rather than educating them). But otherwise, how is this different from the “God damn America” sermon Wright got pilloried for?

and you also might be interested in …

The Senate moved Congress one step closer to tax reform. It passed a budget resolution that would make a Republican tax-cut bill eligible for reconciliation, letting it pass the Senate with 50 votes plus Vice President Pence. Now they just need to figure out what goes into that bill.


The Trump/Russia legal-fee issue just got weirder. For months, the RNC and the Trump campaign have been paying the legal bills of the President and of Donald Trump Jr., but no one else. Now, Trump says he will use up to $430,000 of his own money to pay legal bills for White House staff and campaign aides. So they’d better say what they’re told to say, right?


Fort Worth Weekly uses two local Christian seminaries to illustrate the diversity of American Christianity. If “Christian” means just one thing to you, you might find this enlightening.


After five years at the American Chemical Council, Nancy Beck became a primary EPA decision-maker on toxic chemicals. What could go wrong?

and let’s close with something terrestrial

No, it isn’t a starship, it’s a manta ray. The shot is from the Nature Conservancy’s 2017 photo contest. It’s not even the winner.

Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?


When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.


[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.